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Tonight was a wonderful journey with St. Isaac as he visited with one exemplar after another of the solitary life; describing along the way the particular virtues they possessed, how they prayed and the lessons they taught. 
 
The solitary life is unique in the value it gives to the pursuit of stillness and unceasing prayer or as St Isaac often describes it - the Angelic life or Celestial husbandry. The solitary like those in other vocations must cling to their identity and the path that God has called them to walk. They must avoid the temptation to look aside to other things or practices that though clearly admirable do not fulfill the aim of their vocation. In this they become models of fidelity for us all.
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In the second half of Homily 20, St. Isaac the Syrian lays out for us the beauty of maintaining Night Vigils. He values it so much that he tells us that we should never remove it from our spiritual life. Nor are we to dissipate our toil by becoming inattentive and negligent in our daily life. If we cultivate our converse with God throughout the day so that it conforms to our night's mediation then in a very short while we shall have embraced Jesus' bosom. Dominion over one's thoughts and purity and concentration is granted to the mind that allows it to gaze upon and understand the mysteries revealed in the Scriptures. Even in illness when other disciplines are relaxed Vigils gain for the mind a steadfastness in prayer. If we maintain the practice throughout our lives we will behold the glory experienced by the righteous. 
 
This isn't without struggle. We must be willing to endure and persevere through times of heaviness and coldness and learn through these experiences that great fruit is received and suddenly our strength will return to us.  We will be overcome with wonder and purifying tears will flow. 
 
If after fasting, prayer and Vigils have led to the taming of the body, the arousal of appetites should return, Isaac warns us that we must through repentance search for the source of pride that diminishes this great gift until our hearts are once again brought to rest in God. 
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How do we foster stillness and unceasing prayer in our lives?  St. Isaac counsels us in Homily 19 to always keep our eye - the eye of the heart - fixed on God. This means not only fostering a virtuous life but also avoiding that which would pull us away from this aim. We must seek to free ourselves from obsessive concerns with the things of the world and from falling lockstep into its frenetic pace. Don't multiply the occupations of your life for in this you may very well be pushing God away.  The spiritual life cannot be a part time occupation. It must be our life. God cannot be pushed to the margins nor can we neglect the grace he offers and its sweetness without quickly losing it.  Meaningless chatter and the noise of dissipated converse destroys stillness as frost destroys new buds on the tree. A divided heart obscures the vision of God and his love.  The ego and pride-driven self-interest draws us down into darkness. Only a humble and contrite heart is lifted up and exalted to share in the life of God. 
 
Have we lost a clear sense of our identity in Christ?  Has the faith been so obscured that we no longer invest ourselves in it but simply take what measure we desire? 
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Last night we concluded Homily 15. St. Isaac beautifully weaved his way back and forth between the dangers of talkativeness, gluttony and and the association with those who would pull one away from the path of sanctity and the contrasting virtues of silence, fasting and solitude. 
 
The greater the embrace of the virtues often brings with it a kind of isolation. The witness of virtue itself is challenging and elicits the fearful anger or resentment of others. 
 
One should lives one's life from Eucharist to Eucharist - desiring the nourishment that comes from and is a taste of heaven.  The more one longs for the Bread of Life and to be nourished upon the love of God the less one will be attracted to worldly pleasures that are often sought in its place. 
 
Living for God and from God must become the ultimate joy and pursuit at every moment of one's life. 
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Last night we picked up with Homily 13 which focused on initial effects of Stillness on the soul. For a brief period of time she is deprived of spiritual comfort as she begins to walk more and more in the darkness of faith and as God continues His work of purification. St. Isaac warns that the pursuit of Stillness must be something one sets oneself to cultivating for the rest of one's life. This is no avocation but something to which one commits the rest of their days. 
 
Patience is needed so as not to fall into despondency and discouragement. One must persevere in prayer and look to the Fathers for direction and nourishment.  
 
In Homily 14, St. Isaac tells us that the sign and fruit of true stillness is tears. The more one enters into the reality of the Kingdom and intimacy with God the more they pass into an inexpressible beauty and as baby born into this world weeps so does one who enters the stillness of God shed copious tears for years on end.  Only then does a soul pass into peace of thought and the Holy Spirit begins to reveal heavenly things to her. 
 
We began Homily 15 by discussing how one in the world and surrounded by its noise could cultivate this stillness. One must come to realize that the desert is not a geographical region but rather the heart. It is there that we must foster constant stillness and remove those things from our lives that inhibit its growth. 
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In a magnificent closing to Homily Two and beginning to Homily Three, St. Isaac in a short few paragraphs lays out for us the types of passions and their nature and how a soul determines growth in the spiritual life.  Measure your way of life by what arises in your thoughts.  It is only with toil that  the soul enters understanding of the wisdom of God and if she becomes still to the world and the cares of life; for then she can come to know her nature and what treasures she has hidden within herself. She will be lifted up twoard God and filled with the wonder of God; knowing the living water of the spirit that bubbles up within the soul.  As the senses become more confined, the soul becomes more open to the contemplation of God.

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Cassian continues to "take us where we do not want to go" in this Conference on Friendship.  Divine Love and purity of heart must become the lens through which we see every interaction with another person.  A willingness to set aside our will and judgment for the sake of charity is paramount.  We must not make our perception of the truth or need to speak the truth our god, but rather we must be willing to set aside all in humility so as not to be the source of discord and contention.  These are truly hard sayings and difficult to bear and we will keep coming back in our pride to make the will and wisdom of God inappropriate and impossible to live.  Cruciform love is what we must bear witness to in our actions and allow to form our every thought and perception.  We must overcome every wave of anger and annoyance that wells up within our hearts and develop such a sensitivity to and desire to preserve this charity that we do everything in our power to soothe the hearts of those who are angry with us justly or unjustly.

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The group began Conference Ten, the high point of Cassian teaching on imageless and unceasing prayer.  Cassian sets the stage by seeking to put the notion of imageless prayer in highest possible relief through giving an account of the monk Serapion's fall into the anthropromorphite heresy.   Serapion's mind becomes cluttered with the erroneous and deadly image of a God with human contours; unable to let go of the confines of what the imagination and intellect can construct to be drawn by faith into the intimacy and mystery of the Triune God.  It is through the pathos of this story that Cassian brings his readers to see the beauty of pure prayer and the unbroken communion with God it promises. When such prayer is attained, everything a person does is God.  And this, which is the end of all perfection, is equivalent to transforming one's whole life into a single and continuous prayer. 

A lengthy discussion then ensued regarding the simplicity of life that must be fostered in order for the silence of solitude to emerge in which such unceasing prayer can take place.  The group considered the types of pseudo contemplation that have arisen in the modern culture that sadly make genuine prayer more and more unlikely.
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Cassian takes up the theme of the three sources of one's calling to the monastic life or to conversion (God, the example of others, need) and the three types of renunciation essential for living a life of deep conversion (detachment from worldly goods, one's passions, and from all things that prevent theoria or contemplation.)  Discussion ensued about compunction, conversion in one's daily life, and embracing a spirit of renunciation in the modern world.

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Prayer

For our prayer to lead to union with God, it is always necessary for it to be offered in a spirit of contrition. St. John notes: "Even if you have climbed the whole ladder of the virtues, pray still for the forgiveness of sins." If we ever appear in God's presence and think that we belong there, if we ever lose sight of the priority of grace and our need for it at all times, then we have lost prayer. It is for certain that we are not talking to God but only to ourselves or worse yet to Satan who has the capacity of transforming himself into an angel of light. Contrition is the key to being delivered from spiritual delusion. Those who pray in a spirit of repentance are not easily fooled by Satan and his demonic hosts.
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, we must understand that prayer is not something gained simply from the teaching of others. St. John writes: "You cannot learn to see just because someone tells you to do so. For that, you require your own natural power of sight. In the same way, you cannot discover from the teaching of others the beauty of prayer. Prayer has its own special teacher in God. He grants the prayer of him who prays. And He blesses the years of the just."


Dispassion

In Step 29, St. John shows us the heights of spirituality - - the exalted state of dispassion. And when we listen to his descriptions, we have to admit that they are pretty amazing. It is hard for beginners in the spiritual life to imagine being cleansed of all corruption; it is equally as difficult to imagine being beyond all temptation. It is truly hard to comprehend being master of one's senses. We may consider it a "good day" if we have not given in to our senses; if we have restrained them. It is a spiritually successful day if we have held our tongues when provoked by the misbehavior of others. Our whole lives are spent dealing with our passions and trying to restrain them. But what St. John is describing is quite different. He is talking about a spiritual state where the passions no longer exist!
Why does he lay this out before us? For at least two reasons: a) to keep us from spiritual pride and b) to motivate us to spiritual labor. It is easy for us to become complacent in our spiritual life, to be satisfied with what we have achieved and to lose the impetus to pursue more. This, of course, is a Satanic ploy, for the reality is that once we have stopped pursuing God we begin to lose what we have already gained. If we are not going forward in our spiritual lives, we can be certain that we are going backwards. It is equally easy for us to falsely assume that we are at the heights of our spiritual endeavor when we are yet at its beginning.
In this chapter, it is as if St. John is standing before us and proclaiming: "There is more! There is more! Listen to his words: "O my brothers, we should run to enter the bridal chamber of this palace, and if some burden of past habits or the passage of time should impede us, what a disaster for us!" In another place he says: "Brothers, let us commit ourselves to this, for our names are on the lists of the devout. There must be no talk of `a lapse', `there is no time,' or `a burden.' To everyone who has received the Lord in baptism, `He has given the power to become children of God.'"
If we honestly observe ourselves, we will notice a sinful tendency to be satisfied with something less than dispassion. We grow weary of the struggle and we long to "be there" already. In our laziness we then lower the goal. We reduce holiness to a set of external rules; to a repeatable pattern of external behaviors. Once we have lowered the goal, we then don't have to struggle as much. Once we have equated holiness with "external correctness" we can then feel good about ourselves. We can "be holy" and "feel good about ourselves" at the same time. We begin to say to ourselves, "I have not committed any major sins; nor do I place myself in situations of temptation"; "I am disciplined in my spiritual life - I have not broken my fast - I have kept the rule of prayer." Soon we begin to see ourselves as authentic spiritual guides for others. We begin to compare ourselves with others and can even fancy ourselves as reliable judges of their holiness. And so without being aware of it, we have fallen into what is called prelest, or spiritual delusion.
St. John's words in this chapter are a wake-up call. They remind us of how far we are from spiritual perfection. They humble us. They motivate us. They set the goal before us. The goal is high: dispassion leading to illumination. The height of the goal reaffirms the necessity of struggle. Nothing in this life comes easily. The more important it is, the more work it requires. Thus, in our spiritual lives, when we are tempted to despair, to quit, to accept second best, to abandon the struggle, we must remind ourselves of just how wonderful the prize is. St. John says: "Think of dispassion as a kind of celestial palace, a palace of the king of heaven." This is where we must want to dwell. A small hut may be easier to attain, but it is not where those zealous for God and wish to be near him want to live. They have their eyes set on something more. "Blessed dispassion raises the poor mind from the earth to heaven, raises the beggar from the dunghill of passion. And love, all praise to it, makes him sit with princes, that is with holy angels, and with the princes of God's people."    
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