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Tonight we concluded Homily number 42 of St. Isaac the Syrian which focuses on the trials and afflictions that come both to the humble and the proud. Saint Isaac makes the distinction between the two and the fruit that each produces. Afflictions in those who are humble produce the fruit of patience. Whereas afflictions in those who are proud awaken the need for repentance. In many ways it is a deeply challenging Homily; so much so that St. Isaac feels compelled to say at the end “do not be angry with me that I tell you the truth. You have never sought out humility with your whole soul.”  Our tendency is to look at affliction, temptations and trials in a punitive fashion; Whereas the Fathers seek to help us understand the medicinal and healing nature of such things and to see in them the promise of joy and ultimately deification.

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We began our discussion of St Isaac’s 37th Homily with his teaching about the importance of separating ourselves from the things of the world so as to make the ascetical struggle easier.  The struggle is easier when the sources of temptation are at a distance. We must in fact flee from those things that cause warfare and not associate with that which fights against us. The stillness and purity that is gained through asceticism must not be thoughtlessly thrown away; For even the memory or imagination of certain things can bring us harm. Thus we must guard against becoming overconfident so as not to trample our consciences. Various examples of this were discussed. 
 
St. Isaac then moved on to consider what is the beginning of the spiritual war and where does one start the fight. Fasting and Vigils are the signs of our hatred for sin and desire for God. They are God’s holy pathway and the foundation of every virtue. Day and night they lead us to God - humbling the mind and body and making us ever watchful and discerning. Discussion ensued about what this means for those living in the world and how it they are to be fostered. 
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The group began by continuing to reflect upon the final paragraphs of Homily 30 wherein St Isaac emphasizes the uniqueness of man, in particular our corporeal nature and our reason and free will. It is this reality the shapes our spiritual struggle. We need to understand our strengths and limitations. 
 
In Homily 31 Isaac moves on to discuss the importance of vigilance in the moment - not looking to the past or to others but struggling today with what we are faced. We must valiantly engage in the battle and bear the recompense for our sin in a spirit of hope and joy. We are not to blame others for our sorrows but see them as rooted in our sin and as opportunities for virtue and healing. 
 
Finally at the beginning of Homily 32 Isaac introduces us to the fiercest of struggles - learning to abhor sin with our whole heart and the resistance that we face in this task. Only through this can we then develop a true love for virtue. This struggle is the unseen martyrdom of the spiritual life - the bloodless martyrdom that we experience daily.
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In this session we picked up with two Homilies, 29 & 30, that presented us with two straightforward but stark truths. In regards to nature and our struggles in this world the only true Sabbath is the grave. While alive we produce the sweat of unceasing prayer and toil for righteousness. This toiling has been shaped for us by Christ. It is no longer the toiling of Adam which produces thorns and thistles but that of Christ which is the life of grace and producing the fruit of repentance. The Eighth day, the true Sabbath is to be found only after this life and in the Kingdom. 
 
In Homily 30, Isaac tells us that God doesn’t not deal with us or love us in a uniform fashion but in accord with our spiritual needs - both in joy and sorrow. God’s compassion is not sentimental but is so set on our healing and salvation that it permits us to undergo trials that are medicinal in nature. God enters into and is radically present to us in both joy and sorrow and we should not fear the latter. 
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The thread that connects the thoughts of St. Isaac the Syrian's second homily is thankfulness to God. How we receive the gifts of God has great significance. One need only think of the story of the ten lepers in the Gospel. Only one returns to give thanks to the Giver for the healing he received. Lack of thanksgiving is akin to dishonesty, St. Isaac states. It shows that one does not grasp the true worth of what one has received and so not worthy themselves of receiving something greater. With the eyes of faith, one must grasp the generosity of the healer, even if the cure is painful. To fail to acknowledge such goodness or generosity or to resist the gift only increase the torment of the affliction. If we receive what the Lord gives us with true gratitude - whether painful or consoling - He will not fail to pour greater graces upon us for our salvation. Lacking such an understanding of things, God's gifts seem small in one's eyes - thus making one a "fool".

In our times of trial and failure we are to remind ourselves of times when we were filled with zeal for the Lord so as to stir our souls in to flame once more and awaken them from their slumber. Likewise we are to remember the falls of the mighty in the spiritual life, so as to encourage us when we have fallen that we might arise with confidence in the Lord.

Why spend so much energy pursuing the things of this world that turn to ash when the Kingdom of God is within you? Be a persecutor of yourself and do not pamper the body. Drive the enemy before you. Be peaceful and do everything you can to maintain your peace. Avoid everything that may distract or agitate and so hinder communion with God. Be diligent in seeking the treasure of the Kingdom that lies within you.

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St. Isaac begins by encouraging us to become drunk with faith in God; to be so immersed in our relationship with Him that we are constantly under the influence of His grace.  Only in this way will the malady of the senses and the passions that arise out of them be healed.  It is this understanding of Christian Asceticism that must be regained.  Instead of seeking distraction and entertainment in our lives, we must seek solitude and silence; to purify the heart in order to be drawn into the Mystery and Wonder of God. 

When God's grace is abundant within us we easily scorn the fear of death and are willing to endure the greatest tribulations.  In fact, Isaac tells us, such trials are necessary for the perfecting of faith and lead us to rely more and more upon the providence of God.  Without this trust, a person is continually waylaid by his fears of the world around him and the unknown.  

Fear of God, the offspring of faith, and obedience to the commandments is the only means to avoiding distractions.  As human beings we are constantly in a state of receptivity through our senses and unless we turn away from the senses we will gradually be driven away from our delight in God.  A conscious choice must be made to simplify our lives in order to provide them with the solitude that is need for prayer and study.  Without such intent we will be driven back to the inveterate habits of licentiousness.
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Living in the desert, having access to a holy elder, and being surrounded by those of great virtue is not a guarantee that one will grow in humility and patience.  The true battle ground is within the heart and the fierce struggle that must take place is with one's own dispositions.  The Christian must undergo a decisive change in the way they look at reality and the struggles of life.  The pursuit of holiness and virtue must become the center of consciousness - the frame of reference; as well as an unceasing reliance upon the grace of God through prayer.  The wisdom that must guide us in our reaction to the slights and insults of others must be the wisdom of the cross; the ego must as it were be crucified in love for God and neighbor.  Our natural disposition so often is to defend and strike back rather than to receive with love the hatred of others in such a way that it can be transformed by the love of God. 

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Continuing our discussion of Conference Nine, we picked up with Abba Isaac's exposition of the final petitions of the Our Father: "And subject us not to the trial . . . but deliver us from evil."  Trial is an inevitable part of the human condition and the spiritual life, but we seek in such trials the protection of God and the grace of perseverance and long-suffering so as not to succumb to the evil of the loss of our faith or to act in a way contrary to God's will.  We ask not to be tried beyond our capacity.

When praying, care must be given not to seek those things that our transitory in nature and nothing base or temporal. To do so is to offer great injury to God's largesse and grandeur with the paltriness of our prayer.
Abba Isaac then moves on to discuss the more sublime character of "wordless prayer" that transcends understanding and to which few are called.  It is a infusion of divine light through which God can in a brief moment fill the mind and heart.  The precondition of this prayer is the breaking and humbling of the heart which is expressed through compunction and the overflow of tears that purify the heart.
A rather lengthy discussion ensued about the potential enigma of philokalic spirituality to the Western mind - the setting aside of imagination and the focus on taking every thought captive so as to eventually be brought to unceasing prayer.  
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The group considered the final paragraphs of Conference Six; reflecting in particular on the effects of diligence and negligence on the spiritual life.  Cassian’s elder reminds him and us that we should call no person blessed until after his or her death.  Virtue acquired by the grace of God and asceticism must be preserved with the same concern and effort with which it was obtained.  Spiritual carelessness is like a leaky roof through which there are tiny leaks of passion that penetrate the soul.  Left unattended they weaken the structure of the virtues and afterward they pour in a heavy shower of sinfulness.

As we began the introductory material of Conference Seven on Demons we considered the modern tendency to psychologize spiritual afflictions, labeling them as such, and how this weakens the soul.  It often leads one to excuse oneself (ex causa); that is, free themselves from the charge of the spiritual warfare that is necessary and from the desire and the intensity of mind that would lead them otherwise to reach out for God and His help.  Cassian reminds us that the demons’ knowledge of the secrets of the mind is not infallible; it is instead a clever deduction from our observable behaviors.

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We continue to make our way through Cassian's analysis of the spiritual life and its trials.  As we approach the end of the Sixth Conference, Cassian makes it clear that there is no unchanging state in the spiritual life.  We are either seeking God and growing in virtue (driven by desire) or we are being drawn deeper into the life of sin.  Love of God, desire for the Beloved, must draw us on through the life of grace.  With an intensity of mind, we must pursue what lies ahead and not let ourselves be molded and shaped by the things of the world.  We must be held by God and shaped in accord with His wisdom and will.

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