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Isaac puts forward a vision of renunciation rarely conceived of by the Christian - involving the setting aside of all things internal and external that draw us away from God or leave us with a false view of the self. Everything pales in comparison to seeking within the soul the mystery of blessedness which is of the future age.

 

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What does it mean to pray "lead us not into temptation"; how can we treasure the life of the soul above all things and avoid laxity?  We must look to the zeal of the Saints, the living icons of faith and learn from them not to fear affliction.  

 

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We picked up on page 133 of the text where St. Isaac begins to describe Purity of Heart. Through guarding the mind and the senses, one can achieve a level of purity, but it is often fleeting because of our tendency to return to our sins through repeated exposure to that which is impure in the world. Lasting Purity of Heart is achieved only through affliction; since deep and prolonged affliction leads us to let go of our attachment to the world and ourselves and cling to God alone who is our life.

In the struggle for purity, fear precedes love. Obedience to God and the practice of virtue is its beginning. Eventually the love of God incites us to desire the doing of good. Spiritual knowledge comes only after such virtue has been achieved.

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St. Isaac continued to guide us to a clearer understanding of the Passions and in particular they are contrary to the nature of the soul that has been created for holiness and virtue. Lengthy discussion ensued about the place of asceticism in the lives of all Christian men and women. Regardless of our station in life we are to embrace the grace of our baptism and strive to overcome the Passions. A false clericalism exists that claims that those in the single or married state are not called to radical holiness. The best belongs to everyone not simply to a select few.

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We join Cassian and Germanus now as they visit with Abba Pinufius - well known to them for his holiness and humility.  Because of these qualities, they seek him out in particular as they grapple not with understanding the need for repentance and reparation but rather with the desire to know the when end of repentance has been achieved and by what marks reparation and full healing from sin can be identified.

For the modern Christian, this can be very difficult to understand; so largely have repentance and reparation become symbolic in our lives.  Seeking forgiveness and confessing one's sins can simply be a legalistic notion - acknowledging infractions of certain moral laws rather than addressing the restoration of a relationship of love and repairing or healing the damage done by our sin and overcoming our disposition to sin.  In a few sentences, Abba Pinufius pulls from our grasp all room for presumption.  Conscience becomes the truest judge - speaking to our hearts about the true state of our souls and whether we have received the forgiveness and grace of God in vain. It becomes the strongest indicator of whether or not we have been freed from the disposition to particular sins. Repentance and reparation, and the formation of conscience, then, become constant and essential elements of the spiritual life.  
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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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Cassian's discussion with Abba Piamun about the various kinds of monks stands more as a backdrop to a greater reflection on the necessary virtues of the Christian life; virtues not requiring a retreat to the desert but rather a willingness to retreat into the heart and there do battle to free oneself from the grip of the ego.  Tonight we were presented with a most beauty portrait of humility - the virtue that becomes like the oil used by wrestlers and which allows the rebukes, insults and detraction of others to slide off of us, never being able to take grip of our hearts and pull us down into indignation and anger towards others.  Abba Piamun provides us with the stories of two exemplars of patience and humility that provoke the desire for imitation and help us to understand that the spiritual life is not about leisure or joy in this world.  Trial and affliction shape and sharpen these virtues until they take on the quality God desires.

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We continue to listen with Cassian and Germanus to Abba Piamun discuss the kind of monks - Cenobites, Anchorites, Sarbaites and a fourth category of monk who briefly enters the cenobitic life only to rapidly leaves the confines of communal discipline and obedience to an elder for a premature embrace of the life of seclusion. The distinctions made by Abba Piamun, however, merely serve as a backdrop to a greater discussion the necessary progress and formation that one must embrace before seeking a life a greater hiddenness and contemplation.  The conference is fraught with examples of the dangers of seeking to leap over the fundamental formation of the common life.  To do so, reveals a kind of pride or self-delusion; that one can enter into a higher state without having properly formed the mind and heart in humility and obedience.  

A rather lengthy discussion ensued among the group about the challenges of living in the world according to the wisdom put forward in the conference.  How does one gain or find the benefits of the cenobium while living in the world?  Where is the necessary formative influence of obedience to an elder to be sought?  How does one create a culture where the pursuit of holiness and purity of heart are the fundamental goals while living in the secular world?  
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Dance of Love: Synergy of Grace and Free Will

We come to the conclusion of Cassian's beautiful conference on the interplay of grace and free will and once again we discover one who sees with profound clarity that there is no conflict between the two but rather a synergy that is necessary for a relationship of love.  God gives everything and does everything to enliven that love within us but His desire must meet our own.  Anyone fully immersed in the spiritual life comes to understand this; not through abstraction and argumentation but rather through experience.  Faith fully lived brings understanding.
Cassian states this firmly as follows:
"Therefore it is understood by all the Catholic fathers, who have taught perfection of heart not by idle disputation but in fact and in deed, that the first aspect of the divine gift is that each person be inflamed to desire everything which is good, but in such a way that the choice of a free will faces each alternative fully. Likewise, the second aspect of divine grace is that the aforesaid practice of virtue bear results, but in such a way that the possibility of choice not be extinguished. The third aspect is that it pertains to the gifts of God that one persevere in a virtue that has been acquired, but not in such a way that a submissive freedom be taken captive.  Thus it is that the God of the universe must be believed to work all things in all, so that he stirs up, protects, and strengthens, but not so that he removes the freedom of will that he himself once granted. If something cleverly gleaned from human argumentation and reasoning seems contrary to this understanding, it should be avoided rather than called forth to the destruction of the faith. For we do not acquire faith from understanding but understanding from faith, as it is written: `If you do not believe, you will not understand.'' For how God works all things in us on the one hand and how everything is ascribed to free will on the other cannot be fully grasped by human intelligence and reason."

As men and women of faith, we must be willing to live within the paradoxes and tensions of faith - humbling ourselves before the wisdom of God and the immensity of His love; yet in our desire for the Beloved willfully and freely embracing His grace. 
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Living in the Tension: The Language of Desire

The most controversial conference of Cassian's work turns out to be the most beautiful and awe-inspiring.  We picked up tonight with section IX of Conference 13 where Cassian's approach to and understanding of the interplay of Grace and Free Will comes into clear view.  Both must be affirmed in our understanding of and living out of the Christian life.  Cassian is writing not to express theological clarity (as we often understand it) but rather to encourage us and help us understand that we must be willing to live in the tension or, perhaps expressed better, be willing to participate in the dance of love - the movement of God's desire for us and our desire for him.  Cassian's approach, then, is experiential and relational and it is here that he shows himself to be "Theologian" in the truest sense of the word.  God is seeking us in love at every moment and every circumstance, wooing us and drawing us toward Him; lingering and waiting for the movement of our will towards Him.  Without that capacity no love is possible.  But to insist on the place of free human will in no way diminishes divine grace.  The grace of God, too, remains free, since with inestimable generosity it confers on meager and small efforts such immortal glory and such gifts of everlasting blessedness.
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