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We began reading Saint Isaac’s 42nd homily this evening. He presents us with the challenging topic of affliction in the spiritual life. It is such affliction that perfects virtue within us and make us cling to the things of the kingdom rather than bodily comforts. We are to love affliction as much as we love the virtue that it produces within us.  
 
In light of this we cannot be sometime ascetics - setting aside certain material goods but clinging to sensory experiences through hearing and sight that only once again enliven the passions.  Solitude and simplicity must be embraced with vigilance  for they silence the thoughts, provide strength for endurance, and teach us patience. 
 
Isaac offers us the practical advice of who to choose as a guide and who to seek for counsel. It must be one who has experiential knowledge of all that we have been speaking about - one who knows intimately the path of affliction.   
 
Finally we must learn not to fear temptations. They are part and parcel of the spiritual battle and evidence of growth. Worldly peace is a danger for one seeking the Kingdom.
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Tonight we read Saint Isaac’s homily 41. It is a rich explication of the workings of the human mind and heart. St. Isaac shows us how it is that we are drawn into sin. He makes it clear that our natural appetites and desires are not the source of sin but rather our tendency toward excess and the weakness of our will. When the appetites are well ordered there is peace within the human person. But when we give ourselves over to negligence, conceit or slothfulness the passions are enlivened and then we are drawn into sinful behavior. St. Isaac directs us in the last part of the homily to the experience of tribulation and affliction. The wisdom of the fathers is that affliction awakens us to our poverty and our need for God’s grace and healing. God will allow us to experience affliction in order to humble us and draw us back to himself. It is through such affliction that repentance is often born.

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Tonight we concluded Homily 40. Saint Isaac speaks to us of the tactics of the enemy to pull us away from unceasing prayer and to lead us into every form of negligence and laxity. The enemy watches for all the ways that we are slothful and inattentive to the small things of daily life that open us up to sin.   
 
Wisdom is found in the man who is ever watchful and who sees nothing of his day to day life as insignificant. He labors for God in every way, not preferring the comforts of this world but willing to sacrifice all to know the sweet repose of living in the Lord’s love.   With courage of heart he seeks to do the will of God with exactness so as to sharpen his conscience. In this he possesses confidence towards God and becomes bold in His ways.  True virtue is found in living in Christ and seeking the purity of heart that allows us to be free of the passions and filled with desire for the kingdom.
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St Isaac led us through a wonderful study of the methods the devil uses to war against those who seek to live for God and walk by the narrow way. 
 
The devil will wait patiently for some who begin the spiritual life zealously; not because he fears them but rather because he holds them in contempt. He waits until their zeal cools and they grow lax and overconfident. He allows them to dig their own pit of perdition for their souls through wandering thoughts. 
 
With the courageous and strong, the devil seeks to drive a wedge between them and their guardian angel. Craftily the devil convinces them that their victories come through their own strength and force. The devil imitates the guardian angel and convinces them to follow dreams as if true in order to lead them astray. 
 
Finally the devil will actively present the warrior with fantasies masking the truth and thus deluding their mind. He leads them to ponder shameful thoughts. He will even present them with actual physical temptations once thought to be overcome. 
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Beginning with Homily 38 and moving into Homily 39, St. Isaac treats of the struggle with sin and temptation and the methods of the devil. The starting point is not to fear temptation. Such fear reveals an avoidance of hardship and lack of zeal for the Lord. We are not promised happiness or peace in this world but affliction. Thus we are to enter the spiritual battle with strong resolve - a willingness to sacrifice all for love of God and virtue. The devil will urge us to ease our labors but we are to be unrelenting in the fight. 
 
The devil begins by observing our weapons and watching for a weak and infirm will. He will the let loose with full force upon us in order to shake our resolve and to overcome us with fear. God often allows us to feel the full brunt of these temptations if only to reveal our doubt and coldness.  We must confront the devil with fearlessness and ardor.  Anything less makes us tempters and mockers of God. He did not create us simply to enter and leave this world but made us for eternity. This is the lens through which we must view our lives. 
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Tonight‘s group was challenging as always. Saint Isaac begins to draw us into the heart of the gospel and the embrace of the cross. We must be willing he tells us to endure afflictions. We cannot draw near to Christ crucified without them or grow in righteousness.  There is no static position in the spiritual life. Truly speaking there is no spiritual life but only life in Christ and a single hearted pursuit of the Kingdom. The world beguiles us; constantly trying to pull us away from the narrow path; ensnaring even great ascetics. We must keep before our eyes the brevity of life and come to love the Lord and our souls so much that we also come to hate sin.  Furthermore, we must study the scriptures to rouse ourselves to faith and increase our fervor.  This alone gives rise to greater faith and desire for God. 

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At tonight’s group we read two exquisite homilies from Saint Isaac the Syrian: Homilies 34 and 35. Both speak to us about the essential Ascetical nature of Christianity and the fruit of the Ascetical life. The ordering of the passions, the bearing of affliction, the study of the Scriptures and the Fathers, all create within the heart a yearning and desire for God. In this pursuit, humility is the key virtue, the mother of virtues, that fosters in the soul an ever increasing love for God and joy. This Joy, Isaac tells us, is perceived by the world as a holy madness. At group’s end, however, we are left simply to echo the sentiment of Isaac - “May God grant us also to attain to such derangement.”

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Tonight‘s discussion of homilies 32 and 33 focused upon Saint Isaac’s teaching that we should not approach the life of faith as if it were simply self improvement. We must beware of seeking our joys in the things of this world or reducing God to something manageable and controllable rather than an all enveloping mystery. The poverty that we experience in our moral life and psychologically and emotionally simply at times has to be in endured. We are drawn in to the perfection of God by grace. We do not make ourselves perfect. More often than not we are humbled by our weaknesses until we rest solely upon the grace of God.
 
We continue to struggle of course,  but we must avoid extremes in behavior - excesses in satisfying our appetites or too great a rigor that leads to despondency.  Our life is Christ and often our greatest struggle as human beings is to let go of the illusion that lasting joy can be found in any other place.
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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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Tonight’s discussion of Homily 24 and the first part of Homily 25 had a simple beauty about it.  St. Isaac was succinct in expressing his thoughts but captured the essence, first, of the nature of Divine Providence and God’s action in the events of our lives. God is a Pilot who can take unexpected occurrences and shape them for us as spiritual incentive, as purifying trials, as training in virtue, and for clarifying the consequences of both good and evil. 
 
When one lives a life of virtue and purity and couples it with repentant prayer, the character of those occurrences change - they strengthen and make steadfast the good man. 
 
All of this teaches us not to cling to the things of the world (that passes away so quickly) or to seek the esteem of men. We learn through these occurrences to shun vainglory and cherish humility. 
 
In Homily 25 Isaac likewise beautifully shows us the value of guarding one’s time of silence while also fostering freedom to respond as fully as possible to God’s call to deeper intimacy and solitude. We must always protect that space and freedom for each other - we must always assist others in the pursuit of God and their desire for intimacy with Him.
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