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Archive for the 'Virtue' Category

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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Homily 22 and 23 bring us to the denouement of the preceding Homilies. The pursuit of stillness and the purification of the faculties of the soul prepare the soul to be raised to the state of Theoria - to experience God not in light of his operations but in accord with the nature of his being. It is silence in all things and beyond articulation. St. Isaac ultimately describes it as a state beyond and above prayer. One enters by grace into the treasury. Every human device becomes still because inadequate and one simply tarries long, for the Master of the House has come - the Bridegroom has arrived. 

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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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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 discussed Homilies 11 and 12. Here St. Isaac holds up the monastic life as an exemplar which we are to emulate - monks illuminate the darkness of the world with the beauty of their virtue and in them we are to find refuge. Though not monks, we are called to an interiorized monasticism - to live as those who know how fleeting is life and how valuable is virtue. Isaac lays before us lists of their virtues by which we can gauge our deficiency or progress. It is by our virtue that we give glory to God. 
 
In Homily 12, Isaac discusses the various stages of the spiritual life. Daily we are to strive to walk the narrow path and to overcome the passions. We are to live in the hope that Christ alone provides; and even when we do not receive consolation or feel strong desire we are not to abandon that hope in God's mercy and grace. 
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Last night the group discussed homily 10 of St. Isaac. The fundamental theme was the importance of repentance and also the avoidance of presumption in the spiritual life. Repentance must be followed by a firm resolution to change one's life. One must become a hater of sin.  
 
We also suffer under the consequences of our own sins and the sins of others. There's a radical solidarity that we share in our sin and so also radical solidarity that we must share in our efforts to make reparation.  
 
By virtue of our baptism, we have been consecrated to God in our lives. We belong to him and our lives must be modeled on his love of virtue. Our share in the life of the most Holy Trinity is the pearl of great price for which we must be willing to sacrifice all to obtain.
 
A lengthy discussion ensued regarding the application of Saint Isaac's teaching to our lives and our love for the Church. We must never underestimate the power of prayer, the conversion of life, and their impact on the life of the church and the world.
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In the final paragraph of Homily Four, St. Isaac exhorts us to die to all things and the doings of the world that give rise to the passions.  He acknowledges that there is a a kind of madness to this as seen from a worldly perspective and that reality gets turned on its head.  But it is only when we trust to the Lord by embracing this path fully that we will experience the sweetness of spiritual inebriation.  Though difficult, he encourages us not to lose hope for the mere movement of toward God and the mere expression of desire for holiness brings with it a flood of grace and mercy.

Homily Five begins by reminding us that we have received all that we need through the revelation of nature and the scriptures to guide and direct us in the spiritual life; especially the reality of our own mortality.  Death gives rise to the question of the meaning of our lives and what path we are going to pursue.  We cannot, however, approach these realities and think that we can stand still or refrain from offering any response.  "Whoever does not voluntarily withdraw himself from the passions is involuntarily drawn away by sin."  There is no static position for us as human beings.  We must withdraw from the causes of the passions and set ourselves toward the good; realizing that God honors not wealth but rather poverty of spirit, not pride but humility.

In the spiritual battle, we must engage "manfully", that is, with courage.  We must not doubt God is our Helper in the good work otherwise we will be scared of our own shadow.  If we hope in Him, however, we will experience Him as one who manages our "household", that is, our heart and sends His angels to strengthen and encourage us.

Never hold any sin to be slight.  To love God is to hate evil and our sin, no matter how grave or small in our eyes. And having made any strides in the spiritual life, it must be seen as mere fidelity and obedience to what is commanded of us.  Pride must have no place within us.

Sin must be fought and healed with the right remedies.  Lack of chastity cannot be healed by giving great alms and fasting does not overcome avarice.  In place of the loss of sanctity God requires sanctification.  Lack of chastity must be restored to purity.

 

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Where is spiritual joy to be found? What does it mean to be a lover of virtue? How does one show mercy to those who have fallen? Where does sloth begin?  These are the fundamental questions St. Isaac the Syrian begins to address in Homily Two.  

In a few rather difficult paragraphs we are instructed not to become overly focused on the experience of the Kingdom and what it will be like.  While it might be something that in some measure can be known noetically, it is not like our experiences in this life.  Our focus should rather be on the pursuit of virtue and purifying the nous.  The good things of heaven are incomprehensible and we must not let thinking about them become a distraction for us.

St. Isaac then moves on to clarify something about the attitude that we must have as we seek to grow in virtue and overcome vice. We must come to see that often hidden within valiant struggle is still the desire for the vice. The sign that one is a lover of virtue is expressed through the willingness to endure all manner of evil and suffering to maintain it with joy! The pure heart remains unconfused and unmoved by the "flattery of tantalizing pleasures." Sin must no longer have any attraction for us. Isaac also adds that if we lose the ability or free will to sin due to certain circumstances, i.e., illness, we will not come to know the true joy of repentance. Absence of sin does not mean the presence of virtue. All of this is a challenge to halfhearted approach to the spiritual life.

When faced with another's sin, we must seek to cover their shame and support them in their repentance so long as we don't place ourselves in jeopardy in the process.  We must not voluntarily make trial of our minds but engaging sin directly with lewd reflections that can tempt us.

The practice of virtue for the young is always accompanied by affliction in order to be kept them under the yoke of sanctification.  When prayer and religious services are neglected then sloth has already taken hold.  And the moment one turns from God's help, he easily falls into the hands of his adversaries.

 

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Once again St. Isaac's words stir the heart to hope and the desire for God.  As a homily it offers with surprising brevity a clear and rich explication of the spiritual life.  He begins by calling us to humbly follow the spiritual path common to all men.  God's grace can work when and as it will in a person's life, but we should strive to walk the known paths that lead to virtue.  The more one grows in virtue the more the soul's insatiable desire for virtue seizes hold.  Discussion ensued about perhaps how uncommon an experience that is today.  Do we experience a growing and insatiable desire for virtue within our souls?  

Perfection is the standard for Christians in the spiritual life.  Union with God means sharing in His virtues and embodying them in our lives.  For example, the whole sum of the deeds of mercy immediately brings a soul into communion with the unity of the glory of the Godhead's splendor.  

The truth of this is manifest in speech: That which comes from righteous activity is a treasury of hope, but wisdom not based on righteous activity is a deposit of disgrace.  Words arising out of experience transform the listener.

Isaac concludes by reminding us that all good things come through God and are wrought in us in secret through baptism and faith.  Any virtue we possess comes through these mediators and through them we have been called by our Lord Jesus Christ to His good labors.
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After a brief introduction to St. Isaac and his times, we began reading and reflecting upon his first homily on "Renunciation and Monasticism." In the Syriac, the first six homilies form a unit with one title "On the Discipline of Virtue" - hence the opening sentence of this homily - "The fear of God is the beginning of virtue, and it is said to be the offspring of faith." 

This first homily seems to sow the seeds of many of the principal themes that will be developed throughout the book.  

Virtue is sown in silence.  As Christians we must seek to collect our thoughts and prevent them from wandering into distraction.  Faith frees us from the preoccupation with the self and heals us of the malady of isolation; it allows us to transcend the self in order to see God and neighbor and so love them. It is allows us to see that every moment is freighted with destiny because every moment is an opportunity to love.

To foster the development of such faith we must avoid the inconstancy that often arises in our hearts and instead remain in the silence and immersed in the study of the scriptures.  We must embrace the kind of poverty that leaves us unencumbered and so free to direct our energies to the study of the Word.  In doing so we build the entire edifice of the spiritual life.  In other words, the city must become our desert; although living in the world we remained removed from the unnecessary affairs of the world so as to protect our imaginations and allow the passions to abate.  

The soul must become drunk with faith - constantly under the influence of love.  Thus inebriated with the spirit we will find the courage to tread beneath our feet all that prevents the growth of the discipline of virtue.

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