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We picked up this evening about midway through Saint Isaac’s Homily 25. St. Isaac has been speaking about the beauty of the solitary way of life and the constant called to intimacy with God. In the sections considered this evening Isaac warns of the pitfalls solitaries often experience. As one is separated from the false self and the ego diminished one experiences the full vision of the poverty of their sin and the darkness it brings.  The self is left to walk in the darkness of faith to rely only on the mercy of God. The temptation is to shrink back from this intimacy and knowledge of God or to seek worldly and sensible consolations. Worse yet one might fall into despair having been stripped of all worldly consolations but not seeking rest in God. This is by far the most pitiable state of man.

Isaac presents this all as a prelude to calling us to live out our lives in Expectation of the promise of life and eternal love that come to us through Christ. To seek the Kingdom above all things and to desire the things of the Kingdom frees us from the net of despair and fosters an invincible form of long suffering. Come what may one lives in and through hope.

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.
With the concluding section of Homily 23, we reach the apex of St. Isaac’s thought on what he describes as pure prayer and what is “beyond prayer”. Prayer always involves the movement toward God, seeking him out and desiring Him, offering up supplication and pleas for his mercy. Pure prayer takes places when the law of God is embraced and fulfilled and when no thought or distraction commingles within the soul completely directed toward God. 
Prayer always acts as the seed planted and what is beyond prayer, divine vision, is the harvesting of the sheaves. Theoria, knowledge, or noetic vision is an operation of the Spirit who guides the soul. Our senses and their operations become superfluous and the soul becomes like unto the Godhead by an incomprehensible union and is illumined by a ray of sublime Light. The understanding gazes in ecstasy at incomprehensible things that lie beyond this mortal world. This is the “unknowing” that has been called higher than knowledge; a walking in the darkness of faith where one comes to know God as He is in Himself. 
Discussion also ensued regarding the struggles of the Western mind to grasp the spiritual tradition of the Eastern Fathers; the moralizing and legalizing of the spiritual life and virtue versus deification. 

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. 

In the final pages of Homily 21, St. Isaac labors vigorously to help us understand that aim and end of the solitary life and one focused on stillness. The call to such a life is rare but it acts as a icon for the Church of “choosing the better part”; of a life that seeks what endures unto eternity. It presents us with a vision of the wonder and mystery that we are destined to share in all of its fullness in God. The solitary keeps his eyes focused upon Christ alone - forsaking even the admonition of the Gospel to love and serve others, as those in the world do, but instead pursuing the purity of heart and prayer that prepares the soul for theoria. Eventually all things are consummated in Christ, and all virtue and works of love are perfected and completed in God.  
The stillness of the solitary is silence to all things - to remain in the silence that allows God to speak a word equal to Himself - to walk in the darkness of faith that allows a soul to encounter God as He is in Himself. 
Do we desire God above all things?  Do we seek to make his love the measure of our life?  Do we make eternity the aim and goal that we pursue whatever our station and vocation may be?
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.
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. 
Homily 20 focuses on St. Isaac's teaching on the "sweet works of Night Vigil."  That may sound somewhat amusing to modern ears. Night is typically seen as a time for well earned rest from one's daily labors. Yet for the Fathers night was the preferred time for prayer. Time and sleep are now to be seen in light of the coming of Christ at the Incarnation and our waiting for His second Coming. We watch now day and night in a spirit of sobriety for his coming.
Therefore, Isaac tells us there is no greater practice. To occupy oneself with God in vigil lifts the mind in quick flight as if it were on wings. If the mind is kept from dissipation during the day great gifts will be bestowed upon a soul and it will begin to look upon God with the eyes of Cherubim - adoring Him without ceasing and with a pure gaze.  
This cannot, Isaac warns, be practiced in a vacuum. Stretching out ones hands out to God throughout the night, with the hardship of prolonged psalmody and standing will not produce fruit outside of the context of days spent in the sober pursuit of Him as well.  If we allow ourselves to be filled with distraction during the day then we have no idea why we toil.
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? 
Tonight we came to the conclusion of Homily 17 of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Isaac continues to discuss the Chaste life and how to protect it. He instructs us to keep our inner life a private affair. We must not reveal what is most intimate and our relationship with God or our vulnerabilities. We must never put ourselves or God to the test nor must we retaliate when we are condemned by others. Gluttony must be avoided at all costs and we must avoid rich foods so as not to weigh ourselves down. Silence is to be guarded as most valuable and in this we should avoid talkativeness and flee theological discussions. We must occupy ourselves with one thing alone – our relationship with Christ. 
In Homily 18 St. Isaac begins to speak to us about the stages of the spiritual life. In particular he focuses upon the violence we must do to ourselves in order to transform the passions - fasting, reading, vigils, prostrations.  Such must be embraced to stoke the fires of devotion and compunction which give way to tears that cleanse the heart. We must keep our focus on these disciplines and not hurry indiscriminately towards the higher forms of prayer. To do so would be to subject ourselves to potential delusion.

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