December 29, 2020
Tonight we came to the conclusion of homily 75. Saint Isaac continued to explain to us the blessings of Night Vigils. They give light to the thinking; having purified the mind and the heart through limiting sleep, one begins to discern the things of the kingdom through prolonged prayer and watchfulness. The Light shines upon the mind and one begins to perceive that which is Divine.
To help us understand this Isaac gives us a number of examples of those who are exemplars of holiness and lifetime practitioners of night vigils. In them we see not only the discipline that is needed but also the fruit of the practice; unyielding fortitude to produces transfiguration of the body. The Fathers came to acknowledge this as a sweet labor.
However, Isaac does not want us to have any illusions about the practice or its difficulties. One must ask oneself honestly if there is a desire not only to practice Vigils, but to foster constant stillness and a willingness to endure the afflictions that these practices bring. Are we willing to make the necessary sacrifices to live a holy and undistracted life? Without this desire, the attempt to practice Vigils would be foolhardy.
St. Isaac closes with a comforting word as one who understands the weakness and the fragility of human nature. We may struggle throughout our whole life to engage in the practice of stillness. But we will undoubtedly experience losses and gains, victories and defeats. In all of this we must never lose patience and, most importantly, we must not lose our joy in the Lord and our trust in His grace.
July 11, 2019
Tonight we read the conclusion of homily 60 and all of homily 61. These few pages were some of the most beautiful that we have encountered. Isaac captures for us not only the meaning and purpose of afflictions, trials, and temptations but reveals to us the presence of the love of God within them. We never suffer in isolation and anything that we endure is permeated by the grace of God. To understand and see this clearly only increases a person’s desire for God as well as their willingness to embrace the cross as it comes to them without fear or anxiety.
May 30, 2019
We continued tonight with homily 57 and read it to its completion. Saint Isaac gives us perhaps the most profound explication of humility among the fathers. Without humility all virtue is in vain. The Lord’s concern is with the soul’s amendment not with a self-willed “traffic in sin under the guise of divine pursuits.” Failings are not a problem for Isaac. If anything they produce humility in the soul; we come to see with a greater clarity our poverty and our need for God’s mercy and grace.
Isaac tells us to seek humility even in the gifts that we receive from God. If they don’t help to produce humility within us, Isaac tells us, we should ask God to remove them from us.
We must get used to the fact that afflictions are a part of our life as Christians and they give birth to humility. We must not think of our life and growth in virtue outside of them, otherwise we open the door for pride.
We can come to the point that we love pride. When this happens we esteem our own knowledge and intellect and we fall into a kind of derangement of mind. It is then that repentance becomes an impossibility and the worst of evils manifest themselves. Such a radical turning away from God leads men into insanity. Thus we must beg for humility as the mother of all virtues. And in this humility we must never try to outsmart the demons but rather let the light of Christ overcome the darkness within us.
May 9, 2019
Tonight we continued reading homily 56. Isaac begins to guide us through a reflection on the nature of affliction and how it leads to the perfection of virtue and love. This is something that is often very difficult even for Christians to embrace. The cross always remains a stumbling block for those of the world and, in so far as it is a stumbling block for us, we are not fully alive in Christ. We cannot live in an unholy alliance with the world. Christ alone must be our joy and all idols must be set aside, most especially our own ego. Isaac uses the example of the natural virtue of philosophers. Even through discipline of their intellect and will they could achieve a high level of heroism and virtue. As Christians we must understand that we cannot rationalize our sin as being due to weakness of will or tell ourselves that we are not capable of living the life of the gospel. Naturally God has created us for Himself and now he has given us the grace to share in a godly life. He has called us to deification.
May 2, 2019
Tonight we concluded homily 55. Isaac discusses the nature divine fear, which is not fear of God but rather fear of losing what is most precious - our virtue. Such fear makes us vigilant and prayerful.
At the beginning of Homily 56 Isaac addresses how God makes use of involuntary afflictions to heal us and strengthen us. Like a surgeon, the Divine Physician delicately and with great mercy operates corresponding to the severity of the illness.
April 19, 2019
We continued this evening with homily 54. Isaac confronts us with a simple question somewhat indirectly – how deep is our faith and confidence in God‘s providence and the power of his grace? Do we remain engaged in the spiritual battle with hope in Him and trust that we are surrounded by the Angels and the Saints? Do we remain joyful in tribulations knowing that God makes all things work for the good of those who love him?
In this world we will experience tribulation and hardship. We must prepare ourselves through prayer and our ascetical life to endure to the end. Such endurance in the face of hardship and temptation often will require that we wait decades to experience the fruit and the joy of the kingdom. Isaac tells us that when we embrace tribulation and affliction we participate in the redemptive love of Christ and begin to experience His own secret treasures.
Isaac concludes by giving us a beautiful example of an elderly monk encouraging a novice to hold fast. He reveals to him how he began to taste the very sweetness of the kingdom and the unceasing worship of angelic beings. “Behold, the labor of many years, and what limitless rest it bore!”
July 6, 2018
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.
June 28, 2018
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.
April 19, 2018
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.
February 22, 2018
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.