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.”
We continued discussing a beautiful section of Homily Five where St. Isaac develops his thought on the establishment of purity of heart and the virtues necessary to help it take root deeply. Practicality in our approach to daily circumstances must be set aside. Rather we must patiently endure the rebuke of others, insults and even false accusations. The ego must be set aside and there must be a willingness to experience humiliation. In the end we must let go of the illusion of our goodness and the demand and expectation of justice in this world; rather, we must cling to God and God alone as the source of identity and hope. A lengthy and spirited discussion ensued.
In this beautiful section of Homily Five, St. Isaac speaks of how ever-present and close God is to us through his angels and in his actions on our behalf. Why would we be anxious about anything, he asks? We have a God set on our salvation, who does not abandon us in our sin but makes use of every opportunity to raise us up. We must not let anything steal the peace that comes to us from this knowledge. Rather, we must mortify ourselves and never let any opportunity pass us by to serve another or give alms; for in doing so we comfort "His image" - we console Christ Himself in the suffering poor.
God makes use of everything in His Providence to raise us out of sin - He administers sicknesses in body for health of our soul and allows temptations and trials to come to raise us out of negligence and idleness. He orders all things for our profit and in this we are to learn that God alone is our deliverer. We are to use our life in this world for repentance so that we can come to share in our eternal inheritance.
Afflictions spur us on and lead to remembrance of God. It is this remembrance of God that creates a connectivity with Him and draws down His mercy. "Remember God that He too might always remember you."
Isaac reminds us to seek help before it is needed. That is, "before the war begins, seek after your ally; before you fall ill, seek out your physician; and before grevious things come upon you, pray, and in the time of your tribulations you will find Him . . . " Faith must be fostered throughout the course of our lives and our relationship with the Lord allowed to deepen. It is in this that confidence in the spiritual life comes. Fear and destructiion comes from neglect.
The impact of sloth on the soul is often neglected and its significance minimized. St. Isaac the Syrian warns that without harsh tribulations of the flesh it is difficult for the untrained youth to be held under the yoke of sanctification. We must be willing to take upon ourselves the cross of the pursuit of virtue before sharing in its glory. Whenever the soul becomes heedless of the labors of virtue, he is inevitably drawn to what is opposed to them and thus becomes deprived of God's help and so subject to alien spirits. Every man who before training in the afflications of the cross completely and pursues the sweetness and glory of the cross out of sloth and for its own sweetness, has wrath come upon him. He lacks the proper wedding garment - the healing of the infirmity of his thoughts by patient endurance of the labor that belongs to the shame of the cross. A man whose mind is polluted with the passions of dishonor and rushes to imagine with his mind and ascend to the divine vision, is put to silence by divine punishment. "And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’"
Theoria is rooted in virtue and becomes the receptacle and house of the knowledge of God. It is in the body that we must pursue virtue and so we must engage in the rigors of asceticism. We are not angels but rather fallen human beings who must purify the eye of the heart for the perception of the divine mysteries.
St. Isaac then begins to clarify the understanding of the word world. The world is collective noun applied to all the passions. Great care must be given in separating oneself from the world and with humility we must understand that depeneding on our state we may not perceive all the passions that hold us in their grip.
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.
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.
Tonight we began reading Conference 6 on the Slaughter of Holy Men where Cassian introduces us to the meaning of suffering and affliction. It is by no means an easy journey. Cassian slowly constructs a foundation upon which we can build. The only real good is virtue and the only evil is vice and separation from God. This is the frame, perhaps unfamiliar and uncomfortable to the modern mind and sensibilities, within which we are to shape our understanding of life. Ultimately affliction is only understood in light of Christ’s immersion in the affliction of our sin and entering into the depths of the hell that it places a soul. He enters into the depths through love in order that we might rise to the heights through love. We meet most intimately and powerfully in that place of affliction – the Cross. It is these realities that we will be unpacking in the weeks to come.