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Tonight we lingered long over a mere four paragraphs from homily 74. Their beauty and their depth allowed no other option.

Isaac began by speaking to us of  the beauty as well as the fragility of chastity. This virtue, which gives us the capacity to love freely, is to be treasured and protected; for it can be lost even in old age when one might think it has become deeply rooted. Isaac’s vision of life is one of repentance; of continuously turning the mind in the heart to God and letting go of all obstacles that would prevent us from experiencing the deepest intimacy with him.

The path to that intimacy, Isaac tells us, is the Cross. This is the door through which we enter into the heavenly Mysteries. When we experience the affliction of the cross we also experience the consolation of the vision of God‘s love and presence. We never suffer in isolation.  The cross both reveals the love of God to us but also transforms us and draws us into the depth of that Love.

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Exceptional! This one word alone describes the essence of the section of homily 74 that we read this evening. Isaac begins to show us the subtle ways that our thoughts lead us astray. We often cannot recognize sin as it manifests itself and its many forms. Nor can we recognize the action of God and how He seeks to help us escape it and to escape our own pride. We are stiffnecked and we would rather look anywhere else than into our own hearts to understand the reason why we suffer so.  Isaac shows us how easily we shift the focus on to others and seek to blame them for our state. However, Isaac tells us it is God who holds out in hope, waiting to see if the afflictions that we bear and the cross that manifest itself in our lives will humble us and set us free.  If we would but humble ourselves and allow tears to well up from our heart then God would cast our transgressions into oblivion and raise us up to gaze upon His loving countenance.

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Once again we are presented with a beauty untold; that is, until recently when it has become accessible to us in the writings of St. Isaac.

We started this evening with Homily 73. Isaac, in a very brief and focused manner, speaks to us about the reason for embracing the exile of the desert. In doing so, one avoids close proximity to those things that could be a source of temptation and sin.  Even being around worldly things can arouse the turbulence of warfare against a soul and allow her to voluntarily be led away into captivity even though no warfare has assaulted her from without. In other words, by living in a world that has become comfortable with sin we can find ourselves with dulled  consciences. We may no longer live with a heightened sense of vigilance but give the evil one the advantage of seeing every manner of drawing us away from God. The poverty of the desert, the exile from the things of this world, extricated the monks from transgressions; it freed them from the passions. In a sense, it gave them the ability to run without impediment, to gird their loins and to seek the Lord without hesitation and without condition or limit.

Moving on to homily 74, Isaac gives us a more studied approach of how we deal with hidden thoughts and the actions and behaviors that can help us. We must begin with the study of the afterlife. We must acknowledge the fact that our life in this world is very brief. Having done so we find within ourselves courage and freedom from fear, every danger, and our impending death; for death we know only brings us closer to God. Such a vision of life helps us to patiently endure afflictions. Of course there is always the temptation put before us to return to our fears, to place ourselves once more in the shackles that once bound us. Cowardice can overcome our minds and we can begin to focus upon the body and its health. We become prey to the fear of losing all that the world can offer us. As always, Isaac’s writing is penetrating and it holds up an image of the desire for God that we might not recognize in ourselves.  To read Isaac is to be humbled.

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Tonight we concluded the final paragraphs of homily 72. It is as if Isaac is a bell, constantly ringing out to guide us through the darkness of this world and more importantly to draw us away from the wiles of the evil one. We are often oblivious to the subtle ways that the devil will hunt us down; in things concealed, or contingencies lying hidden in certain affairs, or in places.

In the face of this Isaac, the voice in the desert, cries out that there should be no limit to our willingness to toil for the things of the kingdom. We must start off the journey well and with clarity of purpose. We must ever be using our energy in the time given to us to pursue the life of virtue and to traverse the path of the Cross to its end. We must actively drive away from ourselves any kind of thinking that impels us toward repose. Zeal and eagerness must be fostered not in an equal but greater measure than that which we see given to the pursuit worldly glories or even to mere distractions.

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We continued our reading of homily 72. Isaac presents us with a vision of life and the action of grace that is fierce and beautiful at the same time. The grace of God is constantly present to us and she teaches us and allows us to gain experience through the  temptations and trials that we face. She protects us and strengthens us in perfect measure while also letting us know and learn from our own weaknesses. Temptations and trials lead us to cling to God and seek his strength.  Weakness comes upon us when self-esteem leads us to think that we are the source of great things in our own lives. We must be taught by hardship, Isaac tells us.  It is tribulation and affliction that reveal the most to us in life, that draw us into the mystery of the cross and reveal to us the true nature of selfless love. Like Christ, through our suffering we are made perfect. Gradually we come to desire what God desires and will what He wills.

Ironically, it is desperation that reveals to us true hope. Only when we find no hope in the things of this world and we see its empty promises do we come to embrace the hope that comes to us from the hand of God. It is this alone that offers us comfort and it is this that drives us on to seek the Lord above all things.

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After a long hiatus we returned to our reading of the Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. We picked up on page 501, about halfway through Homily 72. Isaac has been speaking about the nature of faith and humility, and how, when they are perfected by the grace of God, they bring us to a place where we are prepared for the experience of contemplation.  Let it be noted that it is preparation; it is only by the grace of God that one is elevated to contemplate God as He is in Himself. As we move from the multiplicity of deliberations and thoughts, God brings us to a state of simplicity of mind. We must become like little children, letting go of the limitations of intellect and merely clinging to He who is the Lord of life. It is then that His grace begins to act upon us and reveal to us things both in a manifest fashion and in more hidden ways. We begin to see how God‘s grace instructs us but also protects us from so many evils and dangers. The more that we begin to see this grace active in our lives, the more she reveals to us the hidden things in the ambush of the demons; how they manipulate our thoughts and guide us into a state of agitation and anxiety. We must see this as a temptation not simply as a result of the natural state of our existence in this world. Surrounded by chaos we must keep our eyes fixed upon the Provider of all things. When we do so, all anxiety and fear drifts away and we find ourselves resting in the ever present arms of God. 

This is such a timely teaching in an age of upheaval, where men and women have lost a sense of what to hold onto or what offers security and stability. Isaac reminds us with a clear and bold voice that it is God alone that we must trust.

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Tonight we concluded homily 71 and began homily 72. Once again Isaac serves us solid food. He presents us with an image of humility and faith perhaps unlike anything that we have ever considered before and calls us not to allow it to become a dead letter but rather something that raises us up to the fullness of life and love.  Can we let go of our worldly knowledge, our natural knowledge that comes through the senses and is shaped by the intellect and rather allow ourselves to comprehend what God reveals through and in faith?  For it means allowing ourselves to become fools in the eyes of the world, to become like children, like infants, unable to communicate clearly but able to receive the love and protection that the Father offers us. 
 
In this we are called to be like Christ himself, who in all things says “Thy will be done.”  Can we entrust ourselves so radically to the providence of God that we lose all fear and anxiety and become aware of Him and Him alone – trusting that we are in His care and allow, as Isaac says, “Grace to hold us in the palm of her hand”?  
 
Unless we live in this radical humility and faith we will have no inkling of the essence of God. But we will know instead is the distorted image of our own minds and imagination. Are we willing to receive the paltry alms that such a limited faith offers?  Do we truly desire and ling for the Heavenly Bridegroom? Do we desire God as He is in Himself?

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Tonight we continue to read homily 71. It is probably the deepest and most beautiful section of the text and in many ways we could not have entered into it or understood it without having read Isaac’s homilies over these past four years. We are nourished here on solid food. 
 
Isaac discusses two things: dispassion, or or the state where the soul does not accept the passions and the mind is fixed upon holy things. The mind becomes subtle, nimble, and keen and swiftly moves away from the attack of the passions and temptations through being wholly wrapped in the things of God. Isaac, in fact, tells us that the memory of the passions is blotted out.
 
Isaac then moves on to discuss humility. This, he tells us, is a hiddenness from the world and the self. It is not, however, some kind of extreme introversion or antisocial behavior but rather is the fruit of one whose entire being is directed toward God and shaped by love of Him. One no longer seeks out the distractions of the world but rather to collect the senses, the emotions and the desires in order that all might be directed toward God. Isaac describes humility as a kind of “chastity of the senses”, where all things are rightly ordered toward He who is Love, Life and Truth.

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We continued homily 71. Isaac is slowly guiding us through the virtues that bring us to our end point. Tonight we began with his definition of perfection. For Isaac, it is simply to love as Christ loves – a willingness to lay down our lives for others in order that they might come to know the fullness of life and love. Isaac puts forward the examples of Moses and St. Paul who asked God to allow them to be cast off if it would mean that others would be saved. Christ is our teacher in this regard. It is in Him and in His cross that we learn to love and are given the capacity to love.
 
From this Isaac moves on to speak to us about hope. It is an incredibly moving section of Isaac‘s writing. He elevates hope to its proper position in our life. It is one of the three theological virtues and it is precisely its ability to help us to see beyond the things of this world that allows us to love with the perfection that he describes. With hope we can see the promise of life that Christ holds out to us and so we can run with a swiftness. In fact, Isaac describes it as like running on air. No mountain, no river, no obstacle at all prevents an individual with hope from running swiftly toward the kingdom, with a heart aflame for the love of God. Isaac describes it as a kind of shortcut. Hope and its perfection brings together all the virtues. It leads a person to heedlessly give their lives over completely to Christ and allow Him to take up residence within the heart. Hope allows for a kind of holy madness to guide and direct a person’s life. It allows one to cast off any obstacle to living for Christ and living for Him alone.

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This evening we continued our reading of homily 71. St. Isaac continues to define for us the essential virtues that lead us to the end of our course. Tonight, however, he not only describes for us and defines for us the nature of prayer and of humility as virtues, but he lays out for us the specific Asceticism of prayer and humility; how we exercise ourselves in faith to set God above all things - most of all above our egos. There’s an absolute quality to this response to God that Isaac puts before us. We have to have both feet within the kingdom, otherwise it is like we are unequally yoked in regards to our desires. We cannot desire God and the things of this world. To do so, even in the most subtle of ways, is to diminish our love for God and fall onto a path of mediocrity. God would have us completely and desires to be the object of the full desire of our hearts.

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