Last evening we picked up midway through Homily Six where St. Isaac takes up the topic of the vision of the divine in the Kingdom. Such vision and its nature is predicated on the individuals degree of perfection and its gifts. Yet, Isaac is quick to remind us that there is no division amongst us and the experience of God despite how this experience is perceived. There is no disunity or division in heaven and no comparison of gifts. Each delights in the experience and continues to be drawn into the fullness of God.
Following upon this, St. Isaac would have us understand that there exists only Gehenna and Heaven and no other state. It is foolhardy to propose an in-between state that is somehow greater than Gehenna but not yet the Kingdom. Such a notion speaks of an individual's hope that the one can live this life without a sense of urgency rooted in our ultimate end. Every moment is freighted with destiny because every moment is an opportunity to love - an opportunity embraced or set aside. To propose anything less is to foster false hope as well as mediocrity and lukewarmness.
A rather lengthy discussion ensued about the differences between Eastern and Western spirituality; in particular the use of discursive mediation and the use of imagination among Western writers and the avoidance of it among the Eastern ascetics. While largely a part of our spiritual patrimony those in the West have not been catechized in the Ascetical theology and practice of the East and the understanding of the active life as being rooted in the purification of the passions and the development of unceasing prayer. The understanding of the Church as a hospital and a place of healing and Christianity being an Ascetical religion has largely been neglected in recent generations as well as its impact on our understanding of liturgy, religious art and life as a whole.
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.
Last night we considered the proper measure of discretion needed in ascetical pursuits; dedicating your soul to the work of prayer; pursuing the life of solitude with those who share your desire; the importance of reading in stirring the heart to contemplation; the necessity of almsgiving and the willingness to live with scarcity. We discussed implications of Isaac's for those who live in the world and pursue purity of heart.
St. Isaac continued to guide us to a clearer understanding of the Passions and in particular they are contrary to the nature of the soul that has been created for holiness and virtue. Lengthy discussion ensued about the place of asceticism in the lives of all Christian men and women. Regardless of our station in life we are to embrace the grace of our baptism and strive to overcome the Passions. A false clericalism exists that claims that those in the single or married state are not called to radical holiness. The best belongs to everyone not simply to a select few.
St. Isaac begins homily three by making an argument that the passions are not natural to the soul. The soul by nature is pure and virtuous. Its contranatural state is to be moved by the passions that arise from the sense and appetites of the body. It is then in a state of illness. There is a distinction, I believe, that Isaac is making between desire and the passions. Desire for God is not the same as being passionate as is so often described in popular conversation. We wrong attribute and project onto the soul things that are not proper to it in its natural state.
A rather spirit discussion arose about seeking a life of dispassion in the world. Is desert living and the struggle appropriate and possible for those living in the world? What discipline is needed to live distinctively as Christians in the world?
In a magnificent closing to Homily Two and beginning to Homily Three, St. Isaac in a short few paragraphs lays out for us the types of passions and their nature and how a soul determines growth in the spiritual life. Measure your way of life by what arises in your thoughts. It is only with toil that the soul enters understanding of the wisdom of God and if she becomes still to the world and the cares of life; for then she can come to know her nature and what treasures she has hidden within herself. She will be lifted up twoard God and filled with the wonder of God; knowing the living water of the spirit that bubbles up within the soul. As the senses become more confined, the soul becomes more open to the contemplation of God.