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Isaac continues in homily 70 to instruct us about the nature of temptation and trials. These are not to be something that we fear or avoid. God allows us to be tempted not only to perfect our virtue but in order that we may comprehend something greater. Our participation in the cross through our infirmities or tribulations allows us to experience something of the suffering love of our Lord. If God allows us to experience the rod it is not evidence of punishment or discipline but rather of His desire to draw us closer to Himself. Our souls profit and are made sound through such temptation. Therefore, we are not to allow ourselves to fall into despair. Even if we are afflicted 1000 times we must realize that victory can come in a single moment. God can give us the strength, the courage and heart of a warrior.  And so we must not fear or give ourselves over to negligence or sloth.
 
In homily 71, Isaac begins to define for us three things: repentance, purity and perfection. In each case, the definition that he offers us is not what we might imagine. Isaac seeks to help us measure things in accord with the mind of God. Purity, for example, is the heart’s capacity to show mercy to all creation. Rightly ordered love allows us to see things with the eyes of God and so to see them with compassion and mercy. Repentance is not simply an episodic turning away from or confessing of one’s sin but mourn over it with a heart that understands the wound has been dealt to love. And finally, humility is our willingness to abandon all things visible and invisible. We cling to nothing - not even our thoughts about the things of the world. We cling only to God and seek Him above all things.

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Tonight we continued our reading of homily 60. It is perhaps the most striking and challenging of passages that we’ve considered. Isaac draws us into the very heart of the mystery of the cross and causes to view our identity from an eschatological dimension. In other words, he invites us to view our life in light of eternity. The path to this is narrow and difficult. It turns our view of the world upside down. But in and through it we are shown in a striking way the beauty of the love of God and the destiny that is our - sharing in the Divine Life.

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Tonight we concluded Homily 59 and began homily 60. St. Isaac picks up where he left off by discussing the centrality of the Cross in the life of the Christian. The path of God and the path of virtue is the cross. We must not avoid this reality but rather seek to embrace it in faith and trust in God‘s providence.  
 
It is this trust in God‘s providence that is the subject matter of homily 60. We must pray as those who do not seek to put God to the test. God acts in hidden ways to strengthen us and to lift us up in the midst of our trials and tribulations. How often do we pray in a utilitarian fashion, seeking to avoid trials or to force God’s hand; thinking that we can manipulate circumstances through our piety or through our goodness. God sees all things and most of all he sees what we need for our salvation. We must be willing to say “Thy will be done” and let that be the heart and substance of our prayer.

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Tonight we continued reading homily 59. Saint Isaac seeks to draw us into the mystery of the cross as God’s path for us. It is not to be feared or avoided but rather seen as the path of love that unites us to God and His redemptive work. In fact, St. Isaac tells us that it is the distinct way that God brings us benefits, helps us to grow in virtue. It is also how we come to imitate the saints in their love for and embrace of the cross. Far from being sullen about the trials that we experience, we should gradually come to see that God permeates everything that comes to us in this life. Nothing is outside of his providential care. We know we are under God’s care when he perpetually sends us griefs. The path of God is a daily cross.

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Our group began tonight with a very challenging question: what is it to deny oneself?  It is here that we are confronted with the full force of the gospel as reflected through the lived experience of the fathers. To deny oneself is to embrace the cross freely, to be ready for every affliction. It is the willingness to reject everything in this world to attain what Christ promises. We must be willing to be hated by the world as Christ himself was hated by the world, to prepare ourselves for complete dissolution for the sake of eternal life. 
 
It is a jarring reality and turns our worldview upside down. There must be a willingness within us to estrange ourselves from everything that produces slackness. Our desire for Christ and to share in His life leads us along the same path that he trod - into the desert to strip ourselves of the false self. 
 
This led us as a group to discuss what this means for us who live in the world. What does it mean to be a Christian, to embrace the fullness of the life of holiness that Christ has called us to?  Have we been so formed by the culture that we have created an image of Christ that allows us to remain focused on the world and not the kingdom?  How do we evangelize?  Do we settle for something less than being conformed to Christ in every way such that others encounter Him through us?  Do we live a life of perpetual adoration - a life that is a sacrifice of praise.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

 

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The thread that connects the thoughts of St. Isaac the Syrian's second homily is thankfulness to God. How we receive the gifts of God has great significance. One need only think of the story of the ten lepers in the Gospel. Only one returns to give thanks to the Giver for the healing he received. Lack of thanksgiving is akin to dishonesty, St. Isaac states. It shows that one does not grasp the true worth of what one has received and so not worthy themselves of receiving something greater. With the eyes of faith, one must grasp the generosity of the healer, even if the cure is painful. To fail to acknowledge such goodness or generosity or to resist the gift only increase the torment of the affliction. If we receive what the Lord gives us with true gratitude - whether painful or consoling - He will not fail to pour greater graces upon us for our salvation. Lacking such an understanding of things, God's gifts seem small in one's eyes - thus making one a "fool".

In our times of trial and failure we are to remind ourselves of times when we were filled with zeal for the Lord so as to stir our souls in to flame once more and awaken them from their slumber. Likewise we are to remember the falls of the mighty in the spiritual life, so as to encourage us when we have fallen that we might arise with confidence in the Lord.

Why spend so much energy pursuing the things of this world that turn to ash when the Kingdom of God is within you? Be a persecutor of yourself and do not pamper the body. Drive the enemy before you. Be peaceful and do everything you can to maintain your peace. Avoid everything that may distract or agitate and so hinder communion with God. Be diligent in seeking the treasure of the Kingdom that lies within you.

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We come to the conclusion of Conference 18, struck both by the beauty of the wisdom put forward and the fearfulness of its warning.  The example of the perfect patience and long suffering of the young monk Paphnutius described at our last meeting is followed by an explication of the most dangerous of sins - spiritual envy.  The poison of this serpent's bite knows no remedy - for the sting of the serpent goes unseen and unfelt and remains hidden by an otherwise virtuous life.  "What would you do in the case of a person who is offended by the very fact that he sees that you are humbler and kinder . . . ?"  The hatred of the good and the desire to destroy it can be hidden within the pursuit of holiness itself.  No guidance from even the wisest of elders can draw out the poison.  Only the action of God's grace can and in the fashion of the love and suffering of the cross.  When the one offended suffers at the sight of the sin in the other, not in judgment but in compassion. Who sees the deep wounds, trembles and weeps and then offers his own life in reparation; absorbing the poison even at great costs (including death) not simply to contain the poison but to transform it through a Godly love.  

A lengthy discussion ensued regarding the deep wounds the faithful have suffered at the hands of the shepherds and what can possibly bring healing to a flock that has been ravaged.  Once again, the humble embrace of the mystery of the Cross stands before us in all its fearsome splendor.

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