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.
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.
We picked up this evening about midway through Saint Isaac’s Homily 25. St. Isaac has been speaking about the beauty of the solitary way of life and the constant called to intimacy with God. In the sections considered this evening Isaac warns of the pitfalls solitaries often experience. As one is separated from the false self and the ego diminished one experiences the full vision of the poverty of their sin and the darkness it brings. The self is left to walk in the darkness of faith to rely only on the mercy of God. The temptation is to shrink back from this intimacy and knowledge of God or to seek worldly and sensible consolations. Worse yet one might fall into despair having been stripped of all worldly consolations but not seeking rest in God. This is by far the most pitiable state of man.
Isaac presents this all as a prelude to calling us to live out our lives in Expectation of the promise of life and eternal love that come to us through Christ. To seek the Kingdom above all things and to desire the things of the Kingdom frees us from the net of despair and fosters an invincible form of long suffering. Come what may one lives in and through hope.
Last night we reflected upon Homily 16 of St. Issac the Syrian. It is a beautiful exhortation to let go of our attachment to the world and the things of the world, to let go of the security and false hope they promise. Isaac encourages us to cling only to Christ who is our salvation and source of healing. The path to healing and joy is repentance. The sacrifice we may make in renouncing the world pale in comparison to both the immediate and ultimate end such renunciation promises - purity of heart and deification. Even the deep sorrow of compunction and the tears shed over our sins, carry within them the joy of renewed intimacy with God.
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.
Last night’s reading from St. Isaac the Syrian’s 4th Homily was extraordinary. As is so often the case, one is left with the feeling that there is no going back to a lesser vision of the faith and ascetic life. He warns us not to sacrifice our freedom, the freedom of simplicity, by enslaving ourselves to the things of this world. We must not live our lives to support luxury and ease and so make ourselves “slave of slaves”; that is, slaves to our passions and senses. Humble living is to be met with restraint in speech and love of silence. We are to constrict our thoughts and reduce distraction in order to seek contemplation above all things. To stand before God with a pure heart to better than all things - even all acts of charity. Care must be given not to gain the whole world and lose our souls in the process. “It is more profitable for you to attend to raising up unto the activity of your cogitations concerning God the deadness of your soul due to the passions, than it is to resurrect the dead.”
What do we seek? What do we long for the most? Can any of us truly say Theoria, or contemplation; to be drawn up into the eternal blessedness of God through participation and by His grace? Do we seek to pray without ceasing as though it is that narrow path from which we seek not to stumble? Theonas begins in these first sections of Conference 23 to show Cassian and Germanus why contemplation of God has a dignity greater than all the dignity of righteousness and all the zeal of virtuousness. All things in this world will be unable to maintain their title of goodness if they are compared to the future age, where no mutability in good things and no corruption of true blessedness is to be feared! The Apostle Paul is the exemplar of one who desires the indissoluble fellowship with God above all things for himself and for others. He cries out: "I do not know what to choose. I am compelled on two sides, having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, for that is far better, while remaining in the flesh is more necessary for your sake."
Nowhere is the universal call to holiness, the call to live in and embrace the grace of God radically, more fully and challengingly expressed than in this section of Cassian's 21st Conference. These realities become extremely personal as they are displayed through the story of the conversion of Theonas, the elder of the conference. The pursuit of the perfection of grace touches every aspect of life and whether a person is a monk, a virgin or married, they are called to take it up whatever the costs. Theonas was married and comes to the realization that he must embrace more than a lawful commitment to his spouse but a relationship that fosters chastity. The locus of conflict that he begins to identify is between sexual habit and continence in the heart and that it is possible for a person not to be a lover of marriage but rather of slave of lust. Sexuality here becomes the perfect mirror of the human self - the lens through which we see the contortions and distortions of human motivations. He and his wife had been pushed into marriage with the notion that the vows alone would control sexual passions. They mistakenly thought that purity of heart could be fostered without embracing fully the life of grace and its expression in a disciplined life. Marriage is touched by grace - it is to make present the selfless love of Christ for his Bride the Church. This comes at a costs and by grace, not by magic or wishful thinking.
Cassian and Germanus now begin their discussion with Abba Theonas; the conference beginning with the story of Theonas' own conversion and which is meant to be the cypher through which the teachings that follow are meant to be interpreted. There is a higher ideal of the Gospel - one that urges a far greater abnegation of self than what is found the the fulfillment of the law. Furthermore, one is called, persuaded, to respond to the higher life of grace and is invited to assent through freedom of will and the desire for what is beautiful. The perfect who stand not under the law but under grace, remain ardent, and so attain to that state where they are not dominated by sin. They are not content to offer tithes but rather seek to offer themselves and their own souls to God, for which no exchange can be made by a human being. Christ forces no one to the highest reaches of virtue by the obligation of a precept but he moves by the power of a free will and inflames by salutary persuasion and by the desire for perfection.
As we remarked in the very beginning of our study, the Ladder of Divine Ascent is a way to union with God. This is the goal of the spiritual life: direct, unhindered and undistracted communion with the Holy Trinity. Everything that St. John has outlined, the negative and the positive, has been presented with this goal in mind: to prepare ourselves to know God and, in knowing God, to experience Eternal Life. What is the highest pinnacle of the knowledge of God? When is our labor no longer preparation for, but actual enjoyment of the presence of God? St. John answers: "when we love." He writes: "Love, by its nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as this is humanly possible. In its activity it is inebriation of the soul." In another paragraph he explains: "Not even a mother clings to her nursing child as a son of love clings to the Lord at all times." In still another place, he writes: "Love grants prophecy, miracles. It is an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul. It is the condition of angels, and the progress of eternity." It is truly significant that St. John isolates love as the highest expression of spirituality. For those of us who have grown up in the West, we have tended to associate great spiritual progress with either intellectual achievement or social action. Neither of these is antithetical to the spiritual life, but neither represents its highest attainment either. The person who truly knows God is love even as God is love.
This too is an important consideration. We all from time to time love. Love is something we do and something we give. At best, love is an "attribute" which is part of our inner selves. In this respect, for us, love is most often "premeditated." We think and plan to love. This is the beginning of the spiritual life. Those fully deified do not "love" as an expression of forethought or will, but they themselves have become love. Here is where true union with God takes place. To know the heart of God is to know love. "Love" is not an attribute of God, which takes its place among the other "attributes" of God. Love is God and God is love. Everything He does, even His punishment and wrath against sin, is an expression of His love.
To love is to be obsessed by and with the thing or person which is loved. The deified ones are completely overtaken by desire for God Himself. St. John explains: "Someone truly in love keeps before his mind's eye the face of the beloved and embraces it there tenderly. Even during sleep the longing continues unappeased and he murmurs to his beloved."
This kind of consuming and exhilarating love for God is a gift, a grace, which comes from Him. This is the mystical side of the spiritual life. We can prepare ourselves to receive God's love; this is the ascetical side. But true love comes from God and draws us back to God. Having ascended the Ladder through the practice of the virtues, at its pinnacle, we encounter the Eternal Mystery, we are drawn into that Light which is also Darkness and that Darkness which is also Light and we learn the meaning of the parable: "We love because He first loved us." We encounter Someone bigger, more powerful and more real than all of our feeble attempts to understand Him. We find the End of our search, and in experiencing Him, realize the End to be simply the Beginning.