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Archive for the 'discernment' Category

We picked up again this week with homily 66. Saint Isaac presents us with perhaps the most formative part of his book. While this might seem to be an overstatement, St.  Isaac speaks with such clarity about the key aspect of the eastern Fathers’ understanding of the human person - the nous - the organ of spiritual perception. St.  Isaac lays out with striking clarity not only the nature of the nous but how it is to be formed and purified. Only through the ascetical life and the ordering of the appetites and the passions toward God is the nous, the eye of the heart, purified in such a way that it allows for true discernment.  Aided by grace, our capacity to perceive the truth the God increases as well as our capacity to embrace it. Isaac is very quick to warn us that this spiritual perception involves the whole person. It is not simply a philosophical or intellectual perception of truth, a mental vision. It is asceticism aided by grace that allows us to contemplate the truth and so develop a greater awareness of God. This awareness of God gives birth then to love and love is strengthened and emboldened by prayer. 

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Tonight we concluded Homily 65. Isaac closes his discussion on the value of silence and the work that surrounds it and allows it to develop and bear fruit.   Chief among these is fasting and stillness. External stillness fosters internal stillness and fasting humbles the mind and body and order that prayer may deepen and the mind and the heart become more open to God. The group spoke great deal about fostering a culture that supports the renewal of fasting. Saint Isaac closes the homily by holding up the joy that comes to the individual by living in this holy silence. It is the joy the kingdom itself and that comes through seeing and participating in the mysteries of God.
 
Homily 66 is Isaac‘s attempt to open up for us an understanding of eastern anthropology and how it shapes the spiritual tradition. Chief among the things that he speaks about is the nous, or the eye of the heart and how it must be purified through asceticism. The passions must be overcome in order that the dullness of the vision of the nous, which is the faculty of spiritual perception, might be overcome. There is no discernment outside of purity of heart. True theology can only be done by one who is experiential knowledge of God and has spent years in prayer, stillness and ascetical practice.

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Our discussion began this evening with homily 58. Here Isaac speaks to us of the importance of willing the good. We must learn to seek virtue with all of our heart. In order to do this we must understand, however, that we will need God’s help and grace and we must  support it all with unceasing prayer. Likewise, we must ask ourselves the important question: “is it pleasing to God?”; and in the end we must be willing to say “Thy will be done”.  The good is discerned by much prayer, watchfulness of heart, tears and compunction and again ultimately God’s grace. This alone protects us from pride and seeking to embrace whatever desire falls into our hearts.
 
Homily 59 begins by telling us that we cannot have one foot in the world and one foot in the kingdom. Our every concern must be with loving God and doing his will. So often we succumb to the illusion that we need material things in order to support our identity as well as our life. But Isaac reminds us that if we seek the kingdom before all things, God will provide. He will give us what is necessary. We must not simply work for worldly rewards. If we become overly attached to material things in this world God at time to allow us to experience trials in order that we might see where our faith really lies.

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We picked up this evening with homily 54. Isaac begins by discussing the impact of memories and recollections on both virtue and vice. Meditation upon virtue helps to transform the imagination. Likewise meditating upon the lives of the Saints and the vision of them that comes through contemplation sets one’s heart to pursue God with a greater zeal. 
 
We must be aware of the fact that both angels and demons can manifest themselves to us; either to draw us on onward in the pursuit of virtue or to lead us into error or fear. Thus, we must learn to discern what is appropriate to meditate upon. When love is rooted in God, the well-spring of living water is unfailing.  It for this reason that Isaac warns us not to become mechanical in our approach to prayer. We must trust in God’s providential love especially in the act of prayer - never calculating or controlling things.  A good sign of this is peace and freedom in mind and heart. Confusion and turmoil come from the evil one.

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Tonight we continued our reading of Homily 51. We picked up with Isaac’s list of observations showing us the nature of discernment and how important it is in our relationships with others and for our engagement of the world around us. Things often are not what they seem and so the gift of discernment is of great value in the eyes of the Fathers. It allows us to see how we often rationalize certain worldly behaviors, how we domesticate the gospel, and how we constantly seek to place boundaries around and limits to our understanding of love and mercy. The characteristic and distinctive element of Isaac‘s writings is his perception of the nature of God‘s mercy and what that means for the Christian way of life. At one and the same time he compels us and challenges us to rise above are limited understanding and to walk by faith and also reveals to us the height and the depth of God‘s love for us. Each of us stands in a unique relationship with God of intimacy and of unbonded love and Mercy. No one can provide us with faith and love; only we as individuals can pursue that relationship. As one western Saint put it - you are either a whole saint or no saint it all. We cannot approach God‘s love and mercy with half measures.

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Tonight we continued with our reading of homily 51. St Isaac the Syrian begins to map out for us how we are to form and shape our attitude and our thoughts in such a way that we guard and protect our own virtue and our capacity to look at others with Mercy. We are to be circumspect in our speech and in the revelation of our thoughts to others – being careful not to allow ourselves to be manipulated or drawn into acts of sin such as detraction.  
 
In our service of others and in our charity we are to guard and protect the dignity and the feelings of others. We must never set our desire to perform a good work above the identity of the one we are called to serve.  We are to lift them up in every way and be careful not to diminish their sense of worth. 
 
Isaac is very strong in his language, telling us that when we are genuinely pained for the sake of any person then we are akin to being a martyr. We must grieve for the wicked and understand that sin is it’s own punishment. We must imitate Christ who died not for the just but for the wicked. 
 
Furthermore, we must seek to establish within ourselves true discernment through bodily chastity and purity of conscience. If these are lacking every act becomes void in the eyes of God. We seem to have an infinite capacity for self delusion; our hearts telling us that we are good and righteous for the benefit of our egos and self esteem. God reckons righteousness in proportion to discernment and Saint Isaac provides us with a multitude of examples of how this is true.

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We continued reading the 17th Homily of St. Isaac the Syrian which focuses on establishing a "Rule" of life for beginners in light of Hesychasm and Philokalic Spirituality as a whole. Isaac shows how every aspect of our life must be transformed by the grace of God. With a holy genius, he reveals the healing of soul that must take place. Every interaction with others, every emotion, can be a means of seduction and so must be considered with radical honesty. We must possess a willingness to reflect upon things such as laughter, the familiar and lingering gaze upon another, and encounters with the opposite sex from the perspective of their impact upon the spiritual life and the vulnerability that arises out of our sin. This is never a solitary pursuit. A solidarity exists between each of us and thus a responsibility for one another's salvation.

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In Homily 17, St. Isaac begins to lay out a "Rule of Life" for those seeking to live chastely and in a way pleasing to God. Chiefly this means showing restraint and wisdom in regard to every aspect of life: sight, speech, attire, food, alcohol, etc. Thus, discretion is put forward as the most important of all the virtues - the ability to discern between good and evil. Purity of heart and purity in action is essential; as is setting aside all egoism. Indiscriminate familiarity in relations with others must be avoided and a proper respect for boundaries in relationships and in daily interactions is essential. This is not fastidiousness but rather an acknowledgment of the power of the senses, desires, appetites - indeed all that is human. All must be purified and transformed by the grace of God. 

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We come to the conclusion of Conference 20 on repentance and reparation and consider the depth of the desert Fathers understanding of the human person.  Abba Pinufius sets off carnal sins from the others as those that one would not want to recall as a means of uprooting the disposition to them.  Such sins, touching upon our natural appetites and desires carry within them the danger of drawing us back into them if we allow them to return to memory and imagination.  Pinufius is not treating such natural appetites as evils but rather respecting their power and importance to our identity as human beings.  For such reasons they are not to be treated casually or lightly in the spiritual battle. We must instead turn our minds to heavenly things - the desire for God and the virtues.  

The closing note is a reminder that what has been addressed in this conference pertains to the more grave sins in the eyes of God.  We may come to the point where we do not commit them and have freed ourselves from the disposition towards them.  However, the smaller sins we commit repeatedly throughout the day, often without noticing, remain something we struggle with and continue to do penance for throughout our lives.  Repentance and reparation our constant fixtures of the spiritual life.

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Cassian and Germanus find themselves struggling, as it were, with a seemingly no win situation.  No matter what decision they make they will experience loss on a spiritual level.  They had made a rash promise when coming to Egypt.  They had promised their superiors that they would return quickly.  However, they have found that simply hearing the teachings of the elders was insufficient; they must live the discipline of the desert for a much longer period of time in order to have their hearts formed and purged of the slackness that lies within.  To return now would not only make it impossible for them to communicate the wisdom of the desert fully but also place them both in jeopardy on a spiritual level.  Once have let the inspiration to pursue the perfection of the desert monasticism pass they would experience enormous spiritual loss.  However, to remain now would be to set aside a promise they had made to their superiors.  Abba Joseph seeks to guide them through this situation realizing that they had acted rashly and without discernment.  One must never promise anything quickly.  The question now, however, is where can the inevitable damage they will experience be made more tolerable and compensated for by the remedy of reparation. They must humbly assume the damage caused by their sin but remain along the path where their lack of discernment and purity of heart will be addressed in order that they same mistake not be made again.  What hospital do you go to depending on your infirmity?  Where will the deepest and most lasting healing take place? 

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