October 13, 2020
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.
March 12, 2020
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?
February 6, 2020
Tonight our discussion focused upon the conclusion of homily 69 and the beginning of homily 70. Both present us with an exquisite description of the nature and action of God‘s grace upon the soul; how we experience an alteration in the mind and indeed a struggle with our passions, with temptations and our falls only to be lifted up by the grace of God again. Isaac presents us with a vision of God who is intimately involved in our lives and seeks to draw us from glory to glory into the depths of his own life. He does that, however, within the context of our humanity and understanding that we must be drawn deeper through our struggles to see and comprehend the truth as he seeks to make known. God does not free us from the spiritual warfare and the struggle with temptation; rather He thrusts us into its depths to bring us to greater repentance and draw us back to himself and makes us steadfast in the faith, hope and love. Our mind must die to the world and to the passions and be transformed by grace. The passions don’t die: we must die to self and sin and put on the mind of Christ. Grace, Isaac tells us, carries us in the palm of her hand. God will never abandon us in the struggle but is ever present to keep us from falling into despair.
December 19, 2019
We continued tonight with homily 66. St. Isaac lays out for us the path to prayer and reveals to us its deeper meaning. It involves self-denial; a setting aside of the ego in order that one might be fully attentive to God. And so prayer is essentially self-renunciation shaped and guided by faith and fueled by desire.
In so many ways we have to let go of our limited understanding of prayer and the shape that we typically give it in accord with our own will. Isaac would have us allow God to lead us into the depths of prayer guided by a love that is inestimable.
Our greatest obstacle is our selves – the many ways that we allow ourselves to be pulled towards other things. We seek fulfillment in that which is so much less than God and we lose sight of our hope. We freely give away, without effort, the love God holds out to us.
Isaac exhorts us to order our desire and longing toward God, to let nothing draws away from what He alone can satisfy. We must allow ourselves to hunger for He who is the Bread of Life - - for He who can satisfy us unto eternity.
October 24, 2019
After having spoken to us in great detail about the ineffable consolation of faith and the experience of God‘s love in prayer, Isaac begins to teach us how we must be conformed to the mind and heart of Christ. In particular he emphasizes the absolute need for mercy. Be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful comes to light vividly in this passage. Through mercy we become the physician of our own souls. Giving this mercy to others brings us great healing. We are never to be those who seek vengeance but rather those who only desire the conversion and repentance of others so that they might come to experience the healing mercy of God. We are to be the conduits of this mercy in the world.
We closed with a challenging paragraph. Isaac warns us not to think that God fails to see our motives. We cannot be crafty or knavish in our actions or take the love and the mercy of God for granted or hold he cheap. Death comes to us quickly and unexpectedly and so we must live every moment seeking to love God and to love one another.
June 27, 2019
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.
June 6, 2019
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.
April 19, 2019
We continued this evening with homily 54. Isaac confronts us with a simple question somewhat indirectly – how deep is our faith and confidence in God‘s providence and the power of his grace? Do we remain engaged in the spiritual battle with hope in Him and trust that we are surrounded by the Angels and the Saints? Do we remain joyful in tribulations knowing that God makes all things work for the good of those who love him?
In this world we will experience tribulation and hardship. We must prepare ourselves through prayer and our ascetical life to endure to the end. Such endurance in the face of hardship and temptation often will require that we wait decades to experience the fruit and the joy of the kingdom. Isaac tells us that when we embrace tribulation and affliction we participate in the redemptive love of Christ and begin to experience His own secret treasures.
Isaac concludes by giving us a beautiful example of an elderly monk encouraging a novice to hold fast. He reveals to him how he began to taste the very sweetness of the kingdom and the unceasing worship of angelic beings. “Behold, the labor of many years, and what limitless rest it bore!”
March 21, 2019
Tonight we continued following Isaac’s explication of the nature of faith in Homilies 52 and 53; how it brings us to a knowledge of God that transcends the senses and all worldly knowledge that comes through the intellect. He writes, “all the saints who have been found worthy to attain to this spiritual discipline, which is awestruck wonder of God, pass their lives by the power of faith in the delight of that discipline which is above nature.” The Comforter shows us the power that dwells within us at every moment and consumes with fire every part of the soul. Thus we are led into all truth - to comprehend God as He is in Himself. Faith then illuminates all things and leads the soul to stretch forth her thoughts and long for that which the eyes of the body see not.
We come to experience the certainty of faith that is not merely a confession of dogmatic beliefs but rather the union established with Christ through baptism and through obedience to His commandments. When we learn to be constantly alert and foster within true contrition, we come to walk the path trodden by the saints and to taste the peace of the kingdom.
February 14, 2019
Tonight we continued our reading of homily 52. Saint Isaac begins to speak to us about the various degrees of knowledge and starts in particular with the knowledge that cleaves to the love of the body. Such a knowledge comes only through the senses and Saint Isaac calls it “common knowledge”; a knowledge that is naked of concern for God and sees the self as the sole source of providence. It is driven by a person’s concern and care for the things of this world and for their own safety and security. Every innovation and invention has its roots in anxiety and fear of losing what one possesses. Beyond this it leads to judgment of others as standing in opposition to what one desires. Everyone becomes a threat of one kind or another and one becomes driven to seek positions of emotional power in relationships and control. Faith, however, fosters humility and the true knowledge of our poverty as human beings and our need for God‘s grace and mercy. We are but dust and we must hold on to He who is the Lord of life and the governor of history. In God alone do we find peace.