December 27, 2018
Tonight we completed our reading of homily 51. It was both exquisitely beautiful and challenging. Saint Isaac brings us to the point of reflecting upon the very nature of eternal love and mercy. How often is our conception of God limited by our imagination and intellect? God‘s mercy is eternal and part of the very character of God. God does not change and that love does not alter.
This leads Isaac to reflect upon the very nature of Gehenna. We often project on to God our desire for retribution. We turn God into a potential tormentor who scrutinizes our actions with the eye toward punishing us. Because we so often desire our pound of flesh for the ways that people sin against us, we believe God is the same and shrink God down to our dimensions. To lose sight of the wonder of God’s immeasurable love is to commit an iniquity against God. It speaks more to our lack of faith that we should make the poverty of our sin out measure God’s grace and glory and the power of the resurrection. In Gehenna one certainly experiences torment; yet this torment is the scourging of Love that has always been set on our repentance and salvation.
Lengthy discussion ensued. The group plans to read the recently discovered additional Homilies of Issac, especially those dealing with his thought on this subject.
December 20, 2018
As we continue with homily 51, Isaac begins to speak to us about some of the more subtle challenges that we face along the way. At no time are we to relinquish the hard one freedom over the senses. Either through extending rest from ascetical labors indiscriminately or through laxity and slackening our watchfulness of heart, we can wound ourselves in small or great ways through our sin. If we give free reign to the senses we also give free reign to our hearts and the attacks of the evil one.
Isaac understands that even the most experienced person in the spiritual life will at times slip into sin. However we must not persist in that sin and act toward God in a cunning way. We must not give ourselves over to the illusion that life will go on indefinitely or that we will have the opportunity to repent. We must keep before eyes the brevity of life.
Likewise, we must always be engaged in the work of the heart. There’s always the danger that our asceticism can simply be an end in itself, feeding the ego and self-esteem. If we do not possess a discriminating disdain for the things that are passing in this world and if we are not driven by our love for God, even the most disciplined person can be very far from the life and love of the kingdom.
Those whose hearts are conformed to God do not hate sinners but rather look upon all with compassion and mercy. We must understand that God has not acted towards us with justice but rather with mercy and love. And what other way can we look at another person who is harassed and mocked by the evil one than with sympathy. We must be heralds of God‘s mercy and goodness. Great care must be given not to project on to God our own understanding of justice, Hell, and retribution. We must always look to what God has revealed to us in his only begotten Son and understand that God is eternal love and mercy. It is this reality that we are tempted to change to fit our own imagination.
December 7, 2018
We continued with our discussion of homily 51 and once again Isaac through a kind of holy genius guides us deep within the truths of the gospel - In particular how we are to understand the nature of divine love and mercy and the hope that it brings to our soul and how it transforms the way that we look at others. He begins by warning us that asceticism absent a life of love and mercy is to be pitied. If we make ourselves castigators and chastisers we promise ourselves only a miserable life.
If we are weak in the spiritual life we must set ourselves with a strong resolve to at least strive within our limits. If we are not peacemakers we must at least not be troublemakers. If we are angry with others in our hearts we must hold our tongues and remain silent. If we judge others or allow them to be consumed by the anger of others, then we are accomplices and bear their guilt upon our shoulders.
In all of this, Isaac teaches us that humility is the key virtue that produces peace within the heart and leads us to the joy of the kingdom. Humility is truthful living, a willingness to see the poverty of our sin, to acknowledge the futility of our life without Christ.
We closed the evening by simply touching upon one of the most powerful teachings and reflections of St. Isaac. He tells us that divine hope uplifts the heart but fear of Gehenna crushes it. What does the love of God, he asks, tell us about hell? Do we desire the salvation of all as God himself desires it; or do we project our desire for retribution and worldly justice upon God?
May 11, 2017
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.