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We continued our reading of homily 72. Isaac presents us with a vision of life and the action of grace that is fierce and beautiful at the same time. The grace of God is constantly present to us and she teaches us and allows us to gain experience through the  temptations and trials that we face. She protects us and strengthens us in perfect measure while also letting us know and learn from our own weaknesses. Temptations and trials lead us to cling to God and seek his strength.  Weakness comes upon us when self-esteem leads us to think that we are the source of great things in our own lives. We must be taught by hardship, Isaac tells us.  It is tribulation and affliction that reveal the most to us in life, that draw us into the mystery of the cross and reveal to us the true nature of selfless love. Like Christ, through our suffering we are made perfect. Gradually we come to desire what God desires and will what He wills.

Ironically, it is desperation that reveals to us true hope. Only when we find no hope in the things of this world and we see its empty promises do we come to embrace the hope that comes to us from the hand of God. It is this alone that offers us comfort and it is this that drives us on to seek the Lord above all things.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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We continued with our reading of homily 68 tonight. In a most extraordinary section, Isaac emphasizes the need to take heed of ourselves, to acknowledge the importance of being able to discern the most subtle movements of the mind and heart; to see which passion is dominant and the symptoms of its presence. Isaac like no other holds this out as an important competence, if not the most important competence for us to have as Christian men and women. We must be able to discern the passions that act upon us, their kind, how they manifest themselves, and how we are to remedy them. To be able to do this, Isaac tells us, is greater than the ability to raise somebody from the dead. To be able to see one’s sins and so repent and know the healing grace of God is of inestimable value. 
 
Isaac not only speaks to us the struggle that is necessary but the joy that is ours in gaining purity of heart. Our joy becomes that of the kingdom - that makes all things in this world seem as if they are of no account. We are destined for greater things and, when our eyes are open to this reality, we begin to feel as if we are in heaven itself.

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What is the sensitivity of the human heart and mind? How deeply have we been formed by the grace of God? Can we see the subtle movements of the passions within the stirring of temptations, the rising of pride or vainglory? Do we gauge the strength of these movements within us or the army of demons that rush upon in battle and are we able and competent to discern what needs to be healed within us?  Are we willing to stand vulnerable and transparent before God in order that He might heal us, that He might apply the healing balm that perfectly meets the need?
 
These are some of the questions that Saint Isaac puts before us in the conclusion of homily 67 and the beginning of homily 68. He wants us to look within, to take heed of ourselves in such a way that we can recognize such subtleties. This “truthful living” is at the heart of the ascetical life and breeds intimacy with God. The more we embrace the humble truth about ourselves, the more we find ourselves in the embrace of God. Tears may come; yet not those rooted in coldness of fear but rather those that flow from the heart that has been warmed by the love of God. 

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Tonight we concluded homily 66. Isaac focuses on the virtue of chastity and its beauty. It is to be prized and fostered through the gift of fasting. We must not give ourselves over to eating to the point of satiety. Rather our discipline must be regular and constant. We must humble the mind and the body so that our desire is ordered and directed toward God. At times it’s hard for us to understand such a longing for virtue and the willingness to go to such great lengths to attain it. 
 
This is the revolution that Isaac calls for – to be completely directed toward God in everything that we do. Asceticism is essential and the relational aspect of it is equally if not more important. Our whole being must be directed toward God - in order that habit and grace may work together to lift us towards God and away from sin swiftly and, as Isaac would say, violently. Our hatred of sin and our love for virtue begin to work together in such a fashion that when we see a movement of the body and its appetites, there is a complete and absolute response that draws us to the Beloved. 
 
Asceticism is essential for the life of the Christian and for the Church as a whole. Its breakdown over time has distorted the vision of what it is to be a Christian and what it is to be transformed into Christ by grace.

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Tonight we continued our reading of homily 65. Isaac begins to speak with us about the fruit of stillness. One of the primary gifts of stillness is the healing of memory and of predispositions over the course of time. The more that we are faithful to the grace that God extends to us, the greater the fruit that we experience as well as the desire for stillness. Isaac warns us that we must not concern ourselves with what is foreign to God. Our minds and our hearts must be set on freeing ourselves from the senses by being engaged in unceasing prayer. We must have a love in keeping night-vigil for the renewal of them mind that it creates. This is true of every aspect of the ascetical life. We must engage in it with an exactness. Our love for what the Lord has given us and our desire to protect what is precious should lead us with a manly courage to engage in the spiritual battle. Cowardice is often present in the spiritual life and we find many ways to rationalize our negligence and laziness for fear of giving ourselves over to God completely. This we must overcome and strive to enter the kingdom and be willing to sacrifice all to attain it.

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Tonight we began reading Homily 64. It is 25 pages long and through it Isaac presents us with a vision of the ascetical life and the essential elements of it. He begins this evening where Jesus began in his own preaching - with repentance. Repentance, Isaac tells, us is the mother of life. In itself this is a striking statement and one that would be worthy of long consideration. Repentance is not just sorrow over a particular act but rather a way of life. With every aspect of our being we are to turn toward God, ordering all of our senses and desires and appetites towards him. We are to simplify the thoughts in order that we might gaze upon Him in a undistracted way. Through this gaze we come to experience a divine wisdom, love, and peace. Grace enlivens compunction within the heart and the living water of tears cleanses and purifies in order  that we might gaze upon God with clarity and love. Isaac teaches us that mortification brings life; that dying to self and sin allows us to experience He who is our love and our destiny.

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Tonight we concluded homily 62. Saint Isaac as always with great beauty and sometimes with a poetic touch speaks to us of the importance of vigilance and diligence in the spiritual life. We must come to desire the Lord above all things; having death as the only limit of that desire. We must work until the harvest time; that is, until we come to the grave. We must never become lax in our spiritual disciplines, knowing the vulnerabilities that we have if we turn from the grace of God. Prayer is our greatest work - the pearl of great price and we must do all in our power to foster the solitude and silence that is needed for intimacy with God. We must hate our old life and the bondage of our sin in order that we might come to truly love the freedom of life in God. While we are still in this world there is time for repentance - time to turn from our sins and fill our lives with virtue and love.
 
Homily 63 speaks to us of how we rise from the grossness of the flesh, becoming ever more limpid in our response to God and refined by the action of His grace. With purity of mind and heart we must let go of all thoughts and distractions to become worthy of the revelation of his love. We must hold on to nothing - willing to forsake all for Him.

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