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We continued with our reading of Hypothesis I on “repentance in the avoidance of despair.” After giving us a foundation of many stories of God‘s infinite and boundless mercy, the focus of attention this evening is on the human response to this mercy.  Repentance is not a static reality. Rather, it is a source of protection, a cloak that one wears. We are not meant to simply remain in the sadness of having committed sins, but rather we are to rise and engage in the spiritual warfare that God’s mercy and grace gives us the strength to enter. We are to be combatants. Our weapons are not worldly nor are they rooted in ourselves but rather arise first from the grace of God and manifest themselves in our hearts as humility, obedience, self-sacrificing love, contrition. We are also shown that the impact of repentance is not limited to one person. Repentance when it is deep and true brings about miracles not only in one’s own life but in the lives of those around us. God’s grace and mercy overflows in response to the abundance of tears that an individual sheds on behalf of his sins and the sins of the world. The presence of penitents in the Church strengthens it and gives others who have fallen into sin hope of salvation and conversion of life.

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Text of chat during the group

00:31:48 Eric Williams: PEWSLAG

00:56:07 Eric Williams: The ass saved the ass from himself!

00:58:25 Eric Williams: “Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” - Ephesians 6:10-17

01:03:47 The Pittsburgh Oratory: Erick we lost you.

01:16:38 Eric Williams: “Say: woe is me, alas, O soul, and weep; for thou hast been left and orphan so young by the blameless fathers and righteous ascetics. Where are our fathers? Where are the saints? Where are the vigilant? Where are the sober? Where are the humble? Where are the meek? Where are those who vow silence? Where are the abstinent? Where are those who with a contrite heart stood before the Lord in perfect prayer, like angels of God? They have left here to join our holy God with their lamps brightly burning. Woe is us! What times are these in which we live? Into what sea of evil have we sailed? Our fathers have entered the harbor of life, that they might not see the sorrows and seductions that overcome us because of our sins. They are crowned, yet we slumber; we sleep and indulge in selfish pleasures.” - St Ephraim the Syrian

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Another beautiful group tonight!  We picked up with Hypothesis I, page 13. Again we are given multiple stories of individuals repenting from sin and turning back to God from states of depravity. The very movement of the mind and the heart brings down upon them a flood of God’s grace and mercy.

What is different in the stories we read tonight is the radical solidarity and empathy that we see in the minds and the hearts of the elders. They approach those in their charge not as masters but as servants; not condescending to them but rather seeing themselves sharing intimately in the sorrows and the woundedness of their sin. The responsibility was theirs’ to weep over these sins and seek to help others overcome them if possible. There is no such thing as an individual Christian; that is, a Christian separated from the body of Christ and from one another. Our own repentance should help to elevate and lift up the Church and the repentance of others can also help raise us up and strengthen us as well. God‘s desire is to heal us, not to punish us. We have lost this sense of the need for healing and understanding that the Church is a hospital and have instead turned the acknowledgment of one sins into a legalistic practice or rather a psychological and emotional release. Consciences can be so hardened - not only among individuals but among whole groups of people - that we can completely lose our way unless God and his great mercy and Providence does something to up-end the illusion. He will do anything to help us overcome what affects and afflicts us. Blessed be God forever.

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Text of chat during the group:

00:17:02 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky: in case anyone needs it my brother wrote A Brief Primer on Patristic Greek Anthropology with an Emphasis on the Process of Contemplation and Obstacles to It Very Rev. Andriy Chirovsky, SThD September, 2003     http://tho3306.sheptytskyinstitute.ca/2013/11/27/a-chirovsky-brief-primer-in-theological-anthropology/

00:17:36 carolnypaver: Thank you, Fr. Ivan!

00:18:11 Wayne Mackenzie: I have a copy of this. A good read.

00:51:30 Katharine M: Sorry I forgot to raise my hand, :)

01:07:00 Eric Williams: “Each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” - GK Chesterton

01:08:53 Lilly Vasconcelos: Russia is definitely spreading Her errors across the world, as Our Blessed Theotokos warned us in Fatima, Portugal

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Tonight we continued our study of Hypothesis I on repentance and the avoidance of despair. Again, we are presented with a number of stories that emphasize the importance of the simple movement of the mind and heart toward God through acknowledging one’s sin. This immediately brings down upon the individual the mercy and the grace of God - no matter when or where it takes place. God who sees the mind and the heart knows the person’s motivation and the depth of the repentance.

One of the things we are warned about is the kind of sorrow that the demons often will place within the human heart to cast us into despair and make us call into question the mercy of God. Again and again the demons put forward the doubt that one has lived too long in sin in order to receive the mercy of God, that they belong to the demons and hell due to the amount of time they spent in their sin.  Yet, repeatedly we hear the angels say that God is the true master of heaven and earth and in his omniscience sees to the depths of a person’s soul. He alone has the right and the capacity to judge. 

We may find ourselves particularly challenged by the fathers’ emphasis upon how our conscience should immediately cease to be troubled the moment that we acknowledge and confess our sins to God. So often it is fear and doubt that allows our sin to cling to us; that it gradually undermines the unconditional love and mercy that God wants to fill us with in order that we might engage others with that same perfect love. It is often one of the great stumbling blocks for us even as men and women of faith to enter into this profound mystery, to let ourselves to be guided by the grace of God to imagine the unimaginable – that His love could so transform us and so free us from the shackles of sin. The darkness that sin brings to the mind and the heart often clouds our vision just enough to throw that all into doubt; making us want to qualify it in one way or another. All the “reasonable” objections immediately come to our hearts and minds and we stumble. The mercy that we are given is meant to free us in every way, from our sin and from every limitation on our capacity to love and give ourselves in love.

 

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Tonight we began Homily 76 which focuses on the virtue of mercy and compassion. Isaac addresses the question of how one who lives in seclusion and stillness can fulfill the command of the gospel to love one’s neighbor. Isaac beautifully describes for us that only the rarest of individuals is called to a life that is completely wrapped in God and in prayer.  And in so far is this is true, they embrace all of creation as God Himself due to the radical communion that they share with Him. Beyond this, their life of radical seclusion from men may prevent them from actively showing mercy and compassion. The mercy and compassion is all embracing but one cannot tangibly reach out to others because of the life they’ve been called to by God.

However, those who live among others, no matter how few, must respond with mercy in the face of tangible needs. One must “leave God for God” as it were. When a neighbor is sick or starving one must attend to their needs without counting the costs. One’s religious life cannot become a form of resistance that blinds a person to the needs of others. We cannot use our religious practices as a bubble to shield us from others or any contact with them. To aid us in our understanding Isaac gives us a number of examples of those holy souls who despite the rigors of their solitude went the extra mile in attending the needs of others.

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Isaac continues in homily 70 to instruct us about the nature of temptation and trials. These are not to be something that we fear or avoid. God allows us to be tempted not only to perfect our virtue but in order that we may comprehend something greater. Our participation in the cross through our infirmities or tribulations allows us to experience something of the suffering love of our Lord. If God allows us to experience the rod it is not evidence of punishment or discipline but rather of His desire to draw us closer to Himself. Our souls profit and are made sound through such temptation. Therefore, we are not to allow ourselves to fall into despair. Even if we are afflicted 1000 times we must realize that victory can come in a single moment. God can give us the strength, the courage and heart of a warrior.  And so we must not fear or give ourselves over to negligence or sloth.
 
In homily 71, Isaac begins to define for us three things: repentance, purity and perfection. In each case, the definition that he offers us is not what we might imagine. Isaac seeks to help us measure things in accord with the mind of God. Purity, for example, is the heart’s capacity to show mercy to all creation. Rightly ordered love allows us to see things with the eyes of God and so to see them with compassion and mercy. Repentance is not simply an episodic turning away from or confessing of one’s sin but mourn over it with a heart that understands the wound has been dealt to love. And finally, humility is our willingness to abandon all things visible and invisible. We cling to nothing - not even our thoughts about the things of the world. We cling only to God and seek Him above all things.

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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. 

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We continued our reading of homily 64 where Isaac draws us ever more deeply into the heart of the spiritual life. He begins by emphasizing the fact that what God does within the human heart and the transformation that He brings about is far greater than anything that we might do in our own eyes or in the eyes of the world. To receive life from God is greater than our capacity to give or support life or edify others. Humility raises us up to acknowledge the truth about God and ourselves. In this sense humility provides something greater than any worldly knowledge we might possess. Furthermore, the humble heart and humble body allows one to draw close to God and to experience His peace. The more distant we become from God, the more agitated we become and begin to experience an internal disintegration. It is for this reason that Isaac tells us that we must love humility and not love the things that we seek to adorn ourselves with in the world. What could be more valuable than possessing the love and the mercy of God? What could be more valuable than adorning ourselves with virtue? This virtue, however, he warns us must not be the kind of posturing that we foster in the world that allows us to embrace a condescending spirit towards others. Such a virtue betrays a sickly conscience. We must always and forever see things through the eyes of God.

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We continued tonight with homily 57 and read it to its completion. Saint Isaac gives us perhaps the most profound explication of humility among the fathers. Without humility all virtue is in vain. The Lord’s concern is with the soul’s amendment not with a self-willed “traffic in sin under the guise of divine pursuits.” Failings are not a problem for Isaac. If anything they produce humility in the soul; we come to see with a greater clarity our poverty and our need for God’s mercy and grace.  
 
Isaac tells us to seek humility even in the gifts that we receive from God. If they don’t help to produce humility within us, Isaac tells us, we should ask God to remove them from us. 
 
We must get used to the fact that afflictions are a part of our life as Christians and they give birth to humility. We must not think of our life and growth in virtue outside of them, otherwise we open the door for pride.
 
We can come to the point that we love pride. When this happens we esteem our own knowledge and intellect and we fall into a kind of derangement of mind. It is then that repentance becomes an impossibility and the worst of evils manifest themselves. Such a radical turning away from God leads men into insanity. Thus we must beg for humility as the mother of all virtues. And in this humility we must never try to outsmart the demons but rather let the light of Christ overcome the darkness within us.

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Tonight we began homily 57. Isaac starts by telling us “Blessed is he who lives a vigilant life in this world”!  Vigilance is one of the central teachings of the fathers and it behooves us to ask ourselves what it looks like in modern times. What does it mean to be vigilant in age so filled with distraction, noise and temptation?  Once again Isaac tells us that there is no Sabbath for us in this world, no day of rest when it comes to seeking the Lord and living a life of virtue. We cannot be under the illusion that we can outwit the demons who never rest. We must live in hope and and hope alone. He who is virtuous must place his trust in God not himself. The one deep in sin though can hope that God in His mercy will come to his aid and lift him up in his poverty.  He need only turn toward God with a repentant heart. 
 
Isaac quickly moves the discussion toward the absolute importance of humility. He tells us “the man who has a foretaste and in truth receives the recompense of good things is superior to him who possesses the work of virtue.” Virtue is the mother of mourning and mourning leads to humility. We must never attribute virtue to ourselves but only to God. It is He who lifts us up like a child to gaze upon us face-to-face. But we must allow Him to lift us. We must acknowledge that He raises us out of our sin.

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We continued our consideration of homily 52 where St Isaac describes for us the various degrees of knowledge. Tonight he discussed the second degree of knowledge. The person begins to turn away from the merely sensual and by the love of the soul begins to turn toward God through the ascetical life, i.e., the practices of fasting, prayer, mercy, reading of the Scriptures, and the battle with the passions. The Holy Spirit perfects this work and this action and so lays the foundation for greater purity of heart and opens up a path to the reception of faith. 
 
The third third degree of knowledge that St. Isaac describes refines what has been acquired through the action of the spirit and the ascetical life: the soul stretches towards God and through the gift of faith comes to experience and taste the hidden mysteries of the kingdom and the depths of the unfathomable sea of God’s love.

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