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.
In this beautiful section of Homily Five, St. Isaac speaks of how ever-present and close God is to us through his angels and in his actions on our behalf. Why would we be anxious about anything, he asks? We have a God set on our salvation, who does not abandon us in our sin but makes use of every opportunity to raise us up. We must not let anything steal the peace that comes to us from this knowledge. Rather, we must mortify ourselves and never let any opportunity pass us by to serve another or give alms; for in doing so we comfort "His image" - we console Christ Himself in the suffering poor.
God makes use of everything in His Providence to raise us out of sin - He administers sicknesses in body for health of our soul and allows temptations and trials to come to raise us out of negligence and idleness. He orders all things for our profit and in this we are to learn that God alone is our deliverer. We are to use our life in this world for repentance so that we can come to share in our eternal inheritance.
Afflictions spur us on and lead to remembrance of God. It is this remembrance of God that creates a connectivity with Him and draws down His mercy. "Remember God that He too might always remember you."
Isaac reminds us to seek help before it is needed. That is, "before the war begins, seek after your ally; before you fall ill, seek out your physician; and before grevious things come upon you, pray, and in the time of your tribulations you will find Him . . . " Faith must be fostered throughout the course of our lives and our relationship with the Lord allowed to deepen. It is in this that confidence in the spiritual life comes. Fear and destructiion comes from neglect.
After nearly 2 3/4 years we finally came to the final few paragraphs of Cassian's last Conference (24) on Mortification - and O how fitting and beautiful a conclusion!
Cassian and Germanus had been questioning Abba Abraham about the possibility of returning to their homeland and living under the support of their relatives. After he reveals the subtle illusions hidden behind their desires, Germanus presses Abba Abraham for a "complete" explanation of the Lord's teaching:
The Lord tells us, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." Yet, often the prophets express that the opposite to be true. Such a view, Abba Abraham explains, arises out of obstinacy, lack of confidence and faith; as in some sense does Germanus' question.
Remaining in our passions, the delights of the flesh turn upon us like tormentors. When we abandon the royal road, we make living the Gospel burdensome; whereas for those who take up fully and in true faith the yoke of Christ remain unmoved by every trial.
Our ruin is clinging to delight in this present life and our tendency to blame God because we are crooked and perverse. It is not the lazy, the negligent, the lax, the fastidious or the weak who seize the kingdom of heaven but rather the violent - those who exercise a noble violence upon their own soul and who snatch it away from the fleeting pleasures of this life.
Only life in Christ brings with it the strength, virtue and hope of Christ and makes it our own!
As we draw close to the end of the Conferences, the final pages follow Germanus and Cassian as they engage Abba Abraham on the theme of Mortification. Even after lengthy discussion, the two young monks continue to express their desire to return to their homeland to live there under the care of their relatives and in turn to attend to their spiritual needs. With great patience, Abraham confutes the laziness of his two young friends and the lukewarmness into which they have fallen. They must know, he tells them, that "in the world to come you will be joined in the fate of those with whom you partook in this life of either gain or loss, or joy or sorrow." Inevitably Cassian and Germanus will get tied into the earthly affairs and fate of those around them. They will be drawn into the drama of their relatives lives - good or bad it does not matter. Also, he warns them that in allowing others to do too much in support of them, they will lose formation that the hardship of the desert itself provides. Rather, in all things they should prefer deprivation and poverty. Such charity and care belongs to the weak alone. As those who have chosen the solitary life, they have foregone access to such generous resources as a matter of course. They should prefer the sands rough with natural bitterness and regions wasted by floods of salt water - regions, that is, that only allow them to live day to day and in reliance upon divine providence and the labor of their hands. Those who have an undisciplined heart and fall into distraction of mind because of it, lose whatever they seem to have acquired by the conversion of others put their profits in a bag of holes. Leaving the desert will deprive them of their own betterment and bring them most likely to ruination.
We now enter into the final Conference with Cassian and Germanus as they speak with Abba Abraham. The name proves apropos given the fact that his task will be to reinculcate in his two charges the spirit that motivated the great Patriarch to heed God's command "Leave your country, your family and your father's house for the land I will show you." Cassian and Germanus were longing for home; hoping their relatives would provide them with the means to support themselves in a life of solitude, prayer and study. Pridefully they also believe that they will be able to convert these same relatives if they are more present to them. Abba Abraham works swiftly to dismantle the obvious self deception implicit in their plan and rather bluntly accuses them of slothfulness.