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Once again we are presented with a beauty untold; that is, until recently when it has become accessible to us in the writings of St. Isaac.

We started this evening with Homily 73. Isaac, in a very brief and focused manner, speaks to us about the reason for embracing the exile of the desert. In doing so, one avoids close proximity to those things that could be a source of temptation and sin.  Even being around worldly things can arouse the turbulence of warfare against a soul and allow her to voluntarily be led away into captivity even though no warfare has assaulted her from without. In other words, by living in a world that has become comfortable with sin we can find ourselves with dulled  consciences. We may no longer live with a heightened sense of vigilance but give the evil one the advantage of seeing every manner of drawing us away from God. The poverty of the desert, the exile from the things of this world, extricated the monks from transgressions; it freed them from the passions. In a sense, it gave them the ability to run without impediment, to gird their loins and to seek the Lord without hesitation and without condition or limit.

Moving on to homily 74, Isaac gives us a more studied approach of how we deal with hidden thoughts and the actions and behaviors that can help us. We must begin with the study of the afterlife. We must acknowledge the fact that our life in this world is very brief. Having done so we find within ourselves courage and freedom from fear, every danger, and our impending death; for death we know only brings us closer to God. Such a vision of life helps us to patiently endure afflictions. Of course there is always the temptation put before us to return to our fears, to place ourselves once more in the shackles that once bound us. Cowardice can overcome our minds and we can begin to focus upon the body and its health. We become prey to the fear of losing all that the world can offer us. As always, Isaac’s writing is penetrating and it holds up an image of the desire for God that we might not recognize in ourselves.  To read Isaac is to be humbled.

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Tonight we continue to read homily 71. It is probably the deepest and most beautiful section of the text and in many ways we could not have entered into it or understood it without having read Isaac’s homilies over these past four years. We are nourished here on solid food. 
 
Isaac discusses two things: dispassion, or or the state where the soul does not accept the passions and the mind is fixed upon holy things. The mind becomes subtle, nimble, and keen and swiftly moves away from the attack of the passions and temptations through being wholly wrapped in the things of God. Isaac, in fact, tells us that the memory of the passions is blotted out.
 
Isaac then moves on to discuss humility. This, he tells us, is a hiddenness from the world and the self. It is not, however, some kind of extreme introversion or antisocial behavior but rather is the fruit of one whose entire being is directed toward God and shaped by love of Him. One no longer seeks out the distractions of the world but rather to collect the senses, the emotions and the desires in order that all might be directed toward God. Isaac describes humility as a kind of “chastity of the senses”, where all things are rightly ordered toward He who is Love, Life and Truth.

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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 began reading homily 67. Isaac lays out for us how it is that we are to labor for stillness fruitfully. He speaks to us of the many pitfalls to be avoided and the signs and proofs that we should seek in order determine if we are on the right path.  One of the things that Isaac stresses is the presence of virtue in a person’s life. Stillness and silence can never be abstracted from the pursuit of purity of heart. Stillness without virtue is blameworthy. 
 
Gradually Isaac begins to set forward various signs of growth. One starts to experience oneself being enveloped by the silence of God in the midst of prayer, of being enfolded in silence. Tears will often unexpectedly flow as a fruit of stillness. 
 
But if our minds are distracted and filled with thoughts and if our passions continue to rage within us, we know there has been some heedlessness or negligence that we must address. We must understand that the passions will stand at the door of our hearts and howl for what they have become accustomed to desire. We must not become discouraged but continue to call upon our God and foster the love of stillness.

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We picked up again this week with homily 66. Saint Isaac presents us with perhaps the most formative part of his book. While this might seem to be an overstatement, St.  Isaac speaks with such clarity about the key aspect of the eastern Fathers’ understanding of the human person - the nous - the organ of spiritual perception. St.  Isaac lays out with striking clarity not only the nature of the nous but how it is to be formed and purified. Only through the ascetical life and the ordering of the appetites and the passions toward God is the nous, the eye of the heart, purified in such a way that it allows for true discernment.  Aided by grace, our capacity to perceive the truth the God increases as well as our capacity to embrace it. Isaac is very quick to warn us that this spiritual perception involves the whole person. It is not simply a philosophical or intellectual perception of truth, a mental vision. It is asceticism aided by grace that allows us to contemplate the truth and so develop a greater awareness of God. This awareness of God gives birth then to love and love is strengthened and emboldened by prayer. 

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Tonight we continued reading Homily 65. St. Isaac begins to speak about how one prepares oneself to enter into the life of stillness. One must investigate well what one is considering and the discipline necessary to live such a life. One cannot simply seek the name of solitary.  Rather, a person must engage in the long work of preparing the mind and the heart to embrace the discipline of stillness. One must have a clear aim and fix one’s gaze upon God completely otherwise despondency will overcome them when faced with trials.
 
The solitary focuses upon God entirely in the stillness to the point of no longer being engaged in the battle and warfare with the passions. In perhaps one of the most beautiful paragraphs ever written St. Isaac captures for us the nature of the contemplative experience of God and the fruit of stillness.  He speaks of the wonder of the life of stillness and its fruits like no other ascetic writer and his words become an exhortation that reaches to the depths of the heart and creates a longing for God.

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We continued our reading of homily 62. Isaac begins by discussing with us the nature of humility, and rightly so. Humility is truthful living; acknowledging the truth about ourselves and our poverty and our struggle with the passions. The spiritual life must begin here. We must acknowledge our need for God’s grace and our need to enter into a lifelong struggle, a vigilant struggle to foster a greater desire for the love of God and the love of virtue. We must overcome our negligence and seek Him with unceasing prayer and discipline of mind and body. 
 
The starving man, it has been said, has no sense of taste and so one who has become impoverished by there sin no longer has a taste for the things of heaven and the joys to come to us from the hand of God. We must strive to deepen our desire for the love alone the nourishes us to everlasting life. We must come to have a greater taste for virtue and long for it.

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We’ve come to a very special homily of Saint Isaac – homily 62. Here he begins to guide us along the path of the spiritual life and battle. He opens our eyes to what the struggle holds out to us - to live in the love of God and to know the consolation He alone offers. The natural man, as it were,  experiences only fear; in particular fear of death. The one who develops some knowledge of his own passions and begins to struggle with them experiences growth and health but continues to sit in fear of judgment. But the one who has wholly given his life over to God not only loses that attraction to the passions but also loses all fear. He begins to taste the love of God and His sweetness. This is what draws him forward. There is nothing greater than joy in the Lord and nothing more to be desired the knowledge of him.

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