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Archive for the 'penance' Category

We began our discussion of Homily 32 which places before us a stark truth - these are times of martyrdom. We must die to self and sin in order to live for God.  If we are not subject to God’s will, we are subject to the will of His adversary. This reality does not allow us to feign ignorance; for if the senses remain unchecked the passions will be inflamed and we will make ourselves indentured servants. 
Therefore we must not only humble ourselves in the confession of our iniquities but seek to uproot their cause; and for this we need to have hatred for sin. If we do not recognize and experience the malodor of sin eventually we will learn to put it on as if it were a beautiful fragrance. 
St. Isaac tell us that every hardship is followed by rest and every rest by hardship. In this we must understand that our life consists of continual repentance - a turning from sin toward God. No matter what level of “perfection” one may attain in this world such repentance is never complete until our passing from this world and having be purified to participate in the perfection that belongs to Christ. 

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Last night the group discussed homily 10 of St. Isaac. The fundamental theme was the importance of repentance and also the avoidance of presumption in the spiritual life. Repentance must be followed by a firm resolution to change one's life. One must become a hater of sin.  
We also suffer under the consequences of our own sins and the sins of others. There's a radical solidarity that we share in our sin and so also radical solidarity that we must share in our efforts to make reparation.  
By virtue of our baptism, we have been consecrated to God in our lives. We belong to him and our lives must be modeled on his love of virtue. Our share in the life of the most Holy Trinity is the pearl of great price for which we must be willing to sacrifice all to obtain.
A lengthy discussion ensued regarding the application of Saint Isaac's teaching to our lives and our love for the Church. We must never underestimate the power of prayer, the conversion of life, and their impact on the life of the church and the world.

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Abba Theonas continues to draw Cassian and Germanus into the greater vision of the Christian life - guided not by law but by grace.  The measure of holiness for the Christian is always Christ, the sinless one, and so even though our conscience does not rebuke us we know that we are but worthless servants who have only done our duty.  We seek the purity of heart and chastity that not only avoids fornication but seeks freedom from all wantonness.  In this the fundamental attitude of the Christian must be humility.  We must live in a constant state of repentance, penance and prayer; understanding that daily we fall through weakness into the capital sins and that it is only by being lifted up by God's grace and participating in the perfect purity of Christ that we come to share in the holiness of God.  

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We come to the conclusion of Conference 20 on repentance and reparation and consider the depth of the desert Fathers understanding of the human person.  Abba Pinufius sets off carnal sins from the others as those that one would not want to recall as a means of uprooting the disposition to them.  Such sins, touching upon our natural appetites and desires carry within them the danger of drawing us back into them if we allow them to return to memory and imagination.  Pinufius is not treating such natural appetites as evils but rather respecting their power and importance to our identity as human beings.  For such reasons they are not to be treated casually or lightly in the spiritual battle. We must instead turn our minds to heavenly things - the desire for God and the virtues.  

The closing note is a reminder that what has been addressed in this conference pertains to the more grave sins in the eyes of God.  We may come to the point where we do not commit them and have freed ourselves from the disposition towards them.  However, the smaller sins we commit repeatedly throughout the day, often without noticing, remain something we struggle with and continue to do penance for throughout our lives.  Repentance and reparation our constant fixtures of the spiritual life.

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We join Cassian and Germanus now as they visit with Abba Pinufius - well known to them for his holiness and humility.  Because of these qualities, they seek him out in particular as they grapple not with understanding the need for repentance and reparation but rather with the desire to know the when end of repentance has been achieved and by what marks reparation and full healing from sin can be identified.

For the modern Christian, this can be very difficult to understand; so largely have repentance and reparation become symbolic in our lives.  Seeking forgiveness and confessing one's sins can simply be a legalistic notion - acknowledging infractions of certain moral laws rather than addressing the restoration of a relationship of love and repairing or healing the damage done by our sin and overcoming our disposition to sin.  In a few sentences, Abba Pinufius pulls from our grasp all room for presumption.  Conscience becomes the truest judge - speaking to our hearts about the true state of our souls and whether we have received the forgiveness and grace of God in vain. It becomes the strongest indicator of whether or not we have been freed from the disposition to particular sins. Repentance and reparation, and the formation of conscience, then, become constant and essential elements of the spiritual life.  

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We come now to the conclusion of Conference 19 where Cassian and Germanus question Abba John about how one overcomes and does battle with vices that reemerge after the solitary life of the anchorite has been embraced.  Abba John describes for them how they must engage in a kind of mental warfare - drawing the vices they see active in their hearts to mind and allowing themselves to be humbled by them and then apply the necessary reparation that is need; that is, apply the healing balm of penance and self rebuke to uproot the vestiges of these sins.  The self-honesty as well as the self-awareness necessary for such an undertaking is great, especially since it is done without the support and guidance of others.  The only vice where this is not to be done is fornication or unchastity.  Since such vices arise out of and are connected to bodily appetites, the use of mental imagery could be very dangerous and simply draw one further into sin.  

Lengthy discussion ensued about renewing the asceticism that would even allow this kind of mindfulness and purity of heart to develop.  In particular, the group discussed the importance of fasting in the humbling of mind and body and allowing one to recognize one's dependence on God.  We must come to see once more the necessity of such practices, develop the resolve to embrace them, and take them up with love; acknowledging that they bring us freedom and draw us closer to Christ.  
We also spoke at length about the importance of not receiving the grace of God in vain.  When receiving the grace and mercy of God through confession of our sins, we must take up the means available to us to repair the damage that the sin has inflicted; to uproot the vice and apply the healing balm.

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John then speaks of the value of penitence and the humility needed to embrace such a path.

The causes of moral lapses are considered and the need for courage and perseverance in the face of recurring failures.  John exhorts the penitent to trust in the mercy and grace of God but also warns against presumption.  Humility is key and true repentance will keep one from judging or even recognizing another's faults.

John concludes by telling his readers to above all let the image of the inmates at the "Prison" be imprinted upon their minds and hearts.  They are to let the example of these holy men be their rule and model for repentance.

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John begins this step with a somewhat moderate and encouraging tone by describing repentance as a "renewal of one's baptism and a contract with God for a fresh start in life."  With repentance there is always hope and never despair.  As penitents we stand before our God guilty, but never disgraced.  Indeed, we inflict punishments on ourselves out of love for God, in an attempt to reconcile ourselves to him and to receive the peace that comes through his forgiveness.

However, if there is a step in the "Ladder" which pierces one's heart, if there is any part of the book which really shakes us and brings the message home, it is precisely this step concerning those blessed and compunctionate and voluntary inmates of "the Prison."  For truly these holy ones, crazed for Christ, described by John, are a mirror for us, the sluggish and indolent, to look into and to behold how wanting we are in the realm of true heartfelt repentance.  They were earnest and serious about their repentance; we are light and distracted concerning our salvation.  Some are repelled by the Prison of the "Ladder", while others are pierced and moved by the love for God and strength of soul of these stouthearted inmates, and mourn the lack of both in themselves.

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