January 19, 2021
We picked up this evening in our final session of St. Isaac with the last part of homily 76. Isaac makes it very clear that those who are given over fully to God in prayer and solitude begin to live in the perfect love of God and thus also fulfill the commandment to love one’s neighbor. In God, nothing is lacking. Yet, this is a rarity. Few and far between our called to this way of life and only when it is lived fully and withholding nothing of the self is love complete. In so far as one cultivates solitude and stillness and yet engages with other men and receives their aid - so too is he obligated to tend to the sick and lift up and serve his fallen brothers. One must avoid the illusion of perfect stillness as an escape from one’s obligation to care for one’s neighbor.
In the last of St. Isaacs’s homilies, Homily 77, he presents us with the perfect and most important of virtues – humility. All the other virtues must be perfected in order that a person is capable of receiving this gift of God‘s grace. It is to clothe oneself with the very raiment of God. God revealed Himself to us in His Son – emptying Himself, taking upon our flesh and embracing the form of a servant, becoming obedient even unto death. Isaac tells us that we cannot look upon the spiritual life as if we are progressing up a ladder by her own power to achieve some natural goal constructed by her own minds or spiritual sensibilities. One is clothes in humility by God the more the self is set aside. We are to put on the mind of Christ and imitate his humility.
December 29, 2020
Tonight we came to the conclusion of homily 75. Saint Isaac continued to explain to us the blessings of Night Vigils. They give light to the thinking; having purified the mind and the heart through limiting sleep, one begins to discern the things of the kingdom through prolonged prayer and watchfulness. The Light shines upon the mind and one begins to perceive that which is Divine.
To help us understand this Isaac gives us a number of examples of those who are exemplars of holiness and lifetime practitioners of night vigils. In them we see not only the discipline that is needed but also the fruit of the practice; unyielding fortitude to produces transfiguration of the body. The Fathers came to acknowledge this as a sweet labor.
However, Isaac does not want us to have any illusions about the practice or its difficulties. One must ask oneself honestly if there is a desire not only to practice Vigils, but to foster constant stillness and a willingness to endure the afflictions that these practices bring. Are we willing to make the necessary sacrifices to live a holy and undistracted life? Without this desire, the attempt to practice Vigils would be foolhardy.
St. Isaac closes with a comforting word as one who understands the weakness and the fragility of human nature. We may struggle throughout our whole life to engage in the practice of stillness. But we will undoubtedly experience losses and gains, victories and defeats. In all of this we must never lose patience and, most importantly, we must not lose our joy in the Lord and our trust in His grace.
December 22, 2020
Homily 75 continues to be St. Isaac‘s most exceptional and powerful reflection. He speaks about the oft neglected practice of night vigils. This, he tells us, is the most powerful form of prayer, more powerful than praying during the daytime. Isaac tells us that this is not because there is something magical about praying at night. He is not fostering a kind of superstition here. He is quite simply telling us the praying at night offers a person the opportunity to come before God without any distraction or impediment; humbling the mind and body by disciplining oneself through fasting not only from food but also from sleep. Unencumbered, the soul searches for God with an urgent longing. Having nothing weighing it down, it swiftly runs to the Beloved and seeks to remain in His embrace unceasingly. It is for this reason that the devil envies vigils above other all other forms of prayer. For, Isaac tells us, even when it is practiced poorly and in an undisciplined fashion, God produces great fruit in the soul.
February 20, 2020
This evening we continued our reading of homily 71. St. Isaac continues to define for us the essential virtues that lead us to the end of our course. Tonight, however, he not only describes for us and defines for us the nature of prayer and of humility as virtues, but he lays out for us the specific Asceticism of prayer and humility; how we exercise ourselves in faith to set God above all things - most of all above our egos. There’s an absolute quality to this response to God that Isaac puts before us. We have to have both feet within the kingdom, otherwise it is like we are unequally yoked in regards to our desires. We cannot desire God and the things of this world. To do so, even in the most subtle of ways, is to diminish our love for God and fall onto a path of mediocrity. God would have us completely and desires to be the object of the full desire of our hearts.
December 19, 2019
We continued tonight with homily 66. St. Isaac lays out for us the path to prayer and reveals to us its deeper meaning. It involves self-denial; a setting aside of the ego in order that one might be fully attentive to God. And so prayer is essentially self-renunciation shaped and guided by faith and fueled by desire.
In so many ways we have to let go of our limited understanding of prayer and the shape that we typically give it in accord with our own will. Isaac would have us allow God to lead us into the depths of prayer guided by a love that is inestimable.
Our greatest obstacle is our selves – the many ways that we allow ourselves to be pulled towards other things. We seek fulfillment in that which is so much less than God and we lose sight of our hope. We freely give away, without effort, the love God holds out to us.
Isaac exhorts us to order our desire and longing toward God, to let nothing draws away from what He alone can satisfy. We must allow ourselves to hunger for He who is the Bread of Life - - for He who can satisfy us unto eternity.
December 5, 2019
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.
December 2, 2019
Tonight we concluded Homily 65. Isaac closes his discussion on the value of silence and the work that surrounds it and allows it to develop and bear fruit. Chief among these is fasting and stillness. External stillness fosters internal stillness and fasting humbles the mind and body and order that prayer may deepen and the mind and the heart become more open to God. The group spoke great deal about fostering a culture that supports the renewal of fasting. Saint Isaac closes the homily by holding up the joy that comes to the individual by living in this holy silence. It is the joy the kingdom itself and that comes through seeing and participating in the mysteries of God.
Homily 66 is Isaac‘s attempt to open up for us an understanding of eastern anthropology and how it shapes the spiritual tradition. Chief among the things that he speaks about is the nous, or the eye of the heart and how it must be purified through asceticism. The passions must be overcome in order that the dullness of the vision of the nous, which is the faculty of spiritual perception, might be overcome. There is no discernment outside of purity of heart. True theology can only be done by one who is experiential knowledge of God and has spent years in prayer, stillness and ascetical practice.
November 21, 2019
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.
October 24, 2019
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.
October 3, 2019
Continuing our reading of Homily 64, a great deal of our attention was directed to how Isaac addresses discerning whether thoughts are from God or from the evil one. We must be ever vigilant, never falling into the snares that the devil sets for us.
Yet some thoughts require deep prayer, night and day, and intense vigils. We can quickly fall into delusion as we imagine ourselves as seeing things clearly and judging things clearly. We must learn rather to humble ourselves before God who alone knows the workings of the human heart. Our consciences must be formed by His grace and our love for Him must lead us to embrace a rigorous ascetical life. Every thought must be taken captive and brought before Christ for His blessing or judgment. This is how much we must love the Lord.