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Archive for the 'Remembrance of Death' Category

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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Isaac’s thoughts take a turn as we approach the end of Homily 64. He moves from the love of silence to the Remembrance of Death. These are not disconnected thoughts. Rather Issac reveals to us that our remembrance of death and the fading of life in this world leads the heart to repentance. We are not long for this world and so must not remain idle in our pursuit of God and the things of God. Repentance allows us to cross the borderline into the hope of the Kingdom where death loses its sting and the life that is to be ours comes into focus. Death can be then greeted with joy: “Come in peace.  I have been waiting for you and preparing for you.”  The remembrance of death draws us not into despondency or to cling to the things of this world but rather draws us to the warmth of God’s embrace and fills the heart with hope. One becomes a lover of silence then because it gives birth to repentance and becomes for us also a foretaste of the enveloping communion with God to come. 

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Tonight we read Homily 49 of St Isaac the Syrian. St Isaac begins to introduce us to how God‘s providence works for the soul’s advancement in things spiritually; in other words, how God leads us to greater intimacy with him and contemplation of him. A man makes his way through the ascetical life towards a disdain for the things of this world. He begins to contemplate is departure from this life and this contemplation begins to create a greater longing for the things of the kingdom. Meditation upon death must become a regular part of the spiritual life.  So valuable is this remembrance of death, Saint Isaac tells us, that Satan greatly abhors the thought. He wars against it; seeking to make man focus upon the riches of this world, distracting him with things that appeal to the senses. 
The more a man meditates upon death the more he is filled with wonder over the vision of divine things and longs for their sweetness. Theoria is a God given grace and fruit of repentance and an upright heart. Repentance and good discipline reveals to us God‘s providence in every aspect of our life. It shows is how God seeks to free us from the bonds of this world and to draw us to himself. Stirred by divine love a man becomes awestruck with wonder and his heart longs to be taken captive. There are moments when he no longer remembers himself and the ego is set aside radically. Through theoria God begins to reveal hidden things to man; those things that cannot be understood through human nature. Blessed is the man who is kept well this good seed once it has fallen into his soul.

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We continued this evening with our reading of St. Isaac’s 37th Homily and his discussion of the essential practices of fasting and vigil that are the foundation of the spiritual life. Through this fasting we begin to experience the “warmth” of our hunger for God and the unshakable peace of prayer. It is also here that we move toward stillness of the thoughts and the passions and so are prepared for the purification of heart that God alone brings about. 
Isaac also emphasizes the importance of solitude in achieving and maintaining this purity of heart. We can’t throw ourselves into the chaos and disorder of the world and expect to thrive. Rather we must guard our hearts vigilantly. 
Discussion ensued about Isaac’s thought that this is the true mode of freedom and that we should choose fidelity to God’s law and the salvation it promises over the law of the world which is rooted in the flesh. Life in this world is brief and we must be mindful of the dust to which we shall return and the judgement we shall undergo. 
Final thoughts centered on the state of cultural collapse in the West and the reduction of Christianity for many to a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It is a similitude of faith but not life in Christ or the deification that we are called to by grace.

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Tonight‘s group was challenging as always. Saint Isaac begins to draw us into the heart of the gospel and the embrace of the cross. We must be willing he tells us to endure afflictions. We cannot draw near to Christ crucified without them or grow in righteousness.  There is no static position in the spiritual life. Truly speaking there is no spiritual life but only life in Christ and a single hearted pursuit of the Kingdom. The world beguiles us; constantly trying to pull us away from the narrow path; ensnaring even great ascetics. We must keep before our eyes the brevity of life and come to love the Lord and our souls so much that we also come to hate sin.  Furthermore, we must study the scriptures to rouse ourselves to faith and increase our fervor.  This alone gives rise to greater faith and desire for God. 

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We continued our discussion of Homily 15 where St. Isaac teaches of the need to avoid negligence and laxity in the spiritual life.  Those who seek purity of heart and avoid clinging to the things of the world begin to experience the light and life of the Holy Trinity. Those who experience such divine vision and bear that light within drive away demons. 
However, the human heart can be ruined and wrecked by contact with those who feign purity, who are given over to perversions and whose actions desecrate all that is good and beautiful. One cannot live with one foot in the Kingdom and another within the world. 
Our lives must be those of constant Repentance - a turning away from and hatred of all that keeps us from sharing in that fullness of life.  The more we taste the sweetness of the the Holy Spirit the greater our desire for the kingdom should become.

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In the final paragraph of Homily Four, St. Isaac exhorts us to die to all things and the doings of the world that give rise to the passions.  He acknowledges that there is a a kind of madness to this as seen from a worldly perspective and that reality gets turned on its head.  But it is only when we trust to the Lord by embracing this path fully that we will experience the sweetness of spiritual inebriation.  Though difficult, he encourages us not to lose hope for the mere movement of toward God and the mere expression of desire for holiness brings with it a flood of grace and mercy.

Homily Five begins by reminding us that we have received all that we need through the revelation of nature and the scriptures to guide and direct us in the spiritual life; especially the reality of our own mortality.  Death gives rise to the question of the meaning of our lives and what path we are going to pursue.  We cannot, however, approach these realities and think that we can stand still or refrain from offering any response.  "Whoever does not voluntarily withdraw himself from the passions is involuntarily drawn away by sin."  There is no static position for us as human beings.  We must withdraw from the causes of the passions and set ourselves toward the good; realizing that God honors not wealth but rather poverty of spirit, not pride but humility.

In the spiritual battle, we must engage "manfully", that is, with courage.  We must not doubt God is our Helper in the good work otherwise we will be scared of our own shadow.  If we hope in Him, however, we will experience Him as one who manages our "household", that is, our heart and sends His angels to strengthen and encourage us.

Never hold any sin to be slight.  To love God is to hate evil and our sin, no matter how grave or small in our eyes. And having made any strides in the spiritual life, it must be seen as mere fidelity and obedience to what is commanded of us.  Pride must have no place within us.

Sin must be fought and healed with the right remedies.  Lack of chastity cannot be healed by giving great alms and fasting does not overcome avarice.  In place of the loss of sanctity God requires sanctification.  Lack of chastity must be restored to purity.


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St. John in the final section of this step begins to describe the struggle for stillness. First, St. John details those things that threaten to destroy or prevent one from obtaining an inner state of peace. He identifies in particular the five demons that attack the solitary (despondence, vainglory, pride, dejection and anger) and the three that assail those living in community (gluttony, lust, and avarice). Second, St. John identifies the essential virtues of the hesychast (unceasing prayer, discretion, faith, fear of God, patience, prudence and a discerning spirit). He concludes by exhorting his readers to use every means to protect and strengthen the gift. 

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In this step, St. John writes about the struggle for chastity: "The man who decides to struggle against his flesh and to overcome it by his own efforts is fighting in vain. The truth is that unless the Lord overturns the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the man wishing to overcome it has watched and fasted for nothing. Offer the Lord the weakness of your nature. Admit your incapacity and, without your knowing it, you will win for yourself the gift of chastity."

Sadly, in today's world, these words sound foreign. As a society, we have abandoned the concept of sexual virtue and purity. On our television screens and in the movie theaters, we calmly watch without reaction repeated violations of chastity. As Christians we have come to accept and tolerate attitudes and behaviors in ourselves and others that at another time would have been unthinkable. In so many ways we have lost sight of the fact that Chastity is not only precious in the eyes of God but a necessary virtue for us to obtain in our ascent to heaven. Holy Scripture makes this clear: "Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness . . . and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal 5:19,21). For this reason, St. John calls unchastity "a sort of death within us, a sin that is catastrophic."

What then is Chastity? St. John answers: "The chaste man is not someone with a body undefiled, but rather a person whose members are in complete subjection to the soul." One must remember that for St. John the body is both adversary and friend: adversary in as much as it has been marred by the fall, friend in as much as it remains God's creation and is called to share in the resurrection glory. For the Christian, the body is not a tomb or prison, not a piece of clothing to be worn for a time and then cast aside, but an integral part of the true self. The Christian's aim is "a body made holy." Likewise, the passions, although a consequence of the fall and therefore no true part of human nature, are merely the distortion of the natural impulses implanted by God. While repudiating the passions, we should not reject the natural God-given impulses that underlie them, but should restore to good use that which has become misdirected as a result of the fall. Our watchword should be "transfigure" not "suppress"; "educate" not "eradicate". Therefore, physical eros is not to be considered sinful, but can and should be used as a way of glorifying God. Sin is evil, but not the body and its natural impulses. In fact, physical love can be a paradigm of our longing for God. The struggle for chastity, then, begins with controlling the body's sexual desires, through prayer and spiritual discipline, and ends with their transfiguration. Having overcome the passion, we are free to be our true selves, free to love others, free to love God.

How do we fight against the spirit of unchastity? St. John speaks a great deal about the necessity of doing serious battle against "evil thoughts" - that is, thoughts provoked by demons. This also includes conceptual images such as fantasies. Through ascetical discipline and prayer we must foster watchfulness - a state of spiritual sobriety, alertness, and vigilance in which one constantly guards the heart and intellect. In our discipline we must be as relentless and cunning as the demons who tempt us. With one difference - - We must in humility recognize our weakness and absolute dependence upon God to attain this virtue.

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This brief step considers a rather simple but essential practice of the desert fathers; to remember not only that one will die, but what death brings - judgment.  Such a thought spurs one on to repentance and conversion, prevents laziness, makes dishonor and indignity sweet, banishes worries and anxieties, and deters sin.  This alone is enough to make John call it the "most essential of all works."

Remembrance of death is defined, including how one recognizes it in others;John discusses how remembrance of death leads a monk to conversion and repentance and the practice of specific ascetical disciplines;Through the use of illustrative stories, John shows how remembrance of death prevents spiritual laziness and deters sin; John warns against excessive trust in the leniency of God and exhorts his monks to embrace this holy practice.

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