October 13, 2020
After a long hiatus we returned to our reading of the Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. We picked up on page 501, about halfway through Homily 72. Isaac has been speaking about the nature of faith and humility, and how, when they are perfected by the grace of God, they bring us to a place where we are prepared for the experience of contemplation. Let it be noted that it is preparation; it is only by the grace of God that one is elevated to contemplate God as He is in Himself. As we move from the multiplicity of deliberations and thoughts, God brings us to a state of simplicity of mind. We must become like little children, letting go of the limitations of intellect and merely clinging to He who is the Lord of life. It is then that His grace begins to act upon us and reveal to us things both in a manifest fashion and in more hidden ways. We begin to see how God‘s grace instructs us but also protects us from so many evils and dangers. The more that we begin to see this grace active in our lives, the more she reveals to us the hidden things in the ambush of the demons; how they manipulate our thoughts and guide us into a state of agitation and anxiety. We must see this as a temptation not simply as a result of the natural state of our existence in this world. Surrounded by chaos we must keep our eyes fixed upon the Provider of all things. When we do so, all anxiety and fear drifts away and we find ourselves resting in the ever present arms of God.
This is such a timely teaching in an age of upheaval, where men and women have lost a sense of what to hold onto or what offers security and stability. Isaac reminds us with a clear and bold voice that it is God alone that we must trust.
June 28, 2018
We began reading Saint Isaac’s 42nd homily this evening. He presents us with the challenging topic of affliction in the spiritual life. It is such affliction that perfects virtue within us and make us cling to the things of the kingdom rather than bodily comforts. We are to love affliction as much as we love the virtue that it produces within us.
In light of this we cannot be sometime ascetics - setting aside certain material goods but clinging to sensory experiences through hearing and sight that only once again enliven the passions. Solitude and simplicity must be embraced with vigilance for they silence the thoughts, provide strength for endurance, and teach us patience.
Isaac offers us the practical advice of who to choose as a guide and who to seek for counsel. It must be one who has experiential knowledge of all that we have been speaking about - one who knows intimately the path of affliction.
Finally we must learn not to fear temptations. They are part and parcel of the spiritual battle and evidence of growth. Worldly peace is a danger for one seeking the Kingdom.
April 5, 2018
We continued our discussion of Homily 37 and began with St. Isaac’s distinction between revelations and visions. Visions are concrete appearances of the incorporeal world such as angels and saints and are consolation for those who have embraced the anchoritic life in particular. Stripped of all worldly attachments God strengthens and encourages such individuals for the ascetic life. Revelations however come to the perfect and pure of heart and give insights into eschatological future states. The intellect (Nous) is engaged and participated in the Kingdom. It is an inward mystical experience.
The fathers, including Isaac, make these distinctions because of the dangers of prelest or delusion. Purity of heart is essential. A man must be free from outside modes of knowledge and embrace a kind of primordial simplicity and guilelessness.
It is in this profound childlike and humble state that God can raise one up to experience his love and life. Such purity comes through spiritual mourning and compunction. Humbled by the truth He raises us up. This is not raw emotionalism but rather a life wholly directed toward God and desiring Him. Such weeping purifies memory and imagination so that nothing holds a person back from God.
November 9, 2017
With the concluding section of Homily 23, we reach the apex of St. Isaac’s thought on what he describes as pure prayer and what is “beyond prayer”. Prayer always involves the movement toward God, seeking him out and desiring Him, offering up supplication and pleas for his mercy. Pure prayer takes places when the law of God is embraced and fulfilled and when no thought or distraction commingles within the soul completely directed toward God.
Prayer always acts as the seed planted and what is beyond prayer, divine vision, is the harvesting of the sheaves. Theoria, knowledge, or noetic vision is an operation of the Spirit who guides the soul. Our senses and their operations become superfluous and the soul becomes like unto the Godhead by an incomprehensible union and is illumined by a ray of sublime Light. The understanding gazes in ecstasy at incomprehensible things that lie beyond this mortal world. This is the “unknowing” that has been called higher than knowledge; a walking in the darkness of faith where one comes to know God as He is in Himself.
Discussion also ensued regarding the struggles of the Western mind to grasp the spiritual tradition of the Eastern Fathers; the moralizing and legalizing of the spiritual life and virtue versus deification.
September 21, 2017
How do we foster stillness and unceasing prayer in our lives? St. Isaac counsels us in Homily 19 to always keep our eye - the eye of the heart - fixed on God. This means not only fostering a virtuous life but also avoiding that which would pull us away from this aim. We must seek to free ourselves from obsessive concerns with the things of the world and from falling lockstep into its frenetic pace. Don't multiply the occupations of your life for in this you may very well be pushing God away. The spiritual life cannot be a part time occupation. It must be our life. God cannot be pushed to the margins nor can we neglect the grace he offers and its sweetness without quickly losing it. Meaningless chatter and the noise of dissipated converse destroys stillness as frost destroys new buds on the tree. A divided heart obscures the vision of God and his love. The ego and pride-driven self-interest draws us down into darkness. Only a humble and contrite heart is lifted up and exalted to share in the life of God.
Have we lost a clear sense of our identity in Christ? Has the faith been so obscured that we no longer invest ourselves in it but simply take what measure we desire?
March 9, 2017
Isaac puts forward a vision of renunciation rarely conceived of by the Christian - involving the setting aside of all things internal and external that draw us away from God or leave us with a false view of the self. Everything pales in comparison to seeking within the soul the mystery of blessedness which is of the future age.
February 16, 2017
Last night’s reading from St. Isaac the Syrian’s 4th Homily was extraordinary. As is so often the case, one is left with the feeling that there is no going back to a lesser vision of the faith and ascetic life. He warns us not to sacrifice our freedom, the freedom of simplicity, by enslaving ourselves to the things of this world. We must not live our lives to support luxury and ease and so make ourselves “slave of slaves”; that is, slaves to our passions and senses. Humble living is to be met with restraint in speech and love of silence. We are to constrict our thoughts and reduce distraction in order to seek contemplation above all things. To stand before God with a pure heart to better than all things - even all acts of charity. Care must be given not to gain the whole world and lose our souls in the process. “It is more profitable for you to attend to raising up unto the activity of your cogitations concerning God the deadness of your soul due to the passions, than it is to resurrect the dead.”
February 9, 2017
We began Homily 4 where St Isaac introduces us to the importance of Renunciation and the fruit it produces in the soul. We are to wean ourselves from the things of the world in our search for the divine.
Fleeing the ease of this age and freely embracing the suffering and humiliations we begin to understand and live in accord with the standard of the Cross. The mercy we show toward others is to be the mercy of Christ - nothing less.
January 19, 2017
St. Isaac calls us in this homily to abandon the small things, to spurn the superfluous in favor of pursuing the pearl of great price. We are to live as those who are dead in order that we might be alive to God.
This, in turn, must shape our prayer. We are not to ask for what is worldly or base but only what is honorable. We are to ask for what is heavenly; seeking the Kingdom and its righteous and above all thirst for the love of Christ.
Only then will we be able to cast off the temptation to flee our afflictions; for it is through them that we enter into the knowledge of the truth and purity of heart is solidified.
October 20, 2016
St. Isaac continues to lay the foundations for the discipline of virtue which include in particular the purification of the passions and the avoidance of distractions. He emphasizes reading as an ascetical discipline - especially the reading of scripture. Such reading helps free the mind and imagination from worldly things and the more one immerses himself in the wonder of God's love, the more the thoughts are prevented from running to the body's nature. If the heart is not occupied with study, it cannot endure the continuous assault of thoughts.
Inconstancy of mind and heart is overcome through fear and shame - a recognition of our mortality and the repentance from sin that flows from it. This is the foundation of one's spiritual journey and the quickest path to the kingdom.
We must remember that not every person will be wakened to wonder by what is said in the scriptures and the great power it contains within it. Faith more than reason must guide that study and illuminate that word and purity must clear one's vision. "A word concerning virtue has need of a heart unbusied with the earth and converse."
It becomes clear that simplicity of life and clarity of purpose and desire are necessary for those seeking the kingdom. Our faith cannot be an auxiliary construction or something to which we lesser energies. Nor can we compartmentalize our faith. The path to holiness must be tread with firm purpose and with the full self invested.