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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.

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Tonight we began Homily 76 which focuses on the virtue of mercy and compassion. Isaac addresses the question of how one who lives in seclusion and stillness can fulfill the command of the gospel to love one’s neighbor. Isaac beautifully describes for us that only the rarest of individuals is called to a life that is completely wrapped in God and in prayer.  And in so far is this is true, they embrace all of creation as God Himself due to the radical communion that they share with Him. Beyond this, their life of radical seclusion from men may prevent them from actively showing mercy and compassion. The mercy and compassion is all embracing but one cannot tangibly reach out to others because of the life they’ve been called to by God.

However, those who live among others, no matter how few, must respond with mercy in the face of tangible needs. One must “leave God for God” as it were. When a neighbor is sick or starving one must attend to their needs without counting the costs. One’s religious life cannot become a form of resistance that blinds a person to the needs of others. We cannot use our religious practices as a bubble to shield us from others or any contact with them. To aid us in our understanding Isaac gives us a number of examples of those holy souls who despite the rigors of their solitude went the extra mile in attending the needs of others.

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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.

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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.

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We continued our discussion of homily 75. Isaac draws us into the beauty of the practice of vigils. He speaks to us of the freedom from despondency and the onrush of joy the monks who immerse themselves in prayer at night experience. With the mind and heart filled with the things of God and of His word, no foreign thought has room to enter. All they know is God and they speak to him in the secrecy of their heart.

Isaac makes it clear that there is great room for variation, depending upon the monk and the strength of his constitution and will. Adjustments might have to be made, he acknowledges, but one always seeks to keep his mind and heart fixed upon God or upon the example of the saints who lived in this discipline in all of its fullness.

Isaac then begins to lay out for us how it is that these monks were able to sustain themselves in such a life; not only the discipline of it but how they could maintain themselves physically and emotionally in such isolation. As always, Isaac‘s writing is beautiful; no matter what he touches upon, it speaks directly to the heart.

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Isaac certainly presents us with solid food. We’ve come to the end of homily 74. Isaac begins to describe for us the image of a heart that is truly dead to the world and how it perceives the mode of life of the new man. In other words, a life free from the ego and from the drive of the passions takes on the New Adam and begins to share in the fullness of the life of resurrection.  One begin to contemplate the revelation of the Divine. In this sense of the desert Fathers become for us a mirror; in it we see whether or not we have died to the things of this world and our attachments to the world and perceive the true beauty of the life that is held before us. If we stop for a moment and think about spending the day in silence, we see that our heart and our thoughts flit about as moths  around a light. We are easily distracted.

In homily 75, Isaac lays out before us a practice of prayer that may be unfamiliar to most - keeping vigil in prayer during the night. Isaac begins by offering us a prayer to be said at the beginning of such a time. We are to call out to God to shelter us from our common enemy, to free us from the distractions of our passions in order that we might enter into the sacred Liturgy with strength and clarity.  Filled with grace, one sheds tears that purify the mind and the heart and allow us to love with tranquility and with the true freedom of chastity. One begins the liturgy without turmoil and filled with joy.

Issac speaks of the freedom that exists even within the prescribed practices. One might stand praying the psalms and yet the Spirit might lift the individual into a deep silence where time passes swiftly. It is then that one must give way to the guidance of the Spirit to be led in accord with the will of God and drawn swiftly to His Heart as He desires.

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Tonight we lingered long over a mere four paragraphs from homily 74. Their beauty and their depth allowed no other option.

Isaac began by speaking to us of  the beauty as well as the fragility of chastity. This virtue, which gives us the capacity to love freely, is to be treasured and protected; for it can be lost even in old age when one might think it has become deeply rooted. Isaac’s vision of life is one of repentance; of continuously turning the mind in the heart to God and letting go of all obstacles that would prevent us from experiencing the deepest intimacy with him.

The path to that intimacy, Isaac tells us, is the Cross. This is the door through which we enter into the heavenly Mysteries. When we experience the affliction of the cross we also experience the consolation of the vision of God‘s love and presence. We never suffer in isolation.  The cross both reveals the love of God to us but also transforms us and draws us into the depth of that Love.

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Exceptional! This one word alone describes the essence of the section of homily 74 that we read this evening. Isaac begins to show us the subtle ways that our thoughts lead us astray. We often cannot recognize sin as it manifests itself and its many forms. Nor can we recognize the action of God and how He seeks to help us escape it and to escape our own pride. We are stiffnecked and we would rather look anywhere else than into our own hearts to understand the reason why we suffer so.  Isaac shows us how easily we shift the focus on to others and seek to blame them for our state. However, Isaac tells us it is God who holds out in hope, waiting to see if the afflictions that we bear and the cross that manifest itself in our lives will humble us and set us free.  If we would but humble ourselves and allow tears to well up from our heart then God would cast our transgressions into oblivion and raise us up to gaze upon His loving countenance.

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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 concluded the final paragraphs of homily 72. It is as if Isaac is a bell, constantly ringing out to guide us through the darkness of this world and more importantly to draw us away from the wiles of the evil one. We are often oblivious to the subtle ways that the devil will hunt us down; in things concealed, or contingencies lying hidden in certain affairs, or in places.

In the face of this Isaac, the voice in the desert, cries out that there should be no limit to our willingness to toil for the things of the kingdom. We must start off the journey well and with clarity of purpose. We must ever be using our energy in the time given to us to pursue the life of virtue and to traverse the path of the Cross to its end. We must actively drive away from ourselves any kind of thinking that impels us toward repose. Zeal and eagerness must be fostered not in an equal but greater measure than that which we see given to the pursuit worldly glories or even to mere distractions.

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