October 20, 2020
We continued our reading of homily 72. Isaac presents us with a vision of life and the action of grace that is fierce and beautiful at the same time. The grace of God is constantly present to us and she teaches us and allows us to gain experience through the temptations and trials that we face. She protects us and strengthens us in perfect measure while also letting us know and learn from our own weaknesses. Temptations and trials lead us to cling to God and seek his strength. Weakness comes upon us when self-esteem leads us to think that we are the source of great things in our own lives. We must be taught by hardship, Isaac tells us. It is tribulation and affliction that reveal the most to us in life, that draw us into the mystery of the cross and reveal to us the true nature of selfless love. Like Christ, through our suffering we are made perfect. Gradually we come to desire what God desires and will what He wills.
Ironically, it is desperation that reveals to us true hope. Only when we find no hope in the things of this world and we see its empty promises do we come to embrace the hope that comes to us from the hand of God. It is this alone that offers us comfort and it is this that drives us on to seek the Lord above all things.
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.
March 12, 2020
Tonight we concluded homily 71 and began homily 72. Once again Isaac serves us solid food. He presents us with an image of humility and faith perhaps unlike anything that we have ever considered before and calls us not to allow it to become a dead letter but rather something that raises us up to the fullness of life and love. Can we let go of our worldly knowledge, our natural knowledge that comes through the senses and is shaped by the intellect and rather allow ourselves to comprehend what God reveals through and in faith? For it means allowing ourselves to become fools in the eyes of the world, to become like children, like infants, unable to communicate clearly but able to receive the love and protection that the Father offers us.
In this we are called to be like Christ himself, who in all things says “Thy will be done.” Can we entrust ourselves so radically to the providence of God that we lose all fear and anxiety and become aware of Him and Him alone – trusting that we are in His care and allow, as Isaac says, “Grace to hold us in the palm of her hand”?
Unless we live in this radical humility and faith we will have no inkling of the essence of God. But we will know instead is the distorted image of our own minds and imagination. Are we willing to receive the paltry alms that such a limited faith offers? Do we truly desire and ling for the Heavenly Bridegroom? Do we desire God as He is in Himself?
March 5, 2020
Tonight we continue to read homily 71. It is probably the deepest and most beautiful section of the text and in many ways we could not have entered into it or understood it without having read Isaac’s homilies over these past four years. We are nourished here on solid food.
Isaac discusses two things: dispassion, or or the state where the soul does not accept the passions and the mind is fixed upon holy things. The mind becomes subtle, nimble, and keen and swiftly moves away from the attack of the passions and temptations through being wholly wrapped in the things of God. Isaac, in fact, tells us that the memory of the passions is blotted out.
Isaac then moves on to discuss humility. This, he tells us, is a hiddenness from the world and the self. It is not, however, some kind of extreme introversion or antisocial behavior but rather is the fruit of one whose entire being is directed toward God and shaped by love of Him. One no longer seeks out the distractions of the world but rather to collect the senses, the emotions and the desires in order that all might be directed toward God. Isaac describes humility as a kind of “chastity of the senses”, where all things are rightly ordered toward He who is Love, Life and Truth.
February 27, 2020
We continued homily 71. Isaac is slowly guiding us through the virtues that bring us to our end point. Tonight we began with his definition of perfection. For Isaac, it is simply to love as Christ loves – a willingness to lay down our lives for others in order that they might come to know the fullness of life and love. Isaac puts forward the examples of Moses and St. Paul who asked God to allow them to be cast off if it would mean that others would be saved. Christ is our teacher in this regard. It is in Him and in His cross that we learn to love and are given the capacity to love.
From this Isaac moves on to speak to us about hope. It is an incredibly moving section of Isaac‘s writing. He elevates hope to its proper position in our life. It is one of the three theological virtues and it is precisely its ability to help us to see beyond the things of this world that allows us to love with the perfection that he describes. With hope we can see the promise of life that Christ holds out to us and so we can run with a swiftness. In fact, Isaac describes it as like running on air. No mountain, no river, no obstacle at all prevents an individual with hope from running swiftly toward the kingdom, with a heart aflame for the love of God. Isaac describes it as a kind of shortcut. Hope and its perfection brings together all the virtues. It leads a person to heedlessly give their lives over completely to Christ and allow Him to take up residence within the heart. Hope allows for a kind of holy madness to guide and direct a person’s life. It allows one to cast off any obstacle to living for Christ and living for Him alone.
February 13, 2020
Isaac continues in homily 70 to instruct us about the nature of temptation and trials. These are not to be something that we fear or avoid. God allows us to be tempted not only to perfect our virtue but in order that we may comprehend something greater. Our participation in the cross through our infirmities or tribulations allows us to experience something of the suffering love of our Lord. If God allows us to experience the rod it is not evidence of punishment or discipline but rather of His desire to draw us closer to Himself. Our souls profit and are made sound through such temptation. Therefore, we are not to allow ourselves to fall into despair. Even if we are afflicted 1000 times we must realize that victory can come in a single moment. God can give us the strength, the courage and heart of a warrior. And so we must not fear or give ourselves over to negligence or sloth.
In homily 71, Isaac begins to define for us three things: repentance, purity and perfection. In each case, the definition that he offers us is not what we might imagine. Isaac seeks to help us measure things in accord with the mind of God. Purity, for example, is the heart’s capacity to show mercy to all creation. Rightly ordered love allows us to see things with the eyes of God and so to see them with compassion and mercy. Repentance is not simply an episodic turning away from or confessing of one’s sin but mourn over it with a heart that understands the wound has been dealt to love. And finally, humility is our willingness to abandon all things visible and invisible. We cling to nothing - not even our thoughts about the things of the world. We cling only to God and seek Him above all things.
February 6, 2020
Tonight our discussion focused upon the conclusion of homily 69 and the beginning of homily 70. Both present us with an exquisite description of the nature and action of God‘s grace upon the soul; how we experience an alteration in the mind and indeed a struggle with our passions, with temptations and our falls only to be lifted up by the grace of God again. Isaac presents us with a vision of God who is intimately involved in our lives and seeks to draw us from glory to glory into the depths of his own life. He does that, however, within the context of our humanity and understanding that we must be drawn deeper through our struggles to see and comprehend the truth as he seeks to make known. God does not free us from the spiritual warfare and the struggle with temptation; rather He thrusts us into its depths to bring us to greater repentance and draw us back to himself and makes us steadfast in the faith, hope and love. Our mind must die to the world and to the passions and be transformed by grace. The passions don’t die: we must die to self and sin and put on the mind of Christ. Grace, Isaac tells us, carries us in the palm of her hand. God will never abandon us in the struggle but is ever present to keep us from falling into despair.
January 30, 2020
As Isaac guides us through the final part of homily 68, he reminds us that the heart must long for converse with God. In this is found the greatest joy of unbroken stillness. He also reminds us that purity of heart is more valuable than all things and that without it all effort is profitless. If we fall into sin through heedlessness, however, we are not abandoned and can return to this unbroken stillness through unremitting vigils with reading and frequent prostrations. We must let the Fathers renew our fervor and we must humble ourselves in mind and body in order that God might lift us up again. When one has obtained this stillness there is little need for persuasive argument for one has come to experience the Truth.
In Homily 69 Isaac makes it very clear that hourly we experience variations within our soul and repentance is a constant need. Downfalls will occur which are opposed even to the will aim. We must not let our soul become despondent or dejected for this is the very course of growth – spiritual warfare as a movement between the struggle with sin in our weakness and the consolation of God‘s grace. He who thinks that he can ever rise above this spiritual warfare becomes even more vulnerable prey for the wolf. As long as we are in this world we are to enter into the fray and fight the good fight of faith. We must not linger in consolation as if it were an end in itself but must remain humble before God
January 23, 2020
We continued with our reading of homily 68 tonight. In a most extraordinary section, Isaac emphasizes the need to take heed of ourselves, to acknowledge the importance of being able to discern the most subtle movements of the mind and heart; to see which passion is dominant and the symptoms of its presence. Isaac like no other holds this out as an important competence, if not the most important competence for us to have as Christian men and women. We must be able to discern the passions that act upon us, their kind, how they manifest themselves, and how we are to remedy them. To be able to do this, Isaac tells us, is greater than the ability to raise somebody from the dead. To be able to see one’s sins and so repent and know the healing grace of God is of inestimable value.
Isaac not only speaks to us the struggle that is necessary but the joy that is ours in gaining purity of heart. Our joy becomes that of the kingdom - that makes all things in this world seem as if they are of no account. We are destined for greater things and, when our eyes are open to this reality, we begin to feel as if we are in heaven itself.
January 16, 2020
What is the sensitivity of the human heart and mind? How deeply have we been formed by the grace of God? Can we see the subtle movements of the passions within the stirring of temptations, the rising of pride or vainglory? Do we gauge the strength of these movements within us or the army of demons that rush upon in battle and are we able and competent to discern what needs to be healed within us? Are we willing to stand vulnerable and transparent before God in order that He might heal us, that He might apply the healing balm that perfectly meets the need?
These are some of the questions that Saint Isaac puts before us in the conclusion of homily 67 and the beginning of homily 68. He wants us to look within, to take heed of ourselves in such a way that we can recognize such subtleties. This “truthful living” is at the heart of the ascetical life and breeds intimacy with God. The more we embrace the humble truth about ourselves, the more we find ourselves in the embrace of God. Tears may come; yet not those rooted in coldness of fear but rather those that flow from the heart that has been warmed by the love of God.