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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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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 

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Tonight we began reading homily 67. Isaac lays out for us how it is that we are to labor for stillness fruitfully. He speaks to us of the many pitfalls to be avoided and the signs and proofs that we should seek in order determine if we are on the right path.  One of the things that Isaac stresses is the presence of virtue in a person’s life. Stillness and silence can never be abstracted from the pursuit of purity of heart. Stillness without virtue is blameworthy. 
 
Gradually Isaac begins to set forward various signs of growth. One starts to experience oneself being enveloped by the silence of God in the midst of prayer, of being enfolded in silence. Tears will often unexpectedly flow as a fruit of stillness. 
 
But if our minds are distracted and filled with thoughts and if our passions continue to rage within us, we know there has been some heedlessness or negligence that we must address. We must understand that the passions will stand at the door of our hearts and howl for what they have become accustomed to desire. We must not become discouraged but continue to call upon our God and foster the love of stillness.

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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.

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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.

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Tonight we continued reading Homily 65. St. Isaac begins to speak about how one prepares oneself to enter into the life of stillness. One must investigate well what one is considering and the discipline necessary to live such a life. One cannot simply seek the name of solitary.  Rather, a person must engage in the long work of preparing the mind and the heart to embrace the discipline of stillness. One must have a clear aim and fix one’s gaze upon God completely otherwise despondency will overcome them when faced with trials.
 
The solitary focuses upon God entirely in the stillness to the point of no longer being engaged in the battle and warfare with the passions. In perhaps one of the most beautiful paragraphs ever written St. Isaac captures for us the nature of the contemplative experience of God and the fruit of stillness.  He speaks of the wonder of the life of stillness and its fruits like no other ascetic writer and his words become an exhortation that reaches to the depths of the heart and creates a longing for God.

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“Love silence above all things”, St. Isaac tells us. However, this is not a mere pious expression but rather one of the deepest truths of human existence. Silence is the place of encounter with God that reveals to us His beauty and our poverty at the same time. Tonight Isaac showed us the path to this Holy Silence. Its starting point is our willingness to force ourselves to remain in it and to pray that God shows some part of what is born of it. It is a discipline that offers us a taste of divine sweetness but also leads to a flood of tears that arises out of the pain of our sin and our perception of the beauty of God that amazes the soul. This silence fosters an internal stillness that begins to transform the mind and the heart. The deeper that one enters into it the more one comes to reflect the divine. Isaac speaks of the holy Elder Arsenius, who having achieved a level of perfect silence, merely through his countenance gladdened the hearts of those who encountered him without ever speaking a word. This encounter inflamed within them the desire for God and the desire for the ascetical life.

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We continued our journey with Isaac tonight discussing homily 64. While the subject matter seems varied, it is clearly connected in Isaac’s mind. All of these aspects of the spiritual and ascetical life must be understood in order that we might find “right order” in our lives that contributes to stillness and vigilance in the spiritual battle. 
 
This is exactly what Isaac is introducing us to - the reality of the spiritual battle that involves the whole person.  The mind and emotions must be engaged by the richness of the psalms to stir our zeal. Sorrow and compunction must constantly lead us back to God after we have fallen. Anger must be directed toward every temptation so as to strike it down before it takes hold of us. 
 
The cravings of the belly must be met with fasting and self restraint. Such restraint lays the foundation for the struggle with lust. Sleep must be moderated in order to foster a taste for the sweetness of prayer.

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