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.
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.
November 8, 2018
Tonight we began reading homily 51. To say it was challenging is an understatement. Saint Isaac presents us with the gospel in its purity and challenges us to abandon our comfortable and limited perception of the truth; in particular our understanding of mercy and justice. Isaac, in stark terms, tells us that rash zeal and fanaticism have no place in the spiritual life and in our relationships with others. We are not allowed to give way to our desire to judge others according to our own sensibilities. We are to put on the mind of Christ and our love for others is to be cruciform.
Very often we take a morbid delight in assuming the position of power within relationships, enjoying correcting others when in reality we only add to their suffering. Furthermore, our rebuke of others only has the effect of undermining our own spiritual lives. Isaac bluntly tells us that to judge another is like a father slowly strangling his own beloved son.
We can only understand Issac’s teachings from the perspective of the life of Grace and Theosis. We must be conformed to and transformed by Divine Love in every way.
In the weeks and months to follow, St Isaac will draw us deeper into the mystery of God’s mercy and the beauty of the human person made in His image.
June 21, 2018
Tonight we read Saint Isaac’s homily 41. It is a rich explication of the workings of the human mind and heart. St. Isaac shows us how it is that we are drawn into sin. He makes it clear that our natural appetites and desires are not the source of sin but rather our tendency toward excess and the weakness of our will. When the appetites are well ordered there is peace within the human person. But when we give ourselves over to negligence, conceit or slothfulness the passions are enlivened and then we are drawn into sinful behavior. St. Isaac directs us in the last part of the homily to the experience of tribulation and affliction. The wisdom of the fathers is that affliction awakens us to our poverty and our need for God’s grace and healing. God will allow us to experience affliction in order to humble us and draw us back to himself. It is through such affliction that repentance is often born.
March 30, 2017
In this beautiful section of Homily Five, St. Isaac speaks of how ever-present and close God is to us through his angels and in his actions on our behalf. Why would we be anxious about anything, he asks? We have a God set on our salvation, who does not abandon us in our sin but makes use of every opportunity to raise us up. We must not let anything steal the peace that comes to us from this knowledge. Rather, we must mortify ourselves and never let any opportunity pass us by to serve another or give alms; for in doing so we comfort "His image" - we console Christ Himself in the suffering poor.
God makes use of everything in His Providence to raise us out of sin - He administers sicknesses in body for health of our soul and allows temptations and trials to come to raise us out of negligence and idleness. He orders all things for our profit and in this we are to learn that God alone is our deliverer. We are to use our life in this world for repentance so that we can come to share in our eternal inheritance.
Afflictions spur us on and lead to remembrance of God. It is this remembrance of God that creates a connectivity with Him and draws down His mercy. "Remember God that He too might always remember you."
Isaac reminds us to seek help before it is needed. That is, "before the war begins, seek after your ally; before you fall ill, seek out your physician; and before grevious things come upon you, pray, and in the time of your tribulations you will find Him . . . " Faith must be fostered throughout the course of our lives and our relationship with the Lord allowed to deepen. It is in this that confidence in the spiritual life comes. Fear and destructiion comes from neglect.
November 17, 2016
Where is spiritual joy to be found? What does it mean to be a lover of virtue? How does one show mercy to those who have fallen? Where does sloth begin? These are the fundamental questions St. Isaac the Syrian begins to address in Homily Two.
In a few rather difficult paragraphs we are instructed not to become overly focused on the experience of the Kingdom and what it will be like. While it might be something that in some measure can be known noetically, it is not like our experiences in this life. Our focus should rather be on the pursuit of virtue and purifying the nous. The good things of heaven are incomprehensible and we must not let thinking about them become a distraction for us.
St. Isaac then moves on to clarify something about the attitude that we must have as we seek to grow in virtue and overcome vice. We must come to see that often hidden within valiant struggle is still the desire for the vice. The sign that one is a lover of virtue is expressed through the willingness to endure all manner of evil and suffering to maintain it with joy! The pure heart remains unconfused and unmoved by the "flattery of tantalizing pleasures." Sin must no longer have any attraction for us. Isaac also adds that if we lose the ability or free will to sin due to certain circumstances, i.e., illness, we will not come to know the true joy of repentance. Absence of sin does not mean the presence of virtue. All of this is a challenge to halfhearted approach to the spiritual life.
When faced with another's sin, we must seek to cover their shame and support them in their repentance so long as we don't place ourselves in jeopardy in the process. We must not voluntarily make trial of our minds but engaging sin directly with lewd reflections that can tempt us.
The practice of virtue for the young is always accompanied by affliction in order to be kept them under the yoke of sanctification. When prayer and religious services are neglected then sloth has already taken hold. And the moment one turns from God's help, he easily falls into the hands of his adversaries.
November 10, 2016
The thread that connects the thoughts of St. Isaac the Syrian's second homily is thankfulness to God. How we receive the gifts of God has great significance. One need only think of the story of the ten lepers in the Gospel. Only one returns to give thanks to the Giver for the healing he received. Lack of thanksgiving is akin to dishonesty, St. Isaac states. It shows that one does not grasp the true worth of what one has received and so not worthy themselves of receiving something greater. With the eyes of faith, one must grasp the generosity of the healer, even if the cure is painful. To fail to acknowledge such goodness or generosity or to resist the gift only increase the torment of the affliction. If we receive what the Lord gives us with true gratitude - whether painful or consoling - He will not fail to pour greater graces upon us for our salvation. Lacking such an understanding of things, God's gifts seem small in one's eyes - thus making one a "fool".
In our times of trial and failure we are to remind ourselves of times when we were filled with zeal for the Lord so as to stir our souls in to flame once more and awaken them from their slumber. Likewise we are to remember the falls of the mighty in the spiritual life, so as to encourage us when we have fallen that we might arise with confidence in the Lord.
Why spend so much energy pursuing the things of this world that turn to ash when the Kingdom of God is within you? Be a persecutor of yourself and do not pamper the body. Drive the enemy before you. Be peaceful and do everything you can to maintain your peace. Avoid everything that may distract or agitate and so hinder communion with God. Be diligent in seeking the treasure of the Kingdom that lies within you.
February 12, 2015
Continuing our discussion of Conference Nine, we picked up with Abba Isaac's exposition of the final petitions of the Our Father: "And subject us not to the trial . . . but deliver us from evil." Trial is an inevitable part of the human condition and the spiritual life, but we seek in such trials the protection of God and the grace of perseverance and long-suffering so as not to succumb to the evil of the loss of our faith or to act in a way contrary to God's will. We ask not to be tried beyond our capacity.
When praying, care must be given not to seek those things that our transitory in nature and nothing base or temporal. To do so is to offer great injury to God's largesse and grandeur with the paltriness of our prayer.
Abba Isaac then moves on to discuss the more sublime character of "wordless prayer" that transcends understanding and to which few are called. It is a infusion of divine light through which God can in a brief moment fill the mind and heart. The precondition of this prayer is the breaking and humbling of the heart which is expressed through compunction and the overflow of tears that purify the heart.
A rather lengthy discussion ensued about the potential enigma of philokalic spirituality to the Western mind - the setting aside of imagination and the focus on taking every thought captive so as to eventually be brought to unceasing prayer.
August 15, 2014
The group continued this week following Cassian’s discussion with the elder Theodore about the ability to be “ambidextrous” in the spiritual life; that is, the importance of being able to remain at peace in the face of prosperity or adversity. Our chief desire should be to avoid sin and to trust that God, in his providence, can make all things work for the good of those who love and obey Him. A lengthy discussion ensued about how such an understanding of things changes our approach to life and what we value. The group also discussed the experience of suffering in relation to Cassian’s teaching.