November 3, 2020
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.
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 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 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.
September 19, 2019
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.
July 11, 2019
Tonight we read the conclusion of homily 60 and all of homily 61. These few pages were some of the most beautiful that we have encountered. Isaac captures for us not only the meaning and purpose of afflictions, trials, and temptations but reveals to us the presence of the love of God within them. We never suffer in isolation and anything that we endure is permeated by the grace of God. To understand and see this clearly only increases a person’s desire for God as well as their willingness to embrace the cross as it comes to them without fear or anxiety.
April 19, 2019
We continued this evening with homily 54. Isaac confronts us with a simple question somewhat indirectly – how deep is our faith and confidence in God‘s providence and the power of his grace? Do we remain engaged in the spiritual battle with hope in Him and trust that we are surrounded by the Angels and the Saints? Do we remain joyful in tribulations knowing that God makes all things work for the good of those who love him?
In this world we will experience tribulation and hardship. We must prepare ourselves through prayer and our ascetical life to endure to the end. Such endurance in the face of hardship and temptation often will require that we wait decades to experience the fruit and the joy of the kingdom. Isaac tells us that when we embrace tribulation and affliction we participate in the redemptive love of Christ and begin to experience His own secret treasures.
Isaac concludes by giving us a beautiful example of an elderly monk encouraging a novice to hold fast. He reveals to him how he began to taste the very sweetness of the kingdom and the unceasing worship of angelic beings. “Behold, the labor of many years, and what limitless rest it bore!”
July 6, 2018
Tonight we concluded Homily number 42 of St. Isaac the Syrian which focuses on the trials and afflictions that come both to the humble and the proud. Saint Isaac makes the distinction between the two and the fruit that each produces. Afflictions in those who are humble produce the fruit of patience. Whereas afflictions in those who are proud awaken the need for repentance. In many ways it is a deeply challenging Homily; so much so that St. Isaac feels compelled to say at the end “do not be angry with me that I tell you the truth. You have never sought out humility with your whole soul.” Our tendency is to look at affliction, temptations and trials in a punitive fashion; Whereas the Fathers seek to help us understand the medicinal and healing nature of such things and to see in them the promise of joy and ultimately deification.