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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.

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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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Continuing our reading of Homily 64, a great deal of our attention was directed to how Isaac addresses discerning whether thoughts are from God or from the evil one. We must be ever vigilant, never falling into the snares that the devil sets for us. 
 
Yet some thoughts require deep prayer, night and day, and intense vigils. We can quickly fall into delusion as we imagine ourselves as seeing things clearly and judging things clearly. We must learn rather to humble ourselves before God who alone knows the workings of the human heart. Our consciences must be formed by His grace and our love for Him must lead us to embrace a rigorous ascetical life. Every thought must be taken captive and brought before Christ for His blessing or judgment. This is how much we must love the Lord.

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We continued our discussion tonight of homily 64. The group only considered two paragraphs over the course of the hour. But the discussion was eminently practical. Isaac challenges us to look at many things that we take for granted and asks us whether or not these things lead us to God or to be mindful of God. Do we understand the value of silence and prolonged silence? What does sleep mean for us and how do we enter it - prayerfully or distractedly? What do we do when we cannot sleep, do we turn our minds and our hearts to God, do we pray or do we distract ourselves with other things, like television or simply our own thoughts. Have we ever thought about breaking the night to pray? Isaac along with the other Fathers show us how this experience of praying at night allows us to be more wakeful during the day, in the sense of being vigilant about our thoughts and mindful of God.

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Tonight we completed homily 63. Isaac begins to speak of us of the necessity of setting aside all possessions and possessiveness; of setting aside all thoughts and distractions in order that stillness might reign within the heart, where we might remove ourselves from the web of the passions. All of this is meant to allow us to hold on to nothing but rather to cling to God. We are to be turned toward the Lord completely. 
 
Prayer requires a long continuance and perseverance. Seclusion or solitude is necessary in order that the love for God might grow and develop and that we might come to see with the greater clarity the causes for loving God. From prayer, the love of God is born and so it becomes the most important thing for us as human beings. We are to become prayer as it were. This means developing a hatred for the world; that is, a true understanding of what disordered love does to us and what it cost. Only when we do this will we become truly attached to God and the blessings that he offers. We must “be-in-love” in the truest sense of the phrase. We must live our lives seeking God and his love as the pearl of great price.

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We continued this evening with three very rich paragraphs from homily 54. St. Isaac begins by speaking about how we should approach psalmody. We read and pray with the Scriptures, not simply as those borrowing the words of another, but as those who’ve sought to open their minds and their hearts to God and have prepared the rich earth of their hearts to receive the seed of His  Word. 
 
Isaac then discusses the struggle with despondency. Whenever we turn away from God, we begin to experience a kind of existential depression and sadness. We cannot ignore He who is Meaning and Life and expect not to feel a void within us.
 
And finally, Isaac warns us about the struggle with our own thoughts. They are too many for us to handle and the demons are relentless and have the experience of thousands of years on how to manipulate. Therefore we must turn the mind and the heart to God in unceasing prayer, recognizing our poverty and need for His grace.

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St Isaac led us through a wonderful study of the methods the devil uses to war against those who seek to live for God and walk by the narrow way. 
 
The devil will wait patiently for some who begin the spiritual life zealously; not because he fears them but rather because he holds them in contempt. He waits until their zeal cools and they grow lax and overconfident. He allows them to dig their own pit of perdition for their souls through wandering thoughts. 
 
With the courageous and strong, the devil seeks to drive a wedge between them and their guardian angel. Craftily the devil convinces them that their victories come through their own strength and force. The devil imitates the guardian angel and convinces them to follow dreams as if true in order to lead them astray. 
 
Finally the devil will actively present the warrior with fantasies masking the truth and thus deluding their mind. He leads them to ponder shameful thoughts. He will even present them with actual physical temptations once thought to be overcome. 

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Tonight‘s discussion of homilies 32 and 33 focused upon Saint Isaac’s teaching that we should not approach the life of faith as if it were simply self improvement. We must beware of seeking our joys in the things of this world or reducing God to something manageable and controllable rather than an all enveloping mystery. The poverty that we experience in our moral life and psychologically and emotionally simply at times has to be in endured. We are drawn in to the perfection of God by grace. We do not make ourselves perfect. More often than not we are humbled by our weaknesses until we rest solely upon the grace of God.
 
We continue to struggle of course,  but we must avoid extremes in behavior - excesses in satisfying our appetites or too great a rigor that leads to despondency.  Our life is Christ and often our greatest struggle as human beings is to let go of the illusion that lasting joy can be found in any other place.

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St. Isaac once again teaches us that we must fully and wisely engage in the spiritual battle - fighting on the right battlefield and making use of the right remedies to heal wounds. He warns us never to treat any sin as slight; for ignoring any sin will eventually make it our master.

Above all we must not be overly confident in our own strength but rather trust in divine providence and the manifestation of that providence in God's angels. They are always there interceding for us, revealing our enemies and fortifying us in the struggle. They show us how close God is to us.

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Last night’s reading from St. Isaac the Syrian’s 4th Homily was extraordinary.  As is so often the case, one is left with the feeling that there is no going back to a lesser vision of the faith and ascetic life.  He warns us not to sacrifice our freedom, the freedom of simplicity, by enslaving ourselves to the things of this world.  We must not live our lives to support luxury and ease and so make ourselves “slave of slaves”; that is, slaves to our passions and senses.  Humble living is to be met with restraint in speech and love of silence.  We are to constrict our thoughts and reduce distraction in order to seek contemplation above all things.  To stand before God with a pure heart to better than all things - even all acts of charity.  Care must be given not to gain the whole world and lose our souls in the process.  “It is more profitable for you to attend to raising up unto the activity of your cogitations concerning God the deadness of your soul due to the passions, than it is to resurrect the dead.”

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