December 29, 2020
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.
December 22, 2020
Homily 75 continues to be St. Isaac‘s most exceptional and powerful reflection. He speaks about the oft neglected practice of night vigils. This, he tells us, is the most powerful form of prayer, more powerful than praying during the daytime. Isaac tells us that this is not because there is something magical about praying at night. He is not fostering a kind of superstition here. He is quite simply telling us the praying at night offers a person the opportunity to come before God without any distraction or impediment; humbling the mind and body by disciplining oneself through fasting not only from food but also from sleep. Unencumbered, the soul searches for God with an urgent longing. Having nothing weighing it down, it swiftly runs to the Beloved and seeks to remain in His embrace unceasingly. It is for this reason that the devil envies vigils above other all other forms of prayer. For, Isaac tells us, even when it is practiced poorly and in an undisciplined fashion, God produces great fruit in the soul.
December 15, 2020
We continued our discussion of homily 75. Isaac draws us into the beauty of the practice of vigils. He speaks to us of the freedom from despondency and the onrush of joy the monks who immerse themselves in prayer at night experience. With the mind and heart filled with the things of God and of His word, no foreign thought has room to enter. All they know is God and they speak to him in the secrecy of their heart.
Isaac makes it clear that there is great room for variation, depending upon the monk and the strength of his constitution and will. Adjustments might have to be made, he acknowledges, but one always seeks to keep his mind and heart fixed upon God or upon the example of the saints who lived in this discipline in all of its fullness.
Isaac then begins to lay out for us how it is that these monks were able to sustain themselves in such a life; not only the discipline of it but how they could maintain themselves physically and emotionally in such isolation. As always, Isaac‘s writing is beautiful; no matter what he touches upon, it speaks directly to the heart.
November 24, 2020
Isaac certainly presents us with solid food. We’ve come to the end of homily 74. Isaac begins to describe for us the image of a heart that is truly dead to the world and how it perceives the mode of life of the new man. In other words, a life free from the ego and from the drive of the passions takes on the New Adam and begins to share in the fullness of the life of resurrection. One begin to contemplate the revelation of the Divine. In this sense of the desert Fathers become for us a mirror; in it we see whether or not we have died to the things of this world and our attachments to the world and perceive the true beauty of the life that is held before us. If we stop for a moment and think about spending the day in silence, we see that our heart and our thoughts flit about as moths around a light. We are easily distracted.
In homily 75, Isaac lays out before us a practice of prayer that may be unfamiliar to most - keeping vigil in prayer during the night. Isaac begins by offering us a prayer to be said at the beginning of such a time. We are to call out to God to shelter us from our common enemy, to free us from the distractions of our passions in order that we might enter into the sacred Liturgy with strength and clarity. Filled with grace, one sheds tears that purify the mind and the heart and allow us to love with tranquility and with the true freedom of chastity. One begins the liturgy without turmoil and filled with joy.
Issac speaks of the freedom that exists even within the prescribed practices. One might stand praying the psalms and yet the Spirit might lift the individual into a deep silence where time passes swiftly. It is then that one must give way to the guidance of the Spirit to be led in accord with the will of God and drawn swiftly to His Heart as He desires.
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
November 21, 2019
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.
October 3, 2019
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.
September 27, 2019
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.
March 15, 2018
We continued this evening with our reading of St. Isaac’s 37th Homily and his discussion of the essential practices of fasting and vigil that are the foundation of the spiritual life. Through this fasting we begin to experience the “warmth” of our hunger for God and the unshakable peace of prayer. It is also here that we move toward stillness of the thoughts and the passions and so are prepared for the purification of heart that God alone brings about.
Isaac also emphasizes the importance of solitude in achieving and maintaining this purity of heart. We can’t throw ourselves into the chaos and disorder of the world and expect to thrive. Rather we must guard our hearts vigilantly.
Discussion ensued about Isaac’s thought that this is the true mode of freedom and that we should choose fidelity to God’s law and the salvation it promises over the law of the world which is rooted in the flesh. Life in this world is brief and we must be mindful of the dust to which we shall return and the judgement we shall undergo.
Final thoughts centered on the state of cultural collapse in the West and the reduction of Christianity for many to a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It is a similitude of faith but not life in Christ or the deification that we are called to by grace.
March 8, 2018
We began our discussion of St Isaac’s 37th Homily with his teaching about the importance of separating ourselves from the things of the world so as to make the ascetical struggle easier. The struggle is easier when the sources of temptation are at a distance. We must in fact flee from those things that cause warfare and not associate with that which fights against us. The stillness and purity that is gained through asceticism must not be thoughtlessly thrown away; For even the memory or imagination of certain things can bring us harm. Thus we must guard against becoming overconfident so as not to trample our consciences. Various examples of this were discussed.
St. Isaac then moved on to consider what is the beginning of the spiritual war and where does one start the fight. Fasting and Vigils are the signs of our hatred for sin and desire for God. They are God’s holy pathway and the foundation of every virtue. Day and night they lead us to God - humbling the mind and body and making us ever watchful and discerning. Discussion ensued about what this means for those living in the world and how it they are to be fostered.