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Archive for the 'mercy' Category

After having spoken to us in great detail about the ineffable consolation of faith and the experience of God‘s love in prayer, Isaac begins to teach us how we must be conformed to the mind and heart of Christ. In particular he emphasizes the absolute need for mercy. Be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful comes to light vividly in this passage. Through mercy we become the physician of our own souls. Giving this mercy to others brings us great healing. We are never to be those who seek vengeance but rather those who only desire the conversion and repentance of others so that they might come to experience the healing mercy of God. We are to be the conduits of this mercy in the world.
 
We closed with a challenging paragraph. Isaac warns us not to think that God fails to see our motives. We cannot be crafty or knavish in our actions or take the love and the mercy of God for granted or hold he cheap. Death comes to us quickly and unexpectedly and so we must live every moment seeking to love God and to love one another. 

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We continued our reading of homily 64 where Isaac draws us ever more deeply into the heart of the spiritual life. He begins by emphasizing the fact that what God does within the human heart and the transformation that He brings about is far greater than anything that we might do in our own eyes or in the eyes of the world. To receive life from God is greater than our capacity to give or support life or edify others. Humility raises us up to acknowledge the truth about God and ourselves. In this sense humility provides something greater than any worldly knowledge we might possess. Furthermore, the humble heart and humble body allows one to draw close to God and to experience His peace. The more distant we become from God, the more agitated we become and begin to experience an internal disintegration. It is for this reason that Isaac tells us that we must love humility and not love the things that we seek to adorn ourselves with in the world. What could be more valuable than possessing the love and the mercy of God? What could be more valuable than adorning ourselves with virtue? This virtue, however, he warns us must not be the kind of posturing that we foster in the world that allows us to embrace a condescending spirit towards others. Such a virtue betrays a sickly conscience. We must always and forever see things through the eyes of God.

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We continued tonight with homily 57 and read it to its completion. Saint Isaac gives us perhaps the most profound explication of humility among the fathers. Without humility all virtue is in vain. The Lord’s concern is with the soul’s amendment not with a self-willed “traffic in sin under the guise of divine pursuits.” Failings are not a problem for Isaac. If anything they produce humility in the soul; we come to see with a greater clarity our poverty and our need for God’s mercy and grace.  
 
Isaac tells us to seek humility even in the gifts that we receive from God. If they don’t help to produce humility within us, Isaac tells us, we should ask God to remove them from us. 
 
We must get used to the fact that afflictions are a part of our life as Christians and they give birth to humility. We must not think of our life and growth in virtue outside of them, otherwise we open the door for pride.
 
We can come to the point that we love pride. When this happens we esteem our own knowledge and intellect and we fall into a kind of derangement of mind. It is then that repentance becomes an impossibility and the worst of evils manifest themselves. Such a radical turning away from God leads men into insanity. Thus we must beg for humility as the mother of all virtues. And in this humility we must never try to outsmart the demons but rather let the light of Christ overcome the darkness within us.

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Tonight we began homily 57. Isaac starts by telling us “Blessed is he who lives a vigilant life in this world”!  Vigilance is one of the central teachings of the fathers and it behooves us to ask ourselves what it looks like in modern times. What does it mean to be vigilant in age so filled with distraction, noise and temptation?  Once again Isaac tells us that there is no Sabbath for us in this world, no day of rest when it comes to seeking the Lord and living a life of virtue. We cannot be under the illusion that we can outwit the demons who never rest. We must live in hope and and hope alone. He who is virtuous must place his trust in God not himself. The one deep in sin though can hope that God in His mercy will come to his aid and lift him up in his poverty.  He need only turn toward God with a repentant heart. 
 
Isaac quickly moves the discussion toward the absolute importance of humility. He tells us “the man who has a foretaste and in truth receives the recompense of good things is superior to him who possesses the work of virtue.” Virtue is the mother of mourning and mourning leads to humility. We must never attribute virtue to ourselves but only to God. It is He who lifts us up like a child to gaze upon us face-to-face. But we must allow Him to lift us. We must acknowledge that He raises us out of our sin.

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We continued our consideration of homily 52 where St Isaac describes for us the various degrees of knowledge. Tonight he discussed the second degree of knowledge. The person begins to turn away from the merely sensual and by the love of the soul begins to turn toward God through the ascetical life, i.e., the practices of fasting, prayer, mercy, reading of the Scriptures, and the battle with the passions. The Holy Spirit perfects this work and this action and so lays the foundation for greater purity of heart and opens up a path to the reception of faith. 
 
The third third degree of knowledge that St. Isaac describes refines what has been acquired through the action of the spirit and the ascetical life: the soul stretches towards God and through the gift of faith comes to experience and taste the hidden mysteries of the kingdom and the depths of the unfathomable sea of God’s love.

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Tonight we continued our reading of homily 52. Saint Isaac begins to speak to us about the various degrees of knowledge and starts in particular with the knowledge that cleaves to the love of the body. Such a knowledge comes only through the senses and Saint Isaac calls it “common knowledge”; a knowledge that is naked of concern for God and sees the self as the sole source of providence. It is driven by a person’s concern and care for the things of this world and for their own safety and security. Every innovation and invention has its roots in anxiety and fear of losing what one possesses.  Beyond this it leads to judgment of others as standing in opposition to what one desires. Everyone becomes a threat of one kind or another and one becomes driven to seek positions of emotional power in relationships and control.  Faith, however, fosters humility and the true knowledge of our poverty as human beings and our need for God‘s grace and mercy. We are but dust and we must hold on to He who is the Lord of life and the governor of history.  In God alone do we find peace.

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Tonight we completed our reading of homily 51. It was both exquisitely beautiful and challenging. Saint Isaac brings us to the point of reflecting upon the very nature of eternal love and mercy. How often is our conception of God limited by our imagination and intellect? God‘s mercy is eternal and part of the very character of God. God does not change and that love does not alter. 
 
This leads Isaac to reflect upon the very nature of Gehenna. We often project on to God our desire for retribution. We turn God into a potential tormentor who scrutinizes our actions with the eye toward punishing us. Because we so often desire our pound of flesh for the ways that people sin against us, we believe God is the same and shrink God down to our dimensions. To lose sight of the wonder of God’s immeasurable love is to commit an iniquity against God. It speaks more to our lack of faith that we should make the poverty of our sin out measure God’s grace and glory and the power of the resurrection. In Gehenna one certainly experiences torment; yet this torment is the scourging of Love that has always been set on our repentance and salvation. 
 
Lengthy discussion ensued. The group plans to read the recently discovered additional Homilies of Issac, especially those dealing with his thought on this subject.

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As we continue with homily 51, Isaac begins to speak to us about some of the more subtle challenges that we face along the way. At no time are we to relinquish the hard one freedom over the senses. Either through extending rest from ascetical labors indiscriminately or through laxity and slackening our watchfulness of heart, we can wound ourselves in small or great ways through our sin. If we give free reign to the senses we also give free reign to our hearts and the attacks of the evil one.
 
Isaac understands that even the most experienced person in the spiritual life will at times slip into sin. However we must not persist in that sin and act toward God in a cunning way. We must not give ourselves over to the illusion that life will go on indefinitely or that we will have the opportunity to repent. We must keep before eyes the brevity of life.
 
Likewise, we must always be engaged in the work of the heart. There’s always the danger that our asceticism can simply be an end in itself, feeding the ego and self-esteem. If we do not possess a discriminating disdain for the things that are passing in this world and if we are not driven by our love for God, even the most disciplined person can be very far from the life and love of the kingdom.
 
Those whose hearts are conformed to God do not hate sinners but rather look upon all with compassion and mercy. We must understand that God has not acted towards us with justice but rather with mercy and love. And what other way can we look at another person who is harassed and mocked by the evil one than with sympathy. We must be heralds of God‘s mercy and goodness.  Great care must be given not to project on to God our own understanding of justice, Hell, and retribution. We must always look to what God has revealed to us in his only begotten Son and understand that God is eternal love and mercy. It is this reality that we are tempted to change to fit our own imagination.   

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More than anything Isaac wants us to understand and embrace the primacy of divine hope over fear.  Hope fortifies the heart and allows God to reveal Himself as He truly is to us; the fullness of mercy and love, set not on our distraction but on our salvation.  It is this hope that spurs us on, that makes us desire to run the great race and to fight the good fight of faith. It is God’s love that beckons us and that makes us turn to Him in a spirit of repentance. Our concern with God‘s judgment is not tied to punishment but rather to the desire to share in the fullness of His life, to enter into His rest.
 
Such an understanding will lead us to maintain and protect the state of watchfulness and to avoid laxity. Our desire for God makes us want to protect our hearts from anything that might pull us away from Him. 

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We continued with our discussion of homily 51 and once again Isaac through a kind of holy genius guides us deep within the truths of the gospel - In particular how we are to understand the nature of divine love and mercy and the hope that it brings to our soul and how it transforms the way that we look at others. He begins by warning us that asceticism absent a life of love and mercy is to be pitied. If we make ourselves castigators and chastisers we promise ourselves only a miserable life. 
 
If we are weak in the spiritual life we must set ourselves with a strong resolve to at least strive within our limits. If we are not peacemakers we must at least not be troublemakers. If we are angry with others in our hearts we must hold our tongues and remain silent. If we judge others or allow them to be consumed by the anger of others, then we are accomplices and bear their guilt upon our shoulders.
 
In all of this, Isaac teaches us that humility is the key virtue that produces peace within the heart and leads us to the joy of the kingdom. Humility is truthful living, a willingness to see the poverty of our sin, to acknowledge the futility of our life without Christ.
 
We closed the evening by simply touching upon one of the most powerful teachings and reflections of St. Isaac. He tells us that divine hope uplifts the heart but fear of Gehenna crushes it. What does the love of God, he asks, tell us about hell?  Do we desire the salvation of all as God himself desires it; or do we project our desire for retribution and worldly justice upon God?

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