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We picked up again this week with homily 66. Saint Isaac presents us with perhaps the most formative part of his book. While this might seem to be an overstatement, St.  Isaac speaks with such clarity about the key aspect of the eastern Fathers’ understanding of the human person - the nous - the organ of spiritual perception. St.  Isaac lays out with striking clarity not only the nature of the nous but how it is to be formed and purified. Only through the ascetical life and the ordering of the appetites and the passions toward God is the nous, the eye of the heart, purified in such a way that it allows for true discernment.  Aided by grace, our capacity to perceive the truth the God increases as well as our capacity to embrace it. Isaac is very quick to warn us that this spiritual perception involves the whole person. It is not simply a philosophical or intellectual perception of truth, a mental vision. It is asceticism aided by grace that allows us to contemplate the truth and so develop a greater awareness of God. This awareness of God gives birth then to love and love is strengthened and emboldened by prayer. 

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Tonight we concluded Homily 65. Isaac closes his discussion on the value of silence and the work that surrounds it and allows it to develop and bear fruit.   Chief among these is fasting and stillness. External stillness fosters internal stillness and fasting humbles the mind and body and order that prayer may deepen and the mind and the heart become more open to God. The group spoke great deal about fostering a culture that supports the renewal of fasting. Saint Isaac closes the homily by holding up the joy that comes to the individual by living in this holy silence. It is the joy the kingdom itself and that comes through seeing and participating in the mysteries of God.
 
Homily 66 is Isaac‘s attempt to open up for us an understanding of eastern anthropology and how it shapes the spiritual tradition. Chief among the things that he speaks about is the nous, or the eye of the heart and how it must be purified through asceticism. The passions must be overcome in order that the dullness of the vision of the nous, which is the faculty of spiritual perception, might be overcome. There is no discernment outside of purity of heart. True theology can only be done by one who is experiential knowledge of God and has spent years in prayer, stillness and ascetical practice.

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Tonight we were able to read homily 43 in its entirety. St. Isaac describes the various modes of discipline in the spiritual life - the purification of the body and senses, the purification of the soul (which is freedom from secret passions) and finally the purification of the mind or the nous which comes from God‘s revelation of himself to us and raising us up to Divine visions.  The third mode draws us into what he describes as hypostatic Theoria, where an individual begins to experience the limpid purity of his primordial nature as one created for God and union with God. In this experience one becomes awestruck with wonder at God; tasting what will be experienced in all of its fullness in existence after the resurrection.  Such a state carries with it no sorrow or attachment to the things of the world. If we only knew the depths of God’s blessings we would long to experience that intimate union with him now and always.   
 
We must remind ourselves that Christian mysticism is distinctive and unique.  It comes about not through altering the consciousness through asceticism or meditation but through God’s revelation of Himself and raising us up by His grace as a prelude to beholding Him with mediation unto the ages of ages.

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In homilies 26 and 27 we find ourselves walking along a very difficult path to traverse. St. Isaac begins to develop for us an outline of the order of creation; emphasizing in particular the order of Angels. While at times the language and ideas seem very confusing, St. Isaac’s purpose is eminently practical. He wishes to show us that we are not living the spiritual life in isolation. He is intent on showing us that “humans and angels ultimately constitute one hierarchy, that of rational created beings, in which humans have angels as guides and teachers. Indeed one of the most interesting remarks in Isaac‘s writings is that human nature cannot have inner growth or illumination without the guidance given by angels. Illumination does not come by itself and impersonally but through intercession. The main function of angels in relation to man consists of guidance, spiritual illumination and teaching in order to achieve inner growth.”  
 
We engage in our spiritual labors with great zeal understanding this support and pursue purity of heart in order that our vision of Angels and what they reveal grows ever clearer. Likewise we engage in Divine Liturgy, exercising our faith and humbling the body with great labor, in order that the will might not be driven by blind compulsion but by grace. Only in this way do we overcome the inconstancy and unevenness of a will enslaved to sin. 

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We picked up this evening about midway through Saint Isaac’s Homily 25. St. Isaac has been speaking about the beauty of the solitary way of life and the constant called to intimacy with God. In the sections considered this evening Isaac warns of the pitfalls solitaries often experience. As one is separated from the false self and the ego diminished one experiences the full vision of the poverty of their sin and the darkness it brings.  The self is left to walk in the darkness of faith to rely only on the mercy of God. The temptation is to shrink back from this intimacy and knowledge of God or to seek worldly and sensible consolations. Worse yet one might fall into despair having been stripped of all worldly consolations but not seeking rest in God. This is by far the most pitiable state of man.

Isaac presents this all as a prelude to calling us to live out our lives in Expectation of the promise of life and eternal love that come to us through Christ. To seek the Kingdom above all things and to desire the things of the Kingdom frees us from the net of despair and fosters an invincible form of long suffering. Come what may one lives in and through hope.

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With the concluding section of Homily 23, we reach the apex of St. Isaac’s thought on what he describes as pure prayer and what is “beyond prayer”. Prayer always involves the movement toward God, seeking him out and desiring Him, offering up supplication and pleas for his mercy. Pure prayer takes places when the law of God is embraced and fulfilled and when no thought or distraction commingles within the soul completely directed toward God. 
 
Prayer always acts as the seed planted and what is beyond prayer, divine vision, is the harvesting of the sheaves. Theoria, knowledge, or noetic vision is an operation of the Spirit who guides the soul. Our senses and their operations become superfluous and the soul becomes like unto the Godhead by an incomprehensible union and is illumined by a ray of sublime Light. The understanding gazes in ecstasy at incomprehensible things that lie beyond this mortal world. This is the “unknowing” that has been called higher than knowledge; a walking in the darkness of faith where one comes to know God as He is in Himself. 
 
Discussion also ensued regarding the struggles of the Western mind to grasp the spiritual tradition of the Eastern Fathers; the moralizing and legalizing of the spiritual life and virtue versus deification. 

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How do we foster stillness and unceasing prayer in our lives?  St. Isaac counsels us in Homily 19 to always keep our eye - the eye of the heart - fixed on God. This means not only fostering a virtuous life but also avoiding that which would pull us away from this aim. We must seek to free ourselves from obsessive concerns with the things of the world and from falling lockstep into its frenetic pace. Don't multiply the occupations of your life for in this you may very well be pushing God away.  The spiritual life cannot be a part time occupation. It must be our life. God cannot be pushed to the margins nor can we neglect the grace he offers and its sweetness without quickly losing it.  Meaningless chatter and the noise of dissipated converse destroys stillness as frost destroys new buds on the tree. A divided heart obscures the vision of God and his love.  The ego and pride-driven self-interest draws us down into darkness. Only a humble and contrite heart is lifted up and exalted to share in the life of God. 
 
Have we lost a clear sense of our identity in Christ?  Has the faith been so obscured that we no longer invest ourselves in it but simply take what measure we desire? 

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St. Isaac presents us with the identity of the monk and his defining characteristics. Discussion ensued about interiorized monasticism and our embrace of the call to sanctity. Holiness, the control of the passions and unceasing prayer are meant not only for the monk but for all. 
 
Like the monk we are called to love chastity and to pursue it through nourishing ourselves upon the writings of the scriptures and the Fathers and through prolonged prayer. We must immerse ourselves deeply in the love and mercy of God in order that the deep wounds we bear may be healed. 
 
Our life is found not in the things of this world but in God. We are strangers to the city and citizens of the Kingdom. Our detachment must be such that we fear not the loss of our reputation but endure all dishonor quietly in order to defuse hatred and anger. 
 
Bearing such affliction purifies and solidifies the particular virtues within us as gold is purified in the fire. 

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In this section of the 4th Homily Isaac warns: "Do not take it upon yourself to teach others while still in ill health; rather consider yourself ignorant and always a novice - preferring humility, holiness and purity to all things. Guard against becoming mere vendors of words and arm yourself with the weapons of tears, fasting and the study of scripture and the Fathers.

 

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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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