Thursday, December 1, 2016

While they lived, they were dead

At the end of Homily Two of his Ascetical Homilies, St. Isaac the Syrian offers what I consider a unique list of the passions and a description of their effects.  In them we are able to easily see how prevalent they are in many situations and relationships and through their presence or absence we are able to gauge in how many parts of the "world" (the passions as an aggregate) we are alive and in how many we are dead.  They are a very practical guide and offer a good means of personal examination.  

Although all are worthy of thorough consideration.  I shall give a few attention here.   "Human glory, which is the cause of resentment": as we cling to an exalted image of ourselves, anyone or anything that diminishes that image in our eyes or the eyes of others becomes the focus of resentment.  When we are made fun of even in jest our egos become inflamed and others become the object of our ire or fierce silence.  "The wielding of power": This of course can be the search for and use of material and physical power, but more frequently it is used as a means of seeking a position of emotional power within relationships.  We seek to keep the upper hand so as to control or manipulate the actions or feelings of another.  Finally, "fear for the body":  the modern age has made us obsessed with diet and exercise and personal health.  For this reason we often eschew asceticism for fear that we will diminish our capacities in some fashion and not operate at optimal levels.  We pamper ourselves in a cowardly fashion, having more concern for the body than the soul.  We resist being humbled in mind and body through fasting and vigils, even though these are the very means necessary for overcoming the passions.

The passions are portions of the course of the world's onward flow; and where the passions cease, there the world's onward flow stands still.  These are the passions: love of wealth; gathering objects of any kind; bodily pleasure, from which comes the passion of carnal intercourse; love of esteem, from which springs envy; the wielding of power; pride in the trappings of authority; stateliness and pomposity; human glory, which is the cause of resentment; fear for the body.  Wherever these have halted in their course, there, in part, to the extent that the passions are inactive, the world fails from its constitution and remains inactive.  Thus it was with each of the saints, that while they lived, they were dead. For living in the body, they lived not according to the flesh.  Examine in which of these passions you are alive, and then you will know in how many parts you are alive to the world, and in how many you are dead.

St. Isaac the Syrian

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Without the proper wedding garment

The impact of sloth on the soul is often neglected and its significance minimized.  St. Isaac the Syrian warns that without harsh tribulations of the flesh it is difficult for the untrained youth to be held under the yoke of sanctification.  We must be willing to take upon ourselves the cross of the pursuit of virtue before sharing in its glory.  Whenever the soul becomes heedless of the labors of virtue, he is inevitably drawn to what is opposed to them and thus becomes deprived of God's help and so subject to alien spirits.  Every man who before training in cross completely and pursues the sweetness and glory of the cross out of sloth and for its own sweetness, has wrath come upon him.  He lacks the proper wedding garment - the healing of the infirmity of his thoughts by patient endurance of the labor that belongs to the shame of the cross.  A man whose mind is polluted with the passions of dishonor and rushes to imagine with his mind and ascend to the divine vision, is put to silence by divine punishment.  "And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’"

The things of God, it is said, come of themselves, without one's being aware of it.  Yes, but only if the place is clean and not defiled.  If the pupil of your soul's eye is not pure, do not venture to gaze at the orb of the sun, lest you be deprived of your sight - which is simple faith, humility, confession from the heart, and your small labors according to your capacity - and lest you be cast aside in a lone region of the noetic world (which is the 'outer darkness,' outside God, a figure of perdition) like that man who shamelessly entered in the wedding feast with unclean garments.

St. Isaac the Syrian

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Lover of Virtue

St. Isaac clarifies something about the attitude that we must have as we seek to grow in virtue and overcome vice.  We must come to see that often hidden within valiant struggle is still the desire for the vice.  The sign that one is a lover of virtue is expressed through the willingness to endure all manner of evil and suffering to maintain it with joy!  The pure heart remains unconfused and unmoved by the "flattery of tantalizing pleasures."  Sin must no longer have any attraction for us.  Isaac also adds that if we lose the ability or free will to sin due to certain circumstances, i.e., illness, we will not come to know the true joy of repentance.  Absence of sin does not mean the presence of virtue.  All of this is a challenge to halfhearted approach to the spiritual life.

The lover of virtue is not he who does good with valiant struggle, but he who accepts with joy the evils that attend the virtue.  It is not so great a thing for one patiently to endure afflictions on behalf of virtue, as it is for the mind through the determination of its good volition to remain unconfused by the flattery of tantalizing pleasures. No kind of repentance that takes place after the removal our free will will be a well-spring of joy, nor will it be reckoned for the reward of those who possess it.

St. Isaac the Syrian

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Fool's Portion is Small in His Eyes

The thread that connects the thoughts of St. Isaac the Syrian's second homily is thankfulness to God.  How we receive the gifts of God has great significance.  One need only think of the story of the ten lepers in the Gospel.  Only one returns to give thanks to the Giver for the healing he received.  Lack of thanksgiving is akin to dishonesty, St. Isaac states.  It shows that one does not grasp the true worth of what one has received and so not worthy themselves of receiving something greater.  With the eyes of faith, one must grasp the generosity of the healer, even if the cure is painful.  To fail to acknowledge such goodness or generosity or to resist the gift only increase the torment of the affliction.  If we receive what the Lord gives us with true gratitude - whether painful or consoling - He will not fail to pour greater graces upon us for our salvation.  Lacking such an understanding of things, God's gifts seem small in one's eyes - thus making one a "fool".

The thanksgiving of the recipient incites the giver to give gifts greater than the first.  He that returns no thanks in small matters is a dissembler and dishonest in greater ones also.  If a man is ill and he recognizes his ailment, his healing will be easy.  If he confesses his pain, he draws nigh to cure.  The pangs of the unyielding heart will be multiplied, and the patient who resists his physician amplifies his torment.  There is no unpardonable sin, save the unrepented one.  Nor does any gift remain without addition, save that which is received without thanksgiving.  The fool's portion is small in his own eyes.

St. Isaac the Syrian

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Filling the Void: Directionless Modern Spiritualities

Discussions about the spiritual life in modern times rarely seem to give attention to purity of mind and heart.  We expose ourselves indiscriminately to a plethora of distractions - each strengthen the grip of the passions upon us.  And even when attention is given to the subject it is typically amorphous - lacking the clarity and structure of the Fathers' thought.  Yet without such attention given to the interior life men and women are left to wander aimlessly - seeking to fill the void with various popular spiritual practices but never coming to know the healing needed and desired.  

St. Isaac the Syrian in the following brief summary captures the essence of the struggle: If the mind is made pure through guarding the senses through ascetical practices like fasting, vigils and the study of scriptures, one can begin to know a surface level purity - the mind is cleansed of former thoughts and the imagination and memory are gradually made whole.  Such purity, he warns, may be short lived if due diligence is not maintained.  The mind will be quickly soiled again.  As the author of Proverbs writes: "As a dog returns to his vomit, so the sinner returns to his sin."

The purification of the heart, Isaac goes on to explain, only comes through affliction - where attraction to the things of the world is lost and one becomes, as it were, dead to all thing or as St. Paul wrote: "It is no longer I who live I, but Christ who lives within me."  One puts on the mind of Christ.  Few are willing to walk this narrow and difficult path or have the stomach to endure the dreadful conflicts and trials that produce such freedom.  When one clings only to God and his will, the assaults of the world endanger but a little.  

The path put forward seems so simple but it is avoided and ignored but those ruled by their passions and desires for the things of the world.  May God give us the eyes to see and the ears to hear. . .  .  

Purity of mind is one thing, and purity of heart is another, just as a limb differs from the whole body.  Now the mind is one of the senses of the soul, but the heart is what contains and holds the inner senses: it is the sense of senses, that is, their root; but if the root is holy, then the branches are holy.  It is evident, therefore, that if the heart is purified, all the senses are made pure.  Now if the mind, on the one hand, is a little diligent in reading the divine scriptures and toils a little in fasting, vigil, and stillness, it will forget its former activity and will become pure, as long as it abstains from alien concerns.  Even so its purity will not be permanent, for just as it is quickly cleansed, so too it is quickly soiled.

But the heart, on the other hand, is only made pure by many affliction, deprivations, separation from all fellowship with the world, and deadness to all things.  Once it is purified, however, its purity is not soiled by little things, nor is it dismayed by great and open conflicts (I mean dreadful ones), inasmuch as it has acquired, as it were, a strong stomach capable of quickly digesting all the food that is indigestible to those who are weak.  For so it is said among the physicians, that all meats difficult to digest, but it produces great strength in healthy bodies when a strong stomach takes it.

Even so, any purity that comes quickly, with little time and slight labor, is also quickly lost and defiled.  But the purity that comes through many afflictions and is acquired over a long period of time in the soul's superior part is not endangered by any moderate assault.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Desire Purified: Cassian on Grace and Married Love

According to St. John Cassian, those who are married must embrace the spiritual disciplines that foster chastity; for many are not lovers of marriage but slaves of lust.  Marriage in and of itself is not a cure of the passions and spouses who neglect the spiritual life may endlessly continue in the struggle against themselves for purity of heart.  Within them may remain the conflict between sexual habit and continence of heart.  In many ways sexuality is a perfect mirror of the human self and a lens through which we see the contortions and distortions of human motivation.  The desire for chastity must precede the bond of marriage and continue to grow by the grace of God into the perfection of love and purity.  Indeed, the desire for chastity and its pursuit should only lead spouses to embrace married love and each other with still greater affection. Through it one comes to recognize and experience one's spouse as helpmate.  Couples must strive then not to see the sacrament of matrimony as given to them as making the passions licit and so a means of defrauding themselves of the salvation offered them in Christ.  The law commands that marriage be pursued as a great good.  Yet, grace encourages us to an everlasting and incorrupt purity and chastity in every state of life.  

Whoever, then, mounts to this summit of gospel perfection is, by reason of his great virtuousness, raised far above the whole of the law. Despising everything that Moses commanded as insignificant, he knows that he is solely under the grace of the Savior, by whose help he realizes that he has arrived at this most sublime condition. Sin, then, has no dominion over him, `because the love of God that has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us,' excludes every disposition of any other kind. Nor can he desire forbidden things or disdain things that are commanded, since all his concentration and all his longing are constantly fixed upon the divine love, and to such a degree does he not take delight in base things that he does not even make use of those things that have been conceded him.  In the law, however, in which the rights of spouses are observed, it is impossible for the stings of carnal desire not to flourish, even though a roving lasciviousness is restrained and given over to only one woman. It is difficult for the fire, to which fuel is purposely added, to stay within defined limits such that it does not break free and set ablaze whatever it touches. Even if there is always something to block it, so that it is not permitted to flare up outside, it still burns while restrained, because the will itself is guilty and its familiarity with sexual intercourse quickly carries it away to the excesses of adultery. But those whom the grace of the Savior has inflamed with a holy love of incorruption burn up all the thorns of carnal desires with the fire of the Lord's love, such that a dying ember of vice does not diminish the coolness of their integrity.