Monday, April 20, 2015

Remembering the Love of Our Father: St. Isaac the Syrian on recovery from temptation and sin

For those who take the spiritual life seriously, there are times when our own sins and failures can seem proof-positive that the task of following Christ is simply too daunting—even if all we do is respond to what Christ is doing in us. When such moments arise, we need encouragement.

One place to go for this is the writings of a person who has gone before us and met with the same temptations and discouragements. Like visiting a trusted and experienced mentor, confessor, or spiritual director, such an encounter draws us out of the isolation of failure into the embrace of God’s power, love, and renewal.

The following passage from the Ninth Ascetic Homily of St. Isaac the Syrian is such an encounter. The author, a Christian mystic who lived from c. 613 to c. 700 AD, wrote a large collection of works on prayer and living as an ascetic in stillness and humility. He is one of that great cloud of witnesses in the Communion of Saints the Church honors as an authentic spiritual guide. His words are those of deep wisdom and a compassion based on experience—not theory.

This compassion is not “cheap grace” as Bonhoeffer would say. Rather, it is purchased at a great price by Christ himself, and then through that purchase, the life of anyone who would follow after Christ. This compassion is the fruit of a total commitment to the Gospel and to communion with God the Holy Trinity…a communion that will not give up simply because we have failed. The Love of God is too important to let failure get in the way…

            Diverse are the slips and falls which can occur on the path of virtue and the way of righteousness, as the Fathers write, saying that on the path of virtue and the way of righteousness there are falls, oppositions, compulsions, and the like.
            But something quiet different is the death of the soul, complete destruction and utter abandonment. By this is evident that whenever a man falls, he should not forget the love of his Father. And if it happens that he fall into many diverse transgressions, he should not be negligent concerning the good, nor should he stop his onward course, but even though he was vanquished, he should rise up again and struggle against his adversaries and each day begin to lay a foundation for his ruined dwelling, having the words of the Prophet in his mouth until his departure from this world, ‘ Rejoice not against me, mine enemy, that I have fallen; for I will rise again; for though I should sit in darkness, the Lord shall be alight unto me.’ (Micah 7:8) May he never cease from making war until his death, and as long as there is breath in him may he not surrender his soul to defeat, even at the very moment of his defeat! But if each day his ship be broken and his cargo perish in the deep, let him not cease from acquiring new possessions, trading, and also from borrowing; let him set out in other ships, sailing in hope, until beholding his struggle and taking compassion on his ruin, the Lord sends down upon him His mercy and gives him powerful motivations to enable him to undergo and resist the flaming darts of the enemy. This is the wisdom which is granted by God, and this is the wise invalid who has not cut off his hope. It is more expedient for us to be condemned on account of particular deeds than on account of our abandoning all.
From Homily IX
The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian
Translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery
Boston, Massachusetts, 1984

Notice how St. Isaac uses the language of an oft-unfortunate but persevering entrepreneur starting from scratch once more in the pursuit of gain, applying it to our own tenacious desire to attain Holy Wisdom. St. Isaac also reminds us that we are all “holy invalids” in spiritual matters, utterly dependent on God for each gift, each advancement, each breath and hope. This is a Christianity that holds our minds and our affections in balance and wholeness, providing nourishment for the total person.

Classical Anglicanism often speaks of various spiritual practices such as the Daily Office, spiritual self-examination, fasting, confession, preparation for Communion, corporal works of mercy, &c., often collectively gathered into what we call a Rule of Life. This is one of the great gifts of catholic Christianity.

But gifts can become arid and legalistic without love and mercy. Anyone who lives a Rule of Life knows that following Christ through a Rule means dealing with much failure at every stage as we learn the spiritual craft. How we understand, respond to, and learn from failure is extremely important. St. Isaac shows us that the mark of true discipleship means a tenacious commitment to Christ through “good report and evil report,” or (as the Baptismal liturgy in the current Book of Common Prayer has it) repenting and returning to the Lord when we sin—there to receive healing and knowledge that can be found no other way. Of such is the Kingdom of God built…with our loving God’s help, always.

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