A Word from the Holy Fathers:
I would like, today, to read you a small section from the Tenth Step of The Ladder to Paradise, The Ladder of Divine Ascent penned by our Father among the saints, John of Sinai, known more often as St. John of the Ladder or St. John Klimakos. In the Tenth Step leading toward the Kingdom, St. John writes the following:
Hasty and severe judges of the sins of their neighbor fall into this passion because they have not yet attained to a thorough and constant remembrance and concern for their own sins. For if anyone could see his own vices accurately, without the veil of self-love, he would worry about no one else in this life, considering that he would not have time enough for mourning for himself, even though he were to live a hundred years, and even though he were to see the whole River Jordan of tears streaming from his eyes. I have observed such mourning, and I did not find in it even a trace of calumny or criticism.
These remarkable words from St. John ought to serve as a reminder to us of our failure, day-to-day; minute-by-minute, to really approach genuine repentance. The kind of repentance, of which St. John speaks, works at a level so profound that many of us find it hard even to imagine. And there are those who read The Ladder; who hear the words of St. John and find in them such an exalted ideal of perfect that they simply put down the book saying, “It is too much. It is too much.”
And yet, the Holy Church is unwilling to let us off the hook so easily. This is one of the few books that is routinely prescribed in our annual Church life – it being a common tradition across every local Orthodox church and jurisdiction to read The Ladder or at least to engage with The Ladder during the period of Great and Holy Lent, if not elsewhere through the year.
The Church is saying to us that though this testimony is strong; though the ideal is high and difficult, it is something that you must hear and which we must heed. Because Christ, as the Fathers often remind us, calls the Christian person to only one standard, and that standard is perfection. And if we live in a world today that says that it is arrogant or disillusioned to try to strain for perfection, then we are reminded by this very fact that we live in a world that in so many ways has lost sight of the message of the Gospel of Christ.
Christ does not call us to live a decent life. He does not charge us to live fairly well or to be pretty good. He calls us to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. And though Christ is forgiving; though His forgiveness has the power to heal and to transform and to give life, even to those who are dead, that forgiveness never comes at the cost of the expectation of change and of perfection.
Christ never forgives with the injunction, “Your sins are forgiven. Now, go and forget about them,” much less, “Go and repeat them.” Christ forgives that the human person, freed from the guilt of that sin; the weight of that transgression, may from that moment strive after the perfection of the life in Christ.
Forgiveness is offered in the Church so freely, not because the Church is for one second suggesting it is okay to sin or suggesting that sin is not a grave problem or suggesting that falling short of the Gospel is in some sense permissible. The Church is so freely forgiving. Confession comes with absolution precisely so that we may not be chained down by our sin.
Forgiveness comes not to make us feel better about the poverty of our spiritual life, but to free us from the chains that we have created so that we can respond anew – whether it be for the first time, the second, or the 2000th – to the charge of Christ, “to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect.” Our goal in the Christian life is never anything less than the perfection commanded of us by our Lord and Savior.
And to follow this life means that we must be intently critical of ourselves. We must look at any trace of imperfection as something on which we must work; something with which we must engage and struggle.
A true Christian person, one who authentically strives to live the evangelical life of the Church, is one who is never satisfied with even the smallest sin in himself, but sees in every transgression (the great as well as the apparently small) something which keeps him or her from that life; something which must be changed and works through his ascetical life to change it.
And St. John, in his whole writing on The Ladder into Paradise provides an example of the severity with which the monks of Mount Sinai and others which he had seen in his life approached that task. And if the physical circumstances of that severity are far from our experience today, and indeed they are for most people, though there are some who, by the grace of God, still live the kind of monastic asceticism that we hear recounted in The Ladder. Most Christians live in the world in a different set of surroundings and circumstances, and God blesses those surroundings as opportunities for repentance.
So, while the physical characteristics of that self-renunciation; of that self-denial; of that struggle toward perfection may look very different, what should not be different; what should resonate profoundly in the same way with us today as it did with St. John is the severity with which we must approach our spiritual life, and it is in this vein that his comment on judgment is made.
How many of us have not succumb to the trap implicit in St. John’s statement; of saying, “I’m working on myself. I’m struggling with my sin. But look at that person, and look at what he is doing. At least I am not doing that.”?
Or how many of us have succumbed to the temptation to say, “Thank God, by His grace, I am making progress. I still have a long way to go, but you my brother or my sister, you are doing this, and it is very bad, and it is judged, and it is wrong.”? We find ourselves judging our brother and our sister – seeing their sins, judging their sins, and reacting to their sins.
St. John knew that temptation well. He saw it often. And yet, he often saw the example of a real repentance; of true grief over one’s sins. And having seen that example on the holy and God-trod mountain of Sinai, he could not let those, who had received his correspondence, fail to hear that example; fail to see it through the image of his words, so that they might themselves attain to a higher calling of repentance.
Yes, we are all tempted with hasty, severe judgment of our neighbor. We are all tempted as well with less hasty and often well thought out, lengthily considered judgment of our neighbor. But St. John identifies this as a passion, and he identifies the cause. We succumb to this passion of judgment of our neighbor, because we (you and I) have not yet attained to a thorough, constant remembrance of concern of our own sins.
Let that observation be a continual reminder for us in our spiritual life. Every time we see and are consumed with judgment over another’s sins, it should remind us; it should be a beacon flashing and glaringly reminding us that we have not yet truly seen our own. Because, as St. John of the Ladder says:
If we really saw our sins; if we truly appreciated the gravity of our own sinfulness, we would have no time to see even the tiniest sin in another. If anyone could see his own vices accurately, without the veil of self-love, he would worry about no one else in this life, considering that he would not have time enough for mourning for himself, even though he were to live a hundred years, and even though a whole River Jordan of his tears were to pour forth.
That is the severity of self-perception that is required of us. We must weep over our sin with that intensity, not for some morbid fascination with all that is bad and dark in the world or in us. The reason we see our sin and we examine it and we weep over it is that it may be uprooted; that those tears may wash us in repentance from the filth of our sin and the stains of our own imperfections.
The reason that we grieve in sorrow over our sin is so that having grieved over these things which bring death, we may then cast them aside and find ourselves restored to life. And it is only when a heart is made alive in Christ that it has the power to help the rest of Creation – brother, sister, father, and mother. We often use the desire to help as an excuse for judgment. “I’m not judging you. I simply want to help you.” St. John gives us a firm reminder:
Real spiritual help comes from the love of a heart purified of sin, and the heart that will be purified of sin comes from an intensity of repentance that has no space and no time for the judgment of others. Every ounce of its spiritual strength is spent in repenting of the darkness that binds it to death; that it may be raised up by the God of life and then purified by the Lord’s grace of sin. Then, this heart may serve for the care, the love, and the redemption of all creation as the Fathers promise.
My dear brothers and sisters, let each of us who struggle to live the Christian life, hear these words of St. John. Let us focus our hearts on repentance. Let us not see even the tiny speck in our neighbor’s eye. But let us look inward and see the sin there – repenting and changing our lives, so that we may draw closer to Christ through Him to our brothers and our sisters of help and support to one another that all of us, together with all the Saints, may be found worthy of the Kingdom of God. Through the prayers of our Holy Father among the Saints, John of Mount Sinai, and all the Saints, have mercy on us, and save us, O God. Amen.