On the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate our Holy Father St. John Climacus, St. John of the Ladder. That appellation refers to his book of homilies on the monastic life, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. In this work, St. John identifies thirty spiritual disciplines, which, like rungs on a ladder, lead us upward to attainment of the heavenly life.
I was reading from The Ladder the other day, specifically I was looking at “Step 2 - On detachment.” In his homily, St. John speaks of all the things a person must renounce in order to enter deeply into the life of God. He says:
The man who really loves the Lord…will not care about money, or possessions, or parents, or worldly glory, or friends, or brothers, or anything at all on earth.
Now I can understand how godliness requires the rejection of money, possessions, and worldly glory. But how can St. John say that to love God, we must not love parents or friends or brothers? I mean, isn’t the Kingdom of God a kingdom of love? Aren’t we supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves? How can this holy saint suggest that we must renounce those who are closest to us?
But in these words, St. John is only reiterating the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. If anything, Jesus’ words are stronger than his. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple,” Luke 14:26.
That sounds harsh. It seems completely at odds with the message of the Gospel. Doesn’t God tell us to love our enemies? How can a loving God demand that we turn our backs on those that are nearest and dearest to us?
I suggest to you that what we have here is one of those paradoxes with which Christian life is replete. I’ll phrase it this way. When St. John and the Lord Jesus ask us to hate people, they are actually asking us to begin to really love them. How can that be?
To understand it, we must first grasp what love is. Especially, we need to differentiate between love and something else which all too often passes for love, attachment. What is love? Well, St. John tells us that God and love are synonymous, 1st John 4:16. God is love. Love is of God. In other words, love is the nature of the life, which the members of the Holy Trinity live.
What kind of life is that? First of all, each of the persons of the Trinity lives in total self-subordination to the other two persons. Jesus tells us that He does not seek His own will, but rather the will of His Father. That’s John 5:30.
In Psalm 2:6-8, we hear the Father declare that whatever the Son asks of Him, He freely gives. The Holy Spirit, St. John tells us, does not speak His own words, but what the Son bids Him to speak, John 16:13-15.
The mutual self-denial, exhibited by the divine persons, goes hand-in-hand with their complete openness to one another. They are so receptive of one another that they actually become one another; all the while retaining their individuality.
Jesus says that He and His Father are one, John 10:30. To know Him is to know the Father, John 14:7-9. Christ tells His disciples that the Holy Spirit’s presence is His presence, John 14:16-18. This is not just the way that members of the Trinity act toward one another. It is the way they act with us.
St. Paul tells us that just as Christ empties Himself for His Father’s sake, He empties Himself, divests Himself of all the glory which is His, for the sake of our salvation. That’s Philippians 2:5-8. The Father, Jesus assures us, pours out blessing on those who love Him and on those who hate Him, Matthew 5:44-45.
When it comes to being open and receptive to us, the Lord declares that the one who comes to me, I will by no means cast out, John 6:37. So what can we say about the nature of love? Love is both a completely, unconditional giving of one’s self to other and a completely, unconditional openness to others.
Love is a light, which cannot control where it shines. It is a wide-open door that cannot discriminate who comes through it. As Christ teaches in Matthew 5:43-48, true love washes over its enemies as it invites them into its heart.
When we understand this about love, it makes us hear, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple,” with different ears.
We know that the Christ cannot be admonishing us to harbor bitter vehemence against those who are dearest to us. Instead we hear in His words, the same message as Matthew 10:37 where the Lord says, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
These words are not as grating as the previous ones, but still, to some, they might sound selfish. Why does Jesus say this? Is He just the jealous type, unable to stand it when others are important to us? No. The problem, given what I present here about the unconditional and universal nature of love, is that as soon as we start talking about loving someone more than someone else, we’re not talking about love anymore.
Let me explain. When we looked at the life of God, we see that love is one. Love gives itself to all. Love receives all. To dim my love toward one is to dim my love toward all. To shut it off to one is to shut it off to all. True love can’t be divided out and distributed in varying quantities to different people.
So when I say, “I love this one, but I don’t love that one,” or “I love this one more than I love that one,” or God forbid, “I love this one, and I hate that one,” I cannot be speaking about love. If I find myself struggling over who gets my love, Jesus or others, then I’m not feeling love for either.
What am I feeling? It’s merely a relative sense of attachment. It’s my momentary willingness to bind myself, in some way, to another person for the sake of fulfilling a need within me. To many, attachment seems like love.
Certainly, attaching myself to someone can produce deep feelings for them. I may desire more than anything to be with them. I may even be willing to sacrifice much to stay connected to them. But the difference between attachment and genuine love is this: Where love is self-denying and non-discriminating, attachment is self-fulfilling and exceedingly discriminating.
I attach myself in varying degrees to others, based upon who can do the most for me. Who can make me fill more fulfilled? Who can invest in my life with greater meaning? True love, on the other hand, cannot even imagine such questions.
So when Jesus Christ calls me to love Him, above all, and to cease to put anyone in my life before Him, He’s asking me to set aside all these relative attachments. He wants me to stop playing selfish games with people and to genuinely love them.
For when I give myself freely and entirely to Christ and open my heart unreservedly to Him, I also give myself completely to those who are bound to His heart. And of course, He loves everyone. So in my eyes and in my heart, every person becomes one with Christ. Thus, to love Him first is to love them completely.
My relationships cease to be subject to the vagaries of human life. I stop loving people when they fulfill my needs and rejecting them when they disappoint me. They cease to be the ones I hold responsible for making me happy or sad or pleased or angry. Instead, they become manifestations of Christ in my life.
I cannot possibly love them more than Him, for I love them as Him. This detachment is true freedom, both for me and those around me. I am no longer subject to the whims of others. Their actions toward me, no longer make or break me. And they no longer suffer under the weight of the powerful demands I place upon them.
Together, we share the all-sustaining life of Christ. We drink from his wellspring. It’s waters bind us in a love, which exposes mere attachment for the sickness that it is. During Great Lent, we think much about detachment from worldly things—from food and other sensual pleasures. But this season offers us opportunities to detach ourselves lovingly from other persons.
For instance, we begin Lent with Forgiveness Vespers, which is certainly an act of detachment. How so? Well, in repentance and forgiveness, we dissolve the expectations and demands that we had attached to others. We no longer hang the weight of our lives on one another. Instead, we emancipate each other, allowing each of us to walk freely with the Christ, who joins us together in His heart.
During this holy Lenten-tide, may we all come to know the peace, joy, and love, which holy detachment brings.