Perhaps no one has had a greater impact on the practice of Christian discipleship, at least in the east, than the saint whom we commemorate today, St. John Climacus, meaning “Of The Ladder.” His great work of the same name has a spiritual and psychological wisdom unexcelled I believe in much if not all of Christian ascetical literature. I am considering three short but astonishingly insightful extracts from the Ladder today. The first concerns God’s mercy:
“Nothing equals or excels God’s mercies. Therefore, he who despairs is committing suicide. A sign of true repentance is the acknowledgment that we deserve all the afflictions, visible and invisible, that come upon us, and ever greater ones. Moses, after seeing God in the bush, returned again to Egypt, that is, to darkness and to the brick-making of Pharaoh, who was symbolical of the spiritual Pharaoh. But he went back again to the bush, and not only to the bush, but also up the mountain. Whoever has known divine vision will never despair of himself. Job became a beggar, but he became twice as rich again.”
In this teaching we learn that there are two chief enemies of the spiritual life, self-righteous or vainglory and despair. The self-righteous believe that they are beyond reproach, entirely perfect and justified in their claims against everyone and everything, including, if their bogus belief can be dignified with the term faith, (which it cannot), God. As children of pride they are spiritually dead. Maybe a flicker of altruism, of concern for someone else other than themselves, will save them… but make no mistake about it, their situation is grave… which is precisely where they are headed, the grave
Those who despair are in an equal but opposite danger. What is despair if nothing other than a doubting of God’s mercy. Unless despair is to be found amongst the ignorant, It is not excusable so it must not be indulged with pity, however tempting it might be to think that this is the compassionate response. Loving someone caught in despair involves challenging their reliance upon themselves, so in a sense despair is yet another manifestation of pride, but lacking it’s self-confidence. Therein perhaps lies its remedy. If the despairing can be brought through despair of themselves to trust in God then salvation is nigh. Nonetheless despair is a subtle and devious enemy for it can conceal itself in false piety. It remains always an enemy of our relationship with God.
The second extract from the Ladder concerns repentance. St. John says:
“Repentance is the renewal of baptism. Repentance is a contract with God for a second life. A penitent is a buyer of humility. Repentance is constant distrust of bodily comfort. Repentance is self-condemning reflection, and carefree self-care. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the renunciation of despair. A penitent is an undisgraced convict. Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the practice of good deeds contrary to the sins. Repentance is purification of conscience. Repentance is the voluntary endurance of all afflictions. A penitent is the inflicter of his own punishments. Repentance is a mighty persecution of the stomach, and a striking of the soul into vigorous awareness.”
For me, I think the most powerful statement here describes a penitent as “an undisgraced convict.” A convict, because we do stand convicted in and by our sins; undisgraced, because we are “graced” by God’s mercy, forgiveness and acceptance in Christ. His sacrifice of Himself has put away our disgrace and dishonour and although we remain sinners we do not stand condemned. On the cross and in the resurrection, all is grace, all is mercy. We do not save ourselves. God saves us. Activating that in our lives, however, depends on our repentance which is hastened by humility and strengthened by self-denial. This makes our spirits noble and strong in God, ready to endure all manners of afflictions and trials for our sins and for the sake of the gospel and a suffering world. Only an undisgraced convict can truly love without limit if he will but receive the limitless love of the grace-full Saviour, even our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
My final extract from the Ladder concerns fear… together with pride and despair, the implacable enemy of our faith and well-being.
“Let us charge into the good fight with joy and love without being afraid of our enemies. Though unseen themselves, they can look at the face of our soul, and if they see it altered by fear, they take up arms against us all the more fiercely. For the cunning creatures have observed that we are scared. So let us take up arms against them courageously. No one will fight with a resolute fighter.”
These enemies of course are not human; they are Satan and his demons. Now, who would fight with one arm tied round his back? This is how many Christians try to engage with the enemy today ... by not recognising who he is or denying that he has any substantive existence; Satan I mean. In taking up this so called “modern” and enlightened” position they often find themselves in the thick of a battle that they neither recognise nor understand ... hence the one arm tied around the back. Others, whilst accepting the nature of this spiritual warfare against the evil one, become fearful in the face of the onslaught of the enemy. These trust not in God, who has gained the victory in the resurrection of Christ. He it is who arms his enlisted soldiers, that is, you and I, with the full and effective weaponry of faith and endurance. We may be wounded in this battle many times but in Christ we shall never ever be defeated. Why, therefore, do we fear? As St. John says, fear itself is a weapon of the enemy. Satan sniffs out fear in the human soul as a weakness to be exploited with great cunning and skill. A Christian should be fearless if he has the Holy Spirit in him and Christ beside him. “Perfect love,” as another St. John, the Theologian reminds us, “casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Therefore, we fight by his grace and power and we are in no way afraid, for in the end we shall conquer “the old man” and be raised to newness of life.
So, as we have learned today from St. John of the Ladder, and to put it into modern parlance from an earlier conflict with evil, we are to “keep calm and carry on.” We “keep calm” because Christ has won us the victory. We “carry on” because we are called to be resolute, courageous and cheerful fighters in and by his grace. And so the final victory will be secured against Satan and God’s just and gentle rule will be triumphant in Love over all.