Glory to Jesus Christ! [Glory forever!]
So here we are, entering into the second half of the fast. I don’t know about all of you, but often at this stage of the game, I’m often frustrated with myself a little bit for the lack of progress in working on the things that I want to work on, and we were reminded last week of kind of the pivot point in the Fast, that the way that we do this is to take up our cross, to deny ourselves and follow after him. And today in the Church we’ve got two things that I want to look at. I want to look at the gospel reading, of course, but I also want to look at the saint that we commemorate today, St. John Climacus, and the book that he wrote, called The Ladder of Divine Ascent. It was written at the request… He was the abbot of a monastery, and another abbot of another monastery said: Give us some wisdom. Write down the things that we should be working on to help ourselves in the spiritual struggle. And it has become kind of the classic monastic lenten reading. So I want to kind of tie some of these together.
But the first thing that I want to do is kind of talk about the gospel for today and ask ourselves, in the story we’ve got kind of four main sets of… We’ve got several characters. Of course we have Christ, right? We have the disciples. We have the boy’s father. And then we have the boy himself. I think it’s good for us to ask ourselves: Who is it that we identify with in the context of the story. I personally can really identify with three of them. First, with the boy, who, when my sins take a hold of me, even when I’m trying to get rid of them, I just end up thrashing around on the ground and crying and grinding my teeth. I don’t get very far when I’m trying fight my passions very often.
And I can identify with the disciples who give it their best shot—and nothing happens. And they say, “God, why couldn’t we do this?” And he says, “This kind comes out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” But I think there’s an important lesson in what happens right there. Very often, well, it’s easy for us not to rely on God until we can’t. So there’s a lot of times I need the reminder: I need to at some level get to the end of my human ability to struggle and work with things and slam up against that wall so that I’m reminded that I need God’s power to come in and actually do that work. It’s good for my humility; it’s good for me to recognize where I am in the spiritual life at that point.
And last but certainly not least, I can identify with the father of the son who, when Jesus says, “If you believe, all things are possible,” and his response is: “I believe. Help my unbelief!” What a marvelous prayer. He says to God: I want to believe; help me to do it.
With that, I want to turn focus to St. John and his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The way the book is structured is that there are 33 steps toward love of God, one corresponding to each of the years of Christ’s earthly life. It is this progression—and I want to look at a few things from the book; I want to look at the first few steps and what’s involved there, and then I want to look at a pattern that reoccurs through the rest of the book, and last but not least, give us a warning that St. John gives, very, very early in the book.
So the first thing I want to do is look at some of the first steps, and I’m just going to look at a basic breakdown. One of the first chunks that you can identify in it is what the editors refer to as a break with the world. The first three steps are: Renunciation, detachment, and exile. I want to talk about what those mean for just a moment. Renunciation has to do with, well, basically with our own will. We have to say, “Not my own will, but your will,” to God. In that way—and that’s really… wow, what a first step!—incredibly difficult.
The next is detachment, and that has to do with the things of this world, to include the physical, tangible stuff, but also even our relationships, that we would be detached from them, not in a way that we’re aloof and don’t care, but in a way that says: God, my relationship with you is more important, and I should see all of my relationships through that lens; the primary lens that I should be looking at my relationships through is not the person-to-person lens necessarily, but through God’s eyes. It makes us approach things quite differently if we’re really working on that.
Next, they talk about exile, but if you kind of dig into the text, man, it’s profound in the context of what’s going on in our culture. Basically what it’s saying is that you’re going to give up the desire for novelty, the desire for the new, whatever that is. What’s our culture almost exclusively focused on? Novelty and the next good thing and whatever that is, and we’re continuously striving for whatever that thing is, and we’re frantic, even, to get it. They have an acronym for it now—FOMO, fear of missing out. We constantly want: What are we missing out on by missing the next new thing?
On Mount Athos, there’s a question that’s taboo. The monks aren’t supposed to ask when visitors come in from the outside: What’s new? [Laughter] What’s going on out in the world that could fascinate my mind and get my curiosity going, and all these other things that can get us just distracted, and our mind going in other directions.
Those are the first three steps. Four is even worse; it’s obedience! [Laughter] Four is even worse; it’s obedience, and in the context for us who aren’t monastics, at least I would say it’s this. There’s ancient wisdom that says: He is a fool who has himself for a counselor. Father encouraged us at the beginning of the Fast: If you haven’t been to confession in a while, Go! We need to be able to bounce off someone else the spiritual things that we’re struggling with, because the reality for most of us is that we’re so wrapped up in our own junk we don’t see it clearly. It doesn’t have to be some clairvoyant elder to give us advice; it just needs to be somebody that’s not wrapped up in our own stuff, that keeps us from seeing it clearly.
I want to talk about one more step and then we’ll go on to the next piece, and the next step is repentance. I say that simply to say that all of those other things came before you’re actually really able to begin to repent. Jaw on the floor. Sometimes I say… And repentance is turning; it’s going another way. Sometimes I get frustrated with myself and say: Why haven’t I been able to turn? Why haven’t I been able to make some progress on these different things? Maybe because I haven’t renounced the world and my own will; maybe because I’m not detached from the things of this world; maybe because I’m continuously seeking to be entertained and amused at something new; maybe because I haven’t gone and put my sins and cares and concerns at Christ’s feet in confession. These are the prerequisites to really making progress.
I want to talk about one more, talk about a theme that happens throughout the book, and the first of the negative passions that he talks about is anger. At the end of the section on anger, as a literary device, St. John interrogates the passion, as if it’s a prisoner of war. He says: Who is your mother? Who is your father? Who are your children? What has power to weaken you? What has power to defeat you? Wow. As I thought about that, I had this recognition: He’s talking about a genealogy of sin, a genealogy of the passions. They have a family tree.
As I began to examine that in my own life and started cross-referencing in the book where the sins go and come from, back and forth, what I realized is that with this question—Who is your mother? Who is your father? Who are your children?—that we have what I like to say [is] “root sins” and we have “fruit sins.” There are some deep passions that may be in our lives that we don’t even recognize that are feeding the other passions. I could spend my entire life plucking bad fruit, trying to get that out of my life, but until I figure out where that passion is being fed from, all it’s going to do is pop up someplace else, in one of the other kids of those passions. So if you find yourself struggling over and over again with a particular passion to cut that out of your life and despite your best efforts you’re not making any progress, there’s a really good chance that that’s the child, not the parent. Until you figure out what that parent is, that parent passion, you might not make much progress in it. And I say that as encouragement! So seek in prayer and in confession and wise counsel to bounce some of those things around and figure out where that’s going.
Last, I want to give a warning that St. John gives very early in his book. He’s talking about all of these steps in the context of everything that’s going on. He says that all of these are powerful spiritual medicine. Just like real medicine, different people respond differently to it. At one point, a certain medicine will save your life, and at a different point, that same medicine will kill you. The same is true in the spiritual life: what might be good for one person at one stage of their spiritual struggle might not be good for somebody else, and what might be good for someone at a particular stage of their spiritual struggle might not be good for them for somebody else. Again, I encourage you, in the context of confession and counsel with the person that you’re going to confession to, to talk about that kind of stuff, talk about the spiritual disciplines that you’re working on to figure out: Is this really going to get you where you want to go? He who has himself for a counselor has a fool. Obedience, and to work this out.
There’s more… If we spent our lives trying to keep all of the laws, to use all of the tools that are available in the context of the Orthodox Tradition, we’d pop; we’d explode. There’s too much there. So seek to figure out what’s going to work for you. Look at the fruit sins in your life and begin to work on them. If you don’t get anywhere, say: Where’s the root that’s feeding this, that it’s continuing on? And kind of work through these steps, as best we can in the context of our lives, making our break from the world and focusing on the spiritual life and not being so obsessed with the next new thing, whatever that is, and seeking God in the process.
To all of this, like the father in today’s gospel reading, I believe; help my unbelief! In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.