Homily on St. John of the Ladder

Every Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to person or event, with the sequence of these commemorations designed to prepare us for a deeper participation in Christ’s passion and resurrection.  This Sunday is dedicated to the life and work of St. John of the Ladder.

Saint John was an ascetic, a spiritual athlete, and a trainer of other spiritual athletes.  He was a monk and he trained other monks, but we are all called to be spiritual athletes.    

Saint John wrote down his guidance for achieving spiritual perfection in his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  Each chapter presents a step in the ladder to perfection, starting with the basics and working its way up to theosis… parking of the Divine Nature.  This is a sort of “how-to manual” on taking up your cross, the cross of salvation and perfection (plug Tito Coriander’s The Way of Ascetics).

By the way, this is not one of those books that you can just skip to the end.  The reward for those who work their way to end is great, but we have to start at the beginning and work for every step.

Think of this effort as similar to how hard you have to push to get a bicycle up a steep hill.  What happens if you stop pushing?  Can you coast?  Not if you want to get to the top!  It takes constant effort, and like a thrown stone, if we are not moving upwards, you can be very sure that we are going down.  It doesn’t take much “coasting” to end up right back where we started, if not lower.

The pedals are the work we put into living the Orthodox life in Christ.  Some of that effort – like fasting – seems artificial.  After all, there is nothing wrong (and a whole lot right!) with meat and dairy.  But putting work into fasting builds up our muscles so that we have the strength to push on in every area of this life.  Strength is necessary as the hill is sometimes very steep.

So what do the steps look like?  How can we, living in the world, get to that final chapter where the love of God flows so purely through and from us?  To ask it another way, what must we do to be saved?

Let’s start with the basics:  Come  to church every Sunday and every feast day.  Repent of your sins daily and in confession.  Pray at home every day.  Fast.  Work towards a tithe – and do it cheerfully.  These are the preparatory rungs of the ladder for us who live out our Christian lives in parishes and families.   

And I can hear the response now; “But Father…”   These wonderful conversations always start with “But Father”.  I know every time I hear it that I am about to hear something interesting!  So I can hear the response; “But Father, I have no unrepented sins; I pray constantly; I fast as my health allows; I already give more than a tenth of my time and money in support of spreading the Gospel through the parish.”  

Honestly, I don’t expect to hear the obvious follow-on question of “what more must I do to be saved?” because most of us are either trying to coast or camp out on that bottom rung.  But I’ll go ahead and answer it anyway, and I will paraphrase our Lord’s own response: 

Well, if you would be perfect…

If you are serious about being following Christ (up the mountain, through the Cross, and into His glory), then work hard on becoming a devoted servant of both God and your neighbor.  See yourself as a minister to the needs of every person that comes into your life and into your mind.  This is hard!  Take it seriously and it will propel you higher up that ladder than hours of meditation.  It’s hard because it goes straight in the teeth of our pride.  Our pride is limiting our upward progress.  It’s like trying to ride up that mountain with brake calipers constantly rubbing against your wheels.  At some point, it just can’t be done.  We have to unlock those brakes.  We have to do something about our pride.

And it is towards the breaking down of this pride that most of the Ladder is dedicated.

We are in great need of this lesson; we do not think of ourselves as ministers, but as customers.  Even in Church, it is often less about praising God and losing ourselves in His glory than it is about satisfying our own selfish needs.

Compare this attitude of worship to that found in Isaiah (we read Isaiah during Lent and are studying it at Bible Study).  He was taken up into the midst of the heavenly throne room of Christ and he was overcome by Awe.  He could only mutter his unworthiness, saying “I am undone.”  He knew to his core that he was unworthy for Communion, but by God’s grace he receives it and is not burnt; and he does it so that he can answer God’s call to serve his broken children.  “Whom shall I send” said God – and Isaiah said; “Send me.”

Compare that to our attitude when we come into Church.  We are joined with the angels, God descends to us and we are transported into the timeless glory of eternal worship.  And what do we do?  What is our response?  Are we awed?  Are we grateful?  Are we moved to both repentance and service?  No.  Instead…

  • We complain about the way the throne room looks.
  • We complain that the Holy Seraphim that shower God with praises are singing in a language we don’t understand.
  • We complain that the Cherubim that continual move about God’s glory are distracting us by singing and dancing to a counter-point that we don’t like.
  • We complain that the river of fire that flows to the throne of God is obscuring our view of the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds.
  • We complain about boring homilies, or repetitive music (e.g. “I’m not being fed”).
  • We think of Communion as the way for us to heal – and not about the next step of bringing healing to others.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. We are so blinded by our own egotism that we cannot see the awesome majesty around us.

We have to do better.  Taking the Orthodox disciplines more seriously will help, but it also requires a change in attitude.  If we fast and tithe without changing our attitude, what are we?  We are just hungry egotists with less disposable income.

From the ladder – when you get angry, distracted, or bored by what is going on around you, bite your tongue.  Take a deep breath.  Find a way to bring love to bear on the situation.  As St. John writes (step eight);

The beginning of freedom from anger is silence of the lips when the heart is agitated; the middle is silence of the thoughts when there is a mere disturbance of soul; and the end is an imperturbable calm under the breath of unclean winds.

He went on to give an example:

 I once saw three monks receive the same injury at the same time. One felt the sting of this, but kept silent; the second rejoiced at his injury for the reward it would bring him, but was sorry for the wrongdoer; and the third, thinking of the harm his erring neighbour was suffering, wept fervently. And fear, reward and love were to be seen at work.

At the beginning level of this journey up the ladder, we learn to be patient and “take it for the team”.  It’s not fun, but we know that it is the right thing to do.  We act patient, attentive, and kind because we have been told that it is the right thing to do and we fear the consequences (from our peers if not from God) if we don’t.

At the middle level, we recognize that kind of denial of self and suffering is like doing exercises or dieting; it’s not fun but it is helping us become better people.  We want the reward of being good.  We also begin to recognize that the people who are distracting or hurting us are broken.

At the final step (the top of the hill), we react with calm and kind attentiveness and automatically minister to our attacker selflessly and meekly, not out of fear or a desire for some reward, but because God’s love has transformed us through Christ into the new Adam.

God does not want us to be good out of fear – this is the response of the slave and God does not want slaves.  God does not want us to be good in hopes of a reward – this is the response of the mercenary and God does not want mercenaries.  God wants us to do good because we have become good, to love because we have become love.  This is how we become the children, friends, and fellow-ministers that he desires.