Note: This Homily was given by Dcn. Michael Schlaack on the Sunday of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, 2019
Today, the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, we remember a 6th century monk whose writing has had a great influence on the Christianity: St. John Climacus. His book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, continues to have an impact on the life of the Church as well as on the lives of every Christian reader. While the primary focus of The Ladder was originally directed towards the monastic men living in the St. Catherine Monastery in the Sinai Desert, the lessons on attaining holiness through a process of gradual, upward steps toward heaven is one that we can certainly take to heart and benefit from today.
St. John’s approach to reaching heavenly perfection is likened to a person climbing a ladder. This spiritual climb represents a life-long journey that each of us will need to make to reach heaven. There are 30 rungs to this ladder, representing the number of years of Christ’s life on earth. And just as with any ascent on a ladder, we must be firmly standing on a lower rung before we can move up to the next. In St. John’s view of achieving holiness, there is no skipping steps; we must stand on the bottom rung in order to lift ourselves up higher on the ladder. It is therefore easy to understand why the Church commemorates St. John Climacus on the 4thSunday of Great Lent, for our progress over the past four weeks of faithful observance of the ascetical practices of the Great Fast has helped us as well to advance up the ladder of spiritual perfection.
As Orthodox Christians, we know that to attain spiritual perfection—that is, the ability to unite ourselves with God and thus experience His divine energies—we must be willing to work with God on our personal deification, or theosis, by a process known as synergia. We cannot achieve spiritual perfection on own—we need to rely on God’s love and mercy, and then do our part by loving God and our neighbor and living a righteous life. In other words, we must be willing to work with God, taking up our cross and following Christ. There is no irresistible grace, and the concept of “once saved always saved” is not part of the Orthodox understanding of salvation. It is a marathon, not a sprint, to the finish line. So, St. John Climacus’ image of a ladder makes perfect sense when discussing the journey towards our own personal deification.
When we consider the scriptural lesson this morning from St. Mark’s Gospel we can see the direct relationship between St. John’s Ladder and two important ascetic endeavors related to Great Lent: prayer and fasting. And while we may consider these as two very basic tasks of the Christian faith, further examination will tell us that they are two ascetical skills that are not easily mastered.
The principle understanding behind St. John’s Ladder is that a person must progress from the bottom of spiritual perfection to the top, with each rung of the ladder representing a passion to overcome or a virtue that must be attained. In Step 14, titled “Gluttony,” St. John describes this passion as “the hypocrisy of the stomach,” because “it eats modestly but wants to gobble everything at the same time.” For St. John, Gluttony is not just the act of filling our stomachs but the thought of it as well. As with all the passions, it is not just the mere act but the overall condition of both the body and soul that adversely affects our relationship with God, our neighbor and ourselves.
To truly understand gluttony as St. John Climacus is using the word, we need to broaden our definition of fasting beyond what goes into our stomach and include all things that can make us subject to this passion. Any time we indulge excessively of anything: food, drink, talking, entertainment; all the things of the world that we are taught to moderate or completely avoid during the Great Fast, we are being slaves to gluttony. When we have a gluttonous soul, there is never enough, and the objective to living becomes finding more things to consume. So, by disciplining our physical appetites, we learn the valuable lessons about how to discipline the other passions of our lives as well.
There are many advantages to fasting that provides us with the spiritual strength necessary to fight demons—both our own and those tormenting others. St. John teach us that “Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts…makes for purity of prayer, an enlightened soul, a watchful mind…” How many of us knew that we could receive so many blessings when we learn to discipline our appetites?
It should be noted from the words of St. John Climacus that among other things, fasting “makes for purity of prayer.” We know that prayer between God and us should be a two-way communication, where we not only talk to God but also listen to what He has to say to us. Prayer is a dialogue, not a monologue. It must be more than just a list of “God-gimmes.” So important is prayer in our lives as Christians that St. John Climacus calls it Step 28 on the Ladder of Divine Ascent. He calls prayer “future gladness, action without end, wellspring of virtues, source of grace, hidden progress, food for the soul, enlightenment of the mind, an axe against despair, hope demonstrated, sorrow done away with” Who knew that our simple, humble prayer could do so much!
Prayer, according to St. John, has the power to hold the world together because it achieves reconciliation between God and humanity. Think of the saints of the Church and ask yourself: How many of them acquired sanctification without praying? As Jesus made clear in our Gospel reading, this advanced level of ascetic endeavor, when coupled with fasting, has the power to drive out demons. When we can drive out demons, both in ourselves and in others around us, we truly have the power to change the world. This is the strength and the responsibility that we have as Christians: To pray for change.
But it is important to remember that our prayer cannot be the half-hearted, distracted monologues that we frequently offer up to God in the name of prayer. For it to be effective it must be true, pure and heartfelt. Pure, true prayer should be the goal of all of God’s people; it is the act that, according to Evagrius of Pontus, makes each of us theologians. In our Orthodox Christian tradition, to discover God and to be able to share in His divine energies, we must open ourselves up to experience His loving work in our lives as well as in the world around us. It is not enough to just study His teachings—we can see that in our Gospel lesson today. Even though the disciples had the best teacher in the world, they still could not muster the power to drive the demon from the possessed boy. At this point in their ministry they still had a lot to learn, not only from Christ’s teaching but by experiencing, and thus knowing, God through the revelations of Jesus.
We are now in the final two weeks of the Great Fast, and I hope and pray that this time has been used beneficially by each of us to improve our spiritual lives as we prepare for Holy Week and then the Pascha of our Lord. The two important ascetic endeavors we learned about this morning—prayer and fasting—should help us on our continued journey towards spiritual perfection. As our Gospel lesson demonstrates, we may never know when we will be called to drive out the demons. But through the practice of fasting as well as true, pure prayer, not only during Great Lent but throughout the year, we will be prepared should the need arise. We will never know when we will be called upon to pray for someone experiencing spiritual difficulties, so constant practice of the ascetic virtues is important for all Christians, since the next demons we encounter may the ones tormenting our own lives.
Vassilios Papavassiliou, Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Assent for All Walks of Life(Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2013), 118.