Sunday, April 10, 2016: Sunday of St. John Climacus; Terence & his Companions beheaded at Carthage, Gregory V, the Holy Martyr & Patriarch of Constantinople, Holy Father Theona, Archbishop of Thessolonica
One of my professors in graduate school, a Catholic priest and a psychologist, said that often when people sometimes think that an experience of God exempts them from the laws of human development, and the he paused, and conclude “or from an evident need for psychotherapy.” While I think he meant this lightly, the fact we often fall into thinking about the spiritual life in static terms. This isn’t simply a temptation of Evangelical Christians or fundamentalists who believe “once saved, always saved.” No, this is something that Orthodox Christians must guard against as well.
As with the rest of human life, the spiritual life has its own dynamism, its own internal rhythm and logic. Think for example of the patriarch Abraham. What do we read about him in the Epistle? Abraham “patiently endured” and only then “obtained the promise.” God doesn’t immediately make Abraham “a mighty nation.” Instead, God leads him slowly, step-by-step, until Abraham is willing to sacrifice even his son Isaac in obedience to God (Genesis 12-22).
The dynamic character of our relationship with Christ is also on display in the Gospel. Though they had been with Him from the beginning of His ministry, head His teaching and seen the miracles He performed, the disciples still need to grow in faith. Jesus makes this clear to them when in response to their question “Why could we not cast it out?” He tells them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.”
Today on the fourth Sunday of the Great Fast we commemorate our father among the saints John Climacus or John of the Ladder. He’s known especially for his collection of some 30 homilies on monastic life, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, in which he outlines the various step along the way from repentance to theosis. For St John, like all the fathers of the Church, the spiritual life is a journey. Not only that, it is a journey with identifiable stages. Nothing is more harmful to our spiritual lives is the idea, sadly held even by some Orthodox Christians, that there is no content to the inner life besides what in the last analysis a rather nebulous call to love.
Historically, different spiritual fathers have suggested slightly different steps in the spiritual life. As I said, for St John Climacus there are 30. For St Maximus, to take another example, there are 8 steps: (faith in God, fear of God, self-control, forbearance, patience, hope, dispassion, and love;(First Century on Charity, #2). St Benedict, the father of monasticism in the West, in his Holy Rule (Chapter VII: On Humility), lists 12 steps to humility.
The important point from all this is that God doesn’t ask us to take on the whole spiritual life at once. Instead, like with Abraham in the epistle and the disciples in today’s Gospel, He leads us slowly. We can even go so far as to say that God conforms His catechesis to our ability to comprehend and respond freely.
As I said, different fathers have different ways of articulating the dynamism of the spiritual life. But all agree that the inner life is not static, it requires that we grow and change. We can, I think, summarize the spiritual life as a journey of three stages: purification, illumination and theosis. The scheme comes from St Dionysius the Areopagite (On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, 5.1 and 6.1) and, like all summarizes, has its limitation. That said, it is a helpful way of thinking about the spiritual life.
Progress in the spiritual life requires that I first lay aside my sins. This is the work of the first stage of the spiritual life, purification.
As I lay aside my sin, I begin to see myself, my neighbor and the whole creation as if with new eyes. I see things more and more as God sees them. This is the stage of illumination.
Finally, I reach as a foretaste of the life to come, theosis or what St Dionysius calls perfection; an intimate communion with God and, in God, my neighbor, creation and myself. It is at this stage that we are restored to what we might call a wholeness of being.
The theology here is beautiful and sublime, no question about it. But this should blind us, or cause us to minimize or dismiss the fact that life in Christ is dynamic. There is a discernable process to our spiritual lives as we pass “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18, KJV) that must be respected and which can’t be rushed. Just as God conforms Himself to my weakness, I need to as well. Really humility means abiding peacefully and gratefully with pace of God’s grace in my life.
This is why, following the admonish of Jesus in The Gospel, the Church every year sets asides the season of the Great Fast but other periods of “prayer and fasting.” If I am to grow in holiness, I always need to set aside time for prayerful self-reflection and self-evaluation. I may not have an evident need for psychotherapy but I do need to conform myself to the demands of human nature.
Again, like God I need to accept my own humanity and do so in love for my salvation and the salvation of the world.
The disciples in the Gospel failed to cast out the demon because they didn’t depend on God’s grace. Instead, the presumed against that grace and thought, ironically, that grace apart from the exercise of their own freedom, was sufficient. It isn’t. And it isn’t not because God’s grace is ever absent. It is rather because sin is nothing more or less than my indifference to God.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let me suggest to you that one way in which we express our indifference to divine grace, is to reject the dignity of our Christian calling and assume that we can grow faster in the spiritual life than God’s grace allows. Let us instead cultivate a spirit of patience and gratitude for the pace God sets in our lives confident that He will not abandon us and will make us, at each step along the way, profitable servants.