Glory to Jesus Christ!
Today the Orthodox Church commemorates our father among the saints John Climacus. He is also called John of the Ladder because he is the author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. In Orthodox monasteries, this work is read daily throughout the Great Fast. It traces the “rungs” or steps in the monk’s spiritual life from his initial repentance to union with the Holy Trinity.
Unfortunately, we don’t have time this morning to go through all 30 rungs on John’s ladder. But he’s not the only Church father who saw the spiritual life as a journey with concrete steps or stages.
St Dionysius the Areopagite, for example, offers us a simpler, more compact, three-step process by which we grow in holiness. These steps or stages are purification, illumination, and theosis (or in the West, union). He also sees a tripartite structure reflected in the three grades of the priesthood that mirrors the soul’s progress in holiness.
To help us understand his teaching on the spiritual life let’s look briefly at what Dionysius says about holy orders.
As the one who calls the Church to lay aside the “cares of this life” and enter into prayer, the deacon embodies purification. The presbyter (priest) in and through his ministry of teaching, counseling, and administration, embodies illumination. This means that the priest is charged by God with helping the faithful see things as God sees them.
Finally, the bishop.
Because of his intimacy with God and his commitment to both the doctrine of the Church and to love, the bishop is called by to preside at the Divine Liturgy. Moreover, and as an expression of his liturgical role, the bishop is the guardian of the bonds of charity that unite the members of the Church to God and to each other.
Given that Holy Tradition cannot envision the office of bishop apart from the local church, Dionysius says that the bishop is called by God to embody theosis, that intimate friendship with God, through which the soul comes to share in divine life. It belongs above all to the bishop to be certain that all things in the Church are rightly ordered so that all the faithful can become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
It is also important to stress that the deacon, presbyter, and bishop are not independent of each other. Rather each office assumes the other two and depends on them for its own, proper functioning. So while the Church is hierarchical, it is not a hierarchy of power but of mutual support and dependence; it is a hierarchy of loving, mutual service. The Church is a community held together by mutual love and service. This why St. Paul says, “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26, NKJV).
This also means that the proper functioning of one member of the Body of Christ depends upon the proper functioning of the rest of the Body. So for the deacon to fulfill his ministry, he needs the bishop and the presbyter. Likewise, the presbyter needs the deacon and bishop and the bishop needs the deacon and the presbyter. Each assumes the existence of the others, each supports the others, and each is supported by the others in their exercise of their respective ministries.
And all three, the deacon, the presbyter, and the bishop need the whole of the laity. We grow in holiness together through our mutual love for each other. So let’s turn now from ecclesiology to our spiritual lives.
For St Dionysius, there is a symmetry between the internal life of the Church and the hidden life of the soul in Christ; they mirror each other. The tripartite structure of holy orders–as I said a moment ago–reflect the stages through which we pass as we grow in holiness: purification, illumination, and theosis.
In our psychological and individualistic culture, to call the threefold structure of the spiritual life “stages can be misleading. Just as, with ordination, this threefold process isn’t strictly speaking sequentially. Yes, at any given moment in my spiritual life one part of this process will be more pronounced, say purgation.But I need to keep in mind that this is the fruit of the other two.
In the purgative moment, even if all seems dark and God far away, I know that I’m a sinner because God by His grace has illumined my soul. And this illumination, this light, what else is it but the experience of God drawing close and sharing His life with me? As for repentance, what is this except the Bright Sadness that comes from knowing God love for us? It is this love, that the hallmark of theosis and which leads us to say, with St Antony the Great, “I no longer fear God, I love Him!”
In response to their very public failure, the disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to cast out the demon. He tells them that some demons can only be conquered “by prayer and fasting.”
In other words, the disciples hadn’t yet sufficiently purified themselves for the task before them. Their lack of faith, their powerlessness against the demon, are symptomatic of an immature life of prayer and ascetical struggle.
Realizing this is for the disciples (and the boy’s father) is a moment illumination. They see their sins. But at the same time, they see the cure for their sins. And, in seeing these, they also experience the “strong consolation” of those who, with a mature faith, “who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us” in Jesus Christ.
Purgation, illumination, and theosis are all given to us, as they were to the disciples, at once. And this why, to return to today’s epistle, we are able to look to Jesus Christ as an “anchor … sure and steadfast.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we come to the last half of the Great Fast, if we can, let us increase the time we give to prayer and decrease the amount we eat and drink. But whether we can do this or not, we should be mindful that we fast and pray so that on Pascha we are able to greet our Risen Lord and together with the apostles, disciples and all the saints, are able to go out to the world and proclaim boldly and with joy the Gospel:
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!