Sunday, March 18 (O.S., March 5), 2018: Fourth Sunday of the Great Lent; St John Climacus. Martyrs Conon, Onisius of Isauria (2nd c.). Martyr Conon the Gardener of Pamphylia (251). Virgin-martyr Irais of Antinoe in Egypt (3rd c.). Martyr Eulampius. St. Mark (5th c.). St. Hesychius (790).
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Today we commemorate our father among the saints John Climacus or St John of the Ladder. The saint’s title is a nod to his work on the spiritual life The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Read in monasteries during Great Lent, the Ladder sketches out the 30 steps or “rungs” by which the soul ascends from repentance to the intimate communion with God in which we come to share in the divine life (see 2 Peter 1:4).
Though written for monastics, there is also a great deal of wisdom in the Ladder for those of us who don’t live in a monastery. For example, St John tells his reader “Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously.”
At first, this might seem less than encouraging. But this is only if we listen to the first half of what the saint says and ignoring the last half.
Yes, I will sin and I will sin daily. In fact, I’ll sin throughout the day in ways great and small. But this isn’t–or at least needn’t–be the whole story of my life. By God’s grace, we all have the ability to repent, to stand our ground “courageously” when tempted to surrender to sin.
As does the whole of the Church’s tradition, Climacus places great importance on human freedom. Actually, after grace, human freedom is the only thing that matters for the saint (and Holy Tradition).
…no matter how much I’ve messed up,
…no matter how badly I’ve failed,
…no matter how serious the sins I’ve committed,
by God’s grace, I have the ability–the freedom–to begin again. And not just me. All of us can begin again.
When in the Divine Liturgy we ask God to grant us a life of “peace and repentance” what we are asking for is precisely this ability to begin again. To start over.
For many Christians, even those who are sincere in their love of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church, the idea of a “life of repentance” sounds dreary.
Such a life sounds wholly negative.
Such a life sounds as if it were focused solely on their shortcomings.
Such a life sounds like life with a nagging wife or an abusive husband.
Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
G.K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy) says that the because children are filled with an unbounded enthusiasm for life, they never tire of repetition. What was just done, they want to be done again. And “the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.”
God, however, Chesterton says is strong enough to bear repetition. Every morning God says to the sun “Do it again,” and again the sun rises.The “sun rises regularly” because God “never gets tired” of watching the sunrise.
Chesterton goes on to say that it isn’t from any necessity that compels God to make “all daisies alike.” And yet God, Who makes “every daisy separately” never tires “of making them” alike. “It may be,” Chesterton says, that God “has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
To live a life of repentance is to live a life in which we grow younger. It means to live a life in which we grow in innocence and the joy that only innocence can know.
To live a life of repentance means to remove from my life everything that compromises my freedom, that obscures from my eyes the beauty that God sees all creation and in each of us. Repentance frees me to love.
Though the world, and let’s be frank not a few Christians, see repentance as negative, St John Climacus and the Church’s tradition with him sees it as wholly positive.
You see, as I grow in my knowledge of God, as I grow in my obedience to Him, I begin to see creation as He sees it. This, after all, is what love does. To fall in love doesn’t just me I’m attracted to someone. To fall in love, to be in love means that I love what my beloved loves.
And to love God? To lay aside everything in us that would make it impossible for us to love Him? What does this mean?
If we love God, we don’t simply love what He loves. No, if we love God, we love as He loves, without qualification or limit.
Repentance changes us so that when we at creation, we the goodness and beauty that God sees.
Repentance, in other words, is how we grow in our ability to love God and so to love as God loves all that He has created.
And repentance means to see in ourselves the goodness and beauty that God sees in us. It is this experience that gives us, to return to St John’s advice, the courage to remain faithful in the face of our shortcomings and inevitable practical and moral failures.
No matter how successful I might be, no matter what accolades I receive, no matter how many people praise me, if I don’t know that I am loved by God I will feel myself to be a fraud and live a life of anxious striving.
If we truly love God, we won’t neglect the abilities God has given us but instead see them as they are. They are concrete means God has given us to grow in our love of Him and of each other.
A life of repentance is anything but a dreary. It is a wholly positive way of life in which we grow in our love for God, our neighbor and, yes, even ourselves as men and women who have first been loved by God.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
We have been given a better way–the way of repentance. So let us from this moment on and by God’s grace and our own efforts remove from our lives all of love’s obstacles. Let us repent!