Tag Archives: Hebrews 6:13-20

Purification, Illumination, Theosis, Discipleship

Sunday, March 26, 2017: Sunday of St. John Climacus; Synaxis in honor of the Archangel Gabriel, 26 Martyrs in Crimea, Irenaeus the Hieromartyr of Hungary

Epistle: Hebrews 6:13-20
Gospel: Mark 9:17-31

The_Ladder_of_Divine_Ascent_Monastery_of_St_Catherine_Sinai_12th_century.jpgGlory 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!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Not Racing the Pace of Grace

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

Epistle: Hebrews 6:13-20
Gospel: Mark 9:17-31

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 Ladder of Divine Ascent or The Ladder of P...

The Ladder of Divine Ascent or The Ladder of Paradise. A 12th-century icon described by John Climacus. Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai. St John Climacus described the Christian life as a ladder with thirty rungs. The monks are tempted by demons and encouraged by angels, while Christ welcomes them at the summit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory