Tag Archives: Sunday of St. John Climacus

Homily: Repentance Frees Me to Love

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).

Epistle: Hebrews 6:13-20/Ephesians 5:9-19
Gospel: Mark. 9:17-31/Matthew 4:25 – 5:12

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).

Simply put,

…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!

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