Fourth Sunday of Great Lent – St John of the Ladder
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today we come to the fourth Sunday of Great Lent. On this day we commemorate a great saint of the church, St. John of Ladder, the author of the famous work ‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent’. In this great work we read first of the rungs of ‘Renunciation’, then ‘Detachment’ and ‘Exile’… cutting ourselves off from our obsessions with the things of this world. We later read of the rungs discussing the struggles against ‘Remembering Wrongs’, ‘Slander’, ‘Despondency’ and the other passions which try to pull us down. As the Christian makes his upward climb we later read of such things as ‘Vigil’, ‘Simplicity’, ‘Prayer’, and finally we reach the summit of ‘Love’.
As I read through the titles of the chapters of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, it struck me how relevant and how instructive this all may be for us in these strange and challenging times, when we are called upon to ‘shelter in place’, when the restaurants and stores and other things we are used to have all been closed, when we suffer the pain of not being able to gather together.
Listen to the titles of the first three chapters of the Divine Ascent… first is ‘Renunciation of the World’, then comes ‘Detachment’, and then we have ‘Exile’. Isn’t that a remarkable description of the reality of what we must face today?
The fact that disease is spreading throughout the world is the result of our sinfulness and estrangement from the Source of Health and Life. It is a consequence of this fallen world and each one of us plays our part in contributing to the sin that plagues and brings down our world. Our response to this must be repentance and an awakening to the spiritual realities of this life which was given to us by God for the purpose of our salvation.
So, while God is not the cause of this pandemic, God can and will use this situation as a means toward our salvation. Look what we are faced with… we are forced to stay at home, to distance ourselves from one another, to no longer have access to the things we have grown accustomed to. Renunciation, Detachment, and Exile have been presented to us whether we like it or not.
The question for us is: What will we make of this? St John of the Ladder shows us how each of these things are and can be used as steps leading us toward our salvation in Christ our Lord. We have the opportunity during this Lenten season to reduce the distractions of our lives, to stay at home, to begin to detach ourselves from all of those things which take up our time and attention away from that one thing that is needful, the healing and salvation of our soul.
Amid all the chaos that this pandemic, and the world’s reactions to it, have introduced into our lives, God is presenting to us a ladder of divine ascent. Those first rungs of the ladder are laid out before us… renunciation of the world, detachment, and exile. If we can redeem this time, making good spiritual use of this unexpected detachment and exile, then perhaps we can ascend a few rungs further where St John describes repentance and the soul-profiting remembrance of death. These too are certainly things that the challenges of our time should bring to the forefront.
And so, dear brothers and sisters, let us redeem this time that has been given to us! If we are forced to stay at home for now, let us resist the demons of boredom and soulless distractions. Let us approach all of this as St John of the Ladder instructs us… accepting our current detachments and exile as the steps of spiritual pilgrimage that it can be.
And then, perhaps we can go a bit further up the ladder where we begin to recognize and do real battle with the sins and passions that constantly assault us. Such things as anger, remembrance of wrongs, self-justification, judging one another. If we use this time to sit still and begin to examine ourselves, it will become abundantly clear which things ensnare us and create obstacles between us and the God Who loves us.
Being stuck at home will undoubtedly create temptations if we live in close proximity with others within the ever-shrinking walls of our home. Irritability, blaming others, and all manner of short temperedness will surely assault us if we are not careful. This can be a stressful time, but we must stay spiritually awake! These are temptations. The arena of your spiritual contest is in your home right now. Arise and take up the armor of prayer and fasting!
And let us never lose sight of the goal and of the highest rungs of this ladder of divine ascent that we are called to climb. After many chapters describing the warfare with the passions and sins that beset us, St John goes on to describe the highest steps which are stillness, prayer, and finally, love. And awaiting us at the top of the ladder is Love Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ.
All of these lower and middle steps are the sometimes-arduous means toward our goal. The goal is our unity with our Lord Jesus Christ, Who instructs us that all of the law and prophets are fulfilled in loving God with all of our heart and mind and soul and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
We have been given in this Lent a golden opportunity to stand before this ladder of divine ascent. The first few steps of the ladder have been given to us if we will take them in the proper way… renunciation of the world, detachment, and exile. Let us ascend, dear brothers and sisters. Let us do the spiritual homework that we have been assigned. Let us examine ourselves and work against those passions that constantly ensnare us. And let us never take our eyes off of the summit of our ascent… that final step of love and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!