Fourth Sunday of Great Lent – St John of the Ladder
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, and we hear the Gospel account of the healing of the boy possessed by a demon. There are some important and fundamental lessons for us to gather from these two sources and, as always, the Holy Church is so wise in giving us these lessons and this encouragement at precisely the right time as we are now past the midway point and deep into the season of repentance that is Great Lent.
St John is an important father of the Church… he lived in the early part of the 6th century and spent 40 years of his life as a hermit in the deserts of Palestine. Toward the end of his life he was called back to the monastery where he was made its abbot, a post which he humbly accepted and dutifully performed until his repose. It was during this time of his abbacy that he wrote his famous work ‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent’. This spiritual magnum opus describes the path to salvation as a ladder of some thirty steps, each virtue building upon the one before it, and leading the Christian toward heaven. In this great work we read first of the rungs of ‘Renunciation of the World’, 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’.
When reading the Ladder of Divine Ascent, one may be struck by the severity and spiritual athleticism of the Christian struggle described there. The early rungs of the ladder in which the Christian renounces the seductions of this world and strives to focus himself on his ascent toward Christ are challenging and demand our utmost effort. This is true with almost any serious effort… the beginning stages are difficult as we shed bad habits and learn to acquire new and proper ways of doing something. Persistence and patience are required and we must keep our eyes fixed upon our ultimate objective, Christ our Lord… Who, like the father of the prodigal son, waits and watches and longs for our return.
And, isn’t it interesting to realize the almost childlike simplicity of the virtues described near the summit of the climb toward Christ? There at the top rungs of the ladder we do not find complicated theology or esoteric wisdom… we find simplicity, prayer, and finally at the very top rung, love.
Listen to the words of St John of the Ladder as he describes prayer: ‘Don't use in prayer falsely wise words; because it is often the simple and uncomplicated whispering of children that rejoices our heavenly Father. Don't try to say much when you speak to God, because otherwise your mind in search of words will be lost in them. One word spoken by the publican brought Divine mercy upon him; one word filled with faith saved the thief on the cross. The use of the multiplicity of words when we pray disperses our mind and fills it with imaginations. One word spoken to God collects the mind in His presence. And if a word, in thy prayer, reaches you deeply, if you perceive it profoundly - dwell in it, dwell in it, because at such moments our Angel guardian prays with us because we are true to ourselves and to God.’
This kind of honesty and vulnerability in prayer is demonstrated perfectly for us in today’s Gospel reading. In today’s Gospel from St Mark we heard about the boy possessed by demons. The demons caused the child to sometimes throw himself into the fire and sometimes into the water. Those who cared for the boy brought him to Jesus and begged Him that, if He was able, to have compassion and heal the boy. Our Lord responded, ‘If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him who believes.’ To this the father of the boy replied, ‘I believe O Lord, help my unbelief!’ In other words, ‘Oh Lord, I believe as far as I am capable of believing in my limitations and imperfections. I want to believe perfectly, but I fall short and I need your help and your grace.’
This is an honest prayer! And it was at this prayer that our Lord gave the command and the demons fled from the child, leaving him free from their torments.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we have the great hope that ‘all things are possible to those who believe’. We must believe and we must beg God to help us in our lack of belief! To believe is not simply to believe in God… acknowledging that He exists; but to believe in God… the way I might say ‘I believe in you.’ I’m not just acknowledging your existence, I’m saying I trust you, I have faith in you, I will always think the best of you and assume your good intentions. This is what we must mean when we say we believe in God… we put our trust in Him, we know He loves us and we, in turn, love Him to such an extent that we would give our lives to Him. This is the great paradox of life and of faith - ‘For he who would save his life will lose it; but he who loses his life for my sake and for the Gospel’s sake will save it.’ It is such a seeming contradiction for us to be asked to surrender in order to achieve the ultimate triumph. But this is precisely what our Lord calls us to do and it is through the means of fasting, prayer, and belief that we climb the ladder to our heavenly homeland.
May God, through the prayers of our holy father John of the Ladder, give us the strength and wisdom to make our climb, avoiding the demonic extremes of casting ourselves into the fire on one side or the water on the other side; but ascending with patience, with perseverance, and equipped with the tools of prayer, fasting, and heartfelt belief in the goodness and mercy of God.