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.
St John of the Ladder was a monk of St Catherine’s Monastery at Mt Sinai in the 6th century. After having lived in obedience in the monastery for twenty years, he retreated further into the desert, into seclusion, to live the life of a hermit. There in the lonely desert, he struggled and flourished for the next forty years. 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 own death. 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 our self and the seductions 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’.
Just reading through the chapter titles in the table of contents of this wonderful book is instructive, for St John drew from his own experience in outlining the spiritual ascent and the individual rungs along that upward ladder.
If we are to even get our feet off the ground in the spiritual life, we first have to make the step of renunciation. This is critical… each and every one of us have a choice as to who is going to sit on the throne of our heart. In our fallen state, it is we who sit on this throne. We think we’re ‘number one’… and if we were being completely sincere, most of our prayers and wishes are that ‘OUR will would be done’. And most of the irritations in our life are due to the obstacles that get in the way of OUR will being done. The root of so many of our sins is found pride.
St John begins his prescription for our spiritual health regimen with renunciation… setting aside our selfishness in order to turn our eyes toward God.
With each rung of the ladder, St John deals with various sins that seduce us and distract us from our heavenly goal. Most of these sins find their root in our preoccupation with our self, our vainglory, our pride. This is why St John addresses renunciation right from the beginning… if this can be achieved, then the subsequent sins that stem from our pride are more easily hacked away.
Just as so many of our sins stem from pride, so too do most of the virtues stem from love. St John places love as the highest rung of the ladder, the final step leading us to Christ. As St Paul famously writes in his Epistle to the Corinthians, we can have all of the virtues, we can have all knowledge of things on earth and in heaven, but if we don’t have love then all of these things are meaningless. Our Lord Jesus Christ said that all of the laws and the prophets are summed up in the love of God and of our neighbor.
That love must not be a self-pleasing love… it must be a love of self-sacrifice, a self-giving love that seeks the good of our neighbor and seeks to please God and to be near Him. As we’ve talked about before, it is in participating in this self-giving love that we experience the grace of God and the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The ladder of divine ascent is an illustration and an instruction for us regarding the spiritual life. It is bookended by renunciation in the beginning and by love in the end. Both of these virtues are keys to unlocking the shackles of a multitude of sins. Renunciation is that choice and step of determination to reject and detach ourselves from all that keeps us from God. And love is that grace and communion with God which fulfills all the Law and the Prophets.
May God grant us the courage to unlock these keys – turning away from all that drags us downward and distances ourselves from God and one another. Fixing our gazes instead on that summit of the divine ladder, the love of God, which pulls us upward and unites us to God and one another in His love.
May God grant us such love, so badly needed in this world of division and suspicion of one another. Such peace and love must begin in our heart. Let us strive diligently to climb that ladder within our own lives so that the peace and love which we might wish for the world, might begin with us.