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’.
In this book he 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. We read first of the rungs of ‘Renunciation’, 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’.
The initial steps of the spiritual ascent are focused on renunciation and detachment from that most pernicious root of sins, our pride and self-will. We find ourselves a long way off from the summit of love when we are entrenched in our pride. This leads to conflicts and frustrations of many kinds…
In other writings St John likened our life and the obstacles we may face along the way as a jar filled with rough, sharp stones. When this jar is shaken, the stones clatter and collide – but over time the stones become smooth and even begin to shine as those polished. This is how life is… even though we may be tossed about and bruise ourselves and others with collisions of various kinds, if we endure with patience and trust in God, with a sense of renunciation and detachment that does not lose sight of heavenly perspective, then we are polished and refined over time.
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. All these lower rungs of the ladder deal with those sins and seductions that stem from that prideful preoccupation. In the early stages of our spiritual life, we are preoccupied with the struggle against these temptations.
As we move along the ladder there comes a shift – while the lower steps are dealing with the battles against the world and pride, the higher we go the more pull there is toward the virtues based on the magnet of love, which pulls us toward the summit of our ascent.
This vision and delineation of St John is instructive for us especially during this season of Great Lent. That first step of renunciation is essential if we are to detach ourselves from our preoccupations with worldly concerns.
As we look at the early steps of St John’s ladder, we see that they are based on the negation of this world, of our passions, of our selfishness and pride. The disciplines of Lent - fasting and prayer – assist us in fighting against such passions and begin to raise our awareness of the presence of God.
But as we look higher up and as we make progress along the way… our attention and motivations begin to shift… we move from the negation of the world to the affirmation of heaven, from a focus on repulsion from the darkness of sin to a focus on the attraction of the light and love for God. That strong light of the treasure of God begins to eclipse any attraction of the fool’s gold of this world.
Think of a magnet… there is the negatively charged side which repels and the positively sized charge that attracts. The early rungs of the ladder are focused on detaching us and pushing us away from the lures of this world, of our selfishness and our sinfulness. But as we ascend higher along our way, the rungs of the ladder move their focus toward the pull of the love of Christ… our motivation and our efforts are fueled by love.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is what we must strive for… this is what we must never forget. The aim of our Christian life is to acquire that Spirit of God, to commune with Him.
May our Lenten efforts push us away from the distractions and seductions of temptation and, having moved away from that negative pull, may we be freed then to move upward toward that attraction of the pull of the love of Christ!
May God grant us the courage to take these steps and may He grant us the clarity of vision to keep our eyes fixed toward our Objective… communion with God in love.