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Fourth Sunday of Great Lent

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

More than once, brethren, the fact has been men­tioned that on each Sun­day in the Great Fast (i.e., Lent) there are oth­er com­mem­o­ra­tions besides that of the Res­ur­rec­tion. Thus, on this day, the Church glo­ri­fies the right­eous John of the Lad­der, one of the great­est ascetics, which the Church, in speak­ing of them, calls “earth­ly angels and Heav­en­ly men.”

These great ascetics were extra­or­di­nary peo­ple. They com­mand­ed the ele­ments; wild beasts will­ing­ly and read­i­ly obeyed them. For them, there were no mal­adies they could not cure. They walked on the waters as on dry land; all the ele­ments of the world were sub­ject to them, because they lived in God and had the pow­er of grace to over­come the laws of ter­res­tri­al nature. One such ascetic was St. John of the Ladder.

He was sur­named “of the Lad­der” (Cli­ma­cus) because he wrote an immor­tal work, the “Lad­der of Divine Ascent.” In this work, we see how, by means of thir­ty steps, the Chris­t­ian grad­u­al­ly ascends from below to the heights of supreme spir­i­tu­al per­fec­tion. We see how one virtue leads to anoth­er, as a man ris­es high­er and high­er and final­ly attains to that height where there abides the crown of the virtues, which is called “Chris­t­ian love.”

Saint John wrote his immor­tal work espe­cial­ly for the monas­tics, but in the past his “Lad­der” was always favorite read­ing in Rus­sia for any­one zeal­ous to live pious­ly, though he were not a monk. There­in the Saint clear­ly demon­strates how a man pass­es from one step to the next.

Remem­ber, Chris­t­ian soul, that this ascent on high is indis­pens­able for any­one who wish­es to save his soul unto eternity.

When we throw a stone up, it ascends until the moment when the pro­pelling force ceas­es to be effec­tu­al. So long as this force acts, the stone trav­els high­er and high­er in its ascent, over­com­ing the force of the earth’s grav­i­ty. But when this force is spent and ceas­es to act, then, as you know, the stone does not remain sus­pend­ed in the air. Imme­di­ate­ly, it begins to fall, and the fur­ther it falls the greater the speed of its fall. This, sole­ly accord­ing to the phys­i­cal laws of ter­res­tri­al gravity.

So it is also in the spir­i­tu­al life. As a Chris­t­ian grad­u­al­ly ascends, the force of spir­i­tu­al and asceti­cal labours lifts him on high. Our Lord Jesus Christ said: “Strive to enter in through the nar­row gate.” That is, the Chris­t­ian ought to be an ascetic. Not only the monas­tic, but every Chris­t­ian. He must take pains for his soul and his life. He must direct his life on the Chris­t­ian path, and purge his soul of all filth and impurity.

Now, if the Chris­t­ian, who is ascend­ing upon this lad­der of spir­i­tu­al per­fec­tion by his strug­gles and ascetic labours, ceas­es from this work and ascetic toil, his soul will not remain in its for­mer con­di­tion; but, like the stone, it will fall to the earth. More and more quick­ly will it drop until, final­ly, if the man does not come to his sens­es, it will cast him down into the very abyss of Hell.

It is nec­es­sary to remem­ber this. Peo­ple for­get that the path of Chris­tian­i­ty is indeed an asceti­cal labour. Last Sun­day, we heard how the Lord said: “He that would come after Me, let him take up his cross, deny him­self, and fol­low Me.” The Lord said this with the great­est empha­sis. There­fore, the Chris­t­ian must be one who takes up his cross, and his life, like­wise, must be an ascetic labour of bear­ing that cross. What­ev­er the out­ward cir­cum­stance of his life, be he monk or lay­man, it is of no con­se­quence. In either case, if he does not force him­self to mount upwards, then, of a cer­tain­ty, he will fall low­er and lower.

And in this regard, alas, peo­ple have con­fused thoughts. For exam­ple, a cler­gy­man drops by a home dur­ing a fast. Cor­dial­ly and thought­ful­ly, they offer him fast food (i.e., food pre­pared accord­ing to the rules of the Fast), and say: “For you, fast food, of course!” To this, one of our hier­ar­chs cus­tom­ar­i­ly replies: “Yes, I am Ortho­dox. But who gave you per­mis­sion not to keep the fasts?” All the fasts of the Church, all the ordi­nances, are manda­to­ry for every Ortho­dox per­son. Speak­ing of monas­tics, such ascetics as St. John of the Lad­der and those like him fast­ed much more rig­or­ous­ly than the Church pre­scribes; but this was a mat­ter of their spir­i­tu­al ardour, an instance of their per­son­al ascetic labour. This the Church does not require of every­one, because it is not in accord with everyone’s strength. But the Church DOES require of every Ortho­dox the keep­ing of those fasts which She has established.

Often­times have I quot­ed the words of Saint Seraphim, and once again shall I men­tion them. Once there came to him a moth­er who was con­cerned about how she might arrange the best pos­si­ble mar­riage for her young daugh­ter. When she came to Saint Seraphim for advice, he said to her: “Before all else, ensure that he, whom your daugh­ter choos­es as her com­pan­ion for life, keeps the fasts. If he does not, then he is not a Chris­t­ian, what­ev­er he may con­sid­er him­self to be.” You see how the great­est saint of the Russ­ian Church, Saint Seraphim of Sarov, a man who, bet­ter than we, knew what Ortho­doxy is, spoke con­cern­ing the fasts?

Let us remem­ber this. Saint John Cli­ma­cus has described the lad­der of spir­i­tu­al ascent: then let us not for­get that each Chris­t­ian must ascend there­on. The great ascetics ascend­ed like swift­ly-fly­ing eagles; we scarce­ly ascend at all. Nonethe­less, let us not for­get that, unless we employ our efforts in cor­rect­ing our­selves and our lives, we shall cease our ascent, and, most assured­ly, we shall begin to fall. Amen.

From St. John Cli­ma­cus, “The Lad­der of Divine Ascent,” (Boston: Holy Trans­fig­u­ra­tion Monastery, 1978), pp. xxxi — xxxiii.

Met­ro­pol­i­tan Phi­laret (Voz­ne­sen­sky)