ABOUT THE LADDER
Sermon for the Sunday of Saint John of the Ladder. 26.03.2023
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
Today’s fourth Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to commemoration of the Venerable John of the Ladder, who told us about the way to the Kingdom of Heaven. He made an allegory with the ladder by which people climb gradually, from one step to another, and to another. This notion of a gradual ascent is very important for us, Christians. A person climbs up the first step, then up the second and the third ones. All this happens very gradually and requires effort.
We suppose that every step is standard. You step on the first one and then run up. However, the steps to the Kingdom of Heaven are sometimes very high. It happens that even one step requires not one easy step, but literally makes one clamber for it. We know this. Every step, not only one step, every step requires reaching out for, clambering, and applying much effort.
It may seem, if people have a sincere desire and an earnest disposition, why would God not help them? Just take them by the hand and fly up to the top of this ladder at once? The Lord our Heavenly Father Who loves us very much consciously makes our ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven through this ladder of gradualness and hard, very hard work. If people are given a fast ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven, they will have no experience. There is a phrase said by one of the Holy Fathers, “He is saintly, yet not artful.” Sainthood was given to him through the mercy of God as a present, and he entered this state very easily and naturally. But he has not taken the course of the art of struggle, this is why he is saintly, but not artful.
In the ancient Patericon, disciples asked their Elder, “Father, this one has made a long way, gained experience and fell. And this one, who is new in the faith, fell too. Who will have it easier to recover?” The Elder answered, “The one who is experienced. He knows how to do it. Even if he fell, he has an experience of struggle and overcoming, in addition, he has a tempered will.” When two fighters fight, who will win? We usually say at once without thinking, “A skillful one.” Moreover, in order to win the combat, one should not only have skill, but, as fighters say, functionality. One should have long patience and strength, some reserve. This is because a skillful, but not functional person might burn out fast. He will start the combat very beautifully and victoriously, but then he will put his hands down, as he had no functional training. This is why firstly we need to study the art, the art, which gives us experience. Secondly, we need functionality, training and tempering of our organism.
The same concerns spiritual struggle. Everyone needs tempering. Those who did not undergo long, and extremely exhaustive training, are not tempered. Even if someone gives them the art, they will not endure long and break soon.
The Ladder of Saint John of the Ladder is the image of our ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a gradual, long and hard work. One more detail is important. If a person climbs up a step in one jerk and one inspiration and his knowledge about himself as a worthless and fallen creature goes behind, this success will drive him crazy and he will repeat the way of the satan, who was a bright Angel standing by the throne of God, admired himself and fell into the very depth of hell.
Why do we need gradualness? Because our growth in the Spirit should be gradual. This gradualness hides self-opinion from a person. He or she enters step by step and it seems natural to them. I used to be the same yesterday and I remain the same today. They do not see they have climbed really high already. Gradualness closes the vision of oneself as something worthless. If one sees it, this is the beginning of a fall.
Today’s Gospel was not accidental. Do you remember, we read about how the Lord healed a demon-possessed young man? The father of the demon-possessed young man says, “Your disciples could not cure him”1 It is related to Saint John of the Ladder. Once he was asked a question. You see, this was the IV century, not the XXI century, when we are so far from God. Can you imagine, he was asked, “Why did the Lord say in the Holy Gospel, ‘In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them;2 and they will move the mountains.’3 Why don’t we see all this in Christians? Why don’t we see this at all?” To which Saint John of the Ladder answered without confusion (he was not confused because he knew what was the essence of his answer), he said very shortly, “Where do you see the venerables now?” In order to move mountains, one should be a venerable.
I will develop the thought of Saint John, “Who are the venerables then?” Are they wonderful people who attained something through their hard work and asceticism? By themselves? Not at all! Not by themselves, but those who, through the tears of repentance, called inside of them the Grace of God, Christ Himself. Why “through the tears of repentance?” Who calls Christ? Those who perish and feel their fall and destruction keenly, begin to call very sincerely and with tears, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” and confine Him inside of them. Only those who think nothing about themselves may yield the place to Christ. Those who have not come to this yet, will always try to do everything themselves. I will find salvation myself, I will pray myself, I will mobilize myself, I will fast now, and fulfill the commandments. Unless you stop doing everything yourself, forgive me, you will be a clown and a worthless person.
Those who passed through the point of their nothingness and worthlessness, say, “I cannot do this on my own. Come, O Lord, I will yield You my heart, I will give this steering wheel to you. Please, drive for me. I cannot. I always bump into something and crash. I injure others and destroy myself. Come and dwell in us.”
The essence of being venerable is not in a self-perfection in some spiritual feats or in opening spiritual talents in oneself. Esoterics, fanciers and mad people can do this. Christians act the other way. Christians come up to a certain point and say, “I am nothing, a zero. Perhaps, even a minus. My Christ, You do everything, as I cannot do nothing.” The nature of being a venerable person is in the presence of God inside of you. Then He, being inside of people, moves mountains, walks on water, drinks poison and nothing causes Him harm. If you, a madman, drink poison on your own, you will die at once. Miracle is a realm and a prerogative of God. Our part is humility, our humble understanding of what we are in truth. What are we? We are nothing.
When the Lord created a human, He took some clay and blew the breath of life inside of it. Take away the breath, only clay will remain. Take away the Holy Spirit from him, and he will become an animal. The most horrible animal of all. Other animals have sharp claws and teeth, while a human also has intellect. This is why he wins and destroys. They enter the Red List first and then become totally extinct. Even those strongest sharp-toothed and clawed animals die, and this toothless and clawless human destroys them, because he has a horrible weapon, his mind, his intellect. If this weapon is not applied for the good, a human becomes a horrible animal. He will not only exterminate all the animals, but also destroy himself. He will surely invent an atomic bomb and blow the whole world, putting everything off on God in the end, “O Lord, You are so cruel, as You let wars be.” The Lord is hanging on the Cross at this time. You are being mad, gnaw at and destroy one another, and think this is the fault of God.
Those who want to get into the Kingdom of Heaven quickly have chosen a wrong place to come. As the Holy Fathers say, the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force4. “By force” is a very precise word. It presupposes a long, painful, extensive, and forbearing process. If you do not agree, you may go quickly – to hell. It is either long and to heaven, or quickly and to hell. It is easy to go to hell quickly. The same as going to prison. You do mischief and that’s it.
Lord, give us reason!
What is a Christian reason? It is our humility of mind. When the ability to reason is dissolved by and based on humility, it becomes humility of mind, a great mind. Without humility the mind, which is given to a human, becomes a horrible weapon and people go wild.
Glory to our God, always, now, and unto the ages of ages! Amen!
1 “So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.” (Mt. 17:16)
2 “In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mk. 16:17-18)
4 “The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Mt. 11:12)