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The Counter Culture Church – Sermon for the Sunday of St. John of the Ladder

April 4th, 2011 by Fr. Vasile

We live in a world with blazing speed internet that renders TV radio and newspapers obsolete we have access to rapid  couriers that can bring to our doors anything from around the world in 24 hours we even have churches that promise instant  salvation with a simple declaration of faith.  If there was one word to define our society today that would be instant gratification. With the development of technology this long awaited dream of man is getting closer to becoming reality.

I say long awaited because even in the Biblical times people dreamed of such things. Adam and Eve in paradise were seeking  instant knowledge by eating from the tree of knowledge. The apostles today after seeing Christ healing so many among the sick they thought it easy and tried it themselves but in vain. They wanted to perform the healing  and get the glory but without any of the preparation needed for a good result.  “And when he had entered the house his disciples asked him privately Why could we not cast it out? And he said to them This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting. (Mark 9:28-29)

What does He refers to as this kind? What kind of demon was that that needed fasting and prayer to be cast out? In the parallel Gospel of Mathew we find a hint “Lord have mercy on my son for he is a lunatic and grievously vexed; for oftentimes he falls into the fire and often into the water. “(Mat 17:15) The devil was so clever as to act with the phases of the moon so people would mistake his permanent evil influence with the moon an inert cosmic object. The devil is a master trickster. The word diabolos in Greek means exactly that. The devil creates confusion lies and camouflages himself so nobody can blame him. He always finds a scapegoat to take the fall.

The lie he is telling nowadays is the same he told the apostles: you can do it without the works! Why do you need to work hard for the things you have in life when you can dream to win the lottery. Try it every day and you May be the lucky one! Why do need to read an entire book? Watch the movie or read the reader’s digest version? Our entire society is based on shortcuts like this.

The same is true for spiritual life. Many reading the Philokalia or the writings of St. Gregory Palamas are amazed on the great illumination that is granted to some in their earthly lives. They like it and they want it so they start longing for the illumination and because they cannot get it they get a little frustrated like the apostles that couldn’t cure the lunatic son.

St. John Climacos or of the Ladder comes today to tell us that salvation theosis cannot be achieved by taking a teleporting machine up like in Star-Trek but salvation is rather like an old fashion ladder that goes from the earth all the way up to heavens a ladder that you will have to climb step by step; a ladder that will ask a lot of effort from you to move up.

In many old churches in Europe on the West wall we see an icon inspired by the book of St. John in which we see a ladder going from earth to heaven on which monks are depicted climbing up on it. At the end of the ladder we see Christ blessing the works of the monks and handing them crowns of glory.  The ladder is sometimes depicted inclined at 45 degrees but sometimes the last part is steeper or the distance between steps  is greater wanting to show how much more difficult is to reach the ultimate virtues.

Around the ladder we see angels depicted as figures of light with strong wings helping the monks ascend. We also see the devils shown as dark creatures with small weaker wings and a tail showing their spiritual degradation to an beast level. The devils are pulling down the monks into the abyss. Heaven and hell are fighting for the soul of man.

This May seem to some like a sick dream but actually this warfare is happening every minute in the world. It is an unseen warfare for the soul of man that can only be won by systematically fighting the small fights every day. Every decision we take has consequences and by taking the right decision in the small things we prepare ourselves for the big ones.  Like an athlete that does not run the marathon in one shot. The consequences could be disastrous if we try. We know what happened with the first runner: he died after the finish. If one wants to survive at the end one has to prepare on shorter distances and learn how to run how to pace oneself how to eat how to hydrate.

So in spiritual life one learns first the small things. A short and easy prayer in childhood how to make the sign of the cross and as we grow we learn to read so we can read longer prayers we start keeping the fast on Wednesday and Friday we have our first Confession. We then get married and have children and learn how to keep a family together how to raise children in the Orthodox spirit. The more we do these things the more they become ours. A prayer read once May not say much at the beginning but read it every day learn it by heart and the prayer will not be a text from a book but a cry from your heart. Fast throughout the year consistently and fasting will not be a rule established by a bishop you don’t know but a way of life in which we abstain all the time from the temptations of the world that precludes us from getting in union with Christ.

This is the way of the Orthodox a counterculture offer a strenuous journey not promising an easy way out but nevertheless one that has crowns waiting for each one at the end. Crowns not of the corruptible but of incorruptible crown that can only be received if we compete diligently preparing for every step. The way to theosis in theological terms goes only through askesis. There are no laurels if we if we do not compete righteously.

Therefore I will end with the words of St. John of the Ladder:  Ascend ascend brethren ascend with eagerness and resolve in your hearts listening to him who says: ‘Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of our God Who makes our feet like those of the deer and sets us on high places that we May be victorious with His song.’Amin.

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  • This desire for instant gratification is a great thorn in the heart of the human race. It is one of Satans most valuable tools in his mission to defrock the spiritual sons and daughters of the Christ from their royal priesthood and their inheritance in Heaven.

    The Spiritual Ladder is a wonderful metaphor for the path that those who believe in Christ must take if to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It is sad to think that there are so many people on the ground that believe that they have already done the climbing!
    We should try as hard as we can to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling when we are in temptation and use the perfect love [of Christ, that] casts out [the] fear which is caused by our Sin.

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  • Indeed the greatest obstacle I see in pastoral care is that people often think they have reached the maximum level in their spiritual life and have no desire to go higher. But the Fathers always say that there is no stagnation on the ladder of divine ascent because stagnation means spiritual death.

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  • I can think of the Climacus’s ladder in a very personal way. In this perspective the climbers can be seen as more and less spiritually elevated depictions of mine of my own being. I think of it as a panorama of contiguous single shots of myself for I know that as a Christian who struggles with making the first steps toward salvation I am drawn in and part of a very dynamic and complex process of self exploration and restoration in Christ. And that in this very process I sometimes find myself more elevated and much closer to the climax of the ladder due to God’s merciful and caring love and sometimes I stumble and fall down at the very bottom of the ladder due to my weakness in the face of the master trickster. My actual position on the ladder is the sum and the vector of all these single-shot spiritual places I position myself in. The more I manage to promote and make manifest my better self the more chances I have to surmount and make up for the instances where I only put myself at the very bottom of the ladder. In the end what are we in the face of God if not the sum of all our struggles all our fears all our actions?

    Where does that actually put me on the ladder is God’s privilege to know and mine to struggle pray and mind for.

    With this being said I do not in any case dismiss the existence of life-tunnel-effect: we all have the potential to evade the gap and reach to top of the ladder in no time if only we can attain that moment of infinite humbleness and hear Christ saying: “Verily I say unto thee today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 2:4)

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  • Christ in His reality is of course the ultimate counter to all culture and in all culture since the world began. Vasile punctures the cloud of meta-social opinion. The Divine Holy Spirit brings wisdom through humility and self abjection. The newest innovation in popular trends is often (nearly always?) the most enslaving to those who search for truth.

    To find peace in life one should look to the ancient past and discover the revelation of the cross in the middle of history. And then one must travel to the preincarnate God in the garden of beginnings and see the glory of the triune Deity communing with Adam. Learning will take place from the back side of far away beginnings and then lead one through the apostolic age to our present era world without end beyond. Humility is indeed the key which unlocks the future but cannot be fully realized apart from the ancient truth.

    The Bible as the holy inscripturated revelation is our first textbook read in the light of Gods divine engergies. Second to the Bible is the natural world around us … and then the reflection of both May be found in the wisdom of the Spirit borne fathers and mothers of faith. I recommend to the reader St Anthony father of monks and St Paul of Thebes both examples of God revealed humility.

    Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner!

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