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.