Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fourth Sunday of Great Lent: St. John Climacus

Hebrews 6:12-20 / Mark 9:17-31

Today, the Church shows special honor to St John Climacus, that is, John of the Ladder, so called because, while very little is known of his life, he wrote one of the most influential works on the spiritual, and particularly the ascetical life, the Κλίμαξ or Ladder of Divine Ascent. Drawing on the image of Jacob's Ladder, John proposes a vision of the soul's coming to God, first by means of those virtues necessary for the ascetical life, then by specific advice on combatting vice and promoting virtue, and finally those highest virtues which lead to a full life in Jesus Christ: prayer, stillness, dispassion, and finally, love. Like all ascetical theology, John's vision is in one sense optimistic. He is convinced, and aims to convince us, that, at least with God's help, we have it in our power, or at very least our choosing, to make this ascent and come to God. At the same time, this carrot of the ladder's top is at the same time the stick of a troubled conscience. Knowing that the way is open to ascend, and that failure to do so can be traced ultimately to choosing not to do so, there is little room here for weakness. If you do not succeed, try again, pray again, seek more help, but get to it! The Gospel, on this view, is not for the faint of heart!

We see something of this echoed in the Gospel. When, having descended the mountain after his Transfiguration, and being confronted with a crowd gathered in dispute over a child possessed and tormented by a deaf and mute spirit, and indeed one whom even the prayers of Jesus' own disciples had failed to cast out, Jesus is manifestly wearied with disappointment: O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? We see something of this same weariness in his otherwise encouraging reply to the boy's father — If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth — and later in his private conversation with his disciples: And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could we not cast him out? And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting. How different, in other words, all would have been had they had faith. How different had the disciples been more fervent in their asceticism, more single-mindedly intent on be open to the will and mind of God through more intense ascetical practice through prayer and fasting.

Yet, there is in this Gospel more than the hard words of a spiritual personal trainer, shouting at his client to push harder. After all, into the midst of what the crowd of disciples, scribes, and onlookers could not, or at least, did not resolve on their own, Jesus enters mercifully.  When the father finds himself too focused on the disciples' failure to exorcise the spirit, Jesus mercifully turns his attention away from their failure to where it belongs, on the well-being of his son: And he asked his father, How long is it ago since this came unto him? And he said, Of a child. Even his words about the power of faith, eliciting as they do the father's heartbreaking admission of his own deficiencies — And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief —do not produce from Jesus berating or criticism, but only mercy. In the face of such need, in the face of the dehumanizing torment of the wicked spirit, Jesus acts. In the end, that things might have been otherwise had the disciples, the scribes, or the father himself acted differently, is not, nor can it be, the final word. The final word in Jesus Christ, who enters into the fray with mercy, driving out wickedness, and restoring the beloved child to newness of life.

None of this is to say that the asceticism we practice is of no use. After all, Jesus himself assures us that it is. We need always to be striving forward, striving better to imitate and be conformed to Jesus Christ. To be still, not to advance, is in the end to fall back, to descend the very ladder we meant to climb. There is, as John Climacus knew, no moment in this life when we have "made it", when he have done enough. There is always more to be done, more for which we can strive, seeking finally ever more and more love of God and love of neighbor, bestowing our mercy on those who ascend with us, even as Jesus bestows his mercy on us.

It is not without reason, then, that when the Byzantine calendar remembers John Climacus on his own feast apart from this Sunday, it does so together with a figure known only as the "uncondemning monk". According to the record of his life, this monk, known to be something of a failure in asceticism — lazy, undisciplined, everything an ascetic should spend his live striving to overcome — nonetheless approached his death with serenity and joy. Asked why by his fellow monks, he answered, 'I have just seen the angels and they showed me a page with all my many sins. I said to them: "The Lord said: 'Judge not, that ye be not judged.' I have never judged anyone and I hope in the mercy of God, that He will not judge me." And the angels tore up the sheet of paper.' Hearing this, the monks wondered at it and learned from it.

For Great Lent to do its work in our lives, it must remain both a goad, prompting and directing us to ever deeper detachment from those things that impede our love of God and neighbor and, at the very same time, a soothing balm reassuring us even in our weakness, even in our unbelief. To be ascetical, to embrace the discipline of Lent, is in fact the very same thing as to strive to love; we cannot say we seek to love as Jesus loves and, at the same time, do nothing to curb our wayward desires. Yet, in the end, as at the foot of Tabor, so also wherever we find ourselves, the final word is not now, nor ever will be, our own success at the ascetical life. The final word is always, has ever been from before the dawn of time, and ever shall be when the last of the stars has gone dim, none other than the eternal Word of God, the Mercy which has taken on our weak and fragile nature and loves us in our weakness and failure, the Lord Jesus Christ. 

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