We have now passed the midway point of our Lenten Journey. This year I have tried to focus us on listening to God. This past Wednesday, at the Presanctified, Fr. Ephraim talked about listening to birds and how we do not always hear them because of the noise in our lives, in order for us to listen to God, he said, we need to quiet down our lives. We are very busy people, but our spiritual life requires us to slow down, even for a few moments a day, and listen to what God has to say to us.
This is the 4th Sunday of our Lenten Journey and this week we focus on St. John Climacus and his book the Ladder of Divine Ascent. St. John uses the image of the ladder for our spiritual life and the fact that we have to ascend the ladder one rung at a time.
All of our Lenten journey is taking one step at a time. It has been said that a journey of a million miles begins with that first step. Again, in our 900 mph lives we live we sometimes like to take the steps 2 at a time. While that might work when going up a set of stairs, but it does not always work in the spiritual life. Each step is important along the journey and we need to slow down and take them one step at a time.
The first Sunday of Great Lent focuses on the triumph of the theology of the Icon over those who would destroy it. We were reminded about Icons and their importance in our prayer life as tools that we can use that help us focus. We do not worship the wood and the paint, but it is the prototype that we worship. Not the image, but what is beyond that image that we must focus on.
St. Gregory Palamas was the focus of the second Sunday of Great Lent. St. Gregory clarified much of what we now believe as Orthodox Christians and we pause on that Sunday to recall his life and the entire body of work that he left for us in order for us to understand the faith. It is not enough for us just to participate on the surface of the faith, we need a deeper understanding of what the faith is all about. Orthodox calls us to a deeper interior life that we only get through a lifetime of study of the faith and what it really means. It has to be more than just the outward appearance of the faith and how we cross ourselves and whether we stand or sit at the right time during Liturgy, we are called to a deeper journey, and St. Gregory points the way for us to follow.
Last Sunday we turned our gaze towards the Holy Cross, the reason for everything else that we do. We are reminded that we have to crucify ourselves each day on the Cross of Christ. We need to Crucify our will and exchange it for God’s will in our lives. The Cross reminds us of the crucifixion of the passions and the reason for this Lenten season.
And today we come to the Ladder of Divine Ascent and the life of St. John Climacus. The book was originally written for monastics, and is still read during the Lenten season in many monasteries today, but it is now available for all to read. If you have not read this book, I highly recommend it, but I will caution you, it is difficult in places and I would suggest not reading it without someone to guide you.
The entire aim of the book, is the entire aim of the Lenten season and our lives, avoiding vice and practicing virtue. The avoidance of vice and the practice of virtue is what will bring us salvation in our lives. When we turn from the passions and turn towards the virtues, we are on the road to the spiritual life which is the ultimate goal of our lives.
The ascetical life is not just for monastics, the ascetical life is the life that all of us are called to live. You have heard it said that we are live in the world but we are not of the world. This is true on some levels. We do have to live in this world and we have to face the daily struggles of our lives. But we do not have to participate in the world and its fallen nature. As humans we have been created in the image and likeness of God, but because of the sin of our first parents that image has been tarnished and we have been forced to live this life of pain and toil. However, we do not have to participate in the fallen world, and we accomplish that by turning from the vices and towards the virtues. It is not easy, but it is something we must do.
I believe we are lucky in Orthodoxy. We do not claim that one a certain day at a certain we are saved. We cannot point to a time in history, unless of course it is our baptism, that we were born again. We are reborn each day that we decide to follow Christ! In Orthodoxy we do not just say go forth and sin no more, we give you tools to help you along the way, you are not alone in your struggle and we have the Church and her Sacraments to guide us.
Yesterday I spoke to a group of Orthodox women who have been on retreat all weekend. They have taken time out of their busy lives during Lent, to slow down, even for a few days, and to take a journey of depth and understanding. I spoke on forgiveness and confession. I did not say anything that you have not heard me say in the past, but I told them how lucky we are to have Sacramental Confession available to us and how sad I am that more people do not avail themselves of this more often than they do, myself included.
Many of you sitting here right now, have not been to confession in years, more years than you can probably remember, and some of us when we do come it is a very superficial confession almost as if we are just checking off the boxes. Confession needs to be more than just checking off the box during Holy Week. By the way no matter how old you are you need confession and the Church requires confession before communion. This is the time, I have made a commitment in my own life to go to confession at least monthly. My confessor and I have decided to hold each other accountable on this and we have made a promise to each other, and to God, that this will be a priority this year for us.
Our Orthodox spirituality is so deep, so deep that I am constantly amazed at how much I still have to learn about the spiritual life. I have read, the Ladder on several occasions in my life, but I am always picking up something new, always finding a new nugget of wisdom about life. We have such depth in our Spirituality and most people never seem to break the surface.
The time is now for us to take that first step on the ladder. We may hang out there for a while but we must make that first step.
Tomorrow several thousand people will run the Boston Marathon. Marathons take a lot of preparation to run, you cannot decide today to run the marathon tomorrow, I am not even sure I could walk 26 miles and I know I cannot run that far. And our spiritual life is the same. It takes much preparation and practice but we cannot run the marathon until we start to train.
The entire goal of our Lenten Journey this year has been focused on this training. Let us spend the next year in training so next Lent we can run the marathon, not at a sprint, but at a slow steady pace, that will bring us to that finish line. Let’s decide today and start training together.