The Ladder of Divine Ascent

And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  (Genesis 28:12)

“Be at peace with your own soul; then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is but one single entry to them both. The Ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your soul. Flee from sin, dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend.”   (St. Isaac the Syrian, from Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 71)

The counter intuitive insight of the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition is that to find one’s way to God’s Kingdom, one does not  look outside of one’s self – one doesn’t look to the heavens, but rather one has to learn how to go inward, into one’s heart and mind for there is where God has placed the way to Heaven.   God is not out there somewhere – distant, remote, transcendent – God is found within us.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within  you.”  (Luke 17:20-21)

As the Prophet Isaiah testifies:

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.  (Isaiah 57:15)

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Salvation as Deification Is to Know God

And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.  (John 17:3)

Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer  commenting on the writings of St. Irenaeus of Lyons  notes that the spirituality of the early church was one of participating in God.  To know God is to experience God and be united to the divine.

“We should note, in the above text from the Demonstratio, the use of the expression ‘to see the Logos of God’. For St. Irenaeus not only made his own the special expressions of Johannine mysticism, but assimilated them in a very personal way, as this other beautiful text indicates:

‘In His wonderful greatness and glory, “no man can see God and live”, for the Father is incomprehensible; but in His love and His humanity, and because He can do all things, He has granted even this to those who love Him: to see God, as the prophets foretold it. For “what is impossible to men is possible to God”. Of himself, indeed, man cannot see God. But He, when He wills it, is seen by men, by those He wills, when He wills it and how He wills it. For God has power to do anything: seen in a prophetic way through the Spirit, He is seen through the Son, adoptively, and He will be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven–the Spirit preparing man for the Son of God, the Son leading him to the Father, and the Father giving him incorruptibility for eternal life, which comes to each one from the fact that he sees God.’

Christ the Ancient of Days

In the same spirit of Johannine mysticism, Irenaeus has us go on from the vision of God to the divine life that is communicated:

‘Just as those who see the light are in the light and share in its splendour, so those who see God are in God, participating in His splendour. But the splendour gives them life: thus they participate in life, those who see God. And it is because of this that He who is incomprehensible and intangible and invisible gives Himself to be seen, to be understood, to be grasped, so as to give life to those who grasp and see Him by faith. For, just as His greatness is unfathomable, so His goodness is ineffable, the goodness by which, being seen, He gives life to those who see Him. Since to live without life is impossible, the possibility (huparxis) of life comes from participation in God, and participation in God is to know Him and to enjoy His goodness. Thus men see God in such a way that they live, made immortal by the sight and truly attaining God.'”

The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, pp. 229-230)

The Virtue of a New Year

As we have made it through one complete week of the New Year, we can consider our spiritual renewal – whether or not we made New Year’s resolutions, the beginning of a year is a good time to reflect on our spiritual life and commitment.    Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  We Orthodox engage in evaluating our lives in the sacrament of confession, in our daily examination of conscience, in meditating upon the Scriptures and spiritual writings, in our liturgical services, in our talks with our Father confessors and with our fellow Christians.

Here is a meditation from St. Francis of Assisi  on how virtue drives out vice.  We might use this to combat both sins of commission and sins of omission.  

“Where there is charity and wisdom

There is neither fear nor ignorance.

Where there is patience and humility,

There is neither anger nor disturbance.

Where there is poverty with joy,

There is neither covetousness nor avarice.

Where there is fear of the Lord to guard the house (cf. Lk 11:21),

There the enemy cannot gain entry.

Where there is mercy and discernment,

There is neither excess nor hardness of heart.”

(Francis and Clare, the Complete Works, p. 35)

Christmas Changes Us

Now when the magi had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”  (Matthew 2:13-23)

In the long history of Christian interpretation of the Scriptures, the Church has been blessed by the many meanings which have been derived from the texts.  From the earliest days of Christianity (and in ancient Jewish interpretations of the Scriptures as well), commentators noted how the texts can guide and influence our behavior..  Inspiration is thus not only found in the authors of the texts, but also is in those who read the texts.  For example, year after year, we read the Christmas narrative in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, but we don’t exhaust the meaning of the texts.  Obviously, insight into the literal meaning may be more limited because that has been explored for 2000 years – that stone has been turned over countless times.  But the text also is capable of giving us insight into our lives today, and to give us further revelation about God’s purposes in unfolding history.  So we know the magi leave the newborn Christ and return to their own country by a route different than the one that brought them to Jerusalem.  This literal reading of the text, provides us insight into our own spiritual sojourn to Christ at the Nativity.

“The Magi, divinely warned in a dream, return to their country by another road. They must avoid Herod. In the spiritual sense, he whom God has led to the crib can certainly go back home, to his own country, to his house; but it will be by another road. That is to say, the motives, the attitudes, the manner of existing, the means used, can no longer be the same. When one has gone to Bethlehem, a radical change takes place.”  (Jesus: A Dialogue with the Savior by a Monk of the Eastern Church, pp. 8-9)

Fasting Before Christmas

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  (Matthew 5:8)

St John Cassian reminds us to set the right priorities in our spiritual life.  Purity of heart is for him, the real goal of the Christian life and discipline.  Purity of heart is equal  in his teaching to love.  Fasting is a tool to help us reach the goal, but as St. John notes, if we vent anger at others, fasting can’t compensate for the damage we do.  It will not help our spiritual growth if we keep a strict fast but then rage at others or rail and rave against others.  This last week of the Nativity Fast we would do well to work on peace in our hearts and purity – love for others.  As St. Paul says in the Epistle read on the 2nd Sunday before Christmas:  “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth” (Colossians 3:8).  That should be what we really fast from this week.

“Everything we do, our every objective, must be undertaken for the sake of this purity of heart. This is why we take on loneliness, fasting, vigils, work, nakedness. For this we must practice the reading of the Scripture, together with all the other virtuous activities and we do so to trap and to hold our hearts free of the harm of every dangerous passion and in order to rise step by step to the high point of love.

It may be that some good and necessary task prevents us from achieving fully all that we set out to do. Let us not on this account give way to sadness or anger or indignation, since it was precisely to repel these that we would have done what in fact we were compelled to omit. What we gain from fasting does not compensate for what we lose through anger. Our profit from scriptural reading in no way equals the damage we cause ourselves by showing contempt for a brother. We must practice fasting, vigils, withdrawal, and the meditation of Scripture as activities which are subordinate to our main objective, purity of heart, that is to say, love, and we must never disturb this principal virtue for the sake of those others.”  (John Cassian: Conferences, p. 41-42)

Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.  (Psalms 73:1)

Never Repay Evil with Evil

Another brother asked him: “what is the meaning of ‘Never repay evil with evil’?” [cf. Rom 12.17].

Abba Poemen said to him: “This passion works in four ways: first, in the heart; second, in the sight; third, in the tongue; fourth, in not doing evil in response to evil.

If you can purge your heart, it does not come to the sight.

If it comes to the sight, take care not to speak of it.

If you do speak of it, quickly prevent yourself from rendering evil for evil.”   (Give me a Word, p. 233)

The Desert Fathers did not hold to a “one-size fits all” spirituality.  They were realistic about the capabilities of different people and allowed for the fact that no everyone would be perfect in following Christ.  They did not have a total “black and white” viewpoint of people or of sin.  They recognized rather that in spiritual warfare, sometimes one gets only a partial victory.  They did not think that if you fail on one point that everything is lost.  As in the words above, they saw the battle for the heart as a war of inches, difficult battles with sometimes small victories, a war of attrition in which gains and loses might occur on small levels.  One might even suffer some defeats, but one would keep fighting against sin and evil wherever one could.

The Purpose of Fasting for the Nativity

“In a remarkable little book entitled Body of Death and of Glory, the French Orthodox theologian and historian, Olivier Clément, speaks of the fundamental reason for Christian asceticism

Asceticism can only be understood in the perspective of the resurrected, liturgical body. Asceticism signifies the effort to strip away our masks, those neurotic identities that usurp our personal vocation. It is an effort based not on will-power, but on a ceaseless abandonment of oneself to grace…. Asceticism is the struggle, the self-abandonment of openness and faith, which allows the Spirit to transform the anonymous body of our species into a body of ‘language’ that expresses both the person and communion among persons. Thanks to this ascetic struggle, we are gradually transformed from an acquisitive body, that treats the world as its prey, into a body of celebration, that unites itself to the ecclesial liturgy and thereby to the cosmic liturgy.

The aim of the Church’s ascetic practices is to effect this change, a radical transformation of the person, from a body of death to a glorified body, a body of celebration.”  (John Breck, Longing for God, p. 139)

Overcoming Our Sins

Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos muses:

Christians often say: “if my fellow men behaved to me differently, if I had better children, if my spouse did not do this or the other, if…,if…, I could probably live a Christian life”. We have the impression that the cessation of external problems would make us better. However many times I say that external problems will never cease. Now we have troubles with our studies and later we are full of anxiety about our career or marriage. Bringing up our children will raise new problems. Afterwards we will be concerned about the future of our children or even finally of our grandchildren…I leave all other problems caused by work and social dealings. Problems will never end. We must overcome them. (The Illness and the Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition, p. 71)

Our Heart of Flesh

And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.  (Ezekiel 11:19)

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.   (Isaiah 57:15)

Archimandrite Zacharias instructs us:

Unless we endeavour to live within our heart, we remain blind to our untamed passions. The inclinations of our heart and mind remain beyond our control. We sin whether we want to or not. Sin can never attract the blessing of God, so unless we keep our hearts alive and alert, we will eventually become strangers to Him. The Scriptures say that ‘the heart is deep.’ God honours this ‘deep heart’ of man. All heaven hearkens to a deep heart athirst for God and ready to receive Him. But if our heart is indifferent to God, we are worth little more than dust and ashes. We must attend to our heart and cultivate it, for the hidden man of the heart is very precious in the sight of God. May God give us such a heart, a deep heart that is capable of divine and spiritual sensation!  

St. Seraphim of Sarov

We learn to enter into our ‘deep heart’ through personal prayer in our rooms and attendance at church services. And if we take courage and enter therein, we shall behold the great miracle of the union of our life with God’s Life, for this takes place in the heart of man. Indeed, the aim of our entire ascetic struggle – our fasts, vigils and prayers – is to reveal the heart, to unearth it.   (Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony, p. 241-242)

Spiritual Pleasures

“We are aware of a difference between the pleasure we experience in our bodies and that we experience in our hearts. Physical pleasures, when we lack them, arouse in us an all consuming desire for them. As soon as we possess and devour them, though, our satisfaction turns into distaste. Pleasures of the spirit, on the other hand, seem distasteful when we do not possess them, but once they begin to be ours, our desire awakens. The more hungrily we seek them when we have begun to enjoy them, the more do we enjoy them even as we hunger for them.

With our bodies it is the desire that gives us pleasure, not the gratification of our desires with the spirit, as the desire is nothing, the fulfillment is all the more pleasing. Physical desire leads to satiety, and satiety leads to distaste for what we desired; spiritual desire produces satiety, and satiety leads to new desire.

The pleasure of the spirit increases our inner longing even while it satisfies us, since the more we savor it the more we perceive that there is something more to long for.”  (St. Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, p 15)