|29 - Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 14, 2010|
The Church’s commemoration this morning of St John Climacus offers us an opportunity to reflect on the understanding of human nature and destiny, which the ascetic life of the Church, as described by St John Climacus in his book, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” is concerned to restore to us in the mystery of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Man, as he was created in the Image and Likeness of God, is a mystery of several layers. The body opens onto the soul; the soul opens onto the human spirit; and the human spirit opens onto God. The soul is the life of the body; the human spirit is the life of the soul; and the Holy Spirit of God is the Life of the spirit that gives life to the soul that gives life to the body.
The human spirit is the personal center of man; and its center is in the region of the heart. This is not a metaphor. It is a spiritual reality that was known by the ancients – probably much more profoundly than us moderns who have been emaciated and castrated in our soul by the rationalism of the so-called Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment. The high religions of antiquity were alive to the spiritual depths of man that transcend the intellect of the ego; and they set forth to their adherents the “journey of the soul” by which they led the initiate beyond the body, beyond the soul, beyond the mind, beyond the ego into the inner chambers of the heart and into the presence of the “god within”.
The Church, too, sets forth a “journey of the soul.” It is manifested in space-time in the journey of the Israelites to
Now, the holy fathers of the Church describe an icon as a “mirror”. This suggests that a true icon reflects what is within the person looking at the icon. The liturgical rites of the Church are liturgical icons, suggesting that the liturgical movement we are now making to the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha, by way of His Cross, is a mirror of a spiritual way that is within us. It is this better and changeless path that is found in the deeps of the baptismal font, in the region of our heart, and that ascends to the hill of Golgotha and to the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha. As we look attentively into the mirror of these liturgical rites of the Church, as we engage these rites with attention, with mindfulness, as we listen attentively to the prayers of the Church that accompany this way and make these prayers our own, we can be engaging this better and changeless path that is within us, and follow the Lord as He ascends to the hill of Golgotha and to the tomb of His Pascha, the bridal chamber of our secret heart. In this way, the liturgical rites of the Church lay hold of us at the level of our body and its five senses, and then lead us into our soul, and from our soul into our spirit and to our personal center in the region of the heart. This is the bridal chamber of Holy Week, the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha. It is our secret heart in which the doors to
The Gospels tell us that the Lord was laid in a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid before. It is the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha in which is laid a new kind of corpse that died a new kind of death: it is the corpse of God who died as man. And it is to that tomb that the Church is leading us in her liturgical rites, so that we can be buried with Christ in that tomb, in the tomb of our heart that He has transformed into a bridal chamber: i.e. a chamber in which we in our spirit are united to God in His Spirit in a mystery of love that the holy fathers of the Church call the Spiritual Marriage; and in the mystical joy of Christ’s Holy Resurrection, opened to us in the mirror of the liturgical icon of Pascha, we celebrate our being born from above in the Spirit, and the Savior’s coming forth from the tomb as a Bridegroom in procession.
This is the mystery of our nature that is opened for us beyond the body, beyond the soul at the level of our spirit, in the region of our heart, to which the Church is leading us in her liturgical rites. And she tells us how to engage this spiritual path with our body and with our soul in the writings of the holy fathers, such as St John Climacus. It is through prayer and fasting and through observing the commandments of Christ.
This ascetic life of the Church presupposes quietude, stillness in a mind of humility and contrition and repentance. To pass over into the ascetic life of the Church, we should make our home a place of peaceful quietude and prayerful stillness. This is how we leave the city of the world behind that is ruled by human opinion and governed by love for worldly things and make our way into the desert. This is the emptiness of our soul that prayerful stillness reveals. It opens to us the interior depths of our soul that open onto the spirit. We take up the prayer and the fast of the Church’s ascetic disciplines in the light of Christ’s commandments, and under the close guidance of the Church, we make our way onto the better and changeless path that leads into our spirit, and we draw near to the region of our heart like the myrrh-bearing women drawing near to the tomb.
Now this is a hard way, says the Lord, but it leads to life. St John Climacus bears witness to the truth of the Lord’s words from his own experience. He says, if people really understood how difficult this way is, they would never renounce the world. I do not read this as St John trying to frighten us from embarking on this hard way but to sober us up; to make us realize that the Christian Faith is serious business because what’s at stake is life and death. We cannot be casual about the Christian Faith. We cannot be conforming ourselves to Christ and accommodating ourselves to the world. For, only the hard way of the better and changeless path leads to life. The easy way of accommodation with the world leads to death.
This way is tough and very difficult. But it is the path the Lord walked all the way into the tomb, where he shattered the gates of death and opened the tomb onto Paradise. Indeed, it is the Way that is Christ Himself; so that we walk this better and changeless path not by our own lights and not by our own strength but in the Lord and by the power of His Cross. That means that we walk this way in the Church, which is the body of Christ, the fullness of Him who is all in all.
In the rites of the Church, we are engaging this hard way that descends into our spirit by taking up the Cross of the Church’s ascetic disciplines, and we are drawing near to the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha in the region of our heart. With this message this morning, I want to urge you in the time of Great Lent that remains to make every effort to make your life still and quiet, and in that stillness, use the fast to strengthen your prayer and to cultivate humility and contrition and repentance. Attend the services of the Church as often as you can. At home, guard your five senses. Feed your eyes and your ears not with images and words of the world that have no substance and no life; but with the words of the Church that are alive in God’s Holy Spirit: e.g., the prayers of the Church, lives of the saints, writings of the holy fathers, the hymns and prayers of the Lenten Triodion. Do all of this in the understanding that you are preparing yourself to follow where the liturgical rites of the Church are leading us: to the gates of the body that open onto the soul, and to the gates of the soul that open onto the spirit, and to the gates of the spirit, found in the region of our secret heart, that open onto Paradise. In repentance, take up the Lenten disciplines of the Church in the few weeks that now remain, so that you may discover the spiritual reality of Christ’s Holy Spirit that we receive in the sacramental mysteries of Christ’s Holy Church not as a metaphor or a poetic image but as the spiritual reality within you that you see reflected in the liturgical rites of the Church. Amen.