Welcome to Saint Herman's, Hudson, Ohio
Monday, April 12, 2021
Sunday of St. John Climacus (2021)
Heb 6:13-20/Mark 9:17-31
Being the Sunday on which we remember Saint John Climacus, it seemed good for us to spend a little time, not on ‘who’ he is, but rather on what he has left for us and the Church as his legacy, his gift to us for our spiritual growth in Christ.
His great work, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, is read in every Orthodox monastery each year during the Great Fast. For those who have not visited a monastery, when meals are served, the abbot or abbess of the monastery will select a monk or nun from the group who stands and reads spiritually beneficial material while the group sits quietly and eats. It is during this time that “The Ladder” would be read.
I brought an icon which is used on this day. It depicts a group of monks all trying to climb from earth to heaven, with Christ at the top, reaching out to accept those who complete the climb, angels who are encouraging those on the ladder during their ascent, demons flying about with arrows and hooks pulling the monks from the ladder, and typically there is a dragon with wide open jaws at the bottom swallowing those who fall. It is simultaneously an awe inspiring and fearful image to contemplate, for it shows what we endure in our lives as we also attempt to rise to that level to which our Lord calls us.
Although we are given this image of a ladder, and to us that means moving from one level to another after some struggle to climb, in fact the Ladder of Saint John is more a set of parallel rungs. It’s not so much that you ever completely rise above one of the elements of the ladder. Rather, we are continually trying to perfect our spirits in all of these areas.
The “rungs” of the Ladder are comprised of virtues we need to labor to acquire, of faults we need to labor to purge, and of characteristics we need to labor to adopt. There are thirty such elements to the ladder. Let’s take a look at them.
begins with three ‘rungs’ which are designed to force us to break our
connection with the world. Specifically,
they are “Renunciation,” “Detachment,” and “Exile”. Renunciation does not indicate us rejecting
the gift of life God has given us.
Rather, it means renouncing the world’s control over us. One typical encouragement from
After breaking with the world, the next set of concerns moves to practicing the virtues. This includes a group of “fundamental virtues” – and bring us to the rungs, “Obedience,” “Penitence,” “Remembrance of Death,” and “Mourning” or sorrow.
“Obedience” is easy to understand. But
highlighting these fundamental virtues,
From these passions, Saint John moves to those which are tied to us physically, “Gluttony,” “Lust”, “Avarice,” and “Poverty,” before he returns to the non-physical passions of “Insensitivity,” “Fear,” “Vainglory (or vanity),” and “Pride.”
defined ways to overcome the passions,
of these “rungs” which lead to union with God.
And we’ve only offered
the point? The point for us is that
achieving our goal of becoming truly a disciple of Christ, of living up to the
name Christian, of truly being His servant is not something that happens
instantaneously and mystically when we receive baptism. Baptism and Chrismation are an “entry point”
into a life of effort, a life of struggle.
In Matthew 11, Jesus is rebuking the crowds following Him, asking them
what they thought they were going to
This does not give the picture of a people who are gifted salvation, but rather a people who are active participants in their own salvation. And if we are to labor and struggle to attain the goal of entry to heaven, we need a plan. One who builds a house and who starts by purchasing a hammer has made a start, but unless there is a plan, showing how to cut the wood, how big to make the openings for doors, where to lay the bricks of the foundation, how to secure the roof, the house so built is doomed to fall.
Saint John Climacus gives to us such a plan for our efforts to take the kingdom by force. His words are often very difficult as well, offering encouragement that the world would interpret as offensive. It is not “the only” plan to open the kingdom to us. But it remains a wonderful encouragement to all who read his words to make that plan for ourselves, and to labor to follow the plan. And it remains a yearly encouragement for us to exert the spiritual labor and effort we expend together here in the Great Fast. Remember the words we offered here on the Sunday of Forgiveness. We are in this Fast together. Our best and most important goal is to be an encouragement to one another, carrying us as a group, as a ‘family’ to the end of the Fast, so that we together may witness the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.
Through the prayers of Saint John Climacus, may our Lord grant to us jointly the hearts to exert such effort, and to have hearts which desire entry to His kingdom above all else!
Thursday, April 8, 2021
Monday, April 5, 2021
The Church, in her wisdom, sets before us today the Holy Cross. She sets it here as an encouragement – “Take comfort,” she says, “and hold to the Fast just a little longer. You’re almost there!”
St. Nikolai Velimirovich speaks to what we should learn on this day comparing the Cross to “medicine,” for he tells us that we are all sick and need to be healed. He says, “In our suffering and weakness, when we are sick we seek a doctor who will give us medicine. One does not look for a doctor who dispenses sweet tasting medicine. Everyone wants medicine that will heal, be it sweet, bitter or tasteless. It seems that the more complicated the process of healing, the greater faith we put into the doctor treating us.”
What a thing to ponder, as we sit here this morning now fully a year after the initial quarantine, recognizing that we’re still looking for that medicine. St. Nikolai continues in his analysis. “Are not illnesses of the spirit more serious than illnesses of the body? How then can medicines for the spirit not be even more bitter than those for the body?”
He offers these thoughts related to our Lord’s teaching us that we are to:
- Desire to come after Him
- Deny ourselves
- Take up our own cross
- And to follow Him.
The analogy to medicine to heal the spirit St. Nikolai relates to these four components of our Lord’s instructions to us on this day.
Most of us can immediately relate to the idea of our “desiring to come after Him.” Each of us, I think, would say that we truly are trying on a daily basis to find our own way to live lives consistent with our Lord’s instructions and His commandments. The single most important component of this element of today’s Gospel is that our Lord does not compel anyone to have this desire. Just as He gave free will to Adam, who used it counter to God’s will, so He gives also to us. We must CHOOSE to come after Him.
But what does it mean to “deny yourself”? Adam denied himself when he fell into sin. But his denial was of his true self, the Adam that God had created to be near to Him for eternity. In his denial of that truth, Adam “put on” the false Adam, in short – a lie. Our Lord’s encouragement to deny ourselves is therefore an encouragement to deny Adam’s lie which is present within each of us, and in denying this lie (denying the person we’ve become by our choice, not by God’s design), we return to the person God DID create us to be.
And what does it mean to “take up your cross”? This is a difficult topic to discuss, for in some instances, our cross is a particular sin or failing that accompanies us through long periods of our lives. In other instances, our cross is thrust upon us, unannounced, and immediately, we must bear it. There are many here in our little community who have been handed crosses that they did not expect, and certainly did not desire, from issues with parents to issues with children and issues with health.
In the category of crosses that have been thrust upon us, all of us have had to deal with the cross that is the pandemic. We can agree or we can disagree on the issues of has it been handled properly, should we mask or not mask, should we have locked down or not, should we accept the vaccine or not, and perhaps several other salient topics. But it has been a cross for all of us, one that we may need to carry yet for another little while.
In terms of unexpected crosses, we have Simon of Cyrene as an example. Recall his story from the Gospel of Saint Mark, who records, “And as they led Him out to crucify Him, then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross.” Here is poor Simon, trying to enter the city of Jerusalem, and as he comes to go in, the soldiers are escorting Jesus out. Simon is “compelled” – essentially, conscripted by the soldiers. “Turn about face, Simon – take this cross and go the opposite way.” This had to be a life changing event for Simon, and his faith is evidenced by the remembrance in the scripture of his sons, Alexander and Rufus. Simon was given not just any cross to bear, but the Cross. We can only imagine him at Golgotha asking all, “Who is this Man? What did He do? Why is He being slain?” In Simon’s carrying the Cross, he is immersed in Christianity and in hours given the grace of seeing, knowing, and witnessing the death of the Man Who has in a moment become his Lord!
Will our own taking up of our cross be like this? No. There are no two crosses the same. Saint Ambrose teaches, “God does not create a cross for man. No matter how heavy a cross a man may carry in his life, it is still just wood, made by man himself, and it always grows from the soil of his heart.”
If we are to take up our own cross, we will do so because of our desire to come after our Lord. But to deny ourselves and to follow where He leads us requires a yet greater commitment. We must become disciples. It’s a wonderful word, disciple! From its root comes the word “discipline”. Discipline is the condition of a disciple. A disciple is obedient to his or her Master, and is committed to learning, absorbing all that the Master teaches.
Being a disciple carries a cost. For the disciple it means a gradual overcoming of all that is “self” so that self is displaced, lost, replaced by that which is Greater than self so that a ‘new life’ is embedded within the disciple. Being a dedicated disciple begins with silence and listening. While these are required, they are not enough, for if we listen with the greatest interest, without every putting into action what we’ve learned, we’ll listen but we’ll hear nothing any more. This was the condition of the Pharisees, whose ears perceived all the same words that the Lord’s disciples heard, but the ears of the Pharisees could not hear. Metropolitan Anthony teaches, “God does not speak to our mind or to our heart if He does not receive allegiance and obedience from us. God speaks once, and perhaps twice, and then He withdraws sadly until we are hungry for Him, hungry for the truth.”
What does it mean to take up our cross? It means that we are willing to accept the medicine dispensed by God to heal our infirmities, our spiritual illnesses, regardless of that medicine’s bitterness. Abraham accepted God’s command to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Noah accepted God’s command to build a ship in the middle of nowhere near an ocean and to stock it with animals. Job accepted the loss of his children, his wealth, his health, and even his friends.
In short, God will not ask of any of us anything that He has not asked others to endure before us. When the Lord instructs us to take up our cross, He is asking us to crucify “the old man” within us, the one who holds onto evil habits, or to cleave to the ‘things’ of this world. He asks us as a disciple to put that old person to death, so that He, God, can recreate us in a new image.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich teaches it this way. “The Lord did not come to reform the world, but to re-make it, to bring it to newness of life. He is not a reformer. He is the Creator. He is not a ‘patcher’ but a weaver. Anyone wanting to preserve an old, worm-riddled tree will lose it. He can do all he can in an external way for the tree – water it, fence it around and nurture it – but the worm will eat it away within and it will rot away and fall….. He who tries to preserve his old Adam-like soul, eaten away and rotted by sin, will lose it… Whoever loses his old soul will save his new soul.”
Through the power of the Life-giving Cross or our Lord, may we be moved to lose the old so that the new may find salvation!