In the icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, we only see the image of Christ at the very top, upon the last step (of love); but, this does not mean that Christ is not with us at every step. It is true that we only see the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” in its full, unmediated vision, at the height of the ladder’s summit: divine love and union with God—that is, only after we have struggled long and hard, co-operating with God, and His grace has freed us from sin and passion; and He has made to grow within us the fullness of His love, making us to see Him within us in the fullness of His glory.
Even so, Christ is also the Foundation of our whole life and of our ascent into Him; Christ Himself is the Divine Ladder and every Step thereon; He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; He is every virtue; for, every virtue that may be found in us, is a living and personal quality of Christ which dwells and acts within us; when we acquire virtue, we acquire Christ, we live in Christ, and He lives in us.
King Solomon confesses: “The heart of the upright seeks a perception”, that is, a sensation, a conscious, heart-felt feeling…of what? Of the indwelling eternal life of the Trinity, the Personal God.
However, to awake into this perception and knowledge of God—and in order for us to be resurrected into this true life found in God—we must suffer crucifixion, pain, dying, death.
A great theologian of our times, Fr. Dmitri Staniloae, a disciple of the holy and blessed Romanian Elder Cleopa, has this say:
“There are…two deaths: the first is produced by sin and is the death of our nature (soul and body). The second is a death like Christ’s, which is the death of sin and the death of death which is produced by sin.
“The death of our nature…does not come only at the final moment; rather, it nibbles away for a long time like a worm. So too, the death of sin and death is not something momentary, but must be prepared for through long ascetical mortification.
“Asceticism is a life-giving mortification, as St. Symeon the New Theologian calls it. Asceticism is the gradual slaying of sin and all tendencies toward it.
“According to the current use of the word, asceticism has a negative connotation…This is because the sinful tendencies of our nature, the habitual things that lead to its death, have come to be considered as the positive side of life…
“In reality, asceticism has a positive purpose: it seeks the fortification of our nature, and its liberation from the worms of sin that gnaw at it and hasten its ruin…
“The slaying of this weakness of death that has penetrated our nature, and fortifying it through asceticism, is possible by the mortification and life-creating death of Jesus Christ…
“Our asceticism is a gradual death with Christ…it is not only an imitation of Christ (as in the West), but a heroic mortification with Christ and in Christ. We are united with Christ already in the prolonged process of our mortification even before the culminating state of mystical union with Him [in love, upon the heights of the Ladder]. We are not only raised with Christ, but we also die with Him. We cannot be resurrected with Christ if we do not first die with Him.
“The resurrection with Christ follows as a continuation of death, not as a change in direction. It is true that, in union with Christ in death, His presence is not visible; but, this is because while the old man dies gradually within us, Christ also dies with us. His death is also a humbling, an eclipse of His glory.
“Christ isn’t seen in the state of mortification, but He is present, and it is known that He is. Now the establishment of our certainty regarding His presence in us, by faith and not by sight, makes clear once again the heroic character of our ascetic struggle.”
There is great comfort to be found here. What he is saying is that Christ is with us, every step of the way; whether we are consoled, at peace, or exalted above the passions; or whether we are afflicted, or suffering great temptations, agonizing dryness of soul, dark thoughts, and the painful struggle with sin…no matter where we are at, Christ is there, and He is with us; God is with us!
He rejoices with us, He suffers with us; in fact, we can say that He rejoices more in our joy than we do, and He suffers more in our sufferings than we do. How is this? Because He is the perfect man, fully alive, fully sensible, a man full of sympathetic love, a suffering love, a divine love.
Until God revealed Himself in our flesh, human kind could not understand this love of God in its fullness. But now, what do we see? Our God is born from the Virgin as a tiny babe; He comes forth and eats, drinks and sleeps like a man, He suffers and dies like a man—not just in appearance, but in truth and deed.
His divine and all-pure soul descended into that dark abyss of spiritual death, hades, where souls dwell in hopelessness. He came there, and He still comes there: whenever He enters our weary, dark and deadened hearts.
Then, He takes us by the hand and He lifts us up with Himself, and in Himself. Who could have asked for this? This is exactly what we see today in the Gospel: A man brings his son to Christ, saying that he is afflicted with an unclean demon who casts him into fire and water, and has stricken him with muteness and deafness.
What is this? This is exactly an image of our corrupted state. The demons, by our weakness and allowance, have come to dwell in us, not necessarily as full-blown demonic-possession, but in a moral sense: we are possessed by the burning flames of passion and the chilling waters of insensibility; and we are like deaf and mute men who cannot comprehend what is happening to us, what we should do, or how to express our need and ask for help.
Whoever seeks to war against his fallen state cannot but help to confront this. This is a truly overwhelming experience. It is frightening, lonely, dry, hopeless, dark and painful. But the person who does not confront this is worse off than the one who does, because sin is still lurking hidden within while he thinks he is fine.
What happens though? Christ comes, He confronts the demons, the passions, our many sins; He commands them to depart from us—but only after we are allowed to be tried to the extremity of our strength and patience, or even beyond it. His superabundant compassion moves Him to suffer with us, and He cries out: “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you, how long shall I suffer you?”
Christ commands the demons to depart; but they do not depart without a fight, nor do they leave quietly; but they rend, tear and torment. This is the same with the one who strives against evil in his own self.
What happens next? The boy falls down as one dead, in so much that many exclaim: “He is dead”. When Christ cuts out our sins, we are pained by this, just as a man who has had a large and deadly tumor growing on him for a long time; when it comes time to remove it, it is painful, because it has been so closely knit to him, as if it was always a natural part of him.
We become like dead men when sin departs from us. Why? Because sinful ways of thinking, feeling and acting have grown old with us, and have become the mainstay of our lives, they have become our strength and the foundation of our existence. Therefore, when these evil things depart, we feel dead, as if the end has come. Truly, the end has come, but not for us, but for our sinful selves.
New life is just dawning, just beginning to appear. What happened with the possessed boy after he fell down as one dead? Christ “took him by the hand, and lifted him up” and the boy arose!
This is a symbol of our resurrection in Christ. It is not just a coincidence that after this healing, Christ began to teach His disciples, saying: “The Son of Man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill Him, and after that He is killed, He shall rise the third day.” This death and resurrection of Christ is our new life.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich says that it is a greater miracle to cast out demons from a man than to raise the dead. And furthermore, he says that to be possessed by sin and passion is worse than to be possessed by demons. This is a frightful truth!
But, if despite our poor state and our disbelief we yet cry out in desperation: “I believe, O Lord, help Thou mine unbelief”, then we shall see the greatest miracle take place, not over there, not long ago, but here, now, within our very selves.
What is this miracle, it is the life-giving resurrection of our souls by Christ, a deliverance from sins that have tormented us for a whole lifetime; it is the miracle of God’s incomprehensible and boundless power of loving-compassion which descends upon us, within us, casting out all evil, healing us, restoring us, granting us not only forgiveness from our past sins, but complete freedom from them; and not only this, but filling us completely with Himself, His love, grace, peace, joy and life, His eternal life.
St. John of Karpathos points out: “When already well advanced in years, David offered thanks to God for choosing him, and he said this about the final fruits of God's blessing: ‘Now has Thy servant found his own heart, so as to offer this prayer’ (2 Sam. 7:27. LXX). This he said to teach us that a great effort and much time are needed in prayer, before through struggle we can reach a state in which our mind is no longer troubled, and so attain the inward heaven of the heart where Jesus dwells. As the Apostle says, ‘Do you not know that Jesus Christ dwells within you?’ (cf. 2 Cor. 13:5).” (end-quote)
We do not adhere to a dead moralism. We do not serve a dead god. We do not believe in cheap and quick techniques that will grant us supposed enlightenment and peace. No! We believe in the Living and Personal God: the All-Loving Father, the Most-Humble Son, and the Life-Giving Spirit.
We cannot force God beyond what He judges to be right for us at any given time; we cannot trick Him, or overstep our boundaries, or pry proudly into divine things with our feeble intellect, while casting aside constant dependence upon God through humility and prayer.
Surely, we are called to ascend to Him, even as St. John of the Ladder cries out: “Ascend brothers, ascend eagerly…let us hasten until we attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of God, unto a perfect man, to the measure of the fullness of the stature of Christ”; although this is said to us, it is tempered by the spiritual law that Abba Isaac points out: “Do not try to make your course run more quickly than the divine will wishes; do not be in such a hurry that you try to get ahead of the providence which guides you—not that I am saying that you should not be eager.”
This eagerness of spirit, which both saints speak about, is that good intention within us which desires to live fully in God. This small intention is, according to even the most ascetic saints, the only thing we can really offer to God for our salvation.
St. John Climacus, within the first step of his Ladder, on heroic renunciation of the world, says this: “Let us who are weak and passionate have the courage to offer our infirmity and natural weakness to Christ with unhesitating faith, and confess it to Him; and we shall be certain to obtain His help, even beyond our worth, if only we continually plunge to the depth of humility.” (end-quote).
Man offers, God purifies! Man seeks, God gives! Man weeps, God saves! Man falls, God lifts up! Man sins, God heals! Man falls again, God swiftly saves again! Man despairs, God gladdens and consoles! Man kills himself by sin, but God raises the dead, casts out demons and completely destroys deadly passions and sins.
“What God is as great as our God? Our God is He Who works wonders!” He alone makes all things out of nothing! He alone makes the Virgin a Mother, God a Man, man a god, earth into heaven! He alone makes most pure angels out of worldly and carnal men! He alone makes life out of death!
He alone makes fornicators into virgins; drunkards into sober, watchful and prayerful contemplatives; cursing mouths into theologizing rivers of most beautiful and gracious hymnody! He alone makes spiteful men into most meek and loving doves!
Come, let us fall down before this very God, in body, mind and all our soul; and let us weep and cry aloud unto Him, constantly calling upon the all-sweet name of the Lord Jesus, Who has created us, and Who has promised to re-create us, unto the eternal glory and praise of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages! Amen.