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July 8, 2009 + Climbing the Spiritual Ladder

by A Sister of the Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery
From The Word Magazine, April 2000

We all know that we are living in a rapidly changing culture. The one thing certain is that nothing will stay the same for long. Concepts such as God, eternity, heaven, hell and prayer, which reflect unchanging realities, are very foreign to most of us. Even those of us who have been brought up within a church environment where we have been made to feel comfortable with eternal truths, may feel as if we are split personalities as we go about the business of our daily lives.

Obviously the church as we experience it through its members and institutions is also affected in greater or lesser degrees by this same split personality. Gone are the days when living a Christian life could be seen as simply the normal way for a citizen to function. Once again, Christians are faced with the reality of two citizenships: one the state and society they were born into, the other the very different citizenship of the Church.

In all honesty, probably the two citizenships have never been quite as wedded as we like to think. The Emperor Constantine certainly changed the way Christians perceived themselves, but we know that his acceptance of Christianity as the state religion also brought many difficulties. It can be an easy way of excusing ourselves to say it was easier to be a Christian “back then,” whenever “then” may have been. I would like to submit, however, that if our God is the eternal Being we know Him to be in Trinity and through His self-revelation, both through his Spirit and His Word in Jesus Christ, we have no excuses.  On Judgment Day we will be expected to have lived as Christians, even though we have come of age in the 20th century.

Our task, then, is to work within the time and place we have been given. This is not an easy approach to the Christian life when it is done with integrity. I have chosen the image of the “Spiritual Ladder” made popular by St. John Climacus, because I think it is a useful tool for us in this task. The ladder rungs are the same for us as they have been for Christians down the ages. Even more, the top of the ladder is placed at the same goal Christians have always struggled to reach — that of love. What differs for us is where we find this ladder and how we begin to climb it. And I would submit that in the same way the Gospel teaches us we each must carry our own Cross, we also must climb our own ladder — not someone else’s.

St. John tells us in his classic exposition of the Ladder of Divine Ascent that we all must begin with the first step, “Exile.” Obviously this is something the monastics he was initially writing for struggle with, leaving their families, their jobs, the comfort of their private security. Yet all of us need to make a conscious choice to change if we are going to make the Christian faith our own. As more than one person has pointed out, all of us who are in the Church as adults are converts.

Yet what does this mean? Ours is not the first generation to have large numbers of people reject their own society and look for enlightenment primarily in foreign and exotic cultures. Even those who choose to come to or stay within the Church often take this same route. God can certainly work with such an approach to exile when it is undertaken with sincerity and purity of heart. Yet I think there is another way. We do not necessarily need to change our clothes, take a new name, buy ethnic cookbooks or learn new languages in order to follow Christ in our generation. And those of us who have come to this country from foreign lands with a Christian culture do not necessarily need to remain within our ethnic ghettos to maintain our faith and to grow in prayer.

I would submit that the Eastern Church provides an excellent foundation for those of us who are working to put our spiritual ladders in place and begin climbing. Not just because of her great traditions such as monasticism and hesychasm, her beautiful liturgical services and vestments, her saints and martyrs, but even more because of the very many faithful men and women who live ordinary lives in the world today:  attending public schools, taking part in sports and the other social events of American culture, and holding jobs up and down the ladder of the American economy.

These are the people who are in the advance guard of Christ’s army on earth.


Great Martyr Procopios — July 8

Troparion of St Procopios, Tone 5:
Heaven caught thee and drew thee to piety, and like Paul thou didst gladly follow Christ, O Procopios adornment of martyrs. Through the might of the Cross thou didst excel in contest and put Belial to shame, from whose malice preserve those who lovingly praise thee.