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Word Magazine April 2000 Page 11
CLIMBING THE SPIRITUAL LADDER
By A Sister of the Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery
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 — not the professional religious people such as clergy and the monastics. We have our role, but let’s face it, we are the ones who live in the shelter of the army camp, with plenty of supplies around us, sheltered from the front. We do see the worst the enemy can do, since those who are injured in the battle of life often end up at the doors of our tents with gaping wounds of body and soul in desperate need of healing. Yet our main task is to keep the home fires burning, to provide places of refreshment, inspiration and recreation for those who are sent to us. How understandable that many of them fall by the wayside in the midst of the terrible battle of this life — how less excusable when we are not faithful, surrounded as we are by the strength and power of our Lord. How terrible when some of us even become the enemy within the camp . . .
And we religious types are subtly tempted to become the enemy to our fellow Christians. It can be easy to forget the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. How easy it is to decide, for example, that those who do not have an Athonite spiritual father (Optina fathers being extinct), do not attend every church service and Bible study and do not openly wear their prayer ropes, are not as spiritual as they should be. I have heard people speaking this way and it appalls me. I often wonder if such people have read the Gospels. Theirs may be a form of spirituality but I am not sure it is a Christian one.
Then how, in this busy world of ours, do “ordinary” people pray? Where do they find their ladder? Can those who are not able to spend long hours “paying attention to God” in prayer and religious exercises still become saints: men and women of prayer?
I would say definitively, Yes. To understand this, let us remember that our relationship with the Lord has often been compared to that of a husband and wife. At the beginning of such intimate relationships, time is needed to become accustomed to the beloved. The courtship and honeymoon phase of marriage are proverbial for that kind of close attention. Yet normally, a marriage moves beyond that need for physical closeness. A couple learns to feel they are married, to act in a way that is appropriate to married persons, even when they are apart and getting on with the business of their lives that may frequently separate them for long periods of time.
Even more than a marriage, our life in God comes to encompass everything we are and everything we do. We cannot exist, speak or act apart from Him. That is a fact, whether or not we are ready to accept it or act upon it. In a sense, it is very simple. If Christians take the time to remind themselves of that fact, even briefly each day, the rest of their lives gradually begin to fall into place. I would submit that this is the heart of exile and the most basic part of prayer: to acknowledge that we are in the presence of God, to learn to turn to him, speak to him and then to be silent before him so that He may speak to us. All of this can be done within a five minute period, so there is no excuse for not taking such time. And many, many so called “common people” in our parishes are doing just this.
Having said that, as with any relationship, there need to be times when we work harder on being in the presence of the Beloved. There need to be times when we stay longer in our icon corner as well as in God’s house, times when we sing songs of praise and worship, study about Him, fast, make serious choices about our priorities, pray with others and get the support we need from the Church to carry on the rest of our life — knowing that all we do is in His presence.
And we all need to learn that we can pray when we are doing other things. We do need to take time to turn to Him — to give Him at least the basic courtesy of a greeting every day and more if our life and our circumstances allow it — and if we do this type of simple prayer with sincerity and a whole heart, we will find that we become gradually aware of Him no matter where we are and what we are doing. To send a quick thought, an inward nod of the head so to speak, in His direction, can keep us centered in the midst of all sorts of distractions. The apostle Paul tells us to pray without ceasing, yet we know that he was a man of immense activity.
We also need help with the thoughts and feelings that bombard us both from outside and within our own heads and hearts. The fathers and mothers of the Church tell us that we will never get away from such thoughts and feelings; they always will be there. This is where simple prayer, a verse from the Psalms or “Lord, have mercy,” the Lord’s name — whatever seems right for us — can be used, almost like a tennis racket to hit the distracting feelings and thoughts away. As long as we can do this — as long as we can separate ourselves from them for even a brief moment — we are not held captive by them. And that little space we create each time we “hit” such a thought or feeling with the name of the Lord or some other brief prayer, gives God all the room He needs to act in our lives. We simply learn not to be bothered by the fact that thoughts and feelings are there.
Many people also find themselves feeling that the official prayers of the Church are sometimes too long and wordy. I would submit that there is nothing wrong with such a feeling. There are people who do really like long prayers — the more elaborate the better; the more obscure the language the better. There are other people who simply can’t pray that way. Or if they can at first, they soon find it becomes impossible for them. Even in church, during longer prayers, they find themselves unable to concentrate. This has always been true. Not every one is called to pray in the same way and there are gifts that vary here, as well. For many of us, the same prayers we teach our children to “get by heart” will continue to be the best prayers for ourselves: To turn to God with simple words such as “Our Father,” or “Holy God: Holy Mighty; Holy Immortal, have mercy on us,” or our own words telling Him our troubles, our joys, our private thanks and requests, asking Him to take care of us and our loved ones — this can be the highest form of prayer for many people. And we should realize that if prayer is something other than turning to God, it has lost its meaning and purpose. Just to “say prayers,” or “use the Jesus prayer” in such a way that we are more aware of ourselves praying than of being in His presence, is a waste of energy. He Himself said: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
Even this simple prayer can be a major struggle, however. We must not underestimate what those around us may be going through when they seem to do no more than appear faithfully in Church on Sunday. This is a fallen world. The devil has a vested interest in keeping us unaware of God’s presence. What should be simple can begin to look like a horrible task. And in truth, there are some teachers who do make prayer a “burden too hard to be borne.” There are people who are called to be the Olympic athletes of prayer — to read long Scripture passages and whole prayer books through every day; make hundreds of prostrations; take on severe fasts; attend every possible service; spend at least an hour each day in silent meditation. There are others like the Publican who are called simply to live their whole lives before God in humility and love. A heartfelt “Lord have mercy on me a sinner” is all we need to be justified before him. Some of us need to admit that we aren’t given the gifts or the providence for the “Olympic” kind of prayer and get on with our lives, turning to God as we can through the day, not beating ourselves up because we aren’t as good as the Pharisee.
By now you may be wondering why, in a talk on Eastern Christian prayer, I haven’t done more than mention the “Jesus prayer.” Many people today seem to believe that it is the only truly “Orthodox” prayer. Yet this is not accurate or traditional. The prayer of Jesus mentioned in early writers such as St. John Climacus was actually the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father …“). We need to remember that in the Gospel accounts, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray He did not tell them to use the Jesus prayer. Some people find it is a good tool to use to turn to the Lord; let Him be the One who fights off the distracting thoughts for them. Others find other words more useful — or even turning to Him without words. If we call on the Lord using His name, we also need to be sure that we know Who He is. I am more than a little concerned by people who “use the Jesus prayer” without knowing the Gospels — without even having read the New Testament through once. Who is the Jesus they are praying to? “The Jesus Prayer” is not a magical incantation. He certainly is able to work in spite of our ignorance. But not many of us are illiterate peasants, unable to read and ponder His Word in the Gospel. We will be called to account for the use of our gifts and talents. If the ability to read is one of them, then we should do just that to inform our prayer. St. Paul tells us to “pray with understanding.”
And we all need to be reminded of the importance of what we are doing as Christians. A large part of the job of professional religious people is to equip others for the battle. It gets down to what we believe about God. Are we functional atheists? Do we say God is all powerful, but really think we are the only ones who can do anything important? If God is Who we Orthodox say He is, then turning to Him through our tasks, during our conversations, is the only way to gain a real perspective on what we are doing. When we lose that sense of an “upper level” in our lives, we lose the ability to think clearly and with compassion. We are no longer living as Christians. If we understand that, then the problem of “making time for prayer” ceases to be a problem. We will see how we are without him and we won’t want to be that way. We will find that even when there are emergencies when it is obvious we must serve our neighbor in immediate need, we can grab time “on the run” as it were. And we must be careful to remember that He loves our neighbor more than we do. Often we need to realize there is no emergency we need to take care of, we are just busybodies. If we do our own job, live our own lives, and put our loved ones into His hands, they will have a much better chance of learning to stand on their own feet and living their own lives before him as well.
I do think that many people are tempted to make prayer and the Christian life much too exotic and complicated. We don’t want just to climb a ladder — we want to do acrobatics and tie ourselves up in knots. Our Lord became incarnate as a very common-place person, not even as exotic a figure as St. John the Baptist. He came simply to give us abundant life in our circumstances here and now so that we will also find it in eternity. He did not mention spirituality. He did not present prayer as an end in itself. We need to do what we can, not what we can’t. I think many of the people in our churches who don’t pray have been led to believe that the only way to do so is to take lots of time, read lots of books, use fancy words. They know they can’t do that, so sometimes it is true, they do nothing. We should let them know that there is another way and that it is a very traditional one. Simple, heartfelt prayer is something anyone can do at any time. If we are called to do more by our gifts and situation, then God will bless us — only let us not attempt more without guidance or we can become judgmental Pharisees rather than men and women of deep and compassionate love and prayer. The Lord said something about becoming like little children in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven … St. John Climacus puts it another way — we cannot climb the whole ladder in one leap. We must be willing humbly to take the first step that is presented to us in our life.
. . . our life in God comes to encompass everything we are and everything we do.
Reprinted from “Essays and Notes,” Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery, Otego, NY, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1999).