One of the most memorable things for me at the beginning of this Great Fast was attending Forgiveness Vespers at the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) cathedral in Chicago. The community there is so intimate that some even remembered seeing me around for some of the other feasts; this is because the OCA cathedral is perhaps the most accessible place that I know by public transit to attend some of the feasts.
As vespers ended, the bishop transitioned to the Rite of Forgiveness by offering what my spiritual father would call a ‘sermonette’ – not quite a sermon, but not quite un-homiletical either. It was a brilliant sermonette, I have to say, mostly because he structured it around asking the community for forgiveness for not praying for them when he was supposed to, but instead procrastinating by surfing the web.
It was in this sermonette that the bishop also began to reflect on the Sunday of Holy John of the Ladder, looking forward therefore to the Fourth Sunday of the Great Fast from the beginning. He told us to have a look at the icon of the Divine Ladder, the visual manifestation of Holy John’s classic work on hesychasm in which the spiritual life is portrayed as an ascent of a divine ladder – an ascent that I must note was also commended by Pope St Gregory the Great (it’s included in the Holy Transfiguration Monastery edition), which means that in this Orthodoxy there is no real East or West despite the sad divisions that were introduced long after John of the Ladder and Pope Gregory lived.
The bishop said that as we look at the icon, we see the demons coming to pluck people from the ladder, especially from the top where there are the bishops and the scholars and the monastics. Those who look the most holy, or are required to be the most holy by virtue of their position in the church – they are the ones that the demons go after, and perhaps by the littlest of sins (sloth, perhaps, much like his own Internet procrastination), they are undone. ‘It’s when you think you’re there,’ the bishop said, ‘that’s what you fall.’
This came as a sober warning to us who were gathered, but I also felt it as an extraordinary moment of humility when the bishop demonstrated to us how the Christian life is to be lived this Great Fast. The people who are ahead of me in the spiritual life both in my church and in the other Christian churches are often quick to admit their own faults. As a young Christian, I’ve often wondered why that is. Why does my spiritual father qualify his prayers by saying that he has many sins? Why do some priests sign off their emails as ‘sinner-priest’? Why does Holy Mary of Egypt tell Abba Zosimus that she is so sinful when she has such an intimate relationship with G-d?
I suspect it is because they all understand something profound about the Divine Ladder, something that I am still learning in my heart – that if they were to think that they had ascended the ladder fully, then they would be undone by the evil spirits felling them by their pride and their procrastination. Indeed, it seems to me that it is sloth to which many of these older sisters and brothers talk about the most, which is why it is now a central point of meditation for me this Great Fast.
And thus sobered, in the first tone, we sing the Tropar of Holy John of the Ladder as terrible hesychasts ourselves:
Dweller of the desert and angel in the body,
you were shown to be a wonder-worker, our God-bearing Father John.
You received heavenly gifts through fasting, vigil, and prayer:
healing the sick and the souls of those drawn to you by faith.
Glory to Him who gave you strength!
Glory to Him who granted you a crown!
Glory to Him who through you grants healing to all!