In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit!
Dear brothers and sisters, today we commemorate a great ascetic, St. John Climacus, abbot of Mount Sinai. His book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, is undoubtedly one of the most valuable guides to spiritual life. Today, on the day of his commemoration, we would like to focus on a wonderful maxim that we find in the chapter On Painstaking and True Repentance: “Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously. And assuredly the angel who guards you will honor your patience.”
These words reveal how our spiritual life unfolds and what laws define it.
“Do not be surprised that you fall every day.” In the writings by holy fathers and venerable ascetics we hear the words warning us, “Remember, that you will be falling into sins, either grave or minor ones, till the end of your life: wrath, boasting, lying, vanity, insults, greediness. This very remembrance will keep you in humility. What can we be proud of if we commit sins and hurt our neighbor every single day? The Lord’s mercy and His indulgence towards human weaknesses are tremendous if we have repentance for any sin we commit, no matter how serious or terrible it is. If you sin, confess it. If you sin again, confess it once again, and so on till the end. By doing so we will never succumb to despondency; peace will permeate us.” Our whole life consists of falling and getting up, stumbling and finding balance again. “People often have to endure their weaknesses for many years; if they do not humble themselves before the Lord, they are humbled by their own impotence and helplessness.”
Archimandrite John (Krestiankin) urges us in his letters, “Do not be despondent if you unexpectedly fall. The Lord may let us fall to teach us, to help us realize our own weakness so that with greater faith we would turn to the Almighty, Who is capable of filling our weakness with His Power. Taming the passions is the work of our whole life; in this warfare, we learn to see our absolute weakness and fragility, and the mighty power of God, Who can by a wave of His hand raise us from the abyss of sin and passions. The Lord may let us suffer much from both ourselves and our neighbor to help us acquire the divine virtue of humility.”
The holy fathers instruct those who begin their spiritual life: Be ready for prolonged warfare and do not hope that we will always be savoring triumphs. Just the reverse, we will often have to be patient, enduring our burden. We will often see that, despite all our willingness to be righteous, we cannot but stumble over careless blunders and mistakes. Remember, they say to us, that all this is absolutely natural and usual. Should you encounter it, do not be surprised. And, knowing about it in advance, do not expect any other course of life save one amidst difficulties, concerns and misfortunes. Do not hope that everything you dream of will so easily come true. How many obstacles there are, both outer and inner! Be ready to fight and unceasingly ask the Lord to bestow strength upon you to endure everything that is unpleasant and hampering. Do not rely upon yourself. Place all your trust and hope upon God, and you will never be without His help. There is only one thing you should accumulate—great courage to stand for what you have started, no matter what. This is what should lay the foundation and be solidified by firm determination. And how life goes, what triumphs and falls you have, how others take it—leave everything to the will of God. You will only be able to feel any tangible, very minor fruits after many tireless labors, after many, many years, but never after taking yours first steps on your first days of spiritual life.
Thus, should we experience troubles, St. John Climacus encourages us, “Do not give up, but stand your ground courageously. And assuredly the angel who guards you will honor your patience.”
How many dreams we have of transforming ourselves, but how many dreams remain unfulfilled! We contemplate these thoughts and desires and put them aside, sticking to routine, habitual life because we have no determination. Archimandrite John (Krestiankin) writes to his spiritual child, “You fall and you are not determined to rise up—you keep on lying. And you perfectly know what this lying will do to you.” In a different letter he continues, “You have neither patience nor willingness to learn to walk as a Christian, humbly examining yourself with all your weaknesses. ‘Holiness is not a pear—we cannot just pluck it and eat it.’ We should be patient, and make efforts, and grieve over our own helplessness.”
The courage, firmness and determination to always live with God and in God should, despite endless misfortunes and falls, be the foundation of our spiritual life. As St. Theophan the Recluse puts it, our determination to follow the Lord and live a Christian life should be stable, firm, unwavering, and unchanging. Fully realizing what labors and troubles await us, we should be inwardly resolute to reach the goal regardless of whatever may happen, whatever obstacles we may encounter. This very determination, readiness to do everything we must, which the apostle Paul speaks about, encouraging us to be Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord (Rom. 12:11), is the essence of our spiritual life. If we possess this readiness (if we are diligent in serving God, fervent to please Him and determined to give our life to carefully fulfilling His commandments), then we are living the spiritual life; if we lack this readiness, we have no spiritual life. Thus, the primary duty of one who takes his first steps in spiritual life is to by all possible means maintain and strengthen his readiness, fervor and diligence regardless of sinful trips and falls. Consistency and steadiness in our attempts to improve ourselves are the key to our spiritual success. Inner peace is a gift of God, but we cannot receive it without working hard. That is the law of spiritual life: “You will never achieve any goal by striving on your own, and the Lord will not grant you anything unless you exert yourself. This is indispensable.”
In studying the experience of our holy father, we can see that the Lord chose various ways to save those who lovingly attached themselves to Him and devoted all their lives to Him. Sometimes He lets the devil maliciously interfere, but He never takes away His help. God is everything. He guides us to salvation in various and, what is more important, mysterious ways. A person living the spiritual life may see these ways when only looking back. Thus, how vital is our never ending prayer: “By ways known to You alone, save me!” Together with the prayer comes our complete and steadfast reliance on the will of God.
Thus, let us remember the words of St. John Climacus: “Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously. And assuredly the angel who guards you will honor your patience.”