Lenten Lessons on the Ladder: Week 6

Today is Maundy Thursday.  It’s the day  when we celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper with His disciples, His mandate (Latin mandatum, the root of our “Maundy”) that they love one another as He loved them (John 13:34), and his agony of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Tomorrow we will remember His crucifixion. And then on Sunday . . .

As Lent draws to a close, I’m reflecting again on the purpose of this season of spiritual discipline.  I’ve finished reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a book which many other Protestants would find overbearing in its calling to practice asceticism and its advice to grieve and mourn for our sinfulness. So it begs the question, Why do this? Why practice such severe disciplines? Why even practice the meager disciplines I adopted personally this Lent? When John Climacus wrote this book in the seventh century as a manual for monks, he gave it 30 chapters, or steps – one for each year of the hidden life of Jesus before His public ministry.  It strikes me now that the final three steps correspond well to the holy days we’re presently celebrating – Jesus displays the virtues of the highest steps of The Ladder in the events of Holy Week. And that provides a hint of an answer to the question at hand: The purpose of all our spiritual discipline is to conform us to the image and likeness of Jesus. May this final reflection on The Ladder will show forth the image of Christ in Steps 28-30.

Step 28 – On Prayer – For the first time in this journey through The Ladder, I found advice in this chapter which matched something I was taught in youth group. I remember being taught to pray using the “ACTS” pattern: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. John Climacus advises a similar pattern, with thanksgiving and confession before supplication:

Heartfelt thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer. Next should be confession and genuine contrition of soul. After that should come our request to the universal King. This method of prayer is best, as one of the brothers was told by an angel of the Lord (page 275).

Yes, he says that method of prayer was revealed by an angel. That should be a signal that prayer is much more serious than any youth-group lesson ever indicated to me. The next paragraph drove home the seriousness of what’s happening in prayer:

If you ever found yourself having to appear before a human judge, you may use that as an example of how to conduct yourself in prayer. Perhaps you have never stood before a judge nor witnessed a cross-examination. In that case, take your cue from the way patients appeal to surgeons prior to an operation or a cautery (page 275).

This imagery suggests both a reverence and an urgency which are uncommon in many of the prayers I both pray and hear prayed. From John Climacus, as from other Church Fathers, I get the sense that if we had the faintest sense of God’s holiness, we would approach the Lord with more deliberate and mindful prayers. Climacus uses the image of an earthly king to stir our hearts to attention. If we knew we had an audience with a king or president, we would surely prepare our words in advance and give the king our full attention. So Climacus writes,  “Those of us wishing to stand before our King and God and to speak with Him should not rush into this without some preparation . . .” (p. 274). But reverence is shown better through simplicity and honesty than through pretentious language:  “Pray in all simplicity.  The publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single utterance. . . . In your prayers there is no need for high-flown words, for it is the simple and unsophisticated babblings of children that have more often won the heart of the Father in heaven” (page 275).

Mark 14’s account of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane actually displays these characteristics of prayer. Jesus begins His prayer, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for you” – an expression of both intimacy and reverence, combined with an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and power. Jesus’ prayer continues: “Remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (v. 36). His request is simply stated and yet displays a submission to the Father’s will. Jesus presents Himself honestly and wholly to the Father, “distressed and troubled” and “grieved to the point of death” (vv. 33-34), but His adoration of the Father is pure, His request simple, and His submission total. Step 28 presents a challenge to, as the hymn “Go to Dark Gethsemane” says, “Turn not from His griefs away; [but] learn of Jesus Christ to pray.”

Step 29 – On Dispassion – Dispassion is the state of freedom from the passions, the sinful compulsions and vices which were addressed in so many earlier steps of The Ladder. Climacus says,

A man is truly dispassionate – and is known to be such – when he has cleansed his flesh of all corruption; when he has lifted his mind above everything created, and has made it master of all the senses; when he keeps his soul continually in the presence of the Lord and reaches out beyond the borderline of strength to Him (page 282).

The dispassionate person has a mind set on “the things of the Spirit” in contrast to “the mind set on the flesh” which is “death” and “hostile toward God” (Romans 8:5-7). He has put to death the deeds of the flesh so that he may live (Romans 8:13). In this sense, the death of Christ is the supreme display of freedom from the passions. Having accepted the Father’s will, Jesus’ mind was set entirely on the things of the Spirit, enduring and transcending the sufferings of his flesh. This is why Climacus can describe dispassion in the same terms that Paul used for being united to Christ’s crucifixion: The dispassionate person “no longer lives himself, but it is Christ who lives in him (cf. Galatians 2:20)” (page 284). In order to live in freedom from our sinful nature, we are called to embrace the cross of Christ. To quote again the hymn “Go to Dark Gethsemane”, ‘It is finished’ hear Him cry, learn of Jesus Christ to die.”

Step 30 – On Faith, Hope, and Love – These three virtues are at the top of the ladder, but Love is the greatest (1 Cor. 13), and the one who loves shares in the divine life because God is Love.  But such resurrection into Love always follows death to the world, and Climacus continues to speak about dying to the world throughout this step. Reverence is an essential aspect of Love, as well: “The growth of fear is the starting point of love” (p. 288).  Fear and love are two sides of the same coin, so Climacus can say without contradicting himself “Lucky the man who loves and longs for God as a smitten lover does for his beloved.  Lucky the man whose fear of God is in no way less than the fear of the accused in front of a judge” (p. 287).  I can’t help but see the two natures of Christ in this quote. Fully God and fully human, Jesus embodies both the divine pursuit of humanity and perfect human reverence of the Father. Revering the Father as humanity ought, “He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety” (Hebrews 5:7).  In God’s love for humanity, Christ pursued His Beloved with love “as strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6). His love and his reverence continue at the right hand of the Father where he ever lives as “a merciful and faithful high priest” (Hebrews 2:17).  And this dual-nature is what we are called to aspire to live into: a reverent love which both pursues union with God and seeks to intercede on behalf of all creation before Him.

So why go through the season of Lent? Because we want to dwell in love that unites us with God. In His great love, Christ has sought us out and suffered to bring us to union with Him. Let us reciprocate God’s Love and aspire to such heights by patterning our lives after His. As Hebrews 12:1-2 says, “Let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Amen.

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