Commemoration of Saint John of Sinai

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Looking to the Lord at every Step of the Ladder
(Commemoration of Saint John of Sinai)
4th Sunday in Great Lent
29 March, 2009
Hebrews 6:13-20 ; Mark 9:17-31

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Today, we see our Lord casting out of the child the demon that was keeping him from speaking and that was paralysing him in other ways, too. We also see the apostles coming to Him and asking Him why they could not cast out the demon. There are many things here to which it is important to pay attention. As soon as the boy comes into the presence of the Saviour (and we have seen this many times before), immediately the devil is reacting in the possessed boy and is convulsing him in a very violent way. This is not a case of epilepsy. Our Saviour immediately begins to address the whole situation. He asks the father how long this had been going on. Our Saviour then addresses the devil and commands him to come out of the boy. Immediately the devil is gone, but not before first causing more trouble. The child is then at peace and restored to his normal, peaceful, healed self. The Saviour immediately takes his hand, lifts him up and gives him to his father.

Evil is always reacting in the presence of the Lord. Evil is always stirring up distractions and trouble in the presence of the Lord because evil feels great pain in the presence of the Lord’s love and life. Evil feels this pain because it is living in complete denial of the power of God, and Who He is. It is living in denial of the nature of His love. The Lord is love. Always there is a reaction. We can see it in the course of our own lives, I am quite sure. I have seen it in my life, and I have heard people talk about this problem many times. People are asking : “Why is it that after a deep, spiritual experience of the Lord, or a great blessing that has happened to me, suddenly there is every sort of trouble happening ?” The answer is always the same : Evil cannot stand to be in the presence of the Lord, His love and His blessing. When a blessing comes to you and to me, the devil always tries to stir up something in order to take our attention away from the Lord. He tries to take our gratitude to the Lord away, so that we will again be paralysed by some sort of fear, and be ruled by some fear instead of living in gratitude and thankfulness to the Lord for everything, acknowledging the Lord’s love, and participating in the power, the life and the light of His love. This is always the case in our lives.

The same thing happens in our parish life, too. Blessings occur. Temptations occur. Do we let the Tempter get away with the tempting ? Do we let him get away with distracting us or do we keep our eyes on the Lord ? If we keep our eyes on the Lord, we will always be all right, even if we get scratched up, somehow. We will still be all right if we keep our focus on the Lord.

This lesson is also connected with what the apostles were asking the Lord. They were still learning. They were still at the beginning of their experience of the Lord. Even though He had given them a great deal of Grace, they did not yet comprehend everything. Therefore, they asked Him : “‘Why could we not cast it out ?’” In my opinion, this was not the right question to ask, and it reveals that the apostles had yet more to learn. The fact is that none of us ever can cast out the devil. Who can ? Only the Lord, our Saviour, Jesus Christ can. Only the Lord Himself can cast out evil. Therefore, our Saviour is saying : “‘This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting’”. By prayer and fasting, we understand that everything is done and accomplished in harmony with the Lord. If a devil is to be cast out, it is the Lord who does the casting out.

Here we come to another important spiritual principle in our lives. People talk to me from time to time about how they are struggling with the devil in one way or another in their lives. That is the worst thing that they can do. If we ourselves engage in a fight with the devil, we are always going to lose. The only successful way to combat the devil, and to combat evil in our lives and in our surroundings, is to be pleading with the Lord for help. We can overcome temptation and evil not by fighting with the devil, but rather by letting the Lord, who conquered the devil, overcome the evil, Himself. How ? By a simple plea, saying to the Lord : “Help me ; save me”. Do we do this ? It seems that we do not do this very often. Why not ? Most often we do not because we forget. Why do we forget ? Because "Big Red" is the master of helping us to forget. He is the father of lies, and he is the father of forgetfulness, too. I have said so many times in my life : “I forgot”. I forgot to do what was right. I forgot to say “No” to you-know-who-down-below. I forgot to say : “Help”. I forgot to say : “Save me”. I forgot because I, like all the rest of us human beings, still have a tendency to be a do-it-yourselfer : I-can-fix-it-myself-don’t-bother-the-Lord-I’ll-do-it. However, if I do that, I am definitely going to find myself deeply humiliated and embarrassed. This has happened many times in my life. I am getting old and it still happens. I hope that the Lord will ultimately have mercy on me because of this perpetual forgetting to ask the Lord first, instead of thinking and doing things myself. I suppose that when I had those “Think-and-Do” books (which existed in my Grade One days), I learned that lesson a little too well. Nevertheless, it is true that it is too easy to forget.

Today, we are remembering Saint John of the Ladder, the abbot of Sinai. The icon here before us does not have the usual ladder of ascent into Heaven that one often sees. However, many are probably familiar with the icon where people are ascending on a ladder towards the Saviour who is at the top with His hand blessing the people who are coming up. At the same time, many people are falling off this ladder while they are distracted and pulled by little black figures on the side. Let us keep this in mind. Why are they falling off ? I remember in my childhood my father and my grandfather teaching me how to climb a ladder : “Going up the ladder, do not look down. Going up the ladder, always look up”. It is the same thing with mountain climbing. Always “look up”, as the Friendly Giant said.

A few weeks ago when I was on retreat in the monastery, the brotherhood was as usual, in Great Lent, reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent. They were on Step Six, which is very hard to bear. Step Six is all about mourning for sin. Mourning for our sins is a step which can get us into trouble if we are not keeping the right perspective. Saint John rightly says in a very extreme way that we should be mourning for our sins. Why should we be mourning for our sins ? It is because we have disappointed and failed our Lord, who has created us. It is not because we are failures, and cannot succeed at anything and will never get anywhere. That is absolutely the worst thing to think about ourselves. That sort of thing is from you-know-who-down-below who encourages the “O poor me” attitude that is bound to get us off the ladder and right back to Step One. If we are mourning our sins, the sorrow we feel for our sins has to be only because we have fallen short of the measure of the Lord’s love. At the same time, while mourning for those sins, we can never take our eyes of concentration off the Lord. This is why Step Six is so tricky. It is too easy to look in, and concentrate on, and be sorry for all the things that we have done wrong, and pay so much attention to that, that we do not look up any more. We only look at ourselves. We put ourselves between ourselves and the Lord, and down we go.

There can only be the Lord and ourselves with nothing in between. It does not matter if it is Step Six or any other step on this ladder to which Saint John Climacus is referring. If we do not keep looking at the Lord at every step but instead look at ourselves (or anything else), down we go. We have to begin again. (I suppose this is somewhat like the Twelve-step Programme which is not so different from this Ladder.)

Whether it is casting out a devil or doing anything good at all in our lives, everything has to be undertaken in the context of the Lord, His love, His supreme ability in everything, His giving us life and help to accomplish everything. He is the only end. His love is the only purpose in our life : growing in it, and sharing it.

Brothers and sisters, as we are getting close to the end of Great Lent and drawing closer to Pascha, let us ask the Lord to renew our love so that we will not take our physical eyes off Him or the eyes of our heart off Him. Let us ask our Saviour to give us the memory and the mindfulness always to say to Him : “Help me ; save me”. May we involve Him always in everything. Let us ask Him to help us to live with an attitude of gratitude, and, living in His love, to glorify Him unceasingly, together with the unoriginate Father, and the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.