Memory of Saint John of Sinai

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
Christ, Himself, is the Ladder
(Memory of Saint John of Sinai)
4th Sunday in Great Lent
[Given outside of the Archdiocese]
14 March, 2010
Hebrews 6:13-20 ; Mark 9:17-31


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

Just this last week, at the dialogue between Canadian Orthodox and Roman Catholic bishops (convened in Toronto), there was a discussion about the matter of exorcism. The bishops agreed that this has to be approached carefully and properly. However, we have rather different ways of going about the whole matter. Roman Catholics have a tendency to think that an exorcist must be a particular specialist who has graduated from a specific curriculum on the subject. However, Orthodox tend to think that any person who is given the authority through a special, personal blessing can undertake this service. The point is that it is not anyone’s supposed holiness or ability that has anything to do with exorcism. Exorcism has not to do with academic knowledge (so-called). Exorcism certainly has nothing to do with special or secret techniques, nor is it a learnt skill. It has only to do with Christ, Himself. An appropriate example of this is found in the exchange between a demon and seven so-called exorcists (see Acts 19:13-16). The result was disaster for the “exorcists”.

Whenever Christ is present, evil is agitated. When evil has enslaved a person, the evil is especially agitated in Christ’s presence. The agitation begins already when Christ is merely approaching (see Luke 8:28). In every case, just as today, our Saviour sets free the person who is enslaved by the devil. He sets the person free by His love. In the same way, He sets you and me free from sin by His love. Not by any means is everyone who is possessed by the devil afflicted in the way this particular child was today. However, we are all definitely in some ways enslaved by sin.

If we are going to pay attention to particular cases of exorcism (as we were discussing last week), it is true that we have to pay very careful attention in order to distinguish between someone who is truly possessed and someone who has a psychosis. However, we can understand what is truly the case if we have the heart and the mind of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 2:16). It is the Lord Himself, in His love, who sets us all free from any sort of enslavement to the devil – whether it be so extreme as possession, or whether it be the regular occurrence of enslavement to sin of one sort or another.

In order for us to be able to live as our Saviour is directing us to live, and to be able to accomplish what He wants us to accomplish in Him, we have to have the heart and the mind of Christ. We have to come to the point in our lives when everything in our life is Christ (see Philippians 1:21). Then, everything that we are and everything that we do is Christ. Regardless, He is with us and in us all the time, whether we are aware of it or not. In this context, I like to say that in naming one of his particularly good books, Pope Benedict XVI made a mistake. He entitled his book about the Eucharist "God is near us". I am not saying anything against the book. That is not the point. However, God is not “near” us. Rather, He is “with” us, and we are with Him. It is a small mistake, but a very significant mistake. “God is with us”, as we love to sing with gusto at Great Compline. Everything about us is in Him. There is no distance between us and Him.

Today, we are keeping the memory of Saint John, the Abbot of Sinai, who is well known for having written "The Ladder of Divine Ascent". So important is this writing, that we have a Sunday in Great Lent given to his memory and the reminder of this “Ladder”. The book itself is read in monasteries throughout every Great Lent. In regard to the ladder, we do not begin stepping onto it and making progress towards Christ, who is at the top end of the ladder, unless we begin with Christ and understand that Christ, Himself, is, in effect, the whole ladder. There is no separation between ourselves and Christ in the whole course of our progress of deepening our love in Him, of becoming more and more focussed on Him, more and more mindful of Him, more and more full of His love, more and more identified with Him, and more and more like Him. He is with us at all times. In the course of this ascent (which is the whole course of our lives), we learn how to see Christ more, everywhere and always, in everything and everyone. We learn to pay less attention to our selfish concerns in which we are straying from Him.

In the icon concerning the ladder, we see nasty black creatures taking people off the ladder. The people fall off the ladder not because the devils are yanking them off, but because they have decided to listen to the Tempter, to take their focus off Christ, to look at themselves, and to look elsewhere. They fall off, and they have to begin again. Falling off this ladder is not the end of the story for you and for me in the course of our lives. The Lord loves us, and He is continually beckoning us to come up the ladder to Him. He wants us to be with Him at all times, everywhere, and in eternity. He wants us to be with Him because He is the Life-giver. He created us to live in Him. He wants us to be with Him and in Him always.

The Lord loves us. It is the presence, the life and the light of His love that sets this child free today. When our Saviour is saying to His apostles, who could not at that time cast out the devil, that this sort only comes out with prayer and fasting, we are to understand (as the apostles understood) that life in Christ is all about prayer and fasting. Acquiring the heart, the mind, the love and life of Christ is always achieved through prayer and fasting. Giving up ourselves to Him, throwing away anything that is not of Him, allowing and asking Him always to unite us to Himself, to fill us with His love, is what constitutes this progress. The apostles were later able to bring Christ’s love to bear on the lives of many people, and they were able to bring Christ’s healing love and release to all sorts of persons. They grew up in Christ. When He was telling them today about His coming Crucifixion and Death, it scared them because they had no idea what this meant. It frightened them, as it would frighten you and me (except that we know what happened). We know the end of the story, and we are living in the consequences of His sacrifice in love, His self-emptying love.

As we are progressing day by day on the course of the ladder that Saint John is describing for us, let us ask the Lord to be in our hearts and in our minds, to form our hearts and our minds so that we do not fall off this ladder and have to begin again and again. Instead, may we be enabled by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, supported by the prayers of our brothers and sisters and of all the saints as well, to make our progress up and up (as C S Lewis describes it in The Last Battle of the Narnia series), higher and deeper, in love with the Lord. May we be more and more identified with Him. May we be more and more like Him. May we be more and more in Him. May we have the mind of Christ, and be able to come into His Kingdom with joy and light. May we be followed by all sorts of persons whom we know ; and together may we glorify Him in eternity with joy, together with the unoriginate Father, and the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.