Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
Continued from Part 1...
Yet St. John was not content with only analyzing the passions that torment us and lead us away from God. He also wrote with great eloquence of the virtues that we are to "acquire" with and by the grace of God, so that as the passions are overcome, we recover and restore our human nature by becoming what we were meant to be: vessels of the virtues that come from God, essentially a gift of the Holy Spirit present within us.
As we cited him earlier as saying, this is hard work; but it is worthy work that sets us apart as both rational and spiritual beings, created "according to the image and likeness of God." Although St. John enumerates a lesser number of virtues in comparison to the number of the passions that he describes, the passages dealing with the virtues are often much longer. Some of these virtues, to use a term that Archbishop Ware employs, are the "fundamental" virtues of:
- obedience - "Obedience is unquestioned movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry, an unprepared defense before God ... " (STEP 4)
- penitence - "Repentance is the daughter of hope and the refusal to despair. (The penitent stands guilty - but undisgraced.) It is the purification of conscience." (STEP 5)
- remembrance of death - "Fear of death is a property of nature due to disobedience, but terror of death is a sign of unrepented sins." (STEP 6)
- sorrow - "Hold fast to the blessed and joyful sorrow of holy compunction and do not cease laboring for it until it lifts you high above the things of the world." (STEP 7)
Ultimately, as one ascends the ladder, "higher virtues" may be experienced. Since these higher virtues are listed in Steps beyond those describing the passions, it is implied that to experience these virtues is to have reached a certain level of "dispassion."
Dispassion, of course, has nothing to do with indifference or impassivity. (Often apatheia is translated as "apathy" and this is completely misleading). An earlier saint, St. Diachochus of Photice speaks of the "fire of dispassion." As St. John wrote: "To have dispassion is to have the fullness of love, by which I mean the complete indwelling of God."
In other words a successful "warfare against the passions" has its own rewards as the grace of God begins to illuminate genuine repentance. These "higher virtues" are:
- Simplicity - "Simplicity is an enduring habit within a soul that has grown impervious to evil thoughts." (STEP 24)
- Humility - "The man with humility ... will be gentle, kind, inclined to compunction, sympathetic, calm in every situation, radiant, inoffensive, alert and active." (STEP 25)
- Discernment - "Discernment is ... understanding of the will of God in all times, in all places, in all things, and it is found among those who are pure in heart, in body and in speech." (STEP 26)
It was St. John of the Ladder who created the term "joy-creating sorrow." We experience "sorrow" when we acknowledge our sinfulness and estrangement from God; but this becomes a "joyful sorrow" through repentance and an awareness of the forgiving nature of God experienced as God's grace. In a well-know passage, St. John offers a wonderful description of this experience:
God does not demand or desire that someone should mourn out of sorrow of heart, but rather that out of love for Him he should rejoice with the laughter of the soul. Take away sin and then the sorrowful tears that flow from bodily eyes will be superfluous. Why look for a bandage when you are not cut? Adam did not weep before the fall, and there will be no tears after the resurrection when sin will be abolished, when pain, sorrow and lamentation will have taken flight. (STEP 7)
At the summit of the Ladder of divine ascent, we find what could be described as the "transition to the contemplative life," according to Archbishop Ware. With words that must reveal a real experience, St. John will describe:
- Stillness - "Stillness of soul is the accurate knowledge of one's thoughts and is an unassailable mind." (STEP 27)
- Prayer - "Future gladness, action without end, wellspring of virtues, source of grace, hidden progress, food of the soul ... an axe against despair, hope demonstrated." (STEP 28)
- Dispassion - "By dispassion I mean a heaven of the mind within the heart, which regards the artifice of demons as a contemptible joke." (STEP 29)
- Love - The person who wants to talk about love is undertaking to speak about God. But it is risky to talk about God and could even be dangerous for the unwary. Angels know how to speak about love, but even they do so only in proportion to the light within them. "God is love" (I JN. 4:16). But someone eager to define this is blind striving to measure the sand in the ocean. Love, by its nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as this is humanly possible. In its activity it is inebriation of the soul. Its distinctive character is to be a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility. Love is the banishment of every sort of contrariness, for love thinks no evil. (STEP 30)
A spiritual psychologist seemingly without peer, St. John leads up The Ladder of Divine Ascent through victory over the passions and the acquisition of the virtues. On however a modest level, that is our goal during Great Lent. It is a blessing, indeed, to have as a guide such a master of the Christian life who can inspire us to rise above our fallen nature. St. John closed his classic work of the spiritual life with the following exhortation:
Ascend... ascend eagerly. Let your hearts' resolve be to climb. Listen to the voice of the one who says, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of our God" (Isa. 2:3), Who makes our feet to be like the feet of a deer. "Who sets us on the high places, that we may be triumphant on His road" (Hab. 3:19).
Run, I beg you, run with him who said, "Let us hurry until we arrive at the unity of faith and of the knowledge of God, at mature manhood, at the measure of the stature of Christ's fullness" (Eph. 4:13). Baptized in the thirtieth year of His earthly age, Christ attained the thirtieth step on the spiritual ladder, for God indeed is love, and to Him be praise dominion, power. In Him is the cause, past present, and future, of all that is good forever and ever. Amen.