Faith, Hope, and Love, The Thirtieth Step

August 3, 2018

And now remains faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

John–Love, by its very nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as it is humanly possible. For God is love (1 John 4:16).

This is a saying worth pondering for some time:

Love is the banishment of every sort of contrariness, for love thinks no evil.

We spoke of dispassion yesterday–sort of a calm detachment. Not becoming buffeted by passions. John says dispassion and love are distinguished only by name.

And…

He who loves the Lord has first loved his brother, for the latter is proof of the former. Someone who loves his neighbor will never tolerate slanderers and will run from them as though from a fire. And a man who claims to love the Lord but is angry with his neighbor is like someone who dreams he is running.

Concluding the 30 steps:

Remaining now are faith, hope, and love, these three. But love is the greatest of them all (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Placing Our Passions Behind Us

August 2, 2018

The dispassionate man no longer lives himself, but it is Christ Who lives in him. –St. John of the Ladder

We have worked our way up the steps of the ladder to the penultimate one. We have recognized the passions and sources of passions that work us up emotionally and detract from our growth. We have looked at the virtues and worked on developing habits so that we can lead a virtuous life.

At the end of stillness and prayer we can find what John calls dispassion. Another word we could use is calm. We are no longer driven by passions like a rudderless ship on the ocean in a storm. We can make decisions on our own. We can discern the will of God in all situations.

John says we make the soul the master of all the senses keeping our souls continually in the presence of the Lord.

Our politics today are more passionate and divisive than almost any time I can remember–at least since the 50s. We have too many people in our churches working up such passions about determining whom to leave out of church rather than working to bring people in.

Someone said only recently that old refrain, “Society calls us hate-mongers when we speak up against sin. It doesn’t realize that we only hate the sin, not the sinner.” To which I say, it certainly doesn’t look or sound like it. If we are working on our spiritual formation, we are more worried about our own sins, which are many, rather than pointing out the speck in the other’s eye.

Jesus certainly never taught that we should go around like the Pharisees of his day constantly pointing out the faults and sins of others. That never sounds loving and inviting.

Blessed dispassion raises the poor mind from earth to heaven, raises the poor beggar from the dunghill of passion.

The Practice of Prayer

August 1, 2018

How do we become proficient at something?

We practice. Of course, we don’t just go through the motions. We learn the model, the right way. Then we do it over and over until we are proficient almost without thinking.

I’m thinking of a baseball player who practices catching ground balls and making the throw. Over and over until she can do it effortlessly.

The golf pro practices a shot a hundred times a day until muscle memory takes over and he can make the shot in competition.

In Yoga, you don’t go to class, you go to practice. Whenever we roll out the mat, we are practicing.

I once offered to teach a class on prayer. From the beginning, there was a disconnect between the class and me. I wanted them to learn prayer by learning how to practice prayer. They wanted to learn about prayer. They just wanted to go through the Bible or other literature and read what others said about prayer. They wanted a Ph.D. in prayer–a research degree. I wanted for them to become a person in prayer.

When we pray, we should be like the publican or the prodigal, says John Climacus. Pray simply. Many words distract the mind as we search for even more words. People tell me they can’t pray because they don’t know all the words. I tell them, good. You don’t need all the words.

In fact, consider prayer like a conversation where you listen more than talk. You only need a word or phrase and then wait on God with God.

This is the 28th step of 30. We have learned to recognize and overcome the negative and evil emotions, desires, thoughts. We have practice the good habits such as humility , stillness, prayer. Now we are uniting with God.

Practice these and see how you grow as a person.

Meditation The Path Toward Health and Spirit

July 31, 2018

“Oooh, can you see auras?”

I believe that what John Climacus writes about as stillness, today in America we would call meditation. There is some confusion of terms also between meditation and contemplation. I’m more interested in the practice than the terminology.

The first Yoga class I took was at a time when young mothers had dropped their elementary school children off at school and then had time for themselves. So it was me in my 50s and a bunch of women from late 20s to mid 30s. They didn’t seem to mind me invading their turf. Once the subject of meditation came up and I mentioned I did. That provoked the question above. New Age had infiltrated even into Sidney, Ohio.

John devotes much space to stillness. He gives to us a list of signs, stages, and proofs of practicing stillness in the right way.

On the one hand, he says:

  • A calm mind
  • A purified disposition
  • No sense of attachment
  • An end to gluttony
  • The death of lust
  • An end to talkativeness
  • For those interested in spiritual formation, there are even more:
    • The imminence of death (also practiced by the Stoics, by the way)
      Rapture in the Lord
      A foundation for the direct experience of God
      A well of discernment

    The man who has entered on stillness for a good reason but who fails to see how it benefits him daily is either practicing it in the wrong way or is being robbed of it by self-esteem.

    That’s why you seldom hear from people who are practicing. Bragging about meditating is an oxymoron.

    And, no, I don’t see auras. You’re safe around me.

    Stillness of the Soul

    July 30, 2018

    And the winner is…The 2017 most downloaded app in the Apple App Store (and I think the most dollars in sales) is the app Calm.

    Suddenly psychologists and therapists have discovered how beneficial to physical and mental health is the practice of mindfulness or stillness.

    Many of us have known that for years. Forty-some years of practice of stillness changes your life.

    We now use phrases such as “monkey brain” to discuss how hard it is to settle down our thoughts. The very ancient tradition of stillness took pains to identify the components of the monkey brain. That is what John Climacus has been teaching us.

    When we win the fight over the array of evil thoughts and desires, we can truly begin to sink into stillness.

    Brave and determined thinking is a friend of stillness. It is always on watch at the doors of the heart, killing or driving off invading notions.

    Stillness is also the gateway to true prayer. It begins with calming the body and mind. It adds perspective. It allows awareness of the whispers from God.

    Begin and end the day in stillness and one day you will look back and be amazed at your growth.

    Come Holy Spirit, Fill the Hearts

    July 27, 2018

    Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful… –Prayer from Emmaus Retreat

    As we pause before completing John Climacus’s final three steps of spiritual formation, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, we reflect that nowhere does he say that all we have to do is memorize a proposition found in the scripture, say we believe it, and that’s it.

    Much as Jesus always commanded us to do, John teaches us to recognize a progression of evil thoughts and actions and then teaches us to overcome them. Then he teaches the habits we replace the old with.

    You can love that old motorcycle with great sentimental attachment. You can believe in your heart that it will run. You can memorize all the parts so that you know the difference between a piston and a crankshaft or valve or chain or bearing. It’s not going to run until you discern the faults and fix them. Only then can you ride in the countryside with the wind blowing in your hair experiencing that feeling of freedom.

    John left us with a guide to the faults we need to fix on our path of spiritual development. And he left us with tips on overcoming them.

    We might study to gain knowledge. That’s not a bad thing unless it leads to pride. But the real work we do is to fill up with the spirit. It’s a matter of heart, not head.

    Spiritual Formation Requires Time and Nurture

    July 26, 2018

    Do you like to read mystery stories? Perhaps detective stories? I was hooked on Earl Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason stories as a youth. Then I was introduced to a series set in 6th Century China by Robert Van Gulik–the Judge Dee mysteries.

    Do you skip to the end to see how it comes out? Or can you puzzle through along with the protagonist and work out the answer?

    I’ve been presenting the process of spiritual formation presented by John Climacus, also known as St. John of the Ladder.

    He has taken us through the recognition and overcoming of the eight evil thoughts and many other sins and also good habits we need to work through to our growth.

    I wonder how many, especially in our age of instant gratification, would skip to Step 30 (we’ve studied up through Step 27 so far)? Then maybe they would think to themselves, I can just skip all the preliminaries and instantly find myself perfect in love.

    Life doesn’t work this way. Neither does spiritual formation.

    I was just listening to a teaching moment with Henry Cloud, author of Boundaries and many other books. I recommend them all.

    He referenced this story found in Luke 13.

    “Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

    This fig tree (us) takes time and nurturing to bear fruit. It required an advocate between us and the ultimate judge.

    We can’t rush and find humility and discernment, for example, quickly. It takes time and nurturing to overcome the many thoughts and emotions that are obstacles in our way. We need an advocate to nurture us. Probably human mentors, too.

    As Cloud put it, you don’t plant a seed and immediately step back and say give me an apple. You must cultivate the tree into its time to bear fruit.

    Before we go around pointing our fingers at the sins of others, perhaps we should ask ourselves if we should be instead nurturing them into growing their spiritual formation. After all, none of us have reached perfection. It takes time…and nurture.

    Discernment Is A Light To The Entire Mind

    July 25, 2018

    We have journeyed in our spiritual development through the obstacles and traps of the evil thoughts and truly have brought the attitude of humility into our souls.

    Discernment follows–a solid understanding of the will of God in all times, in all places, in all things.

    How often have we prayed for discernment consciously or unconsciously skipping the part, “the man who has devoutly destroyed within himself the three has also destroyed the five.” [Interpreted: the three principal evil thoughts are gluttony, vainglory, and avarice, which give rise to the other five lust, despondency, pride, dejection, and anger.]

    Perhaps there are times in our lives where we have had a glimpse of discernment and then failed to act. How many boards of Elders or boards of directors have discerned a problem with the leader or CEO and passed on taking action? I’ve been there, done that, have the T-shirt.

    Rather than having the the difficult conversation as Henry Cloud would advise, we (I) have taken the easy road with a small comment or even closed our eyes and failed our constituency.

    Twice John Climacus reminds us that discernment is the eye–once of the “entire mind” and once of the “heart.”

    But we must remember, “A small fire can wipe out an entire forest and a small fault can ruin all our work.”

    However, “a discerning man is a discoverer of health, a destroyer of sickness.”

    We don’t achieve discernment in order to tear people down but to lift them up.

    Humility Is a Grace in the Soul

    July 24, 2018

    As we have climbed the ladder of divine ascent with John, we have strived to inculcate the virtues and overcome the sins and emotions.

    Then we came to pride–that downfall of so many.

    The only thing that can conquer pride is humility. And without developing and honing humility we can not approach the higher rungs of the ladder.

    I have such a heavy heart for those who had developed a public persona that helped many. But pride entered and masked the sinful underbelly of character. And they want to return to their public lives, but pride remains. Unable to develop and perfect humility, they remain in limbo.

    We will show ourselves true lovers of wisdom and of God if we stubbornly run away from all possibility of aggrandizement.

    How hard that is today when media gleefully builds up a “personality” and then just as gleefully tears it down. How hard to avoid self-promotion even at local levels.

    Humility is a heavenly waterspout which can lift the soul from the abyss up to heaven’s height.

    Humility does not mean lack of strength as the world would describe it derisively. It is a strength. Only the strong can be humble. There is an inner strength like the rebar within concrete construction.

    Paradoxically the humble leader becomes the great leader.

    Some men have asked how quickly they can return to the public life after the fall caused by pride. Wise advisors tell them to forget it. Humility must be deeper than show. And for some, it seems impossible to achieve.

    Shedding The Complexity Of Life

    July 23, 2018

    An angry man met a dissembler. Not an honest word was shared between them.

    Thus John Climacus describes a problem in life. Today we would say those who have an agenda.

    Two medical doctors were discussing health. One begins to quote someone. The other interrupts, “Be careful. He is president of such-and-such organization. He has an agenda.”

    The true disciple sheds complexity, exaggeration, anger. In simplicity of faith, the disciple follows in the footsteps of the master.

    Not the simplicity of children, who come by it naturally.

    Rather the simplicity gained by us older people who have to prod out the complexities, justifications, anger, dissembling that cloud our vision and interfere with the growth of the spirit.

    I survey the world, and in every major religion I see such people as leaders. The angry, the ones who stir dissension, the ones who manipulate to gain their way.

    Those who complete this 24th step of the Ladder of Divine Ascent have simplified their outlooks and simply follow the Teacher. Only through this step of purifying our thoughts can we work on the essential next step–humility.