Sunday of St. John of the Ladder
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, March 29, 2009
The Scripture today speaks of forces in a young boy that take away his freedom. As is so often the case in the New Testament the cause was attributed to "spirits," that is to demonic possession. The disciples were unable to cure the boy because they did not understand the depth of the problem. "This kind," Jesus tells them, "can only come out through prayer and fasting." Since Jesus does not actually pray here, but simply commands the spirit to leave, we may assume that his continual life of prayer and fasting (and, of course, his divinity) prepared him for just such a challenge. The disciples needed a good deal more training in spiritual things before they could tackle the more complicated problems.
I do not want to talk about demons per se, but of the fact that there are forces within all of us that hinder our freedoms as well. Few of us will ever encounter a real live demon, but all of us face forces that compel us to say or do things we wish we hadn't. These "forces" are passions and they are "demonic", if you will, in the broader sense of the term. What St. Paul says of himself in Romans points to this truth, "For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of the mind and bringing me into captivity..." (Rms. 7:19-20, 23) St. Paul does not identify himself with the sin he is compelled to commit. Steeped in the Torah he knows the truth, that his identity is the image of God in which he was made and that "the sin that dwells in" him is unnatural and parasitic.
If we are on the spiritual path, then we discover something so simple that it is hard to see at first. Allow me to quote from the great psychologist Carl Jung, "That I feed the hungry, forgive any insult, and love my enemy - these are great virtues. But what if I should discover that the poorest of beggars and the most impudent of offenders are all within me, and that I stand in need of the alms of my own kindness, that I myself am the enemy who must be loved - what then?"
The beginning of repentance is the recognition of our own poverty and our own lack of freedom. Repentance leads us to a second conclusion: we are the first ones that are in need of the healing balm of compassion.
Great Lent is meant to reveal this to us so that we can seek out the cure.
The Lord came to set us free from captivity, to liberate us, to illumine us, to deliver us, to save us and ultimately, to deify us. And since our slavery is the result of a complicated process of conditioning over a lifetime, the cure does not come in the way of an instantaneous miracle, but of a gradual process that calls for, as Jesus said, prayer and fasting. Regarding fasting, we must learn to fast from the things that do us harm. Things like anger, fear and ignorance. It is a far better thing to fast from jealousy than from milk. As for prayer I add prayer in its various forms. Some forms of prayer are direct requests for various things, some are deeply meditative and result in the opening and setting free of the heart, some are contemplative with the goal of nurturing self-knowledge and communion with God and others. Some forms of prayer aim to reveal and help us name the forces within that are driving us, like fear, or ignorance, or desire. When we discover them and name them and show the compassion they so desperately need, their power begins to fade. We need to practice prayer in all its varied forms, to turn over every rock to recover our God-given freedom.
Now that we have entered the final weeks of Great Lent and if we have attempted at all to fast and to pray, we may well have noticed that our hearts are wounded and encrusted with scars. We may well have noticed that we are not free, that our conditioning is strong and difficult to deal with. If so, then wonderful! To see things clearly is a great gift from God. The next step is to learn how to work towards spiritual transformation, to heal the wounds, cleanse the heart and mind, smooth out the rough places and set free the captive within so that all captives everywhere may be free. The interconnectedness of humanity means that if I set myself free the whole of humankind will profit. The Lord will guide all those who yearn for this freedom. "For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom."
After Lent and Holy Pascha we often feel let down because we find ourselves at the Empty Tomb and yet there is so much still to do! But remember that Pascha, the glorious and greatest of all feasts, is not the end, it is the beginning. Holy Pascha opens a door through which we are invited to walk. But walk we must, learn we must, pray we must, fast we must, be enlightened we must and then the seed of Life that resides in all of us will grow and bear much fruit. Our work will not end at the empty tomb.