Today we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Lent and commemorate St John Climacus, author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, one of the most important pieces of Christian literature ever produced. He was a monk and an abbot, who was asked for advice on how to be good monks. It’s a tradition in the Orthodox Church, and most monasteries, that during Great Lent, the monks hear from The Ladder of Divine Ascent during their one meal of the day. This book gives 30 steps, or rungs, with each step getting you closer and closer to heaven. It’s not about getting to Heaven, but about the deification, the theosis, the becoming godly while we’re here on earth. Some of the holiest of saints have reached those heights.
The PDF is available online, and while it’s difficult to read because it was written by a monk for monks, we can benefit greatly from it. The first step of the ladder is the renunciation of the world. The renunciation of the world means to give up earthly cares: clothes for a cassock, food such as meat products, and worldly goods. The monks and nuns give up everything. It’s unique this year that the Sunday we’re learning about The Ladder of Divine Ascent, in addition to the things we normally give up for lent – the meat, dairy, fish, TV, and other things – God has ordained for us to give up even more of the world. This year, because of this virus, we are giving up a lot.
God is teaching us how to give up the world. He is forcing us to give up the cares of this life. Money, maybe shutting down a business. God is teaching us, “Don’t care about it. I will take care of you. Let go.” Because we can’t trust in God until we’ve let go of earthly things. If we hold on to earthly things, we can’t grab onto God. So God this year has determined to teach us a different lesson where He is going to help us give up certain things of the world. God is giving us more to give up because we need it. Our spiritual lives are suffering.
Listen to today’s gospel: There was a boy who had a physical illness, he was an epileptic who had seizures, but Jesus is the physician of both soul and body. The disciples couldn’t heal the boy and asked Jesus why they couldn’t heal this boy. His reply was that this can only be removed through prayer and fasting. It is even more essential this year, during this time, to pray and fast. The world is going crazy because there aren’t enough people praying and fasting. The monks of Mt. Athos had an all-night vigil and were
fasting for the entire world so our Lord will have mercy and take away this coronavirus. I didn’t want to talk about coronavirus because it’s taken over our lives. I didn’t want to bring it into the church, but I couldn’t ignore that our failures as Christians are causing God to tell us we have to do better, we have to pray, we have to fast.
Why was that type of illness that He spoke about only cured by prayer and fasting? What is prayer and fasting? In a sense, it is admitting that we can do nothing on our own, and God can do everything. So to pray is to say, “Lord, I can’t do it; You can do it.” When people are getting sick and feeling helpless, the best thing you can do is pray. Because God does what we can’t. He can heal; we can’t. Only God can heal. Our prayer is literally the best thing we can do. It’s good to do things we can, like making masks and feeding children, but above everything else – pray. Then, we are admitting things are out of control and we’re allowing God to do them. When we think we can do things on our own, God will let us fail, to show us that we need Him.
By fasting we physically weaken ourselves literally, physically. We can’t do anything. That’s the whole point. We weaken ourselves and through prayer ask God to help us. God will then give us divine strength and work through us. Jesus Christ told his disciples, “You can’t heal this boy. I have to heal this boy. You can do it when you pray and fast. I have to do it through you.” It’s especially important these days to pray and fast. The Lord is demanding it. This illness, like any other illness, is here because of our sins. Until we repent, pray and fast, forgive each other, we ask for forgiveness from each other, this illness won’t go away. By praying and fasting we can control the chaos. We can control the chaos if we do the things the Lord is asking of us.