Shaking off The Burden
All who have willingly left the things of the world, have certainly done so either for the sake of the future Kingdom, or because of the multitude of their sins, or for love of God. If they were not moved by any of these reasons their withdrawal from the world was unreasonable. But God who sets our contests waits to see what the end of our course will be. The man who has withdrawn from the world in order to shake off his own burden of sins, should imitate those who sit outside the city amongst the tombs, and should not discontinue his hot and fiery streams of tears and voiceless heartfelt groanings until he, too, sees that Jesus has come to him and rolled away the stone of hardness from his heart, and loosed Lazarus, that is to say, our mind, from the bands of sin, and ordered His attendant angels: Loose him from passions, and let him go to blessed dispassion. Otherwise he will have gained nothing.
I have repeatedly made the point as we have been studying that there are some things in the Ladder that lay people find difficult to apply within our own situation. The next two points on this first step (points 5 and 6) are two of those. These are points largely about monasticism and monastics, but I firmly believe that laymen like us can richly benefit from applying such things. Let’s take a look.
First off, St. John points out that the reasons people take to the monastic life is either for the sake of the future kingdom or because they are weighed down by a life of sin. When he says this, and adds that if they didn’t do so for those reasons then only madness would lead them to take up the life of an ascetic, he is speaking as just that, someone living the life of an ascetic. Not all Christians are called to the fullness of the ascetical life. So, two things right off the bat, firstly, if you’re a layman who happens to be considering the monastic life, this is a good opportunity to examine yourself. If you find that you are deeply burdened with the weight of a very sinful life, you may want to take up the monastic life. Not as a way to “pay back God” like some of the darker expressions of medieval European religion, but as a way to cleanse ourselves and overcome our passions. A great example of this is St. Mary of Egypt. She had lived a very licentious life, but when she was called to Christ she abandoned all such things. However, her life of sin had taken a toll on her and she was now very driven by the passions. So, she took to a life of super-asceticism. On the other hand, perhaps you feel called to the monastic life because you want to treasure the life to come, and draw near to God, devoting yourself entirely to His Church. Again, that is awesome, and there are many great examples of this.
Other than purely as a way of examining the monastic life as an option, lay people can utilize this treatment to challenge our pride and remember where we have come from. We are not “better” than other people. We have probably become Christians either because we were particularly burdened with a life of sin, and found repentance, or because we were called by the grace of God to look to heaven rather than to earth for our blessings, or a combination of the two. So, give alms, do good for others, share kindness and love and mercy with all. Store up your treasures in Heaven where moths cannot corrupt them and thieves cannot steal them, and you will be blessed as you pursue piety.
Let’s take another look at point six:
The man who has withdrawn from the world in order to shake off his own burden of sins, should imitate those who sit outside the city amongst the tombs, and should not discontinue his hot and fiery streams of tears and voiceless heartfelt groanings until he, too, sees that Jesus has come to him and rolled away the stone of hardness from his heart, and loosed Lazarus, that is to say, our mind, from the bands of sin, and ordered His attendant angels: Loose him from passions, and let him go to blessed dispassion. Otherwise he will have gained nothing.
This one is exceedingly applicable to laypeople. We all go through times where we don’t feel God’s presence, we all go through times of testing, anxiety, sometimes even sin. When we have these things happen, we need to pray more earnestly for God to roll away the stone from our hearts so that we can more fully embrace His love. When we struggle with doubts, let us take up our cross in prayer. When we have just sinned the same sin for the fiftieth time this week, let us run to God in repentance and prayer. We should never fear that He will turn us away, rather, like the father of the prodigal He will run to meet us in His loving arms. However, He will also call us to the way of righteousness, so, let us take up the way of righteousness and never depart therefrom.
St. Tsar Nicholas and St. John of Climacus, pray for us