I Started at the Bottom...I'm Nowhere Near the Top - Sunday of St John Climacus

At this point, all I know is that the struggle is real.

Last week, I wrote about how #hangry I’ve felt these last couple weeks, but now as we round the bend for the final laps of the Great Fast, things have taken on a different tone for me. I am no longer as concerned with the rumbling I hear in my stomach; I am now worried about the grumbling I hear in my heart. 

Sadly, I have come realize how little I truly desire God and God’s things. 

Now I don’t mean that I don’t want to follow the Lord; I do want to follow Him (or at least, I want to want to). Rather, what I mean to say is that my heart is far too attached to things of this life – coffee, television, my friends, my own sense of justice – and far too little attached to things of the life of the world to come – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

This Sunday, we commemorate St. John Climacus (“of the Ladder”), spiritual giant and author of the timeless classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. In St. John’s Ladder, he lays forth 30 “rungs” of growth in the Spirit, chronicling the Christian’s ascent toward God. I wish I could look at the Ladder and say, “I’ve pretty much nailed steps 1-15.” But I only need to consider rungs 1 and 2 in order to realize how far I have yet to go in my journey heavenward. 

The first step of the spiritual life that Climacus describes is “the renunciation of the world,” of which he writes, “If an earthly king were to call us and request us to serve in his presence, we should not delay for other orders, we should not make excuses, but we should leave everything and eagerly go to him.”1  

I can totally get behind this. We should keep ourselves alert and ready so that we can, unfettered, run to the Lord, turning away from all other things that might ask us for our attention. We should set our eyes on Christ and never look back.

I’m with you so far, St. John.

Beginning his description of the second rung, “detachment,” St. John writes, “The man who really loves the Lord…will not love, care or worry about money, or possessions, or parents, or worldly glory, or friends, or brothers, or anything at all on earth.”2

Aaaaaand you lost me, St. John. 

I love, care, or worry about – literally – every single one of those things

Two rungs in, and I couldn’t hold on even a little bit! At this point, I feel like giving up. But how can I give up? Apparently I haven’t even started!
Yet I’m in luck: this Sunday’s Gospel is about a father and son who also feel like they are at the ends of their ropes.

The father of a demon-possessed fellow comes to Christ, seeking healing for his son, who, since childhood, has had a “mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid” (Mk. 9:17-18). Moreover, before coming to Christ, the father had brought his son to the disciples for healing, but they were unable to cast out the demon. Indeed, nothing has helped this poor man and his boy, so of course he feebly wonders if Christ will be able to do anything.  Caught between faith and doubt, he cries out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”

In His typical Christly fashion, Jesus casts out the demon. When the disciples ask why they weren’t up to the task, Christ responds, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (Mk. 9:29). 

I used to read this story and think that I was the father, praying that beautiful prayer of the faithful doubter. Perhaps I wanted to be fully aware of my own humble faith before the Lord. But the more I think about it, the more I that I am the son, possessed by a mute spirit, leaving me incapable of expressing my own need and longing before the Lord.

Indeed, this mute spirit regularly “throws me to the ground,” keeping me obsessed with things like money, or possessions, or parents, or worldly glory, or friends, or brothers, or anything at all on earth.

I am attached. I am possessed by my possessions. I am constantly drawn in by the things of this world. Incidentally, the son’s foaming mouth and gnashing teeth are nearly identical to my reaction when Apple announces a new product. My gaze is drawn to the things below, and as a result, I stand at the base of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, my feet planted—and eyes trained—firmly on the ground.

The only way in which I am like the father in this story is that I, too, sincerely doubt anyone can help me.

And then we come to Christ’s immortal and painful words: prayer and fasting. For Christ and for St. John, prayer and fasting are weapons that aid in combating spirits that are constantly “throwing us to the ground” amidst our very real struggle of divine ascent.

My romantic ideas of a “40-day-fast-track-to-perceiving-the-Divine-Light” have long since dissipated, and I am left now only with the truth of myself. I’ve been #hangry, and now I’m just plain broken – and what’s worse: I’ve always been like this – dare I say – I have been like this “since childhood” (Mk. 9:21).

Despite my prayers for the opposite, I am possessed by a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.

I lack the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love.

And frankly, I’d much rather look at my brother’s sins because they annoy me a whole lot more than my own, and he really should have enough sense simply to stop being that way. 

Sadly I, too, should simply stop being that way.

But I can’t.

For this kind of spirit comes out only by prayer and fasting. And so the Lord continues to use the fast to cause my sin, my attachments, and my utter worldliness to come to the surface. And it is in prayer that He comes to meet me and heal me. 

The path of ascent is a difficult one, and its goal is reached only by a very real ascetic struggle. And so, at the 4th Sunday of Lent, as the road become ever more difficult, St. John stands as a sign post to us, encouraging us to lean further into the Fast and give ourselves even more fully to our spiritual striving. 

By God’s grace, I will lift my eyes unto the Lord.  And I will plant my feet securely on the ladder’s bottom rung, eager to join the Lord at the top. 

-Christian Gonzalez 

1 St. John Climacus, trans. Archamandrite Lazarus Moore, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Harper & Brothers, 1959), p.4, e-book, ___site
2 Ibid, p. 5.

Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.


For more:

For more on the Gospel reading for the Sunday of St John Climacus, please see our annotations of the passage at our annotated Gospel project, ExeGenius.

For more on belief in God check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on overcoming our sins, check out this episode of Be the Bee: