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“Running with Patience the Race Set Before Us”: Asceticism and the Spiritual Life

April 14, 2013

Lent is referred to so often as a journey that it has almost become a cliché. Probably, the word marathon would be more descriptive, for the ascetic life that Lent encourages the faithful to embrace calls us to move a significant distance and at quick, but steady speed. There are times when the way ahead may seem discouragingly far. There are times when we would rather walk leisurely, than run, but as bearers of the Gospel, we have a message far more important than Plutarch’s Phiddipides, that in Christ we can be transformed, that in Christ we can move mountains, that in Christ we can “run with patience the race set before us.” If we are not running, if we are not climbing, it is indeed time to begin, for stagnation in the spiritual life means the absence of the spiritual life. It means that “we are to repent” and begin while there is still time.

Metropolitan Philaret talks about the spiritual life in terms of ascending like a stone thrown in the air: “When we throw a stone up, it ascends until the moment when the propelling force ceases to be effectual. So long as this force acts, the stone travels higher and higher in its ascent, overcoming the force of the earth’s gravity. But when this force is spent and ceases to act, then, as you know, the stone does not remain suspended in the air. Immediately, it begins to fall, and the further it falls the greater the speed of its fall. This, solely according to the physical laws of terrestrial  gravity. So it is also in the spiritual life. As a Christian gradually ascends, the force of spiritual and ascetical labours lifts him on high. Our Lord Jesus Christ said: ‘Strive to enter in through the narrow gate.’ That is, the Christian ought to be an ascetic. Not only the monastic, but every Christian. He must take pains for his soul and his life. He must direct his life on the Christian path, and purge his soul of all filth and impurity. Now, if the Christian, who is ascending upon this ladder of spiritual perfection by his struggles and ascetic labours, ceases from this work and ascetic toil, his soul will not remain in its former condition; but, like the stone, it will fall to the earth. More and more quickly will it drop until, finally, if the man does not come to his senses, it will cast him down into the very abyss of Hell.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAscetic labor is to the spiritual life as running is to a marathon. All who have taken on the easy yoke of Christ are called to asceticism and not only monastics. This is so clear in the universal celebration of Saint John of the Ladder, that master of Christian and monastic asceticism, on this fourth Sunday of Great Lent. He is not just an instructor for monks, but for all Christians. The Ladder is a blueprint not only for monks struggling with the passions, but for everyone struggling to attain unto the likeness of Christ. And if we do not struggle, if we are not running, than we will be like that stone falling inexorably to the ground. As we move closer to Pascha, the struggle becomes more intense and the Church reminds us that those who will attain eternal life in communion with God will be those who struggled consistently and those who repented wholeheartedly (next Sunday, Mary of Egypt).  This is the “narrow gate” of which our Lord speaks in the Gospel.  There is no other salvific path.

The ascetical struggle of Great Lent is often experienced with mixed feelings, with joyful-sorrow, with sorrow for running unworthily, with sorrow for stumbling on the way, with sorrow for being so far behind those swift runners of the Spirit, but with joy for God loves even the unworthy, with joy for when we stumble, God can raise us up, and with joy for those swift runners of the spirit are our friends who make clear the way for us to follow. Our struggle is a marathon, but not a depressing Sysyphean struggle that goes nowhere.  The ascesis of Great Lent is borne of love by one who has already experienced God’s superabundant love.  The ascetical labor is not taken on out of duty but from a love that knows no bounds.  It is a joyful sorrow in that one recognizes his own sinfulness and distance from the One who has ignited a spark of love in his soul.  It is a struggle that is assumed lovingly, cheerfully, and most importantly, willingly.  For those who engage in this struggle, life takes on new meaning.  Life itself becomes precious in that affords the struggler time for repentance.  In this struggle, God comforts and heals.  He opens the eyes of the one blinded by sin so that all creation is seen as the handiwork of a loving God.  At the end of our journey, may we echo the words of St. John of the Laddder, “Enlighten us, quench our thirst, guide us, take us by the hand; for we wish at last to soar to Thee.  Thou rulest over all.  And now Thou hast ravished my soul.  I cannot contain Thy Flame.  So I will go on praising Thee.  Thou rulest the power of the sea, and stillest the surge of its waves and puttest it to death.  Thou hast humbled the proud man as the corpse of one slain.  With the arm of Thy power hast Thou scattered Thine enemies, and Thou has made Thy lovers invincible.”

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