The Ladder Steps 18-21

Step 18 Insensitivity - Getting Serious about God

Insensitivity is a callousness to spiritual things; just as we can become desensitized to bad things; we can become numb to things of God as well.

The following is a longer quote than I would normally read, but it seems so pertinent and convicting. St. John, “He complains of sickness, and does not stop eating what is harmful. He prays against it, and immediately goes and does it. And when he has done it, he is angry with himself; and the wretched man is not ashamed of his own words. 'I am doing wrong,' he cries, and eagerly continues to do so. His mouth prays against his passion, and his body struggles for it. He philosophizes about death, but he behaves as if he were immortal. He groans over the separation of soul and body, but drowses along as if he were eternal. He talks of temperance and self-control, but he lives for gluttony. He reads about the judgment and begins to smile. He reads about vainglory, and is vainglorious while actually reading. He repeats what he has learnt about vigil, and drops asleep on the spot. He praises prayer, but runs from it as from the plague. He blesses obedience, but he is the first to disobey. He praises detachment, but he is not ashamed to be spiteful and to fight for a rag. When angered he becomes bitter, and he is angered again at his bitterness; and he does not feel that, after one defeat, he is suffering another. Having overeaten he repents, and a little later again gives way. He blesses silence, and praises it with a spate of words. He teaches meekness, and during the actual teaching frequently gets angry. Having woken from passion he sighs, and shaking his head, he again yields to passion. He condemns laughter, and lectures on mourning with a smile on his face. Before others he blames himself for being vainglorious, and in blaming himself is only angling for glory for himself. He looks people in the face with passion, and talks about chastity. While frequenting the world, he praises those who live in stillness without realizing that he shames himself. He extols almsgivers, and reviles beggars. All the time he is his own accuser, and he does not want to come to his senses -- I will say cannot.”

Insensitivity is when we we allow our handling of holy things to become too familiar. Remember the Old Testament story about Uzzah mis-handling the ark of the covenant. The Israelites were transporting the ark back from its exile with the Philistines. This was a good thing. However, this was an object that was holy. Holiness implies separateness. The ark was different, and was only used for one purpose and that was in the worship of God. Therefore it should not be treated as commonplace. In order to cement, this idea of separateness, in the minds of the Jews, God gave special instructions for the way it was to be handled. Therefore when it was brought out of exile, it should have been handled appropriately. Uzzah sin was probably not so much in touching the ark, but in treating it lick mere goods to be transported. He place it on an ox-cart. To put it in modern Orthodox understanding, it would be like eating beer and pizza on the altar table. I think most would see the sacreligious nature in that.

Most of us don't mishandle holy objects, but we may not treat the things of God properly. One of the easiest ways for us to become insensitive is to begin thinking of Orthodoxy as an ideology that we can talk about and discuss rather than a way of life that pushes us to continual repentance.

Fr. John Mack, “We must always push ourselves. We will always talk better than we live. But let us always be bothered by this.”

St. John always gives solutions to avoid a vice. One of St. John’s solutions here is to contemplate the judgment.

Step 19 On Sleep - Staying Awake

Prov 6:10,11 “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep—So shall your poverty come upon you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man.”

St. John, “Just as over-drinking is a matter of habit, so too from habit comes over-sleeping.”

So when does sleep become a problem?

1. When it keeps us from prayer.

2. When we choose to sleep rather than pray then we enter the danger zone (Fr. John Mack).

St. John of Kronstadt said that when we go to sleep without prayer we leave our mind open to sinful influences.

One Orthodox tradition to say a prayer to our Guardian Angel prior to bed.

St. Nicholai of Ochrid, a twentieth century saint, with ties to America says, "Begin to pray. Pray for five minutes. After that if the exhaustion remains, shorten your prayers and go to sleep. If, however, at the end of five minutes , the exhaustion has lifted finish your prayers. The exhaustion was from the evil one."

Step 20 On Alertness Staying Alert

This follows the previous step, and is the more positive aspect of the same action. Once you get out of bed…how do we stay attentive during prayer.

Have you ever said the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed or another familiar prayer, and get to the end realizing that you were not paying attention the whole time?

Alertness is doing battle with lack of interest in prayer.

How do we battle this?

1. One way is to realize that corporate prayer enhances our personal prayer and vice versa. As we force ourselves to be attentive during the Divine Services, we learn to become more attentive in our personal prayers, and vice versa.

2. realize that prayer is usual hard work and a battle.

3. Using a prayer rope. This physical/material action can help focus the mind an heart. In a sense you are using your whole being --body and mind.

4. Standing in Prayer. This is definitely traditional in Orthodox services. In fact, most churches in traditional Orthodox countries and some in this country, have no pews.

5. Prostrations. Once again joining the body with spirit. If nothing else, the mere physical exertion with this act should lead to good blood flow and alertness.

6. Remember the object of our prayer. St. John Chrysostom “"We must pray with ever vigilant attention. And this will be possible if we understand well with whom we are conversing, and that during such time we are his servants offering sacrifice to God.”

St. John of the Ladder says: "Even if your mind is constantly distracted from your prayer, you must struggle unceasingly to recall it. We shall not be condemned because our attention was distracted in prayer, but rather because we did not attempt to bring it back."

Step 21 On Unmanly Fears - Facing our Fears

Who says religion and Christianity are femine, at least within Orthodoxy there is still a celebration of the masculine. The desire to battle and act courageously in spite of the dangers and fear that may lurk ahead, because One has gone before us and conquered.

Fear can create spiritual danger.

“Fear is a lapse from faith that comes from anticipating the unexpected. Fear is a rehearsing of danger beforehand; or again, fear is a trembling sensation of the heart, alarmed and troubled by unknown misfortunes. Fear is a loss of assurance.”

Why is fear dangerous to the spiritual life?

-it hinders obedience and love. A biblical example is the response of the disciples at the passion of Christ. They were unable to love their master for fear of their own demise.

What are the things that we can fear?

-Ultimately we fear the death of our person. This may be physical in nature, but it usually emotional or spiritual. For example, "I am afraid of looking weak (having my self diminished or dying in the eyes of others) before others therefore I must assert myself and even belittle others so that I do not die."

Why do we fear?

St. John gives to reasons: pride, demonic oppression

We must consider Paul's advice to Timothy. 2 Tim 1:7-8 "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God." To love through suffering and the potential death of self....that's manliness.

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