Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Falling Off the Ladder

Beginning with Jacob in the Old Testament, the ladder has been used as a picture of human transformation. This metaphor is helpful, as we have seen applying it to the Beatitudes. It is helpful in that it enables us to focus on one spiritual struggle at a time instead of continually feeling overwhelmed with the enormity of the task: total transformation into the image of Christ. When we become overwhelmed, we give up. We feel as though there were nothing that we can do to cooperate with our own salvation. Looking at our spiritual journey as a series of steps, we find a specific place to begin when we are confronted with the commands of Christ and the seeming impossibility of fully living them out in our lives. Furthermore, the ladder metaphor helps us recognize movements and changes in our spiritual lives. We are not surprised by seasons of Grace, of shifts in the focus of our spiritual labor. However, viewing spiritual life as an ascent up a ladder does have a downside.

When we view our spiritual life as a ladder, it is possible to become too self conscious of our spiritual life, as though we could actually gage “where” we are on the ladder of spiritual ascent. While there may be many sins and distractions that may keep us from climbing the ladder of the Beatitudes, the one sin that will most certainly cause us to fall from the ladder is pride. Pride is a subtle sin. Theft, fornication or murder, for example, are manifest outside of us and are consequently much more easily recognizable—although many a man and woman has so justified their actions to themselves that even externally manifest sins are not recognized. But pride is a thousand times more difficult to recognize, for pride is nothing more than a perspective, a way of viewing oneself and the universe. In fact, you might even say that pride is viewing oneself. It is the ultimate delusion. When we imagine that we can look at ourselves “objectively,” we are most deceived.

We are creatures. We are finite. We do not have the ability to escape ourselves to stand outside ourselves and evaluate ourselves. Yes, we can see some things. I can see what I have done, but I never know all of the reasons—conscious and subconscious—why I do the things I do. I can see, for example, that I became angry when someone suddenly cut into my lane on the freeway without signaling. But why it makes me angry, why I think it is okay to get angry, and what the mental-emotional processes are by which this takes place, all of this is subconscious. And not only do I know very little about why I do what I do, I generally see very little of what I do; or I see only of myself what I want to see. One of the reasons why we need community is that it is only in the reactions and responses of others that we are able to see some of the uglier bits of ourselves, bits that we would rather imagine do not exist. And, to extend this matter a little further, if I know only some of the reasons why I do what I do, I know even less (generally much, much less) why others do what they do. When I begin to think I know why others do what they do or when I begin to think that I can judge myself (for example, where I am in my spiritual journey), then I can be pretty certain that I have fallen off the ladder completely. (Warning: There may be times when I can be pretty sure that I have fallen off the ladder, but I can never judge the spiritual state of another.)

God has created us to keep our focus on Him, not ourselves. To use the words of the book of Hebrews, when we “look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith,” we are able to run the course of our life with endurance. We grow by looking at Christ, not ourselves. Children are wonderful examples of freedom from self-consciousness. Children do not notice themselves growing up. In this way we too must become like children if we are going to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

You might be thinking right about now that falling off the ladder of the Beatitudes is very common. If pride knocks us off the ladder, perhaps you are even wondering if you have ever really climbed the ladder at all. Good. The first rung on the ladder is humility, poverty of spirit. To admit that you have fallen off the ladder, or that perhaps you have never really climbed the ladder at all, is to begin climbing the ladder again. Remember, we never leave the first step even as we climb to higher steps. “A broken and contrite heart” is the foundation of all righteousness, all mercy, all purity of heart. In a sense, the daily death, the daily taking up of our cross and following Christ is the daily (sometimes moment by moment) acknowledgment of our failure. The Christian life is a life of falling down and getting back up again, day by day and moment by moment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Michael,

I find this icon to be one of the most difficult to contemplate for very long. It confronts me with the horror and reality of my fall(s) too clearly. I would so much rather be deluded...

Yesterday I went for a walk on the beach and in my 'blind' habituation, I started to go through the motions to pay for parking not noticing the HUGE yellow sign right beside the meter saying that paying for parking was not necessary that day. A kind good citizen got out of his car on a cold and blustery day to save me from paying and to help open my eyes.

This icon and your words are a huge yellow sign to jolt us out of our blindness. We need all of the icons in our lives.