Sermon of Archbishop Paul (Pavlov +1995) of Australia and New Zealand
on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit!
This Sunday, the fourth of Great Lent, is devoted by the Church to the memory of St John of the Ladder. He was one of the greatest ascetics and podvizhniki of Christian piety. He wrote a book which he called The Ladder.
The book provides guidance to ascetics on performing their spiritual labors, passing from one power to another, conquering—with the aid of Divine grace—one temptation after another. It reveals the reasons for one sin or another, the source of one passion or another, which take root in the human heart; he instructs us on what method to use to defeat these sins and passions within ourselves and to become emancipated of them.
During Great Lent, the image of this teacher of piety, this instructor of war against sin, is especially edifying for us. For this reason, the Holy Orthodox Church celebrates his memory, reminding us how we must labor, and what we must do to achieve our salvation.
John was a true ascetic and he called upon not only monastics but all pious Christians towards works of podvig.
The true podvizhnik of piety, beloved brothers and sisters, does not view his body as the root of evil. He knows that our body is created by God, that it is given the purpose of being the temple of the human soul. But at the same time, not one ascetic would ever sacrifice a spiritual benefit for the sake of the flesh. A true podvizhnik will always strive to allow the higher virtue to overcome the lower virtue. We are all summoned to do this. That is why we must view our souls and our hearts this way: that the spiritual must always win out over the physical.
A true ascetic will never allow the interests of the flesh to avoid the interests of his spiritual life.
Our life, dear brothers and sisters, must center on God-pleasing spiritual struggle. That is, it must center on our constant battle against evil, which nestles within the wicked deeds of our heart and soul. We must be ever vigilant over ourselves and ascertain that evil could never creep into our hearts under the guise of some alluring appearance, to deceive us and throw us into the abyss of doom, tearing us away from God. For this reason our constant, voluntary abstention in daily life, our constant bringing of sacrifice to God through a humble heart, repenting of our sins, is good for us.
At one time, the matter of ascetic works, of faith and of salvation occupied the main place in the human lives. People devoted a great deal of time to this, dozens of books were written. All these people studied carefully, examined themselves, for the center of their lives was not material well-being, not social justice, which is so often discussed today, but the salvation of the soul.
How are we to save our soul, how are we to please God, how are we to overcome passions and sins within us, which so often fetter us in chains?
The Enemy of our salvation does not sleep, year in and year out, for he has been devising one plan after another: how to rid humankind of faith in the true God and divert the people from the goal they have set before themselves—salvation?
In those days there was sin, too, people sinned and committed crimes, there was war, but still, mankind strove and yearned for one thing: personal salvation.
The Devil constructed one plan after another, bringing each to life and despoiling all of our sacred laws and images, dashing them to the ground and trampling them underfoot. People reached the point where most have even ceased to believe that they were especially selected by God, that they were created by God in His image and likeness, by a special creative Divine act, and have begun to accept that they share common ancestors with simple beasts. All of their thoughts have become base, lowly, animal passions have overcome them, and they can no longer rise from the ground and lift their gaze to the heavens.
One by one, church laws have been revoked, church traditions abandoned, church holidays left behind, church beliefs set aside. Thus have we begun to teach our children, and it has reached the point where humanity makes almost every decision for itself. Even crimes are now being justified in our day by what is known as “science,” which teaches that the criminal is simply abnormal, that he committed his crime in a moment when he was not responsible for his actions. Today, faults and sins are justified, they even try to eliminate the concept of sin from our daily lexicon, so that we would no longer think of the fact that sin exists. Millions rush to psychoanalysts who convince them that there is no such thing as sin, and that nothing bad has happened, that one must simply put it all in the past and move on.
Repentance is likewise being extracted from humanity. But we know that these are all false roads leading to death, which do not give mankind true joy, true consolation and genuine bliss. That is why the words of Apostle Peter are so important in our day. Turning to Lord, he said: “To whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life!” Amen.