Sun, 29 March 2020
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A Meditation on St. John’s “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”
What is Orthodox Tradition? Why is it important for us to immerse ourselves in the worship and rigors of Orthodoxy?
At the visible level, one that can be observed and studied by scientists, tradition is the accumulation of rituals and ideas that are directed towards a purpose. In the case of Orthodox Tradition, that purpose is the formation of good and strong human beings, good and strong families, and good and strong communities.
We know that, left to their own devices, children will go selfish and feral (spoiled, if you will); that family structures will morph into tyranny or disintegrate altogether, and communities will do the same.
On the other hand, good ideas and useful rituals allow humans, families, and societies a way out of this nasty and brutish life. Through Orthodox ritual and belief, the passions are tamed. The child learns self-control, the family finds grounding, and the community naturally brings safety, healing, and guidance to all its members. Beliefs and rituals that do these things are continually reaffirmed through our participation in them and those that prove counter-productive are adjusted. This is done slowly, and with a recognition that there is a wisdom in tradition that is seldom obvious to the impatient.
But there are other forces at play; there is an invisible level. God continually works through His prophets, His Christ, His Holy Spirit, and His Church to grant discernment to individuals, yes, but mostly to the community as a whole. The rituals and ideas of Orthodoxy are not just useful (although they are), they are inspired and strengthen by grace. Even more importantly, Orthodox Tradition is not directed primarily to the perfection of people, families, and communities, but to their salvation. To put it in theological language, we are not just learning to subdue our baser instincts, we are being saved and drawn deeper into infinite perfection through our life in Christ and Holy Orthodoxy.
If we look around, we cannot help but notice that all reasonably healthy, traditional societies have religious systems that have accumulated ideas and rituals that civilize their adherents. Because there is only one human race and we all have the same line between good and evil dividing our hearts, there is a lot of overlap in their ideas and rituals. Virtue is encouraged; vice is shamed and disciplined; and the unity of the good is proclaimed and celebrated. To the extent that we have become lax in our own devotion, we are encouraged by their witness.
We also cannot help but notice that those societies and cultures that have rejected older ways of wisdom in favor of fads and the fulfillment of every flick good idea fairy’s wand find themselves unable to sustain anything but change, leading to a degeneration of the person, the family, the culture, and the world.
This is not to say that all traditions, or even everything that has accumulated around Holy Orthodoxy is good and healthy and should be preserved. We are all familiar with tradition with a big T – the things that need to be preserved – and tradition with a little t; those things that may be useful for some times and places, but should be replaced with something better as they become counter-productive.
This crisis has forced us to realize how hard that adjustment is. One of the little t tradition that is hurting us now is that our spirituality has become synonymous with our regular participation in the Holy Eucharist. The big T tradition here is the ontology of the Eucharist and our need for it. But to the extent that we have missed or neglected other parts of our Faith; the building up of and the experience of the kingdom of God in our hearts and the reality of God’s presence in our homes, then we are less prepared than we should be to face the present temptations and struggles. The same goes for the mysterious ontology of suffering and the Church’s teaching on how to do it well and in a manner that blesses the people around us
And so, this social distancing becomes an opportunity to broaden our little t traditions; those rituals, ideas, and conversations that flow naturally from our ancient faith and provide wisdom – tested and perfected over time - to deal with the realities we face right now. We need not wait until the “good old days” are restored to thrive.
The wisdom of St. John of the Ladder shares a part of this tradition we need: how to live well alone and how to live well in isolation with others.
These will not just allow us to come through this present crisis stronger than we entered as individuals and families; it will bring an important but atrophied part of our ancient and venerable Orthodox tradition back into our daily lives, allowing us and our children to be more prepared for whatever challenges they face.
And when our regular access to the Eucharist is restored to its proper place in the center of our communities, we will allow it to feed rather than atrophy the kingdom of God within us and within our families.
Let us immerse ourselves in that fullness of faithful believers and families, gathered around the celebration of the Eucharist now, as we continue our celebration of God’s love for us, His people, and His world.