Relationships evolve. Relationships evolve over many months, years, even decades. Loving relationships evolve through God fearing habits, selfish lifestyles breed unhealthy relationships. There are no quick fixes for dysfunctional relationships. Why? Because dysfunctional relationships have been evolving badly for months, years, even decades.
We are prisoners of our past, our past relationships are our prison. We are prisoners to long ago fights when we were five between the gods in our young universe, our mothers and fathers, fights we do not even remember, but these sinful inclinations are still in our soul like spiritual smallpox. We may think God to be harsh when on Mt Sinai He says He will visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me,” but the reality is God says this because it is true. The bitterness and anger and resentment caused by the hurts and abuses of our grandparents and even great-grandparents, hurts and abuse long buried and forgotten, soured the attitudes in souls of our parents, and they do not even know why. These long buried hurts can breed in us a dysfunctional and fearful mindset that can prevent us from living a selfless life of love.
Bad habits and bad habits are incredibly difficult to even see in our souls. Changing bad habits and attitudes are is even more difficult. We can spot the bad habits and attitudes in others, but we rarely see them in ourselves. If others point out our bad habits, often we deny them. The deeper the truth that is seen, the deeper is our hurt, and the more vehemently will we deny our faults.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent is about developing the spiritual discipline needed to change bad habits and bad attitudes. This discipline is born of our repentance. Our sins and the consequences we suffer are our fault, and we should repent. Even when they are not our fault, they especially are our fault, or they may be caused by sins in prior generations long forgotten but never properly buried. Through our sufferings we work out our salvation.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent teaches us that when we Love God when we love our neighbor. When we rehabilitate our relationships with those close to us, our spouse, our family, our bosses, our co-workers, our teachers; that is when we begin to Love God. For most of us the most important and most difficult relationship is our relationship with our spouse.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent, the Philokalia, and other monastic writings provide advice to monks on how to work out their salvation through how they treat one another. You may object that it is much more difficult to work out your salvation in the world when your neighbor often has no pretense of acting in accordance with God’s Law and Gospel, and you are right that life in the sinful world is a challenge. Definitely you need to allegorize many of these ancient monastic teachings to our modern times as we live in the world. But more often than not the advice these Church Fathers offers to their monastic brothers can also apply directly to our lives.
We all read these monastic writings differently as we all have different crosses to bear. Mine is the perspective of divorce, after my painful divorce I have served for many years in divorce support groups and retreats.
How sad it is to hear sorrowful stories in my divorce support group of men in their fifties, whose youth has been long gone, whose parents had horrible marriages, always fighting, always hurting each other, never showing kindness, always showing bitterness, living through endless and unremitting cruelties. When twenty they knew they would do their best that their marriages would not be like that. But at fifty when they were thrown out the door they realized they repeated their past, although they swore they would not. Bad habits born from bad attitudes were etched too deeply in their soul.
So to begin we ask, what is the purpose of marriage?
Marriage is for the salvation of souls.
Of course, the purpose of all relationships is really the salvation of souls, but this is especially true for marriage.
Salvation of souls means not only salvation in the here-after, but also salvation in the here and now. When we work for the salvation of the souls of those who surround us, our spouse, our children, our family, our co-workers, our acquaintances, all whom we know, we work to bring out the best in them, not the worst.
Whether we marry or whether we divorce is not something we can work on alone, because for a marriage to work both spouses need to work on the marriage. But to strive to have all whom we meet, our spouse, our children, our family, our co-workers, our acquaintances, all whom we know, to be slightly better people because they knew us, that is what it means to work for the salvation of souls.
To be kind to others, to speak kindly of others, to assume the best rather than the worst of the words and actions of our spouse, our children, our family, our co-workers, our acquaintances, all whom we know, that is what it means to work for the salvation of souls. To assume an attitude of purposeful naivety, to live our lives like Hosea, to assume the best of those close to us although they have disappointed us in the past, that is what it means to work for the salvation of souls.
To readily forgive, to harbor no grudges, to forgive all whom we know, particularly those who are closest to us, our spouse, our children, our family, our co-workers, that is what it means to work for the salvation of souls.
What does the law and the prophets and the gospel command? That we should Love God with all our heart and with all our soul and all of our all. How do we do this? By loving our neighbor as ourselves. When we love our neighbor we Love God. When we Love God we love our neighbor.
What is the focus of your life? What do you want the focus of your life to be? Do you want to Love God? Do you want to strive to learn what it means to Love God? Do you want to lead a godly life? Is Loving God a feeling, or a doing? Is Loving God a simple choice, or is it hard labor?
How can we even comprehend what it means to Love God? How can we know we worship the One True God, who demands of us perfection and holiness that seems ever out of reach? How do we know we are not worshipping a false god we fashion in our minds, who turns a blind eye to our failings, who permits us to fashion our own contract of conduct that we find easier to follow?
To decide to Love God where there was no love before, and the decision to read the Ladder of Divine Ascent, these are both simple choices you make in a moment of time. But the focus of this devotional is on the everyday, evermore, ever climbing, up the ladder, until we meet our Savior, Jesus Christ. The climb is a struggle, everyday, evermore, with the demons dragging to the abyss those who look to the left, or to the right, who do not truly Love God, who do not truly love their neighbor, who do not focus on the climb.