Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Wisdom of John of Sinai: Pleasure vs. Joy

It is traditional to read St. John of Sinai's (known in the West primarily as John Climacus) The Ladder of Divine Ascent during Lent, and I can understand why. It was in researching this work for a class (selected with the highly scientific eeny-meeny-miny-moe method) that I first began to focus my academic and spiritual life on the mystical monastic traditions of Eastern Christianity. In addition to being a potent work of spirituality--for which it has been rightly recognized--it is often overlooked as a brilliant contribution to Christian ethics. It is this combination of spiritual nourishment and moral exhortation, along with John's pithy literary style, that makes the work a perfect companion to Lent. It meets us in our spiritual destitution and leads us step-by-step (literally) toward a glorious God who willingly takes each of us by the hand and leads us into His inexhaustible goodness.

While the Lenten fast has not yet begun, Cheesefare Week (or Maslenitsa) is very much a part of the season. In the East, and particularly in Russia, this week is a final period of feast and celebration before the somber weeks of the fast. While significantly tamer than the way we prepare for Lent in the West (with that time honored tradition of women exposing themselves for costume jewelry), it is still a time for indulging in as much pleasure as possible.

John of Sinai will contrast these illusory pleasures with joy, the true and enduring delight of the human heart. Of the former, he says:

The mother of all wickedness is pleasure and malice. If these are in a man, he will not see the Lord; and to abstain from the first without also giving up the second will not be of much use.

For John, as is the case with all vices, pleasure is a corruption of a virtue granted by God. Pleasure takes the delight which we ought to feel in God and transforms it so that instead we delight in sin. In a way typical of Eastern mystics, John sees the solution to this malformation of the good in prayer. He advises:

Rise from love of the world and love of pleasure. Put care aside, strip your mind, refuse your body. Prayer, after all, is a turning away from the world, visible and invisible. What have I in heaven? Nothing. What have I longed for on earth besides You? Nothing except simply to cling always to You in undistracted prayer. Wealth pleases some, glory others, possessions others, but what I want is to cling to God and to put the hopes of my dispassion in Him.

The rewards--or perhaps more accurately, the consequences--of such a disposition are by no means meager. In fact, they are real in a way that the transient "joys" we strive for could never be. In God, who is the ground of all substance, is found the only substantial joy available to creation. John holds nothing back while describing the person who has found joy in God:

Holy love has a way of consuming some. This is what is meant by the one who said, "You have ravished our hearts, ravished them" (Song of Songs 4:9). And it makes other bright and overjoyed. In this regard it has been said: "My heart was full of trust and I was helped, and my flesh has revived" (Ps. 27:7). For when the heart is cheerful, the face beams, and a man flooded with the love of God reveals in his body, as if in a mirror, the splendor of his soul, a glory like that of Moses when he came face to face with God.

If you're getting your hedonism out of your system before Lent (or if you live everyday like it is Mardi Gras), just remember that it is during Lent that true joy is sought. Everything else is as grass.

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