Reading St. John of Karpathos has been a source of great encouragement. This ought to come as no surprise since the preface revealed that John wrote “Texts for the Monks in India” precisely to encourage young monks being tempted to abandon the monastic life. This reading comes, I think, at a wonderful time for us as we at the House continue to persevere in the disciplines to which we have been called. I have seen tremendous growth within each of us over the course of the past year and I thank God for the mercy he has shown us all, for I know that this growth has certainly come at a great cost and with much struggle. And this is what St. John has done for us I think. He has recognized our struggles and the difficulty with which we progress, and while remaining sympathetic towards these spiritual battles, he also reminds us of the patience great progress requires and the dedication and commitment that anything worthy of achieving involves. And I think we would all agree that this thing to which we have been called is the greatest and most worthy thing to which we could possibly be called; and so the very purpose and ultimate goal of our lives is laid out before us: to live in Christ. And so, keeping in mind the familiar themes of prayer, repentance, watchfulness, and stillness, I thought it might be profitable to be reminded by St. John what this journey looks like as we continue walking in the way of Christ, with Him ever by our sides, each step drawing us further into the splendid light and glory of Him who is able to keep us from stumbling.
84. Do all in your power not to fall, for the strong athlete should not fall. But if you do fall, get up again at once and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times because of the withdrawal of God’s grace, rise up again each time, and keep on doing so until the day of your death. …you will be like a brave soldier who faces the blows of the enemy; and God will commend you, because even when struck you refused to surrender or run away.
By way of illustration:
I grew up on a farm in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I rode my first horse at the age of 5 and fell off my first horse not too long after that. I remember very clearly my dad picking me up and dusting me off even while I, in the midst of shock and tears, was still trying to figure out what had happened. And I remember also my dad’s insistence that I get back on that horse and ride again. Now, my dad was instilling one of those life lessons (I suppose quite literally): when you fall, you get back up. But interestingly, I find that this lesson has evolved as I look back on this moment through eyes colored by the words of St. John of Karpathos. And so I hope that this metaphor may serve useful to some of you as well.
I hope it does because we have all fallen off in the past year. Sometimes it was due to our own sinful desires and at other times due to the direct attacks of the demons. Nevertheless, we have, each of us, found ourselves lying on our backs wondering how we had come so suddenly to this place. We have also, I am sure, realized the opportunity this affords us to grow in humility, for we were forced to reckon with the fact that we were not nearly the great rider we had begun to think we were. For me, it seemed to be those moments when I felt comfortable enough to take the reins for myself that I ended up losing all control. And so in the freedom that the Father gave me to do this, he was also gracious enough to, as John puts it, ‘withdraw his grace,’ in order that I would not boast in anything but Him (1 Cor. 1:31). I fell, and yet at some point I, indeed we, were forced to recognize that the horse was still standing there waiting to be ridden and our Father was in the process of picking us up, dusting us off, and turning us into a rider with more skill than we could have ever imagined.
Now, I suppose that it is at times easier to see the scrapes and the bruises one accumulates from falling a bit clearer than it is to see one’s improvement in riding. The cuts and the blood are more colorful and are marked by clear events and often followed by disappointment, shame, and regret. But let us not forget that when we courageously face these blows bestowed upon us by earthly passions (or the hard packed ground) our Father commends us because we refuse to surrender. Not only does He lift us back up and show us how to be a better rider if we do happen to fall, he also heals those wounds that we have endured for his sake and greatly blesses us because of them. So, take heart, brothers and sisters, and stay in the saddle, but even when you don’t, remember that there are arms waiting to pick you back up. Also remember that the marks of your failures may also be the markers of your progress.
Praise be to God, who does not leave us covered in the dirt of our failures, but raises us up anew, continually fashioning us into the glorious and radiant image of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.