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A Sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!

Many of us, certainly, know that from Christian antiquity we have received testimony of that special friendship that once existed between two of God’s great saints, equal in talent, equal in spiritual elevation, and both living out equally spiritual aspirations – these were the holy hierarchs St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian.

These great hierarchs gave us the most ideal example of that friendship which Christians must have amongst themselves. But Gregory the Theologian far outlived his friend. Basil the Great reposed at a relatively young age – he was but in his fiftieth year, while Gregory the Theologian was over sixty years old at the time of his repose. But, when Gregory the Theologian spoke in memory of his friend, he noted that St. Basil, in his words, defeated one sin every day and acquired one virtue. And in this way he rose up ever higher and higher.

Nowadays we have forgotten, unfortunately, that which must be at the center of every Christian’s attention: the fact that each one of us, regardless of what duties we fulfill or work we perform in the outside world, internally must always work on our own souls, trying to implant in our souls and in our hearts the seeds of virtue, and tearing out the weeds of every sin and vice

But here, of course, one must be gradual, not trying to do everything at once. Tomorrow the Church celebrates, in addition to Sunday, the memory of that great teacher of this Christian spiritual approach, St. John Climacus or St. John of the Ladder, so called because of his seminal work, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent," a work which glorified him forever in the Orthodox Church, a work which was once the most beloved reading of our pious predecessors, as well as being read by the Royal Family during their imprisonment, before their martyric deaths.

And so the venerable saint, having himself walked this spiritual path, and having enriched himself by it first, earnestly, plainly, and clearly shows how one must go gradually from one virtue to the next, going ever higher and higher, cultivating himself spiritually. Characteristically, his "Ladder" contained an expression that the saint uses when one begins to speak of that highest of Christian virtues – Christian love; the saint humbly remarks, "He who says that God is love, and he who speaks of love, is one who has dared to speak of God Himself. This is rather dangerous, and above our station." That is how humbly the venerable saint spoke!

Or recall our great and holy teacher of the spiritual life, in whose honor this marvelous church is dedicated! "Wretched Seraphim," as he called himself, was one of the greatest saints not only of Russia, but of the whole Universal Church, our venerable father Seraphim. Once a very earnest – but still young and inexperienced monk - set about his labors zealously, so to speak, though lacking the requisite experience. And so St. Seraphim said to him in a gentle, fatherly tone, "My joy, do everything gradually, little by little, and not all of a sudden. A virtue is not a pear – you can’t eat it up and go grabbing for another."

And so, each of us must remember that our principal goal is to cultivate our souls in the performing of good, Christian works. But do not let this be something erratic outward demonstration; instead, let every man gradually cultivate himself spiritually. Spiritually experienced people know how important this is, and more importantly, this is how you find the path to the Kingdom of Heaven. For we know that "nothing that defileth" shall enter into God’s Kingdom, as it says in the Holy Scriptures; and so therefore, in order to inherit God’s Kingdom, Christians must improve themselves, that we might "cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1), as the great Apostle Paul wrote.

Amen.

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Eastern American Diocese | Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia