In St. John Climacos’ Ladder of Divine Ascent, we finally reach the uppermost and ultimate step of theosis through a process of purification and illumination that requires r an arduous climb of 33 steep steps. At the end of the journey, we are not rewarded by perfect wisdom, complete emptiness or absolute power but by the triad of faith, hope and love.
Similarly, St. Maximos makes a definitive declaration:
- Without faith, hope and love (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13) nothing sinful is totally abolished, nor is anything good fully attained.
“Faith,” he tells us, “urges the beleaguered intellect to press on towards God and encourages it by equipping it with a full range of spiritual weapons.” With faith, it becomes possible for us “bravely to withstand the spate of trials and temptations, sought or unsought.” After all, who would climb 33 long steps toward union with God without faith? Faith, therefore, is the motivation, reason and first step in our journey upwards. It enables the glimmer of the light that we begin to discern at its end.
In patristic writings, especially in St. Maximos, no element is static and solitary. They interact with each other and engender transformation.
Faith is not a passive attribute. Once it enters our hearts, belief in the Resurrection transforms us by allowing the miracle of Resurrection to materialize within us.
It “is the first resurrection within us of the God whom we have slain through our ignorance.” This is why “faith, rightfully expressing itself through the fulfillment of the commandments…”
Hope “is the intellect’s surest pledge of divine help and promises the destruction of hostile powers.”
It is possible for hope to dwell in us and replace darkness with light because our hearts have been resurrected through faith.
The return to God clearly implies the fullest affirmation of hope in Him
Despair is characterized by darkness and shortsightedness. We simply cannot see an alternative to current misery. We are trapped in the present of our misery and are unable to visualize and believe in a future in which we will feel different than the present moment. Some will choose to take their life because they perceive the current situation as permanent.
Hope, however, “brings future things before us as if they were present, and so it assures those who are attacked by hostile powers that God, in whose name and for whose sake the saints go into battle, protects them and is in no way absent.
Love in Christ is not simply a “feeling” or “emotion.” There is no “cuteness” or romance associated with it; no soft music playing in the background. It is a state of total union with God that allows us to perceive the world as unified with Him and ourselves as participants in that unity. Instead of focusing on our personal agendas, jealousies, recriminations, ambitions and other created things, “love impels [our intellect] to concentrate its whole natural power into longing for the divine.”
With love, we never again feel estranged from others and God. Love “makes it difficult or, rather, makes it utterly impossible for the intellect to estrange itself from the tender care of God.”
Love in Christ is not only present in our relationship to loved ones. Because our hearts have been purified by passions and we have heightened spiritual knowledge, we can see others through the eyes of God and recognize them as equally worthy.
“Love is distinguished by the beauty of recognizing the equal value of all men.”
“Those who by grace have come to recognize the equal value of all men in God’s sight and who engrave His beauty on their memory, possess an ineradicable longing for divine love, for such love is always imprinting this beauty on their intellect.”
Yet in the ever-ending journey toward theosis, understanding and experience are not adequate unto themselves without action. Here St. Maximos introduces the theme of total alignment between our will and purpose, and the right ordering between the two.
Intelligence begets spiritual knowledge which, in turn, begets faith. From faith springs hope and from hope love. Yet in addition to the interrelationships among these elements, there have to be powerful drivers that cut across and move us to action: desire, will and purpose.
Nothing so much as love brings together those who have been sundered and produces in them an effective union of will and purpose. Love is born in a man when his soul’s powers – that is, his intelligence, incensive power and desire – are concentrated and unified around the divine.
Without the power of desire there is no longing, and so no love, which is the issue of longing; for the property of desire is to love something. And without the incensive power, intensifying the desire for union with what is loved, there can be no peace, for peace is truly the complete and undisturbed possession of what is desired.