The great English poet John Donne lived at the beginning of the modern era, at the turning from the medieval to our modern scientific and technological world. Foreseeing already in the 17th century the changes that would come upon modern people from this empirical and scientific turn, he wrote:
For of meridians and parallels
Man hath weaved out a net, and this net thrown
Upon the Heavens, and now they are his own.
Loth to go up the hill, or labour thus
To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us.
The imagery here is of the latitudinal and longitudinal lines with which the scientist has measured out the world. These crisscrossed lines are Donne’s net. But not content merely to capture the earth with his measuring, the scientist sets his sights on heaven, as well, and unwilling to labor and climb to ascend to Heaven, as medieval men sought to do, modern man thinks that he can take his net and heave it over Heaven, subduing it, encircling it, and dragging it down to us.
As I said, prescient. For in these few lines Donne already, at the beginning of the modern era, foresaw the hubris and pride that marked the scientific and technological aims of those who saw only needless struggle in the ancient paths of those who had gone before.
It is worthwhile, I believe, for us to consider Donne’s net today, on this Sunday of St John of the Ladder, for we, 400 years later, are caught in it. We are, after all, the inheritors of this modern world of science and technology, a world of facts and figures, of measuring and calculating. True, we have all the benefits that the empirical sciences have bestowed upon us, and we would be mistaken to believe that it has all been a mistake. Science and technology have brought into the world much that is good and beneficial, of that there can no doubt.
And yet caught in the net we undoubtedly are. With all of our medical advances and scientific gains, there can be little doubt that we have come to mistake knowledge for wisdom, facts for truth, and to believe that by knowing about something we know it. We have a world of knowledge at our disposal. A simple click of the mouse opens us to the World Wide Web - the internet (there’s that word again!) - a seeming universe of information at our fingertips. We can read countless articles on everything from molecules to the furthest star from us (9 billion light years away), all from the comfort of our couches. We can learn about the Bible without reading it or watch documentaries on the “History of God”. We have, as Donne foresaw, cast a net around Heaven and sought to display it all on our screens.
But for all of our calculations and measurements, we have become entangled in our own nets. “Loth to go up the hill, or labour thus to go to heaven,” we have lost something. We have forgotten a factor that didn’t figure in our equations. We have all the right answers to all the wrong questions.
On this, the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Church turns its attention to a scientist of a different sort, known not for theories and equations but for a book containing the wisdom gained from a lifetime of prayer and fasting. St John of the Ladder was not “loth to go up the hill, or labour thus to go to heaven.” He was a climber, an ascetic. This was not, however, because he was a pre-modern man, a medieval mystic, stuck in his old, pre-scientific ways. It was, rather, because he knew from experience that Heaven cannot be captured merely with the click of a mouse or even with the turning of a page, but that it must be sought for, fought for, to be entered. “The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence,” our Lord said, “and the violent take it by force.” And, “this kind comes not out except by prayer and fasting.”
How will we, modern persons, living in an age of science and technology, gain Heaven? It is not enough for us to simply know about it, we must know it. Or as one person said, “You cannot go to Heaven, you must become Heaven.”
St John and all of the saints, following our Lord, offer us not a net but a ladder, a ladder of the virtues. Only by ascending, one rung at a time, with fasting and prayer keeping the commandments of Christ, will we learn and know anything at all about God. Even the pagan philosophers knew, “Without virtue, God is only a word.”
When the time comes that we have had enough of mere information and being caught in the nets of our own making, then it is time for us to put our hands and feet on the ladder of Divine ascent, the ladder of the virtues of Christ, and to hear the call of St John:
Ascend, brothers, ascend eagerly, and be resolved in your hearts to ascend and hear Him who says: Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of our God, who makes our feet like hind’s feet, and sets us on high places, that we may be victorious with His song.
With love in Christ,