Lenten Lessons on the Ladder

During Lent this year, I’m reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus. John of the Ladder was the abbot of St. Catherine Monastery on Mt. Sinai in the first half of the seventh century. He wrote the Ladder as a guide for monks, describing what he saw as successive stages of growth in holiness on the road to sanctification.

While I’ve read other monastic literature before, such as the Philokalia, I’m finding The Ladder more difficult to translate into application for life as a non-monk. So, I want to do some external processing and share short reflections here on what I’ve read each week.  From last Wednesday to today, I read through the first six steps: (1) Renunciation of Life, (2) Detachment, (3) Exile,  (4) Obedience, (5) Penitence, and (6) Remembrance of Death.  While in one sense these are successive steps, they can also be thought of as additional tools or practices which one adopts on the journey toward Christ-likeness. And while the context of our lives today may be different from John’s context, the tools themselves can still be quite useful.

Step 1 is “Renunciation of Life”, referring to the movement of a monk out of the world and into the monastery.  Though John is exhorting his readers to abandon the world, he does have some direct advice to those of us still living in the world:

“Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: ‘How can we who are married and living amid public cares aspire to the monastic life?’  I answered: ‘Do whatever good you may.  Speak evil of no one.  Rob no one.  Tell no lie.  Despise no one and carry no hate.  Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies.  Show compassion to the needy.  Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone.  Stay away form the bed of another, and be satisfied with what our own wives can provide you.  If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven'” (page 78 – all quotations here and in successive posts are from the Classics of Western Spirituality edition [Paulist Press 1982]).

Such advice seems straightforward and direct.  It’s a bit like Jesus’ words to the “expert in the law” who recites the commandments to Him: “Do this and you will live.”  But doing this and living isn’t easy. Most of us living in the world would find John’s simple list of directions incredibly difficult if we took it seriously.  So we need help learning how to fulfill even such simple commands.  In the world and the monastery both, holiness requires work, training, and discipline. This is precisely why the principles of ascetic practice presented throughout the book can be so helpful for anyone.  More on that will come up in future posts.

But even we who seek such discipline in the world must be careful why and how  we practice such discipline.  Climacus writes that  “those who have lived in the world, and have endured nightlong vigils, fasting, labors, and suffering,” practiced “fake and spurious asceticism” (page 82) .

 “I have seen many different plants of the virtues planted by them in the world, watered by vanity as if from an underground cesspool, made to shoot up by love of show, manured by praise, and yet they quickly withered when transplanted to desert soil [i.e., the monastery], to where the world did not walk, that is, to where they were not manured with the foul-smelling water of vanity.  The things that grow in water cannot bear fruit in dry and arid places” (page 82).

What makes the spiritual disciplines of those who live in the world “fake and spurious”? Vanity.  John’s criticism of those seeking to live a godly life in the world is like Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees who “do all their deeds to be noticed by men” (Mt. 23:5).  True virtue does not seek to be noticed. Rather, it’s done “in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Mt. 6:4, 6, 18). Much of what Climacus writes is frankly harsh and demanding, but in all of this there is an echo of Jesus’ own words in the Gospels, particularly His words to the religious elite, precisely those with whom a devout monk might be tempted to identify.

The opposite of such vanity is humility, which John says is learned through submission and obedience (Step 4) to an abbot or spiritual father: “Humility arises out of obedience, and from humility itself comes dispassion” (p. 109).  John tells tales of extreme acts of discipline completed in the name of obedience to one’s master. But how can does this principle apply to someone outside a monastery? I’m applying it to my own life by asking, “To whom has Christ called me to be obedient?” My answers: My wife. My co-pastor. The community of the House of St. Michael and its leadership. My colleagues and supervisors in ministry in my denomination. My boss at the cafe where I work part-time. All of these relationships provide myriad opportunities to learn humility. Whether in a monastery or in the world, God has already placed us all in relationships where we can practice submission in order to learn humility.

But because of our Climacus gives helpful advice on how to keep our hearts soft toward those closest to us.  When we’re tempted to dismiss those whom we’re called to obey or love submissively, we should remember the great ways in which others have blessed us in the past: “we must write their good deeds indelibly in our hearts and preserve them in our memories so that, when the demons scatter distrust of them among us, we can repel them by what we have retained in our minds” (p. 93).  Surely this is applicable to all of our closest relationships. Whether concerning a spouse, or friends, or co-workers, or family members, our hearts will be healthier if we focus on the love those persons have shown us rather than the ways they have wronged us.

The same is also true of the pastors, worship leaders, or spiritual directors whom God has placed in our lives. The sins and failures of the Church’s human leadership have left many in my generation distrustful of spiritual leaders.  I was once one such distrustful congregant.  Now as a pastor, I can see the other side.  While aware of my own failures and weakness, I can also say that it is difficult for a person to grow spiritually without trusting a leader.  This is really John’s greatest concern regarding the monks under his charge.  He labored long to become a trustworthy leader.  All of us who dare to leader others should likewise constantly seek purification and illumination in order that we, too, may be trustworthy.

A final thought: While obedience and submission is a helpful practice, this discipline is not to be confused with people-pleasing. In his teaching on exile in Step 3, Climacus tells monks who miss their families: “Offend your parents rather than God” (p. 87).  Once again, this is reminiscent of Jesus’ own words (see Matthew 10:37).  Most of us will not apply literally John’s direction to “drive out love for your family” (p. 87), but such teachings do rightly challenge any place where we desire to please other people more than God.  As Paul says in Galatians 1:10, “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.”  And if we really want  to please God rather than people, we must become immune to both praise and criticism. Accordingly, John believes we should accept all forms of criticism. “Drink deeply of scorn from every man, as though it were living water handed you to cleanse you from lust.  Then indeed will a deep purity dawn in your soul and the light of God will not grow dim in your heart” (page 111).  I don’t enjoy accepting criticism, but I know I can grow by receiving it.  John Climacus would say it is better to receive rebuke than vanity-begetting praise, lest my spirituality become “fake and spurious”. May God grant us the grace to shed such vanity that we may worship in Spirit and in Truth.

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