Monthly Archives: March 2012

When I saw that IVP was publishing a new book on ministry to “emerging adults”, I figured I should I read it. By “emerging adults”, Richard Dunn and Jana Sundene are referring to the ages between 18 and the early 30s which more and more people are experiencing as a liminal state between adolescence and  full adulthood. This is the state in which I live and minister: My pastoral ministry at The Upper Room is largely to people in their 20s and 30s. At Upper Room I also work closely with a couple of participants in the World Christian Discipleship Program, a nine-month intensive discipleship program designed for emerging adults. Almost all of my coworkers at the cafe where I’m a barista fit in this category of emerging adulthood. To top all that off, by the authors’ definitions, my wife and I and all of our close friends are still emerging adults. And in all these contexts, I can see the general traits of what Dunn and Sundene call emerging adulthood. We’re definitely not still teenagers, but we don’t feel entirely grown-up, at least in the ways that our parents embodied adulthood. I’m grateful for the book, and have found it helpful, so I want to offer up a response to the book from my perspectives of being both an emerging adult and a pastor and disciple-maker.

As an “emerging adult”, I found Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults‘ description of my generation accurate and insightful. They do not to use terms like “extended adolescence”.  Because the physical development of the teenage years is complete, practical independence from one’s parents is indeed possible, and one is legally considered an adult (p. 29), emerging adulthood is not merely an extension of the teenage years. But emerging adulthood does share common characteristics. Two of these characteristics are instability in careers or relationships and a tendency to delay marriage or child-bearing. This instability and hesitancy to settle-down arises from the feeling of boundless opportunity which our diverse and globalized society gives us.  Technology provides us with easy access to information and perceived ease in maintaining relationships over distances, however shallowly.  We are a mobile generation, constantly in flux yet seeking constant connection to the rest of the world around us. Dunn and Sundene’s descriptions of these aspects of emerging adulthood resonate closely with my own experience and what I see in the lives of my peers.

So what does my generation need in order to grow spiritually during this time? The authors recommend disciple-making, mentoring relationships with wiser adults. I’m thankful for the authors’ attention to authenticity here. We’re a generation that is allergic to false-advertising.  We don’t want programmatic formulas or quick-fixes.  We want and need real relationships, the sort that require patience, commitment, and vulnerability to develop. This emphasis on real relationship and its awareness of the unique challenges of emerging adulthood are the book’s greatest strengths.

As a pastor and disciple-maker, I found Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults immediately applicable to my ministry. The pattern of discernment, intentionality, and reflection described in the chapters on “Life Restoring Rhythms” is practical and helpful: a pastor or mentor or disciple-maker should take time to prepare mentally and prayerfully before meeting with the person they’re leading, be intentional in their use of their time together, and reflect prayerfully on their mentoring relationship after each encounter. Often leaders are stronger in one of these practices and weaker in others. Inspired by the chapter on discernment, I’ve started blocking out time to pray for the people I’m meeting with each day before we meet so that I can be more attentive to what the Holy Spirit is doing in our encounters.

Chapters 7 through 11 provide examples how this rhythm can be used address to different aspects of an emerging adult’s life (Identity and Purpose, Spirituality, Relationships, Sexuality, Daily Life). These chapters also describe in greater detail specific issues with which emerging adults tend to struggle, such as seeking purpose in their vocation or coping with loneliness in singleness.  I may have missed it in the book, but one issue which I think could have been given greater attention is stewardship of finances. Emerging adults also tend to be saddled with debt, whether from student loans or credit cards. This affects all other aspects of life, and I don’t think we can faithfully lead or disciple emerging adults without addressing responsible and faithful use of money.  Still, the stories which are included in these chapters are helpful and accurate depictions of the world I see in ministry.

Lastly, as a pastor I appreciated the reminder in Chapter 13 to attend to my own spiritual health. Citing the leadership proverb that “As you are, so you will lead”, Dunn and Sundene observe that

Disciplemakers most effectively reproduce who they are and who they are becoming. . . . Disciplemakers must also live in a posture of trust, submission and love.  A disciplemaker engaged with Christ in the pursuit of the Christlife is likely to create a relationship with a young-adult disciple that reflects these postures (p. 224).

As I remember those who’ve discipled me and “considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7), I can see the ways in which my personality and ministry have been shaped by my faithful mentors.  At my ordination service, one of those mentors charged me to “make a wake” in my pursuit of God – to seek the Kingdom with such devotion that it leaves a wake behind me, letting others be affected by the waves and ripples in the water. I think that this is what all spiritual leaders and disciple-makers are called to, in order that those we lead may imitate us as we imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Thank you to Dunn and Sundene for ending with a reminder to pursue this Kingdom life.

I’m nearly finished reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  This week’s reflection covers only two steps: (26) On Discernment, and (27) On Stillness. The theme which ties Steps 26 and 27 together is Truth.  Discernment is the ability to distinguish between falsehood and truth, between what is of darkness and what is of light, between what is less-than-good and what is truly good. Stillness, in turn, is the fruit of internal discernment, beginning with truthful awareness of one’s own thoughts. They are related, but differ in their external and internal applications.

Step 26, On Discernment, is one of the longest chapters of The Ladder, but one lengthy quote provides enough material to summarize here:

Among beginners, discernment is real self-knowledge; among those midway along the road to perfection, it is a spiritual capacity to distinguish unfailingly between what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good; among the perfect, it is a knowledge resulting from divine illumination, which with its lamp can light up what is dark in others.  To put the matter generally, discernment is – and is recognized to be – a solid understanding of the will of God in all times, in all places, in all things; and it is found only among those who are pure in heart, in body, and in speech (page 229).

Here Climacus presents three kinds of discernment, depending upon where one is in their spiritual journey.  Beginners learn discernment through accurate self-knowledge. This is like taking the log out of your own eye (Matthew 7:5) in order to see clearly.  Discernment begins by recognizing the truth about oneself, otherwise one’s vision will be clouded by pride and other sin. Those “midway along” their journey practice discernment through distinguishing between “what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good”. This means seeing clearly to recognize God’s moral will or natural law. It’s like having a sanctified common sense and conscience in order to rightly identify what actually is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, excellent, and praise-worthy (Phil. 4:8). Expert discernment, discernment among the “perfect” is “knowledge resulting from divine illumination.” This is the sort of clairvoyance attributed to some mystics or startsy.  Extremely rare though this gift may be, it remains something which should inspire us and give us a goal to strive toward:  “A mind disposed to the things of the spirit is certainly endowed with spiritual perception and this is something that, whether we possess it or not, we should always seek to have” (page 233).

As I tried to translate this step it into application for my life as a married pastor living in the world, I realized that most of the people I hear talking about “discernment” in the Church today want this third stage of mystical divine discernment, but want it without learning the first two forms of discernment. I think of times when I’ve prayed with people who just wanted to know what “the will of God” was for them in a specific situation, but they weren’t opening to considering that self-knowledge or their conscience or sanctified common sense could be accurate guides. Sometimes we want a direct word from the Lord, but we ignore the tools God had given us to practice basic discernment.  As a pastor, I find this immensely helpful for counseling people: we should lead people into the will of God through first leading them to accurate self-knowledge and then to consideration of what is true, right, and good. This should be sufficient for the sort of decision-making which most people are dealing with when they say they’re seeking “discernment.” To attempt discernment beyond these levels is to attempt to pry into divine mysteries which are not for us to understand yet.  Questions like: Did God cause my suffering? or Why did ___ happen to ___? may not be the right questions to ask.  John Climacus says “what God has decided for us is hard to penetrate.  In His providence, He often conceals His will from us, for He knows that even if we knew about it, we would disobey it” (pages 245-246).

Step 27, On Stillness describes a kind of prayer that requires the inward use of discernment. Climacus is using “stillness” in a technical sense, as in the practice of Hesychasm, to describe the mental practice of wordless prayer.  He writes, “Stillness of the body is the accurate knowledge and management of one’s feelings and perceptions.  Stillness of soul is the accurate knowledge of one’s thoughts and is an unassailable mind” (pages 261-262). Once having achieved accurate knowledge of one’s thoughts, one can begin to distinguish between what thoughts are true and untrue, what thoughts are inspired by God and what thoughts are demonic temptations.  To achieve this discipline, one had to learn to distance oneself from one’s own thoughts and learn to look objectively at each thought that comes into the mind. Climacus describe it as playing cat-and-mouse with your thoughts: “The cat keeps hold of the mouse.  The thought of the hesychast keeps hold of his spiritual mouse” (p. 262). Grab your thoughts like they are prey, “take every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5), and reject all thoughts that do not lead you closer to Christ. For the one seeking intimate communion with God, even thoughts which may be good in and of themselves  can serve as distractions from prayer.  Have you ever sat down to pray and found that a dozen things immediately pop into your mind to add to your to-do list? That’s an occasion to reject such thoughts and seek stillness. Climacus writes, “A small hair disturbs the eye.  A minor concern interferes with stillness, for, after all, stillness means the expulsion of thoughts and the rejection of even reasonable cares. . . . The man who wishes to offer a pure mind to God but who is troubled by cares is like a man who expects to walk quickly even though his legs are tied together” (page 269).

The best explanation of this practice to non-monks that I’ve heard was presented by Lisa Sayre at this year’s House of St. Michael the Archangel Devotional Conference.  The text of it is available here: Prayer Without Thoughts. As Lisa shows there, the Jesus Prayer is the key to practicing stillness for us in the world today, just as it was for monks through the history of the Hesychast tradition. Climacus alludes to this practice when he says “Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath” (page 270). Breath in the name of Jesus. Let meditation on His Name become as natural and constant within you as breathing.  As Lisa wrote, “Pray then . . .  the name of the Lord Jesus, that He might come to dwell before all in your heart and all your thoughts might be subject to Him.” Then you will be on the path to perfect discernment and the knowledge of truth in stillness.

A few evenings ago, I stood in the kitchen peeling a yam. Eileen and I were making dinner, using what we had available.  The previous Saturday, I had taken a friend to a food distribution event sponsored by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Foodbank, where he had received a generous amount of free food including frozen chicken, potatoes, apples and yams.  “I won’t use the yams,” he said, “Do you want them?”

So I stood in our kitchen, peeling a yam for Eileen to roast with some other vegetables on a night when I frankly would have preferred to be at D’s, our favorite local bar and hot dog restaurant.  Eileen and I had just had a conversation about our finances in which I tried to romanticize making do with less. “God is faithful to provide for all we need,” I’d said. As I peeled the yam in the kitchen I realized: This is how God’s providing. It’s not what I wanted or what I’m asking for, but it’s feeding us tonight. That yam was a gift of grace.  But the more I thought about it, the more my thoughts landed on the but it’s not what I wanted part of the sentence, rather than on God’s providing. I felt like one of the Israelites in the wilderness, complaining, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.  But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11:4-6 NIV).

Manna was not what the Israelites wanted. And in their grumblings, they blamed God for not meeting their desires. But the problem wasn’t on God’s end. The problem was that they measured the goodness of God’s provision by Egypt’s standards. Today I fear that in an affluent society like America, we don’t even recognize how often we measure God’s goodness by Egypt’s standards. Maybe manna is all we need, but we’re not going to be content with it if our minds are focused on the things the empire tells us we need. To learn to receive God’s provision with gratitude, many of our worldly appetites have to first be put to death.  Back in Egypt we may have lived the high life.  But God has called us out of Egypt.

As Jan at A Church for Starving Artists wrote recently, there is a cost to following the call God has placed on our lives.  Eileen and I are feeling part of the cost of God’s call right now.  We’re not at home in Colorado, not near family, not making much money, not taking much time to rest, and not always happy. But along with the cost also comes a certain joy.  It’s the joy of looking at a yam and realizing that God really is providing for our every need. It’s the joy of seeing the beauty of creation in the daffodils blooming in our yard right now, a sight we’d see less if we went out every time we wanted to.  It’s the joy of having several friends cheer my soul by visiting me at my cafe on a day where our espresso machine was in need of repair and where I’d started my shift by dealing with a leaky milk dispenser. It’s not always what I would have chosen, but there is room for joy in this life.

And I’m finding that the joy increases when I measure the cost by God’s standards rather than Egypt’s. Egypt may tell us our manna is flavorless and that giving up the delicacies of Egypt was a high cost to pay for following this call. But the Lord can gives us eyes to see manna as the “grain of heaven” and “bread of angels” (Psalm 78:24-25), even to seek the Manna which is the “bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).  Egypt may tell us we need a second car, a new computer, a real vacation, etc., but these are small costs compared to the life of the One who “had no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:21). Egypt may say that the Lord’s provision of yams is laughable, but by the Lord’s standards it was confirmation that he is faithful to provide abundantly more than our daily bread (Matthew 6:11). May the Lord continue to multiply our joy by exposing Egypt’s lies and leading us toward the Promised Land of his goodness and truth.

Christ washing the disciples’ feet, an embodiment of humility.

There are 30 Steps in John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. In the first three weeks of Lent, I read through and wrote about Steps 1-21. (See Week 1, Week 2 and Week 3.) That leaves only nine steps left for the second half of Lent. But fewer steps doesn’t mean the ladder gets easier to climb. The final steps are the steepest of all.

This week, we’re looking at Steps 22-25, all of which address the themes of pride and humility: (22) On Vainglory, (23) On Pride, (24) On Meekness, Simplicity, and Guilelessness, and (25) On Humility. Vainglory, or self-conceit, is the beginning of pride.  Meekness is the beginning of humility. As Climacus says, the difference between each is as “between a child and a man, between wheat and bread, for the first is a beginning and the second an end” (page 201). Accordingly, one destroys pride by digging up the root of self-esteem, and one acquires humility by practicing meekness and gentleness.  “The light of dawn comes before the sun, and meekness is the precursor of all humility” (page 214).

Steps 22 and 23 – Battling Against Pride: The battle against pride begins when we start to recognize and cut off all the little things that boost our egos.  In relationship with others, this is another place where people-pleasing can become deadly: “A vainglorious man is a believer – and an idolater.  Apparently honoring God, he actually is out to please not God but men” (page 202).  Rather than seeking the praise of others, we should deliberately pull ourselves back down to earth whenever our heads swell after receiving compliments. John Climacus says, “When those who praise us, or, rather, those who lead us astray, begin to exalt us, we should briefly remember the multitude of our sins and in this way we will discover that we do not deserve whatever is said or done in our honor” (page 206). This seems discouraging, to say the least. After all, a truthful compliment can be a great encouragement. But John is so concerned about this because vainglory is the root of pride. The temptation to become conceited is so powerful that “only the holy and the saintly can pass unscathed through praise” (page 202), and those who do not stand guard can quickly see self-esteem turn to pride, a vice which is so powerfully destructive that he defines it as follows:

Pride is a denial of God, an invention of the devil, contempt for men.   . . . the cause of diabolical possession, the source of anger, the gateway of hypocrisy. It is the fortress of demons, the custodian of sins, the source of hardheartedness.  It is the denial of compassion, a bitter pharisee, a cruel judge.  It is the foe of God.  It is the root of blasphemy (page 207).

And the seeds of this vice are planted every time we seek glory in the eyes of other people. But the seeds do have to be watered in order to grow into pride.  And there are other things we can do to cut off the our prideful brooding and the internal processes that water our thirsty egos. John counsels, “A help to the proud is submissiveness, a tougher and humbler mode of life, and the reading of the supernatural feats of the Fathers” (page 208).  The other way to conquer a vice, though, is to seek the virtue which is its opposite.

Steps 24 and 25 – Seeking Humility: Meekness is simplicity, honesty, and gentleness. A meek person is single-minded and genuine, yet submissive and patient.  It is a characteristic more easily recognized than described, so it should not surprise us that the process of becoming meek is not easily described.  It begins with honesty, “speech that is neither artificial nor premeditated” (page 215). Honesty is a matter of action as well. The meek and simple person is consistent in their speech and behavior, so Climacus writes “Let us run from the precipice of hypocrisy, from the pit of duplicity” (page 216). To become meek one must also be teachable, open to receiving instruction and trusting in the wisdom and tradition which one receives, rather than one’s own thoughts. “Fight to escape your own cleverness.  If you do, then you will find salvation and an uprightness through Jesus Christ our Lord” (page 217).

From the seed of meekness sprouts the tree of humility, and Climacus cannot speak highly enough about humility.  He rhapsodizes about the beauty and power of “Holy Humility.”  Like meekness, is a work of art whose beauty is more easily admired than described or imitated.  Its reception comes as a gift of God to the soul which has been purified by the steps described earlier in The Ladder.  Climacus uses the analogy of baking bread to explain:

“The soul is ground and refined by visible repentance.  The waters of true mourning bring it to a certain unity.  I would even go so far as to speak of a mingling with God. Then, kindled by the fire of the Lord, blessed humility is made into bread and made firm without the leaven of pride” (page 220).

This quote pulls together allusions to several of the previous steps in The Ladder. The grinding of repentance is the harsh discipline described in Step 5. The waters of true mourning are the gift of tears from Step 7. Unity is simplicity and purity, just as God is one and pure: “[God] is simple and uncompounded.  And He wants the souls that come to Him to be simple and pure” (Step 24, page 216). When the ingredients are present, The Lord provides what is necessary to transform them into the divine virtue of humility, which is a gateway to the divine life:  “Repentance lifts a man up.  Mourning knocks at heaven’s gate.  Holy humility opens it.  This I say, and I worship a Trinity in Unity and a Unity in Trinity” (page 221).

But just as each person is different, the recipe producing humility in each person is different. Climacus describes various ways in which other monks have sought to achieve humility: remembrance of past sins, meditating upon the Passion of Christ, humbly acknowledging one’s daily temptations, weaknesses, and sins.  Some, though he says they are rare, humble “themselves in proportion to the gifts they receive from God and live with a sense of their unworthiness to have such wealth bestowed on them, so that each day they think of themselves as sinking further into debt. That is real humility, real beatitude, real reward!” (page 224). Just as meekness springs from honesty, humility is the product of truth, including truthful self-knowledge. “The man who has come to know himself is never fooled into reaching for what is beyond him.  He keeps his feet henceforth on the blessed path of humility” (page 226). Dedication to truth is a helpful spiritual discipline which not only uproots pride but has the power to tame other vices such as gluttony, lust, and greed.

Notice also that as in last week’s post, the mind and body are intimately connected in the pursuit of humility.  Climacus recommends hard work coupled with internal discipline to cultivate this virtue: “The wonderful Fathers proclaimed physical labor to be the way to and the foundation of humility” (page 227).  This isn’t just a matter of getting dirt under your fingernails to prove that you’re not “too good” to do menial jobs. The repeated, deliberate, grinding nature of physical work shapes us internally and externally. To demonstrate, John recalls what John 13 says about Christ in the Upper Room, washing his disciples’ feet:

The Lord understood that the virtue of the soul is shaped by our outward behavior. He therefore took a towel and showed us how to walk the road of humility (cf. John 13:4). The soul is molded by the doings of the body, conforming to and taking shape from what it does.”

It’s one thing to point to the example of Christ.  But John Climacus is here doing more than that.  He’s drawing on the monastic principle that what we do physically cannot be separated from how we think. Prideful thoughts will be weakened with humble actions. The humility of Christ reached its greatest depth during his physical suffering of crucifixion and death (Philippians 2:8). Let us begin to seek humility by bowing our knees in submission to our Servant Lord (Phipppians 2:9-11).

The media’s focus on Iran recently has helped make the world more aware of Youcef Nadarkhani, a man who has been sentenced to death there for apostasy.  Like the case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan, Pastor Nadarkhani’s situation is a rare example the media shining light on the suffering that thousands of anonymous others face because of their faith.  When Christians in more comfortable situations come across such news, our first impulse is to pray. But it’s worth stopping to ask how should we pray for people like Youcef?

Read this letter which was written in January 2011 by Nadarkhani a few months after he was condemned to die. Notice that it has the tone of a New Testament epistle. Notice also that Youcef doesn’t ask for us to pray that his life would be spared or that he would be freed. Instead, he speaks honestly about the suffering of the Christian life:

The Word of God tell[s] us to ‘expect to suffer hardship’ and dishonor for the sake of His Name.  Our Christian confession is not acceptable if we ignore this statement, if we do not manifest the patience of the Lord in our sufferings.  Anybody ignoring it will be ashamed in that day.

Perhaps our first prayer for Pastor Youcef should be that he would “manifest the patience of the Lord” in his suffering.  If and when Nadarkhani is executed, he will join the “multitude which no one could count, from every nation, and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and [with] palm branches in their hands, crying out in loud voice and saying ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.” This image from Revelation 7 is often used to speak of the ethnic and cultural diversity  of the Church.  But a few verses later, the individuals in this multitude are identified as confessors and martyrs, “the ones who come out of the great tribulation” of persecution.  Before the throne of God in heaven stand and will stand people from every tribe, language, and nation who have suffered for their allegiance to Christ.

Revelation was a book written to communities facing persecution, and the letters to the Churches in chapters 2 and 3 show us what Jesus desires for communities of His followers during persecution. For example, in the letter to the Church in Smyrna, Jesus says “Do not fear what you are about to suffer.  Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).  It’s understandable and good that we would pray for freedom, healing, and comfort for our persecuted brothers and sisters. But the book of Revelation and Pastor Nadarkhani’s letter suggest that we should first and foremost pray for their perseverance. As the letters to the Churches in Revelation 2 and 3 suggest, we should pray for fearlessness and faithfulness. As is true for all of us, their ultimate freedom, healing, and comfort will come on the day when “they will no longer hunger, nor thirst anymore, nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear form their eyes” (Rev. 7:16-17 NASB).

If that’s how we should pray, we also need to know who we should lift up in this way. The following websites and resources all provide relatively accurate and up-to-date information regarding specific instances of persecution.  I’ve found creating a list on Twitter to follow the latest news on persecution from around the world to be a helpful reminder to pray. However we arrive at such news, having specific instances, people, or locations in mind is necessary to pray effectively for our suffering brothers and sisters in the faith.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide – An international organization based in the UK which raises awareness of persecution and advocates for religious freedom and human rights.

Compass Direct News – Breaking news on the persecuted Church around the world.

Open Doors USA – Provides Bibles and Christian literature for persecuted believers, provides leadership development and community development for persecuted believers, and raises awareness about presecution.

Operation World – Encyclopedic resource with detailed information about every country on earth and a guide to praying for the proclamation of the Gospel in each nation.

Voice of the Martyrs – News, resources, and other suggestions on how to pray and raise awareness about the persecuted Church.

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians ends with the words, “Remember my chains” (4:18 NIV). The letter to the Philippians also references his chains, saying “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone that I am in chains for Christ.  Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly” (Phil. 1:12-14 NIV). Let us remember those who are in chains today, and pray that their chains would indeed advance the gospel with courage and fearlessness.

We’re now three weeks into this series of reflections on John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. (For context, see previous posts from Week 1 and Week 2.) This reflection is on steps 14 to 21: (14) On Gluttony, (15) On Chastity, (16) On Avarice, (17) On Poverty, (18) On Insensitivity, (19) On Sleep, (20) On Alertness, and (21) On Fear. In these steps, Climacus starts to address the more tangible and worldly sins and vices with which we’re familiar: lust, greed, over-indulgence.  But Step 18 and those that follow it shift back to the inner life of the mind, and indication that for Climacus the discipline of the mind and discipline of the body are intimately related. Physical discipline is fruitless without mental discipline, and vice versa.

In Steps 14 and 15,  Climacus points out the mind-body connection which a number of ancient writers observed between hunger and our sexual appetites. He writes, “A stuffed belly produces fornication, while a mortified stomach leads to purity.  The man who pets a lion may tame it but the man who coddles the body makes it ravenous” (page 165). This may be a new concept to us, but even modern neurologists have observed this connection.  The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls our appetites for eating, drinking, and sex.  Because these drives are all processed in the same part of the brain, sexual desires can be experienced with the same intensity as hunger and thirst. Because food and water are essential for survival, the hypothalamus drives us to pursue these at all costs. Unfortunately, our brains naturally perceive sexual desires in the same way. But sex isn’t essential for a person’s survival.  So how does one teach their hypothalamus that? Climacus, in line with the rest of his monastic tradition, recommends fasting.  By cultivating self-control over one of these appetites (hunger) we can cultivate self-control over the other (sex).  And over time this practice enables one to rise above one’s natural appetites and desires:   “To have mastered one’s body is to have taken command of nature, which is surely to have risen above it. And the man who has done this is not much lower than the angels, if even that” (page 181).

Even so, total victory over lust is not within human control. Physical discipline is helpful and beneficial, but ultimate submission of such powerful natural appetites is not achieved by merely natural means. So, Climacus reminds us that purity and chastity are God-given gifts:

When nature is overcome it should be admitted that this is due to Him Who is above nature. . . .. The truth is that unless the Lord overturns the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the man wishing to overcome it has watched and fasted for nothing.  Offer up to the Lord the weakness of your nature.  Admit your incapacity and, without your knowing it, you will win for yourself the gift of chastity (pages 172-173).

In Steps 16 (Avarice) and 17 (Poverty), Climacus encourages us to cultivate detachment from possessions to free our hearts from greed. Climacus doesn’t prescribe a physical discipline here because the appropriate physical discipline for greed has already been completed by his monks: they had sold what they owned and given to the poor.  But the physical discipline means nothing if one has not cultivated mental freedom from greed. And as with lust, this freedom requires divine assistance. Climacus writes that the virtue of detachment  “grows from an experience and taste of the knowledge of God” (page 190). Taste and see that the Lord is indeed good and you will trust Him to provide for your every need. Experience God’s provision, and you won’t worry as much about possessions and money.  If you want to be free from greed, seek an experience of God’s goodness and provision.

In contrast to complete trust in God’s provision, Step 18 discusses Insensitivity.   The insensitive person is hard-hearted, hypocritical and judgmental.  Climacus confesses that he himself wrestles with insensitivity, and that it is a common problem among the devout.  In one passage in this step, I could have thought he was describing me:

Detachment he praises, and he shamelessly fights over a rag.  When he is angry he gets bitter, and then his bitterness makes him angry, so that having suffered one defeat he fails to notice that he has suffered another.  He gorges himself, is sorry, and a little later is at it again.  He blesses silence and cannot stop talking about it.  He teaches meekness and frequently gets angry when he is teaching it (page 192).

Climacus says that the cause of insensitivity is different for each person and in each case, but the only way to free oneself from it is to discover the cause.  So I’m praying for the Lord to reveal the causes of my insensitivity. I’m still listening for an answer. Pray for me.

Lastly, the steps concerning Sleep, Alertness, and Fear are all related, and together display the mind-body connection discussed earlier.  Keeping vigil, or going without sleep, is like fasting in that it deprives the body of a need in order to train the body in holiness.  But Climacus says it yields fruit in prayer, as well:  “The farmer collects his wealth on the threshing floor and in the winepress. Monks collect their wealth and knowledge during the hours of evening and night when they are standing at prayer and contemplation” (page 197).  The goal is to cultivate watchfulness over one’s thoughts so that one can recognized where thoughts are coming from and discern between good and evil, true and untrue thoughts. If one can learn to do this even when tired, one will have greater clarity of mind when awake.  And so prayer and contemplation during times when we would normally be sleeping prepare us for alert and attentive prayer at all times.

In the ancient world, nighttime was also regarded as unsafe. Both physical and spiritual enemies attacked at night, and apparently monks were not immune to fears of such attacks. Accordingly, Climacus takes step 21 to remind his monks and readers that, “The servant of the Lord will be afraid only of his Master” (page 200).  Trust in God means there’s no need to fear anyone but God.  As Jesus says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:4-6 TNIV).  As Jesus’ words suggest, fear reveals a preoccupation with bodily concerns over spiritual.  Fear of those who can harm the body reveals the same concern for the body’s comfort that results in lust and gluttony.  In contrast, the virtue of courage reveals that one’s mind is set not on earthly things, but on heavenly.  And as Climacus says, “The man who has tasted the things of heaven easily thinks nothing of what is below . . .” (page 189).

As I shared last week, I’m reading through The Ladder of Divine Ascent during Lent this year.  This week’s reflection is on Steps 7 through 13 of The Ladder: (7) On Mourning, (8) On Placidity and Meekness, (9) On Malice, (10) On Slander, (11) On Talkativeness and Silence, (12) On Falsehood, and (13) On Despondency.  Last week’s steps all dealt with the posture of one’s soul toward the world.  Similarly, this week’s steps deal with the posture of one’s soul toward itself and toward God. Notice that Climacus discusses all of these steps before he addresses our more tangible vices or concrete actions.  Before focusing attention on our actions, John Climacus wants to correct the dispositions of our soul.

Step 7, On Mourning, provides the theme for this week. In all of these steps, remembrance of one’s past sins is presented as a useful tool for growth in the spiritual life. This seems counter-intuitive,  especially to modern Western Christians like myself who have been bathed in a culture of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” We hesitate to call sin by its proper name and in our rush to proclaim grace, we often fail to take sin seriously. That sort of cheap grace lacks power to sanctify us. To overcome patterns of sin in our lives, we have to genuinely grieve and mourn the presence of such sin. To break free from slavery to sin, we have to hate our chains. So, Climacus counsels us to remember our sinfulness with fasting and weeping and mourning (Joel 2:12).  Especially weeping.

Many early Church fathers and monks write about the gift of tears.  Tears are sometimes spoken of as a spontaneous charismatic gift whose presence is necessary for salvation, similar to how modern Pentecostals sometimes speak of the gift of tongues. The gift of tears is still alive today in Eastern Orthodoxy, but as the Spirit blows where He wishes, the gift of tears also shows up in other Christian traditions. (For two modern evangelical accounts of receiving the gift of tears, see Ken Wilson’s Jesus Brand Spirituality, page 141, and Mary Poplin’s Finding Calcutta, pages 147-148.) For John Climacus, though, tears were the sign of a heart in anguish over its own sin and the brokenness of the world. Rather than being purely spontaneous, they were the product of a rational mind thinking with Spirit-given clarity about its own sin (p.138).  But their presence had a cleansing, healing, and purifying effect. He writes:

Baptism washes off those evils that were previously within us, whereas the sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears.  The baptism received by us as children we have all defiled, but we cleanse it anew with our tears (page 137).

Most of us would be inclined to object at this point: Wouldn’t this be depressing and discouraging? Even other monks were careful about how they engaged this practice of mourning.  St. Mark the Ascetic wrote, “To recall past sins in detail inflicts injury on the man who hopes in God.  For when such recollection brings remorse it deprives him of hope; but if he pictures the sins to himself without remorse, they pollute him again with the old defilement” (“No Righteousness By Works” no. 151 – The Philokalia p. 138).  Recalling the details past sins can easily lead us into temptation or dejection. But the important words in that quote from Mark the Ascetic are in detail. A more generalized mourning of our sinfulness reminds us of our need of a Savior and inspires us to strive for greater purity.

Remembrance of sin also affects the way we relate to one another.  Step 8 of the Ladder – “On Placidity and Meekness” – is really about freedom from anger. John writes, “As the gradual pouring of water on a fire puts out the flame completely, so the tears of genuine mourning can extinguish every flame of anger and irascibility” (page 146). Grieving one’s own sin leads one into humility. A humble person is not self-seeking, so she or he is less likely to become angry when their will is denied. Climacus writes, “Just as darkness retreats before light, so all anger and bitterness disappears before the fragrance of humility” (page 146).  Remembrance of one’s own sin also prevents one from building up malice in one’s heart by dwelling on the sins of others (Step 9). When tempted to resent and judge those who have treated us unjustly, we should remember first our own injustices and offenses. Humbly recognizing our own faults, we are less likely to judge or slander our fellow sinners (Step 10).  And when that’s not enough, we should look to the example of Christ on the Cross: “The remembrance of what Jesus suffered is a cure for remembrance of wrongs, shaming it powerfully with His patient endurance” (page 154).

When practiced rightly, John Climacus says this remembrance of one’s own sin actually guards against depression.  Step 13 addresses despondency, or the “noonday demon”, as other monks called it.  Here Climacus refers to what the ancients called akidia – a state similar to sloth that seems to be a combination of depression, laziness, and boredom.  (Modern readers might be familiar with this from Kathleen Norris’s book Acedia & Me.) I would express the logic of fighting despondency by remembering one’s own sin like this: If you’ve forgotten your sinfulness, you’ve forgotten your need of salvation. If you don’t think you need salvation, you’re less thankful for the grace of Christ, less motivated to serve Him, and less likely to see purpose in  your life.  By remembering our sinfulness, we cultivate thankfulness for Christ who delivers us from sin.  That thankfulness in turn motivates us to live with greater zeal as we seek his Kingdom.

One surprise for me this week was the connection Climacus draws between despondency and talkativeness.  In Step 11, he writes that  “Talkativeness is a sign of ignorance, a doorway to slander, a leader of jesting, a servant of lies . . . the end of vigilance, the cooling of zeal, the darkening of prayer” (p. 158). This passage from The Ladder reminded me of a passage in the Philokalia by St. Diadochos of Photiki:

When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. . . Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy.  Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts. (“On Spiritual Knowledge” no. 70 – The Philokalia p. 276).

Talkativeness leads to despondency because it dissipates the zeal for Christ which is cultivated by inner remembrance of the mystery of Christ and our need of Him.  Activities of the intellect such as remembrance of sin and meditation upon the mystery of Christ are practiced best in stillness and silence. So Climacus says, “Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer” and the “lover of silence draws close to God. He talks to Him in secret and God enlightens him” (pages 158-159).

In light of this, it seems fitting to close this post with the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian which is used liturgically in Eastern churches during Lent.  Notice that Ephrem asks here for an awareness of his own sin and connects this awareness to all the virtues and vices discussed in this portion of The Ladder.

O Lord and Master of my life, give me not a spirit of sloth, vain curiosity, lust for power, and idle talk, but give to me Thy servant a spirit of soberness, humility, patience, and love.  O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to condemn by brother: for blessed art Thou to the ages of ages.  Amen. O God, cleanse me a sinner.