Lenten Lessons on the Ladder: Week 4

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).

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