Lenten Lessons on the Ladder: Week 5

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.

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