Tag Archives: Ladder of Divine Ascent

Today is Maundy Thursday.  It’s the day  when we celebrate Jesus’ Last Supper with His disciples, His mandate (Latin mandatum, the root of our “Maundy”) that they love one another as He loved them (John 13:34), and his agony of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Tomorrow we will remember His crucifixion. And then on Sunday . . .

As Lent draws to a close, I’m reflecting again on the purpose of this season of spiritual discipline.  I’ve finished reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a book which many other Protestants would find overbearing in its calling to practice asceticism and its advice to grieve and mourn for our sinfulness. So it begs the question, Why do this? Why practice such severe disciplines? Why even practice the meager disciplines I adopted personally this Lent? When John Climacus wrote this book in the seventh century as a manual for monks, he gave it 30 chapters, or steps – one for each year of the hidden life of Jesus before His public ministry.  It strikes me now that the final three steps correspond well to the holy days we’re presently celebrating – Jesus displays the virtues of the highest steps of The Ladder in the events of Holy Week. And that provides a hint of an answer to the question at hand: The purpose of all our spiritual discipline is to conform us to the image and likeness of Jesus. May this final reflection on The Ladder will show forth the image of Christ in Steps 28-30.

Step 28 – On Prayer – For the first time in this journey through The Ladder, I found advice in this chapter which matched something I was taught in youth group. I remember being taught to pray using the “ACTS” pattern: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. John Climacus advises a similar pattern, with thanksgiving and confession before supplication:

Heartfelt thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer. Next should be confession and genuine contrition of soul. After that should come our request to the universal King. This method of prayer is best, as one of the brothers was told by an angel of the Lord (page 275).

Yes, he says that method of prayer was revealed by an angel. That should be a signal that prayer is much more serious than any youth-group lesson ever indicated to me. The next paragraph drove home the seriousness of what’s happening in prayer:

If you ever found yourself having to appear before a human judge, you may use that as an example of how to conduct yourself in prayer. Perhaps you have never stood before a judge nor witnessed a cross-examination. In that case, take your cue from the way patients appeal to surgeons prior to an operation or a cautery (page 275).

This imagery suggests both a reverence and an urgency which are uncommon in many of the prayers I both pray and hear prayed. From John Climacus, as from other Church Fathers, I get the sense that if we had the faintest sense of God’s holiness, we would approach the Lord with more deliberate and mindful prayers. Climacus uses the image of an earthly king to stir our hearts to attention. If we knew we had an audience with a king or president, we would surely prepare our words in advance and give the king our full attention. So Climacus writes,  “Those of us wishing to stand before our King and God and to speak with Him should not rush into this without some preparation . . .” (p. 274). But reverence is shown better through simplicity and honesty than through pretentious language:  “Pray in all simplicity.  The publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single utterance. . . . In your prayers there is no need for high-flown words, for it is the simple and unsophisticated babblings of children that have more often won the heart of the Father in heaven” (page 275).

Mark 14’s account of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane actually displays these characteristics of prayer. Jesus begins His prayer, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for you” – an expression of both intimacy and reverence, combined with an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and power. Jesus’ prayer continues: “Remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what you will” (v. 36). His request is simply stated and yet displays a submission to the Father’s will. Jesus presents Himself honestly and wholly to the Father, “distressed and troubled” and “grieved to the point of death” (vv. 33-34), but His adoration of the Father is pure, His request simple, and His submission total. Step 28 presents a challenge to, as the hymn “Go to Dark Gethsemane” says, “Turn not from His griefs away; [but] learn of Jesus Christ to pray.”

Step 29 – On Dispassion – Dispassion is the state of freedom from the passions, the sinful compulsions and vices which were addressed in so many earlier steps of The Ladder. Climacus says,

A man is truly dispassionate – and is known to be such – when he has cleansed his flesh of all corruption; when he has lifted his mind above everything created, and has made it master of all the senses; when he keeps his soul continually in the presence of the Lord and reaches out beyond the borderline of strength to Him (page 282).

The dispassionate person has a mind set on “the things of the Spirit” in contrast to “the mind set on the flesh” which is “death” and “hostile toward God” (Romans 8:5-7). He has put to death the deeds of the flesh so that he may live (Romans 8:13). In this sense, the death of Christ is the supreme display of freedom from the passions. Having accepted the Father’s will, Jesus’ mind was set entirely on the things of the Spirit, enduring and transcending the sufferings of his flesh. This is why Climacus can describe dispassion in the same terms that Paul used for being united to Christ’s crucifixion: The dispassionate person “no longer lives himself, but it is Christ who lives in him (cf. Galatians 2:20)” (page 284). In order to live in freedom from our sinful nature, we are called to embrace the cross of Christ. To quote again the hymn “Go to Dark Gethsemane”, ‘It is finished’ hear Him cry, learn of Jesus Christ to die.”

Step 30 – On Faith, Hope, and Love – These three virtues are at the top of the ladder, but Love is the greatest (1 Cor. 13), and the one who loves shares in the divine life because God is Love.  But such resurrection into Love always follows death to the world, and Climacus continues to speak about dying to the world throughout this step. Reverence is an essential aspect of Love, as well: “The growth of fear is the starting point of love” (p. 288).  Fear and love are two sides of the same coin, so Climacus can say without contradicting himself “Lucky the man who loves and longs for God as a smitten lover does for his beloved.  Lucky the man whose fear of God is in no way less than the fear of the accused in front of a judge” (p. 287).  I can’t help but see the two natures of Christ in this quote. Fully God and fully human, Jesus embodies both the divine pursuit of humanity and perfect human reverence of the Father. Revering the Father as humanity ought, “He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety” (Hebrews 5:7).  In God’s love for humanity, Christ pursued His Beloved with love “as strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6). His love and his reverence continue at the right hand of the Father where he ever lives as “a merciful and faithful high priest” (Hebrews 2:17).  And this dual-nature is what we are called to aspire to live into: a reverent love which both pursues union with God and seeks to intercede on behalf of all creation before Him.

So why go through the season of Lent? Because we want to dwell in love that unites us with God. In His great love, Christ has sought us out and suffered to bring us to union with Him. Let us reciprocate God’s Love and aspire to such heights by patterning our lives after His. As Hebrews 12:1-2 says, “Let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Amen.

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.

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).

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.

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.