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.