Tuesday, April 12, 2016

'With the Utmost Profit' - The Ladder of Divine Ascent for Us Today

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

On the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate the great monastic saint and writer, St. John Climacus (of the Ladder).  St. John (+ c. 650), abbot of one of the most ancient monasteries in the Christian world, at the foot of Jebul Musa, Moses' Mount, on the Sinai Peninsula, was an austere ascetic who wrote what may be the classic work of our spiritual tradition:  The Ladder of Divine Ascent. 

According to Arch. Kallistos Ware:  "With the exception of the Bible and the service books, there is no work in Eastern Christendom that has been studied, copied and translated more than The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus." 

Today, a few English translations have been available for some time now (e.g., here, here, here), so an English-speaking body of the faithful now has access to this spiritual classic. Here is a work, then, that has nurtured endless generations of Christian believer seeking to deepen their relationship with God in and through Christ. 

Commemorating St. John on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent reminds us that a major component of our lenten effort is focused on being ascetical to some degree; and that any ascetical effort must be placed within a larger context of warfare against the passions and the attainment of those key virtues that mark the life of a committed Christian.  St. John provides an example and a body of teaching both through his mode of life and again, through his enduring spiritual classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  Something to keep in mind as our lenten efforts may just be starting to sag at this point in the season.

There is no doubt from the beginning of his work, that St. John is writing as a monastic for fellow monastics.  But that hardly limits St. John's scope of intended readers.  To again turn to Archbishop Ware, he writes:

"Yet does it therefore follow that The Ladder is of no interest to those in the 'world'?  Surely not.  It has in fact been read with the utmost profit by many thousands of married Christians, and whatever the author's original intention, there is nothing surprising in that ... Whether monastic or married, all the baptized are responding to the same Gospel call; the outward conditions of their response may vary, but the path is essentially one."  

There is a wonderful passage at the outset of The Ladder that clearly affirms the "universal" appeal of St. John's teaching:

God is the life of all free beings. He is the salvation of believers and unbelievers, of the just or the unjust ... of monks or those living in the world, of the educated or the illiterate, of the healthy or the sick, of the young or the very old. He is like the outpouring of light, the glimpse of the sun, or the changes of the weather, which are the same for everyone without exception.  "For God is no respecter of persons." (ROM. 2:11)  (STEP 1)

And more specifically, with married persons in the world in mind, St. John writes:

Do whatever good you may.  Speak evil of not 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 from the bed of another ... If you do all of this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.  (STEP 1)

Therefore, his succinct definition of what it means to be a Christian embraces both those "in the world," and those who practice withdrawal "from the world:"

A Christian is an imitator of Christ in thought, word and deed, as far as this is humanly possible, and he believes rightly and blamelessly in the Holy Trinity.  (STEP 1)

Contrary to many "self-help" Christian writers today, who may prove to be less than insightful about the rebellion of our sinful minds and bodies, St. John is very sober and realistic - we could say, very "upfront" - about the intense challenges that a life based on the precepts of the Gospel will be for the honest seeker:

Violence (cf. MATT. 11:12) and unending pain are the lot of those who aim to ascend to heaven with the body, and this especially at the early stages of the enterprise, when our pleasure-loving disposition and our unfeeling hearts must travel through overwhelming grief toward the love of God and holiness.  It is hard, truly hard.  (STEP 1)

Concerning the role of the body in the over-all Christian life, and the difficult question of the relationship between soul and body, and the inherent tensions in that relationship, if not outright struggle/warfare; St. John has a text of extraordinary insight concerning the "mystery" of the relationship between body and soul that has hardly been matched since he wrote:

By what rule or manner can I bind this body of mine?  By what precedent can I judge him?  Before I can bind him he is let loose, before I can condemn him I am reconciled to him, before I can punish him I bow down to him and feel sorry for him.  How can I hate him when my nature disposes me to love him?  How can I break away from him when I am bound to him forever?  How can I escape from him when he is going to rise with me?  How can I make him incorrupt when he has received a corruptible nature?  How can I argue with him when all the arguments of nature are on his side? ... If I strike him down I have nothing left by which to acquire virtues.  I embrace him.  And I turn away from him.  What is this mystery in me?  What is the principle of this mixture of body and soul?  (STEP 15)

The main section of The Ladder is made up of the Steps in which St. John lists and analyzes the most prominent and troubling of the "passions" so as to then offer guidance as to how to overcome them and replace them with a corresponding virtue.  One way of many of describing a major component of the spiritual life is to say that it is a "warfare against the passions."  Without success in this battle, we cannot hope to attain purity of heart. According to how Archbishop Ware helps to summarize the contents of The Ladder, the "passions" can be listed as those that are physical and material, such as:

  • gluttony - "Gluttony is hypocrisy of the stomach.  Filled, it moans about scarcity; stuffed, and crammed, it wails about hunger."  (STEP 14)
  • lust - "This demon is especially on the lookout for our weak moments and will viciously assail us when we are physically unable to pray against it." (STEP 15)
  • avarice - "Anger and gloom never leave the miserly." (STEP 16-17)

And those that are non-physical, such as:

  • anger - "Anger is an indication of concealed hatred, of grievance nursed.  Anger is the wish to harm someone who has provoked you." (STEP 8)
  • malice  - "Worms thrive in a rotten tree; malice thrives in the deceptively meek and silent." (STEP 9)
  • slander - "Slander is the offspring of hatred, a subtle and yet crass disease, a leech in hiding and escaping notice, wasting and draining away the lifeblood of love." (STEP 10)
  • talkativeness - "It is hard to keep water in without a dike.  But it is harder still to hold in one's tongue." (STEP 11)
  • falsehood - "Lying is the destruction of charity, and perjury the very denial of God." (STEP 12)
  • despondency - "Tedium is a paralysis of the soul, a slackness of mind, a neglect of religious exercises ... A laziness in the singing of psalms, a weakness in prayer." (STEP 13)
  • insensitivity - "Detachment he praises, and he shamelessly fights over a rag ... He looks people in the eye with passion and talks about chastity." (STEP 18-20)
  • fear - "Fear is danger tasted in advance, a quiver as the heart takes fright before unnamed calamity.  Fear is a loss of assurance." (STEP 21)
  • vainglory - "A vainglorious person is a believer - and an idolator. Apparently honoring God, he actually is out to please not God but men." (STEP 22)
  • pride  - "Most of the proud never really discover their true selves. They think they have conquered their passions and they find out how poor they really are only after they die." (STEP 23)

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