The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

ST. JOHN CLIMACUS - PART II (Steps 1-6 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent)

Last week’s thought was a sermon on “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” by St. John Climacus (“St. John of the Ladder”).  This book outlines thirty steps of the ladder by which one ascends to salvation and gives practical guidance and advice to the spiritual struggler.  We will look at five of these steps each week over the next six weeks.  This is intended to give you only the briefest of overviews of this monumental work as St. John’s writings have far more detail and instructions than we can possibly reprint here.

Today we will look at the first six steps:

Step 1: On Renunciation of the World

-- God belongs to all free beings.  He is the life of all, the salvation of all ñ faithful and unfaithful, just and unjust, pious and impious, passionate and dispassionate, monks and laymen, wise and simple, healthy and sick, young and old - just as the effusion of light, the sight of the sun, and the changes of the seasons are for all alike; “for there is no respect of persons with God.”

-- Those of us who wish to go out of Egypt, and to fly from Pharaoh, certainly need some Moses as a mediator with God and from God, who, standing between action and divine vision, will raise hands of prayer for us to God, so that guided by him we may cross the sea of sin and rout the Amalek of the passions.  That is why those who have surrendered themselves to God deceive themselves if they suppose that they have no need of a director.  Those who came out of Egypt had Moses as their guide, and those who fled from Sodom had an angel.  The former are like those who are healed of the passions of the soul by the care of physicians; these are they who come out of Egypt.  The latter are like those who long to put off the uncleanness of the wretched body.  That is why they need a helper, an angel, so to speak, or rather, one equal to an angel.  For in accordance with the corruption of our wounds, we need a director who is indeed an expert and a physician.

-- Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me; “We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?”  I replied to them: “Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate anyone; do not be absent from the divine services; be compassionate to the needy; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness, and be content with what your own wives can give you.  If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Step 2: On Detachment

-- After our renunciation of the world, the demons suggest to us that we should envy those living in the world who are merciful and compassionate, and be sorry for ourselves as deprived of these virtues.  The aim of our foes is, by false humility, either to make us return to the world, or, if we remain monks, to plunge into despair.  It is impossible to belittle those living in the world out of conceit; and it is also possible to disparage them behind their backs in order to avoid despair and to obtain hope.

-- Let us listen to what the Lord said to the young man who had fulfilled nearly all the commandments: “One thing thou lackest; sell whatsoever thou hast and give to the poor and become a beggar who receives alms from others.”

-- Having resolved to run our race with ardor and fervor, let us consider carefully how the Lord gave judgment concerning all living in the world, speaking of even those who are alive as dead, when He said to someone: Leave those in the world who are dead to bury the dead in body.  His wealth did not in the least prevent the young man from being baptized.  And so it is in vain that some say that the Lord commanded him to sell what he had for the sake of baptism.  This is more than sufficient to give us the most firm assurance of the surpassing glory of our vow.

Step 3: On Exile or Pilgrimage

-- Exile means that we leave forever everything in our own country that prevents us from reaching the goal of piety.  Exile means modest manners, wisdom which remains unknown, prudence not recognized as such by most, a hidden life, an invisible intention, unseen meditation, desire for humiliation, longing for hardship, constant determination to love God, abundance of love, renunciation of vainglory, depth of silence.

-- Those who have come to love the Lord are at first unceasingly and greatly disturbed by this thought, as if burning with divine fire.  I speak of separation from their own, undertaken by the lovers of perfection so that they may live a life of hardship and simplicity.  But great and praiseworthy as this is, yet it requires great discretion; for not every kind of exile, carried to extremes, is good.

-- Run from places of sin as from the plague.  For when fruit is not present, we have no frequent desire to eat it.

-- Demons often transform themselves into angels of light and take the form of martyrs, and make it appear to us during sleep that we are in communication with them.  Then, when we wake up, they plunge us into unholy joy and conceit.  But you can detect their deceit by this very fact.  For angels reveal torments, judgments and separations; and when we wake up we find that we are trembling and sad.  As soon as we begin to believe the demons in dreams, then they make sport of us when we are awake too.  He who believes in dreams is completely inexperienced.  But he who distrusts all dreams is a wise man.  Only believe dreams that warn you of torments and judgments.  But if despair afflicts you, then such dreams area also from demons.

Step 4: On Blessed and Ever-Memorable Obedience

-- Obedience is absolute renunciation of our own life, clearly expressed in our bodily actions.  Or, conversely, obedience is the mortification of the limbs while the mind remains alive.  Obedience is unquestioning movement, voluntary death, a life free of curiosity, carefree danger, unprepared defense before God, fearlessness of death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s progress.  Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility.  A corpse does not argue or reason as to what is good or what seems to be bad.  For he who has devoutly put the soul of the novice to death will answer for everything.  Obedience is an abandonment of discernment in a wealth of discernment.

-- The beginning of the mortification both of the soul’s desire and of the bodily members is much hard work.  The middle is sometimes laborious and sometimes not laborious.  But the end is insensibility and insusceptibility to toil and pain.  Only when he sees himself doing his own will does this blessed living corpse feel sorry and sick at heart; and he fears the responsibility of using his own judgment.

-- Blessed is he who, though maligned and disparaged every day for the Lord’s sake, constrains himself to be patient.  He will join the chorus of the martyrs, and boldly converse with the angels.  Blessed is the monk who regards himself as hourly deserving every dishonor and disparagement.  Blessed is he who mortifies his will to the end, and leaves the care of himself to his director in the Lord; for he will be placed at the right hand of the Crucified.  He who will not accept a reproof, just or unjust, renounces his own salvation.  But he who accepts it with an effort, or even without an effort, will soon receive the remission of his sins.

Step 5: On Painstaking and True Repentance Which
Constitute the Life of the Holy Convicts

-- Repentance is the renewal of baptism.  Repentance is a contract with God for a second life.  A penitent is a buyer of humility. Repentance is constant distrust of bodily comfort.  Repentance is self-condemning reflection, and carefree self-care.  Repentance is the daughter of hope and the renunciation of despair.  A penitent is an undisgraced convict.  Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the practice of good deeds contrary to the sins.  Repentance is purification of conscience.  Repentance is the voluntary endurance of all afflictions.  A penitent is the inflicter of his own punishments.  Repentance is a mighty persecution of the stomach, and a striking of the soul into vigorous awareness.

-- Nothing equals or excels God’s mercies.  Therefore, he who despairs is committing suicide.  A sign of true repentance is the acknowledgement that we deserve all the afflictions, visible and invisible, that come upon us, and even greater ones.  Moses, after seeing God in the bush, returned again to Egypt, that is, to the darkness and to the brick-making of Pharaoh, who was symbolical of the spiritual Pharaoh.  But he went back again to the bush, and not only to the bush, but also up to the mountain.  Whoever has known divine vision will never despair of himself.  Job became a beggar, but he became twice as rich again.

Step 6: On Remembrance of Death

-- Every word is preceded by thought.  And the remembrance of death and sins precedes weeping and mourning.

-- Not every desire for death is good.  Some, constantly sinning from force of habit, pray for death with humility.  And some, who do not want to repent, invoke death out of despair.  And some, out of self-esteem consider themselves dispassionate, and for a while have no fear of death.  And some (if such can now be found), through the action of the Holy Spirit, ask for their departure.

-- Some inquire and wonder: “Why, when the remembrance of death is so beneficial to us, has God hidden from us the knowledge of the hour of death?” - not knowing that in this way God wonderfully accomplishes our salvation.  For no one who foreknew his death would at once proceed to baptism or the monastic life; but everyone would spend all his days in iniquities, and only on the day of his death, would he approach baptism and repentance.  From long habit, he would become confirmed in vice, and would remain utterly incorrigible.

-- And I cannot be silent about the story of Hesychius the Horebite.  He passed his life in complete negligence, without paying the least attention to his soul.  Then he became extremely ill, and for an hour he expired.  And when he came to himself, he begged us all to leave him immediately.  And he built up the door of his cell, and he stayed in it for twelve years without ever uttering a word to anyone, and without eating anything but bread and water.  And, always remaining motionless, he was so rapt in spirit at what he had seen in his ecstasy, that he never changed this manner of life but was always as if out of his mind, and silently shed hot tears.  But when he was about to die, we broke open the door and went in, and after many questions, this alone was all we heard from him: “Forgive me!  No one who has acquired the remembrance of death will ever be able to sin.”  We were amazed to see that one who had before been so negligent was so suddenly transfigured by this blessed change and transformation.  We reverently buried him in the cemetery near the fort, and after some days we looked for his holy relics, but did not find them.  So by Hesychiusís true and praiseworthy repentance, the Lord showed us that He accepts those who desire to amend, even after long negligence.  END

from St. John Climacus, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), pp. 3 - 70.