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, September 2, 2012

ST. JOHN CLIMACUS - PART III (Steps 7-12 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent)

Last week’s thought contained the first six steps of ìThe Ladder of Divine Ascent,î 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 six of these steps in each issue of our newsletter over a five-week period.  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.  This book is truly a “must have” for any spiritual library!

Today we will look at the steps seven through twelve:

Step 7: On Joy-Making Mourning

-- Mourning according to God is sadness of soul and the disposition of a sorrowing heart, which ever madly seeks that for which it thirsts; and when it fails in its quest, it painfully pursues it, and follows in its wake grievously lamenting.  Or thus: mourning is a golden spur in a soul which is stripped of all attachment and of all ties, fixed in a soul which is stripped of all attachment and of all ties, fixed by holy sorrow to watch over the heart.

-- A characteristic of those who are still progressing in blessed mourning is temperance and silence of the lips; and of those who have made progress - freedom from anger and patient endurance of injuries; and of the perfect - humility, thirst for dishonors, voluntary craving for involuntary afflictions, non-condemnation of sinners, compassion even beyond one’s strength.  The first are acceptable, the second laudable; but blessed are those who hunger for hardship and thirst for dishonor, for they shall be filled with the food whereof there can be no satiety.

-- If you possess the gift of mourning, hold on to it with all your might.  For it is easily lost when it is not firmly established.  And just as wax melts in the presence of fire, so it is easily dissolved by noise and bodily cares, and by luxury, and especially by talkativeness and levity.

-- Greater than baptism itself is the fountain of tears after baptism, even though it is somewhat audacious to say so.  For baptism is the washing away of evils that were in us before, but sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears.  As baptism is received in infancy, we have all defiled it, but we cleanse it anew with tears.  And if God in His love for mankind had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed and hard to find.

-- During prayer and supplication, stand with trembling like a convict standing before a judge, so that, both by your outward appearance as well as by your inner disposition, you may extinguish the wrath of the just Judge; for He will not despise a widow soul standing before Him burdened with sorrow and wearying the Unwearying One.

-- Let your very dress urge you to the work of mourning, because all who lament the dead are dressed in black.  If you do not mourn, mourn for this cause.  And if you mourn, lament still more that, by your sins, you have brought yourself down from a state free of labors to one of labour.

Step 8: On Freedom From Anger and On Meekness

-- As the gradual pouring of water on a fire completely extinguishes the flame, so the tears of mourning are able to quench every flame of anger and irritability.  Therefore, we place this next in order.

-- Freedom from anger is an insatiable appetite for dishonor, just as in the vainglorious there is no unbounded desire for praise.  Freedom from anger is victory over nature and insensibility to insults, acquired by struggles and sweat.

-- Meekness is an immovable state of soul which remains unaffected, whether in evil report or in good report, in dishonor or in praise.

-- The beginning of freedom from anger is silence of the lips when the heart is agitated; the middle is silence of the thoughts when there is a mere disturbance of soul; and the end is an imperturbable calm under the breath of unclean winds.

-- Wrath is a reminder of hidden hatred, that is to say, remembrance of wrongs.  Wrath is a desire for the injury of the one who has provoked you.  Irascibility is the untimely blazing up of the heart.  Bitterness is a movement of displeasure seated in the soul.  Anger is an easily changeable movement of one’s disposition and disfiguration of soul.

-- As with the appearance of light, darkness retreats; so, at the fragrance of humility, all anger and bitterness vanishes.

-- If it is a mark of extreme meekness, even in the presence of one’s offender, to be peacefully and lovingly disposed towards him in ones heart, then it is certainly a mark of hot temper when a person continues to quarrel and rage against his offender, both by words and gestures, even when by himself.

-- If you want, or rather intend, to take a splinter out of another person, then do not hack at it with a stick instead of a lancet, for you will only drive it in deeper.  And this is a stick ñ rude speech and rough gestures.  And this is a lancet - tempered instruction and patient reprimand.  “Reprove,” says the Apostle, “rebuke, exhort,” but he did not say “beat.” (II Timothy 4:2)  And if even this is required, do it rarely, and not with your own hand.

Step 9: On Remembrance of Wrongs

-- Remembrance of wrongs is the consummation of anger, the keeper of sins, hatred of righteousness, ruin of virtues, poison of the soul, worm of the mind, shame of prayer, cessation of supplication, estrangement of love, a nail stuck in the soul, pleasureless feeling cherished in the sweetness of bitterness, continuous sin, unsleeping transgression, hourly malice.

-- He who has put a stop to anger has also destroyed remembrance of wrongs; because childbirth continues only while the father is alive.

-- Remembrance of wrongs is an interpreter of Scripture which explains the words of the Spirit allegorically in order to suit its own disposition.  Let it be put to shame by the Prayer of Jesus which cannot be said with it.  (NOTE: The “Prayer of Jesus” used in the Orthodox Church is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  What is said in the paragraph applies equally to the Lord’s Prayer, especially in the clause “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”)

-- Some, for the sake of forgiveness, give themselves up to labors and struggles, but a man who is forgetful of wrongs excels them.  If you forgive quickly, then you will be generously forgiven.

-- The forgetting of wrongs is a sign of true repentance.  But he who dwells on them and thinks that he is repenting is like a man who thinks he is running while he is really asleep.

Step 10: On Slander or Calumny

-- No sensible person, I think, will dispute that slander is born of hatred and remembrance of wrongs.  Therefore it comes next in order after its forebears.

-- I have heard people slandering, and I have rebuked them.  And these doers of evil replied in self-defense that they were doing so out of love and care for the person whom they were slandering.  I said to them: “Stop that kind of love, otherwise you will be condemning as a liar him who said: ëHim that privily talked against his neighbor, did I drive away.í (Psalm 100:5)  If you say you love, then pray secretly, and do not mock the man.  For this is the kind of love that is acceptable to the Lord.”  But I will not hide this from you ñ and of course be careful, lest you judge the offender: Judas was in the company of Christ’s disciples, and the thief was in the company of murderers.  Yet it is a wondrous thing, how in a single instant, they exchanged places.

-- He who wants to overcome the spirit of slander should not ascribe the blame to the person who falls, but to the demon who suggests it.  For no one really wants to sin against God, even though we all sin without being forced to do so.

-- Do not regard the feelings of a person who speaks to you about his neighbor disparagingly, but rather say to him: “Stop, brother!  I fall into graver sins every day, so how can I criticize him?”  In this way you will achieve two things: you will heal yourself and your neighbor with one plaster.  This is one of the shortest ways to the forgiveness of sins; I mean, not to judge.  “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged.” (Luke 6:37)

-- Do not condemn, even if you see with your eyes, for they are often deceived.

Step 11: On Talkativeness and Silence

-- Talkativeness is the throne of vainglory, on which it loves to show itself and make a display.  Talkativeness is a sign of ignorance, a door to slander, a guide to jesting, a servant of falsehood, the ruin of compunction, a creator and summoner of despondency, a precursor of sleep, the dissipation of recollection, the abolition of watchfulness, the cooling of ardor, the darkening of prayer.

-- Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, a recall from captivity, preservation of fire, an overseer of thoughts, a watch against enemies, a prison of mourning, a friend of tears, effective remembrance of death, a depicter of punishment, a deliverer into judgment, a minister of sorrow, an enemy of freedom of speech, a companion of stillness, an opponent of desire to teach, increase of knowledge, a creator of divine vision, unseen progress, secret ascent.

-- He who has become aware of his sins has controlled his tongue, but a talkative person has not yet come to know himself as he should.

-- He who is anxious about his departure, cuts down words; and he who has obtained spiritual mourning, shuns talkativeness like fire.

Step 12: On Lying

-- The offspring of flint and steel is fire; and the offspring of chatter and joking is lying.

-- A lie is the destruction of love, and a false oath is a denial of God.

-- Hypocrisy is the mother of lying, and often its occasion.  For some define hypocrisy as none other than meditation on falsehood, and an inventor of falsehood which has a reprehensible oath intertwined with it.

-- He who has obtained the fear of the Lord has forsaken lying, having within himself an incorruptible judge - his own conscience.

-- We notice various degrees of harm in all the passions, and this is certainly the case with lying.  There is one judgment for him who lies through fear of punishment, and another for him who lies when no danger is at hand.

-- Lying is wiped out by the tortures of superiors; but it is finally destroyed by an abundance of tears.

-- He who has become merry with wine involuntarily speaks the truth on all subjects, and he who is drunk with compunction cannot lie.

from St. John Climacus, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), pp. 70 - 95.