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 16, 2012

ST. JOHN CLIMACUS - PART V (Steps 19-24 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent)

The Ladder of Divine Ascent: Steps 19 - 24

STEP 19: On Sleep, Prayer, and Psalmody
With the Brotherhood

-- Sleep is a particular state of nature, an image of death, inactivity of the senses. Sleep is one, but, like desire, its sources and occasions are many; that is to say, it comes from nature, from food, from demons, or perhaps, sometimes, from extreme and prolonged fasting, through which the flesh is weakened and at last longs for the consolation of sleep.

-- Just as over-drinking is a matter of habit, so too from habit comes over-sleeping. Therefore we must struggle with the question of sleep, especially in the early days of obedience, becaus4e a long-standing habit is difficult to cure.

-- Let us observe and we shall find that the spiritual trumpet serves as an outward signal for the gathering of the brethren, but it is also the unseen signal for the assembly of our foes. So some of them stand by our bed, and when we get up urge us to lie down again: “Wait,” they say, “till the preliminary hymns are finished; then you can go to church.” Others plunge those standing at prayer into sleep. Some produce severe, unusual pains in the stomach. Others urge us on to make conversation in church. Some entice the mind to shameful thoughts. Others make us lean against the wall as though from fatigue. Sometimes they involve us in fits of yawning. Some of them bring on waves of laughter during prayer, thereby
desiring to stir up the anger of God against us. some force us to hurry the reading or chanting merely from laziness; others suggest that we should chant more slowly for the pleasure of it; and sometimes they sit at our mouths and shut them, so that we can scarcely open them. He who reckons with feeling of heart that he stands before God in prayer shall be an unshakeable pillar, and none of the aforesaid demons will make sport of him.

-- It is possible for all to pray with a congregation; for many it is more suitable to pray with a single kindred spirit; solitary prayer is for the very few.

-- It is not proper for anyone to engage in any accessory work, or rather distraction, during the time of prayer. For the angel who attended Antony the Great taught him this clearly.

-- Just as a furnace tests gold, so the practice of prayer tests the monk’s zeal and love for God. A praiseworthy work; he who makes it his own draws near to God and routs demons.

STEP 20: On Bodily Vigil, and How to Use
It to Attain Spiritual Vigil, and How to Practise It

-- Some stand before earthly kings without weapons and without armour; but others hold staffs of office, or have shields, or swords. The former are vastly superior to the latter, for they are usually personal relations of the king and members of the royal household. So it is with earthly kings.

-- Now let us see how we stand before God our King, when we stand at our prayers in the evening, or during the day and night. For some at their evening all-night vigil lift up their hands in prayer, being immaterial and stripped of all care.  Others stand at that time chanting psalms. Others immerse themselves in the thought of death, hoping thus to obtain contrition. And of all these, the first and last persevere in all-night vigil for the love of God; the second do what befits a monk; while the third go the lowest way. Yet God accepts and values the offerings of each according to their intention and power.

-- A vigilant eye makes the mind pure; but much sleep hardens the soul.

-- A vigilant monk is a foe to fornication, but a sleepy one is its mate.

-- The farmer’s wealth is gathered on the threshing floor and in the wine-press, but the wealth and knowledge of monks is gathered during the evenings and the night hours while standing at prayer and engaged in spiritual activity.

-- The inexperienced monk is wide awake in friendly conversation; but his eyes become heavy when the hour of prayer is upon him.

STEP 21: On Unmanly and Puerile Cowardice

-- If you pursue virtue in a monastery or coenobium, you are not likely to be attacked much by cowardice. But the man who spends his time in more solitary places should make every effort to avoid being overcome by that offspring of vainglory, that daughter of unbelief, cowardice.

-- Fear is a rehearsing of danger beforehand; or again, fear is a trembling sensation of the heart, alarmed and troubled by unknown misfortunes. Fear is a loss of assurance.

-- Those who mourn and those who are insensitive are not subject to fear, but the cowardly often have become deranged. And this is natural. For the Lord rightly forsakes the proud that the rest of us may learn not to be puffed up.

-- Do not hesitate to go late at night to those places where you usually feel afraid. But if you yield only a little to such weakness, then this childish and ridiculous infirmity will grow old with you. As you go on your way, arm yourself with prayer. When you reach the place, stretch out your hands. Flog your enemies with the name of Jesus, for there is no stronger weapon in heaven or earth. When you get rid of the disease of fear, praise Him who has delivered you. If you continue to be thankful, He will protect you for ever.

-- It is not darkness and desolateness of place that give the demons power against us, but barrenness of soul. And through God’s providence, this sometimes happens in order that we may learn by it.

-- He who has become the servant of the Lord will fear his Master alone, but he who does not yet fear Him is often afraid of his own shadow.

-- In the presence of an invisible spirit, the body becomes afraid; but in the presence of an angel, the soul of the humble is filled with joy. Therefore, when we recognize the presence from the effect, let us quickly hasten to prayer, for our good guardian has come to pray with us.

STEP 22: On the Many Forms of Vainglory

-- The sun shines on all alike, and vainglory beams on all activities. For instance, I am vainglorious when I fast; and when I relax the fast in order to be unnoticed, I am again vainglorious over my prudence. When well-dressed I am quite overcome by vainglory, and when I put on poor clothes I am vainglorious again. When I talk I am defeated, and when I am silent I am again defeated by it. However I throw this prickly-pear, a spike stands upright.

-- A vainglorious person is a believing idolater; he apparently honours God, but he wants to please not God but men.

-- The flatterer is a servant of devils, a guide to pride, a destroyer of contrition, a ruiner of virtues, a misleader. Those who pronounce you blessed, lead you astray, says the prophet. (Isaiah 3:12)

-- When you hear that your neighbour or friend has abused you behind your back or even to your face, then show love and praise him.

-- Whenever he sees that any have acquired in some slight measure a state of peace, he immediately urges them to leave the desert for the world, saying: “Set out in order to save the souls which are perishing.”

-- Vainglory incites monks given to levity to anticipate the arrival of lay guests and to go out of the cloister to meet them. It makes them fall at their feet and, though full of pride, it feigns humility. It checks manner and voice, and keeps an eye on the hands of visitors in order to receive something from them. It calls them lords and patrons, graced with godly life. To those sitting at table it suggests abstinence, and it rebukes subordinates mercilessly. It stirs those who are slack at standing in psalmody to make an effort; those who have no voice become good chanters and the sleepy wake up. It fauns upon the precentor, and begs to be given first place in the choir; it calls him father and teacher as long as the guests are still there.

-- He who has sold himself to vainglory leads a double life. Outwardly he lives with monks, but in mid and thought he is in the world.

-- He who is without this sickness is near to salvation, but he who is not free from it is far from the glory of the Saints. This is the twenty-second step. he who is not caught by vainglory will never fall into that mad pride which is so hateful to God.

STEP 23: On Mad Pride, and, in the Same Step,
on Unclean Blasphemous Thoughts

-- God resisteth the proud (James 4:6). Who then can have mercy on them? Every proud-hearted man is unclean before God. Who then can cleanse such a person?

-- An angel fell from heaven without any other passion except pride, and so we may ask whether it is possible to ascend to Heaven by humility alone, without any other of the virtues.

-- A proud monk has no need of a devil; he has become a devil and enemy to himself.

-- I once caught this mad imposter as it was rising in my heart, bearing on its shoulders its mother, vainglory. Roping them with the noose of obedience and thrashing them with the whip of humility, I demanded how they got access to me. At last, when flogged, they said: “we have neither beginning nor birth, for we are progenitors and parents of all the passions. Contrition of heart that is born of obedience is our real enemy; we cannot bear to be subject to anyone; that is why we fell from Heaven, though we had authority there.

“In brief, we are the parents of all that opposes humility; for everything which furthers humility, opposes us. We hold sway everywhere, save in Heaven, so where will you run from our presence? We often accompany dishonours, and obedience, and freedom from anger, and lack of resentment, and service. Our offspring are the falls of spiritual men: anger, calumny, spite, irritability, shouting, blasphemy, hypocrisy, hatred, envy, disputation, self-will and disobedience.

“There is only one thing in which we have no power to meddle; and we shall tell you this, for we cannot bear your blows: If you keep up a sincere condemnation of yourself before the Lord, you can count us as weak as a cobweb. For pride’s saddlehorse, as you see, is vainglory, on which I am mounted.” But holy humility and self-accusation laugh at both the horse and its rider, happily singing the song of victory: Let us sing to the Lord, for gloriously is He glorified: horse and rider hath He hurled into the sea (Exodus 15:1) and into the abyss of humility.


-- During the divine services, and at the very moment when the Mysteries (e.g., Holy Communion) are being accomplished, this vile enemy often blasphemes the Lord and the holy Sacrifice that is being consecrated. Wherefore, we clearly learn that it is not our soul that pronounces these unspeakable, godless and unthinkable words within us, but the God-hating fiend who fled from Heaven for uttering blasphemies against the Lord there too, as it would seem. For if these shameless and disgraceful words are my own, how could I worship after receiving the Gift? How can I praise and revile at one and the same time?

-- This deceiver and corrupter of souls has often driven many out of their mind. No other thought is so difficult to tell in confession as this. That is why it often remains with many to the very end of their lives. For nothing gives the demons and bad thoughts such power over us as nourishing and hiding them in our heart unconfessed.

-- No one in the face of blasphemous thoughts need think that the guilt lies within him, for the Lord is the Knower of hearts, and He is aware that such words and thoughts do not come from us but from our foes.

-- When we stand in prayer, those unclean and unspeakable thoughts assail us; but if we continue praying to the end, they retire at once, for they do not fight those who stand up to them.

STEP 24: On Meekness, Simplicity, and
Guilelessness Which Come Not From Nature but From
Conscious Effort, and About Guile

-- Meekness is an unchangeable state of mind, which remains the same in honour and dishonour.

-- Meekness consists in praying calmly and sincerely for a neighbour when he causes many turmoils.

-- Meekness is a rock overlooking the sea of anger, which breaks all the waves that dash against it, yet remains completely unmoved.

-- In the hearts of the meek the Lord finds rest, but a turbulent soul is a seat of the devil.

-- A gentle soul retains words of wisdom, for the Lord will guide the meek in judgment, or rather, in discretion.

-- Guile is a perversion of honesty, a deluded way of thinking, a lying disposition, false oaths, ambiguous words, a dark secrecy of heart, an abyss of cunning, deceit that has become habit, conceit turned into nature, a foe to humility, a pretence of repentance, an estrangement from mourning, hostility to confession, a teacher of wifulness, a cause of falls, a hindrance to resurrection, a smiling at offences, affected frowning, sham reverence, diabolical life.

-- Let all of us who wish to attract the Lord to ourselves draw near to Him as disciples to the Master, simply, without hypocrisy, without duplicity or guile, not out of idle curiosity. He Himself is simple and not composite, and He wants sould that come to Him to be simple and guileless. For you will surely never see simplicity bereft of humility.

-- Struggle to delude your own prudence, and by so doing, you will find salvation and uprightness through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

He who has the strength for this step, let him take courage; for he has become an imitator of Christ his Master, and has been saved.

from St. John Climacus, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent," (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), pp. 126 - 149.