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 23, 2012

ST. JOHN CLIMACUS - PART VI (Steps 25-26 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent)

The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Steps 25 - 26

STEP 25: On the Destroyer of the Passions, Most
Sublime Humility, Which is rooted in Spiritual Perception

-- This subject sets before us as a touchstone, a treasure preserved in earthen vessels, that is to say in our bodies, and it is of a quality that baffles all description. This treasure has an inscription, which is incomprehensible because it comes from above, and those who try to explain it with words give themselves great and endless trouble. And the inscription runs thus: Holy Humility.

-- Let all who are led by the spirit of God enter with us into this spiritual and wise assembly, holding in their spiritual hands the God-inscribed tablets of knowledge. We have come together, we have investigated, and we have probed the meaning
of this precious inscription. And one man said: “It (humility) means constant oblivion of one’s achievements.” Another: “It is the acknowledgement of oneself as the last of all and the greatest sinner of all.” And another: “The mind’s recognition of one’s weakness and impotence.” Another again: “In fits of rage, it means to forestall one’s neighbor and be first to stop the quarrel.” And again another: “Recognition of Divine grace and divine compassion.” And again another: “The feeling of a contrite soul, and the renunciation of one’s own will.” But when I had listened to all this and had attentively and soberly investigated it, I found that I had not been able to attain to the blessed perception of that virtue from what had been said. Therefore, last of all, having gathered what fell from the lips of those learned and blessed fathers as a dog gathers the crumbs that fall from the table, I too gave my definition of it and said: “Humility is a nameless grace in the soul, its name known only to those who have learned it by experience. It is unspeakable wealth, a name and gift from God, for it is said: “learn not from an angel, nor from man, nor from a book, but from Me, that is, from My indwelling, from My illumination and action in you; for I am meek and humble in heart and int hought iand in spirit, and your soul shall find rest from conflicts and relief from thoughts.” (Matthew 11:29)

-- The appearance of this holy vine is one thing during the winter of the passions, another in the spring of fruit-blossom, yet another in the actual harvest of the virtues. Yet all these different stages concur in gladness and fruit-bearing, and
therefore, they all have their own signs and sure indications of fruit to come. For as soon as the cluster of holy humility begins to blossom within us, we at once begin, though with an effort, to hate all human glory and praise, and to banish from ourselves irritation and anger. When this queen of virtues makes progress in our soul by spiritual growth, we regard all the good deeds accomplished by us as nothing, or rather as an abomination, supposing that everyday we add more and more to our burden by a dissipation that we do not comprehend. We suspect the very abundance of the Divine gifts showered upon us to be beyond our deserts and to aggravate our punishment. So our mind remains unplundered, reposing securely in the casket of modesty, only hearing the knocks and jeers of the thieves, without being subject to any of their threats; because modesty is an inviolable safe.

-- It is one thing to be humble, another to strive for humility, and another to praise the humble. The first belongs to the perfect, the second to the truly obedient, and the third to all the faithful.

-- The natural property of the lemon tree is such that it lifts its branches upwards when it has no fruit, but the more the branches bend down the more fruit they bear. Those who have the mind to understand will grasp the meaning of this.

STEP 26: On Discernment of Thoughts, Passions and Virtue

-- Discernment in beginners is true knowledge of themselves; in intermediate souls, it is a spiritual sense that faultlessly distinguishes what is truly good from what is of nature and opposed to it; and in the perfect, it is the knowledge which they have within by Divine illumination, and which can enlighten with its lamp what is dark in others. Or perhaps, generally speaking, discernment is, and is recognized as, the certain understanding of the Divine will on all occasions, in every place and in all matters; and it is only found in those who are pure in heart, and in body and in mouth.

-- Discernment is undefiled conscience and purity of feeling.

-- Let no one on seeing or hearing something supernatural in the monastic way of life fall into unbelief out of ignorance; for where the supernatural God dwells, much that is supernatural happens.

-- After God, let us have our conscience as our mentor and rule in all things, so that we may know which way the wind is blowing and set our sails accordingly.

-- Angels are a light for monks, and the monastic life is a light for all men. Therefore let monks strive to become a good example in everything, giving no occasion for stumbling in anything (II Corinthians 6:3) in all their works and words. For if the light becomes darkness, how much darker will be that darkness, that is, those living in the world.

-- When our good and all-gracious Lord and Master sees people too lazy in their exercises, He lays their flesh low with sickness, an asceticism with less toil; and sometimes it also cleanses the soul from evil thoughts or passions.

-- We should not be distressed if, in asking the Lord for something, we remain for a time unheard. It would have pleased the Lord if all men in a single moment had become dispassionate; however, His foreknowledge told Him that this would not be for their good.

-- All who ask and do not obtain their requests from God, are denied for one of the following reasons; because they ask at the wrong time, or because they ask unworthily and vaingloriously, or because if they received they would become conceited, or finally because they would become negligent after obtaining their request.

-- A small fire often destroys a whole forest; so too a small flaw spoils all our labor.

-- As galloping horses race one another, so a good community excites mutual fervor.

NOTE: Step 26 has 254 instructions! The above excerpts are just a very small part of the enormous wisdom that St. John gives us in this step alone. I humbly apologize to all readers for having to omit so much of this wonderful passage in this newsletter.

from St. John Climacus, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent," (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), pp. 149 - 197.