He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Ladder of Divine Ascent: Renunciation of the World

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a well-known treatise on the Christian spiritual life, at least in some circles.  Its author is sometimes named after the book, being called St. John of the Ladder rather than by the name St. John Climacus.  The book is addressed to the Abbot of the Raithu monastery, and was written at his request, so there are some portions that directly refer to the Abbot as John's father, which he means in a spiritual sense.

The first rung of the ladder described by St. John Climacus is the renunciation of the world, by which he does not mean a sort of reckless rejection of Creation, but rather an intentional separation from the passions of this life which can easily become addictions and lead us into sins against both Creation and the Creator.  Abba John begins his ascetic treatise with an acknowledgement of the Creator:

  "1. Our God and King is good, transcendently good and all-good (it is best to begin with God in writing to the servants of God).  Of the rational beings created by him and honoured with the dignity of free will, some are His friends, others are His true servants, some are worthless, some are completely estranged from God, and others, though feeble creatures, are His opponents.  By friends of God, dear and holy father, we simple people mean, properly speaking, those noetic and incorporeal beings which surround God.  By true servants of God we mean all those who tirelessly and unremittingly do and have done His will.  By worthless servants we mean those who think of themselves as having been granted baptism, but have not faithfully kept the vows they made to God.  By those estranged from God and alienated from Him, we mean those who are unbelievers or heretics.  Finally, the enemies of God are those who have not only evaded and rejected the Lord's commandment themselves, but who also wage bitter war on those who are fulfilling it.
  2. Each of the classes mentioned above might well have a special treatise devoted to it.  But for simple folk like us it would not be profitable at this point to enter into such lengthy investigations.  Come then, in unquestioning obedience let us stretch out our unworthy hand to the servants of the true God, who devoutly compel us and in their faith constrain us by their commands.  Let us write this treatise with a pen taken from their knowledge and dipped in the ink of humility which is both dark yet radiant.  Then let us apply it to the smooth white paper of their hearts, or rather rest it on the tablets of the spirit, and let us inscribe the divine words (or rather sow the seeds).  And let us begin like this."

The classes described by Abba John for our edification deserve some self-reflection.  Are we persecuting those who seek to obey God's commandments?  Are we keeping our baptismal promises, or are we worthless servants?  Are we stubborn heretics who place our own frail intellects above the divinely revealed truth about God and His love for us?  Are there times when we fall into each of these categories and other times when we avoid these spiritual pitfalls?

In order to effectively renounce the world, we need to understand how very attached we are to it and how our attachments to the comforts of this present life take up so much of our time and energy that we have too little time for God and reciprocating His great love for us.

  "3. God belongs to all free beings.  He is the life of all, the salvation of all -- 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.'
  4. ... A monk is a mourning soul that both asleep and awake is unceasingly occupied with the remembrance of death.  Withdrawal from the world is voluntary hatred of vaunted material things and denial of nature for the attainment of what is above nature.
  5. All who have willingly left the things of the world, have certainly done so for the sake of the future Kingdom, or because of the multitude of their sins, or for love of God.  If they were not moved by any of these reasons, their withdrawal from the world was unreasonable.  But God who sets our contests waits to see what the end of our course will be.
  6. The man who has withdrawn from the world in order to shake off the burden of his own sins should imitate those who sit outside the city among the tombs, and should not cease from his hot and fiery streams of tears and voiceless heartfelt groanings until he, too, sees that Jesus has come to him and rolled away the stone of hardness from his heart, and loosed Lazarus, that is to say, our mind, from the bands of sin, and ordered His attendant angels: Loose him from passions, and let him go to blessed dispassion.  Otherwise he will have gained nothing."
Abba John reminds us that God's grace rains upon the just and the unjust alike, that he does not play favorites in a capricious manner, instead shining His love upon all in the hope that they will be drawn to Him.  This means, of course, being drawn away from our attachments to the comforts of this world, increasingly focused on seeing the light of His face in the Beatific Vision at the end of our days in this world.

Like St. Benedict of Nursia, the father of Western monasticism, St. John Climacus asks those of us who would renounce the world to keep our deaths ever before our eyes.  This sounds morbid to many people, but my experience is that it simply helps me maintain perspective.  It reminds me that today's sufferings are not the end, and helps me focus on preparing to meet the end of my life in this world in a state of grace.

  "8. Those who aim at ascending with the body to Heaven, indeed need violence and constant suffering, especially in the early stages of their renunciation, until our pleasure-loving dispositions and unfeeling hearts attain to love of God and chastity by manifest sorrow.  This is a great toil, very great indeed, with much unseen suffering, especially for those who live carelessly, until by simplicity, deep angerlessness, and diligence, we make our mind, which is a greedy kitchen dog addicted to barking, a lover of chastity and watchfulness.  But let us who are weak and passionate have the courage to offer our infirmity and natural weakness to Christ with unhesitating faith, and confess it to him; and we shall be certain to obtain His help, even beyond our worth, if only we continually plunge to the depth of humility.
  9. All who enter upon the good fight, which is hard and close, but also easy, must realize that they must leap into the fire, if they really expect the celestial fire to dwell in them.  But, let everyone examine himself, and so let him eat the bread of it with its bitter herbs, and let him drink the cup of it with its tears, lest his service lead to his own judgment.  If everyone who has been baptized has not been saved -- I shall be silent about what follows [for monks].
  10. Those who enter this contest must renounce all things, despise all things, deride all things, and shake off all things, that they may lay a firm foundation.  A good foundation of three layers and three pillars is innocence, fasting, and temperance.  Let all babes in Christ begin with these virtues, taking as their model the natural babes.  For you never find in them anything sly or deceitful.  They have no insatiate appetite, no insatiable stomach, no body on fire, or raging like a beast; but perhaps as they grow, in proportion as they take more food, their natural passions increase."

The teaching of Abba John is very challenging; it invites us to embrace suffering, though our instinct is to flee from suffering and seek comfort in transient pleasures.  This may seem like a radical denial of the goodness of the world at first, but it becomes clear later that this is not so.  We do not abandon the pleasures of the world because the world is evil or because we detest life.

Rather, we abandon the pleasures of the world, burning them away in our embrace of the painful purifying fire of suffering, because we need to begin anew.  In order to begin anew, to be born again, as it were, we must put away all those things of this world to which we are attached.  We must burn down the house of transient pleasures so that we can build a new foundation upon our love of God.

Once our lives are re-founded on the love of God, the pleasures of the world no longer control our lives and we are free from our addictions.  We become again like small children, delighting in the wonders of the world, and eating and drinking as needed rather than according to the spirit of gluttony which leads us to consume more than we need.

  "11. To lag in the fight at the very outset of the struggle and thereby to furnish a token of our coming slaughter is a very hateful and dangerous thing.  A firm beginning will certainly be useful for us when we later grow slack.  A soul that is strong at first, but then relaxes, is spurred on by the memory of its former zeal.  And in this way new wings are often obtained.
  12. When the soul betrays itself and loses the blessed and longed-for fervour, let it carefully investigate the reason for losing it.  And let it arm itself with all its longing and its zeal against whatever has caused this. For the former fervour can return only through the same door through which it was lost.
  13. The man who renounces the world from fear is like burning incense, that begins with fragrance but ends in smoke.  He who leaves the world through hope of reward is like a millstone, that always moves in the same way.  But he who withdraws from the world out of love for God has obtained fire at the very outset; and, like fire set to fuel, it soon kindles a larger fire."

This passage rings true to me from my experience.  I have learned through my own journey in the spiritual life that when my zeal for that journey abates, I need to stop and reflect, taking stock of where I am and where it was that I left the path of love for God.

Unless we maintain our focus on that extraordinary motivation for climbing the ladder to Heaven, we quickly falter and fall back down to the bottom where our self-centeredness keeps us as long we cling to it.  Fortunately, Love Himself calls us back to the climb so that we can begin our ascent anew.

  "15.  Let us eagerly run our course as men called by our God and King, lest, since our time is short, we be found in the day of our death without fruit and perish of hunger.  Let us please the Lord as soldiers please their king; because we are required to give an exact account of our service after the campaign.  Let us fear the Lord not less than we fear beasts.  For I have seen men who were going to steal and were not afraid of God, but, hearing the barking of dogs, they at once turned back; and what the fear of God could not achieve was done by the fear of animals.  Let us love God at least as much as we respect our friends.  For I have often seen people who had offended God and were not in the least perturbed about it.  And I have seen how those same people provoked their friends in some trifling matter, and then employed every artifice, every device, every sacrifice, every apology, both personally and through friends and relatives, not sparing gifts, in order to regain their former love.
  16. In the very beginning of our renunciation, it is certainly with labour and grief that we practise the virtues.  But when we have made progress in them, we no longer feel sorrow, or we feel little sorrow.  But as soon as our mortal mind is consumed and mastered by our zeal, we practise them with all joy and eagerness, with love and with divine fire."

The words of Abba John remind us that human love shows us much of how we ought to love God.  Our devotion to family and friends, in all its depth and power, propels us to reconcile with them quickly when we have offended them, to draw ever closer to them in love, and to serve them diligently.  Though we must make difficult sacrifices to reconcile with them, cultivating those relationships and growing in them is so worth it to us.

This is the beginning of how we ought to love the God who loved us unto death, the one whose Son ascended into Heaven and showed us by His life how we too might ascend.  This beginning is a renunciation of the world so that we might learn to love the Creator of the world more fully, a Creator who then grants us the grace to love the world He has created more fully as we put our lives in right order.

Love begets love, and so we must be born again from Love's power in order to love the world as God loves the world.

Note:  The above is an image of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com, and it is a replica of an icon at Mount Sinai where Abba John Climacus lived and worked with his fellow monks to ascend the ladder to Heaven.


  1. Wonderful thoughts, thank you for sharing these things, Sam! I was especially moved by his listing "innocence" as one of the three pillars. In Western society, innocence is a trait that we admire in children, especially, wanting to preserve their "innocence" for as long as possible. It is good that we honor and protect the innocence of children, but we should not stop there. As someone who has worked with children, I have long since come to realize that the innocence of children is meant as a sign to call us back to innocence. Throughout this past year or two, I have realized that the Lord is calling me (and I believe is also calling each one of us) back to a more childlike innocence. This does not mean a bout of amnesia regarding all that is sordid in the world, but rather, it means that we experience the legitimate pleasures of this world (as you said) with a renewed joy. It means that we do good purely out of love for Christ, not out of desire for personal gain (just as a young child does a helpful thing without calculating how it will benefit her). It means that we value people as made in the image of God, not as means to another end (just as young children cherish their mother and father from their earliest days). I have often wondered why we do not hold innocence as a virtue to which we should aspire, and I think it's probably because we count it too much loss to give up the pleasures of this world. But what I have found (though I am only at the very beginning of the very beginning of this journey) is that there is unspeakable joy in giving up the hollow things of this world for the sake of Jesus.

    1. Well put, Jack. I look forward to walking with you on that journey we've both just begun.