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, December 4, 2016

The Ladder of Divine Ascent: The Blessing of Detachment

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 second rung of the ladder described by St. John Climacus is the way of detachment, by which we ratify and put into practice our decision to renounce the comforts of the world and build our lives on a firm foundation of divine love.  Abba John begins this section of ascetic treatise with a description of one who has renounced the world and begun the process of detachment, quickly moving on to tell us how to retain our hold on renunciation:

  "2. After our call, which comes from God and not man, we have left all that is mentioned above, and it is a great disgrace for us to worry about anything that cannot help us in the hour of our need, that is to say, the hour of our death.  For as the Lord said, this means looking back and not being fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.  Knowing how fickle we novices are, and how easily we turn to the world through visiting, or being with, worldly people, when someone said to Him: 'Suffer me first to go and bury my father,' our Lord replied, 'Let the dead bury their dead.'
  3. After our renunciation of the world, the demons suggest to us that we should envy those living in the world who give alms and console [the needy], 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 us into despair.  It is possible 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.
  4. 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.'
  5. Having resolved to run our race with ardour and fervour, 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."

Here Abba John reiterates that we must leave everything behind in order to re-found our lives on the love of God.  The teaching of Jesus which he cites here is a very hard teaching, that we must not allow anything, even perfectly natural virtuous acts such as burying a loved one, to come before our pursuit of divine love.

The idea is not that it is evil to grieve for our parents when they die and wish to bury them properly. We are called to follow our love of God first and foremost, and let all our acts flow from that love.  As a result, we need to bury our parents not simply because we experience perfectly natural grief or because we have a virtuous desire to honor them, but first because our God wills us to honor our father and mother.  Even obviously good things should be willed primarily because God wills them, though our natural affections may prompt us to do those good things as well.

Though St. John Climacus is writing these instructions for monks who have made a radical commitment to eschew worldly comforts in a special way, he warns against becoming overly critical of and/or feeling superior to those who are not living the monastic life, because this too is a spiritual danger for monks along with the despair which denies our hope in Christ and the envy which can afflict those who have cloistered themselves away from the poorest of the poor.

The important thing about the monastic life is that it be lived not to avoid the trials of life in the world, but because our love of God draws us to live out Christ's call to take up our cross and follow Him by divesting ourselves of all worldly possessions and supporting others who have done the same by being their brothers and sisters.
  "6. It is worth investigating why those who live in the world and spend their life in vigils, fasts, labours, and hardships, when they withdraw from the world and begin the monastic life, as if at some trial or on the practising ground, no longer continue the discipline of their former spurious and sham asceticism.  I have seen how in the world they planted many different plants of the virtues, which were watered by vainglory as by an underground sewage pipe, and were hoed by ostentation, and for manure were heaped with praise.  But when transplanted to a desert soil, inaccessible to people of the world and so not manured with the foul-smelling water of vanity, they withered at once.  For water-loving plants are not such as to produce fruit in hard and arid training fields.
  7. The man who has come to hate the world has escaped sorrow.  But he who has an attachment to anything visible is not yet delivered from grief.  For how is it possible not to be sad at the loss of something we love?  We need to have great vigilance in all things.  But we must give our whole attention to this above everything else.  I have seen many people in the world, who by reason of cares, worries, occupations, and vigils, avoided the wild desires of their body.  But after entering the monastic life, and in complete freedom from anxiety, they polluted themselves in a pitiful way by the movements of the body.
  8. Let us pay close attention to ourselves so that we are not deceived into thinking that we are following the strait and narrow way, when in actual fact we are keeping to the wide and broad way.  The following will show you what the narrow way means: mortification of the stomach, all-night standing, water in moderation, short rations of bread, the purifying draught of dishonour, sneers, derision, insults, the cutting out of one's own will, patience in annoyances, unmurmuring endurance of scorn, disregard of insults, and the habit, when wronged, of bearing it sturdily; when slandered, of not being indignant; when humiliated, not to be angry; when condemned, to be humble.  Blessed are they who follow the way we have just described, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

Abba John points out to us that there is a spiritual danger in the world too, one that we accept at our peril when we imitate the Pharisees who publicly engaged in spiritual practices of self-denial, but did so for selfish reasons, to gain the honor and approval of those watching.  This is a very real spiritual danger, that we will put our lives out of order by placing the approval of other human beings above the love of God when we act on our intentions.

When we put the love of God first, we can gradually abandon our unhealthy selfish attachments to both good and evil acts alike, learning to do the right things for the right reasons and learning to avoid doing the wrong things at all.  And in this way we avoid evildoing not because we are anxiously afraid of doing the wrong thing, but more importantly because we acknowledge of Jesus Christ who told us that if we love Him, we will obey His commandments.

  "9. No one will enter the heavenly bridechamber wearing a crown unless he makes the first, second, and third renunciation.  I mean the renunciation of all concerns, and people, and parents; the cutting out of one's will; and the third renunciation, of the conceit that dogs obedience.  'Come out from among them, and be ye separate,' saith the Lord, 'and touch not the impurity of the world.'  For who amongst them has ever worked any miracles?  Who has raised the dead?  Who has driven out devils?  No one.  All these are the victorious rewards of monks, rewards which the world cannot receive; and if it could, then what is the need of asceticism or solitude?
  10. After our renunciation, when the demons inflame our hearts by reminding us of our parents and brethren, then let us arm ourselves against them with prayer, and let us inflame ourselves with the remembrance of the eternal fire, so that by reminding ourselves of this, we may quench the untimely fire of our heart."

Though it's true that it's generally the case that those whose intercession can be said to have a part to play in miraculous healings and the like are people who have made a radical commitment to self-denial for Christ's sake (whether a monastic or similar commitment for laypeople), these admonitions can read as though Abba John is arguing that the monastic life is the only way to go, that those who do not enter a monastic order are inferior to those who do.

This, however, is not what he is suggesting, as we can see in his discourse about the dangers of the monastic life.

  "11. If anyone thinks he is without attachment to some object, but is grieved at its loss, then he is completely deceiving himself.
  12. If young people who are prone to the desires of physical love and to luxurious ways wish to enter the monastic life, let them exercise themselves in all sobriety and prayer, and persuade themselves to abstain from all luxury and guile, lest their state be worse than the first.  This harbour provides safety, but also exposes one to danger.  Those who sail the spiritual seas know this.  For it is a pitiful sight to behold those who have survived perils at sea suffering shipwreck in the harbour.
  This is the second step.  Let those who run the race imitate not Lot's wife, but Lot himself, and flee."

St. John Climacus advises us that the monastic life, while it is definitely an admirable commitment to a life of Christian virtue, has unique dangers associated with it.  A ship at sea can only be boarded by those willing to brave the dangers of the sea and do the hard work of maneuvering alongside, but a ship in the harbour can be boarded easily by both those on land those coming in from sea.  In the same way, those who live in the harbour of the monastic life of stillness are easily attacked with temptations because they have nothing to distract them from whatever temptations might arise.

Unlike those of us who are in the world, the monastics can't just keep themselves so busy with the daily hustle and bustle of life that it's easy to avoid the more obvious temptations.  They are forced to be more fully detached from both the world and their selfish desires if they wish to avoid the usual spiritual dangers.  Radical detachment for them is an absolute necessity in the spiritual combat; they have no other option.  The only option is to leave everything behind in pursuit of divine love.

The blessing of detachment, whether we are laypeople or monastics, is that we can imitate those who do not turn back; they focus like a laser on the path of divine love and follow it with all their heart, all their mind, and all their strength.

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.

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