The third rung of the ladder described by St. John Climacus is the way of exile (or pilgrimage), by which we make firm our renunciation and detachment. These first three steps are all related to re-ordering our lives in order to put God first, and because the spiritual life is recursive (consisting of many falls and moments of repentance) rather than a linear progression, we often need to retread the same ground after we've taken a few steps backward.
Abba John is aware of this, and so he provides ample repetition to help us absorb the lesson and permanently reform our lives. That said, there's something unique about each step, and his description of exile is no exception:
"Exile means that we leave forever everything in our own country that prevents us from reaching the goal of piety. Exile means modest manners, wisdom which remains unknown, prudence not recognized as such by most, a hidden life, an invisible intention, unseen meditation, desire for humiliation, longing for hardship, constant determination, to love God, abundance of love, renunciation of vainglory, depth of silence.
2. Those who have come to love the Lord are at first unceasingly and greatly disturbed by this thought, as if burning with divine fire. I speak of separation from their own, undertaken by the lovers of perfection so that they may live a life of hardship and simplicity. But great and praiseworthy as this is, yet it requires great discretion; for not every kind of exile, carried to extremes, is good.
3. If every prophet goes unhonoured in his own country, as the Lord says, then let us beware lest our exile should be for us an occasion of vainglory. For exile is separation from everything in order to keep the mind inseparable from God. Exile loves and produces continual weeping. An exile is a fugitive from every relationship with his own people and with strangers."
Why would the spiritual life involve a desire for humiliation or a longing for hardship? In my experience, hardship and humiliation show us the depth of our emotional insecurities and physical weaknesses as well as how much stronger our wills ought to be. Hardship and humiliation reveals to us how much we need to improve and what areas of life we most need improvement; it shows us the selfish attachments we have so that we can let them go and let God more fully into our lives.
Like any good spiritual director, Abba John reminds us of the danger of extremes in the spiritual life. Just as our physical health can become unbalanced and deteriorate when we either exercise far too little or far too much, our spiritual health deteriorates when we lose a balanced approach by either refraining from the spiritual exercises we ought to do or taking our spiritual exercises to an injurious extreme.
He also warns us that one of the dangers we face is in seeing ourselves as grand heroes for leaving everyone else behind, and crediting it to ourselves as righteousness. At that point, we've lost the righteous purpose of making ourselves inseparable from God and turned a selfless act of love into a selfish act of abandonment of responsibility. The fact that we need to resort to exile in order to rid ourselves of our many unhealthy attachments should rather teach us humility by showing us how weak we are that we need to do such a thing to strive for holiness.
"4. In hastening to solitude and exile, do not wait for world-loving souls, because the thief comes unexpectedly. In trying to save the careless and indolent along with themselves, many perish with them, because in course of time the soul's fire goes out. As soon as the flame is burning within you, run; for you do not know when it will go out and leave you in darkness. Not all of us are required to save others. The divine Apostles says: 'Everyone of us shall give account of himself to God.' And again he says: 'Thou therefore that teachest another, dost thou not teach thyself?' This is like saying: I do not know whether we must teach all others; but we must most certainly teach ourselves.
5. In going into exile, beware of the demon of drifting and of sensual desire; because exile gives him his opportunity.
6. Detachment is excellent; but her mother is exile. Having become an exile for the Lord's sake, we should have no ties at all lest we seem to be roving in order to gratify our passions.
7. Have you become an exile from the world? Do not touch the world any more; because the passions desire nothing better than to return.
8. Eve was exiled from Paradise against her will, but the monk is a willing exile from his home. She would have liked the tree of disobedience again; and he would certainly expose himself daily to frequent danger from relatives according to the flesh."
Here, Abba John urges us to look to our own salvation first, to work it out with fear and trembling before we concern ourselves with the souls of others. It is so easy to ignore his advice, to fall into the habit of constantly correcting others and neglect our own faults that need urgent healing by Christ the divine physician. He rightly advises us that not everyone is given the gifts of saving many souls, and that those of us who aren't should use the gifts we were given to tend to our own souls.
He also advises us that even if we try to live lives of detachment, there are always temptations to fall into. We so easily slip into a habit of seeking comfort in small material things like clothes, food, bedding, or even our own bodies. All of these material things are good and necessary, but we must be on constant guard against forming unhealthy attachments to them that put God back in 2nd, 3rd, or even last place in our lives.
"14. It is not from hatred that we separate ourselves from our own people or places (God forbid!), but to avoid the harm which might come to us from them. In this, as in everything else, it is Christ who teaches us what is good for us. For it is clear that He often left His parents according to the flesh. And when He was told, 'Thy Mother and They brethren are seeking for Thee,' our good Lord and Master at once showed us an example of dispassionate hatred when He said, 'My Mother and My brethren are they who do the will of My Father who is in Heaven.
15. Let him be your father who is able and willing to labour with you in bearing the burden of your sins.; and your mother -- contrition, which can cleanse you from impurity; and your brother -- your comrade who toils and fights side by side with you in striving toward the heights. Acquire an inseparable wife -- the remembrance of death. And let your beloved children be the sighs of your heart. Make your body your slave; and your friends, the holy powers [angels] who can help you at the hour of your death, if they become your friends. This is the generation of them that seek the Lord. ...
18. For our solitary life let us choose places where there are fewer opportunities for comfort and ambition, but more for humility. Otherwise, we shall be fleeing in company with our passions."
Abba John's warning to monks about not going back to see relatives sounds harsh, but he explains that it's because we are weak and prone to following others into sin that a monk needs to avoid a return to the family. This is not because our families are evil, but because we fall easily into gluttony when we smell the fresh baklava made by our mother, and we fall easily into pride and calumny when we see anew the failings of our siblings.
Until we can stop carrying our unhealthy attachments around with us, we should keep company with those who lead us to holiness, so that we no longer keep with us the passions that lead us into temptation. When we make our sole passion the pursuit of full participation in the divine life of love, the lesser passions no longer have room in our lives.
When our hearts have been so filled with the love of God that they overflow with love for all, and evil cannot be poured into these hearts of ours which have become fonts of love, we have the heart of exile. In the end, the heart of exile is the heart that is no longer restless because it has found its rest in the Lord.
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.