The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Step 1 - On the Renunciation of Life
The pilgrimage of the monk to God, set down by John Climacus, fittingly begins with an initial conversion or turning away from the world. The first three steps of the ladder of spiritual ascent describe the renunciation and letting go of the finite for the infinite. The monk is someone who deliberately withdraws from the usual patterns of lving; one who gives up all that the world has to offer. He literally strips himself of all but the self and God. Such a path is difficult and filled with many obstacles. The monk, John warns, is not to travel alone, but only with an experienced spiritual guide who knows the spiritual and psychological dangers that lie ahead.
1-3 Climacus begins his writing with God, who he describes as the source of life and salvation for all - believers and unbelievers, just and unjust, pious and impious, educated and illiterate, healthy and sick, young and old. He then goes on to define the Christian and the monk and how their identity determines the way they live their lives.
A Christian is an imitator of Christ in thought, word and deed, as far as this is humanly possible, and he believes rightly and blamelessly in the Holy Trinity. A friend of God is the one who lives in communion with all that is natural and free from sin and who does not neglect to do what good he can. The self-controlled man strives with all his might amidst the trials, the snares, and the noise of the world, to be like someone who rises above them. . . . The monk clings only to the commandments and words of God in every season and place and matter. The monk is ever embattled with what he is, and he is the unfailing warder of his senses. The monk has a body made holy, a tongue purified, a mind enlightened. Asleep or awake, the monk is a soul pained by the constant remembrance of death. Withdrawal from the world is a willing hatred of all that is materially prized, a denial of nature for the sake of what is above nature.
4 In this paragraph, Climacus makes it clear that the monk must have the appropriate objectives, otherwise his renunciation of the things of this life makes no sense. The goal of his renunciation of worldly things must be blessed dispassion (the redirecting of the natural impulses of soul and body toward their proper end) or it is all for nothing.
All this is done by those who willingly turn from the things of this life, either for the sake of the coming kingdom, or because of the number of their sins, or on account of their love of God. Without such objectives the denial of the world would make no sense. God who judges the contest stands waiting to see how it ends for the one who has taken on this race.
The man turning away from the world in order to shake off the burden of sins should imitate those who sit by the tombs outside the city. Let him not desist from ardent raging tears, from the wordless moans of the heart, until he sees Jesus Himself coming to roll back the rock of hardness off him, to free the mind, that Lazarus of ours, from the bonds of sin, to say to His ministering angels, "Loose him from his passions and let him go to blessed dispassion." If not done thus, then it is all for nothing.
5 This paragraph speaks of the necessity of a spiritual leader and intermediary. John refers to Exod. 17:11-13 and applies to it an allegorical interpretation. In the battle against the Amalekites (the passions) the Israelites (souls under a spiritual director) prevailed as long as the arms of Moses (the guide) were held raised in prayer by Hur (action) on one side and Aaron (contemplation) on the other. Action (praxis) is the ascetic struggle to practice the virtues and overcome the passions. It is the necessary foundation for contemplation (theoria), which is the direct apprehension or vision of God by the intellect.
Those of us who wish to get away from Egypt, to escape from Pharaoh, need some Moses to be our intermediary with God, to stand between action and contemplation, and stretch out his arms to God, that those led by him may cross the sea of sin and put to flight the Amalek of the passions. Those who have given themselves up to God but imagine that they can go forward without a leader are surely deceiving themselves. . . . We must have someone very skilled, a doctor, for our septic wounds.
6 The difficulties to be experienced in the spiritual journey and the need for humility and grace.
Violence (Matt.11:12) and unending pain are the lot of those who aim to ascend to heaven with the body, and this especially at the early stages of the enterprise, when our pleasure-loving disposition and our unfeeling hearts must travel through overwhelming grief toward the love of God and holiness. It is hard, truly hard. There has to be an abundance of invisible bitterness, especially for the careless, until our mind, that cur sniffing around the meat market and revelling in the uproar, is brought through simplicity, deep freedom from anger and diligence to a love of holiness and guidance. Yet, full of passions and weakness as we are, let us take heart and let us in total confidence carry to Christ in our right hand and confess to Him our helplessness and our fragility. We will carry away more help than we deserve, if only we constantly push ourselves down into the depths of humility.
7-8 A monk must throw himself into the battle with faith; for if not all the baptized are necessarily saved, not all monks will reach their goal.
Let all those coming to this marvelous, tough, and painful - though also easy - contest leap, as it were, into a fire, so that a non-material flame may take up residence within them. But let each one test himself, draw food and drink from the bread of pain and the cup of weeping, lest he march himself to judgment.
If all are not saved who have been baptized, I will pass in silence over what follows.
9-11 In the beginning the monk must not only build upon a secure foundation, but he must enter the contest from the start with zeal and firm purpose. The memory of his first zeal may one day serve to renew and encourage him if he happens to grow slack. When fervor is lost, a monk must seek out the reasons and combat them. His motivation for renouncing the world may determine whether or not he perseveres.
It is detestable and dangerous for a wrestler to be slack at the start of a contest, thereby giving proof of his impending defeat to everyone. Let us have a firm beginning to our religious life, for this will help us if a certain slackness comes later. A bold eager soul will be spurred on by the memory of its first zeal and new wings can thus be obtained.
When the soul betrays itself, when that initial happy warmth grows cold, the reason for such a loss ought to be carefully sought and, once found, ought to be combated with all possible zeal, for the initial fervor has to turn back through that same gate through which it had slipped away. The man who renounces the world because of fear is like burning incense, which begins with fragrance and ends in smoke. The man who leaves the world in hopes of a reward is like the millstone that always turns around on the same axis. But the man who leaves the world for love of God has taken fire from the start, and like fire set to fuel, it soon creates a conflagration.
12-13 Many begin the spiritual life differently, but all must run the race eagerly for our time in this world is short. Fear of God, John explains, may not be the highest motivation, but it is often what the monk needs. As in worldly friendships, a monk must use every device, plan and gift to restore his relationship with God.
Let us run our race eagerly as if summoned to it by our God and King. Our time is short. Let us not be found barren on the day of death and perish of hunger. Instead let us please the Lord as soldiers please the emperor; for at the end of the campaign we must give a good account of ourselves. We should be afraid of God in the way we fear wild beasts. I have seen men go out to plunder, having no fear of God but being brought up short somewhere at the sound of dogs, an effect that fear of God could not achieve in them.
14-15 The cultivation of virtue will be very difficult in the beginning but this, John tells his readers, will eventually give way to the experience of joyful love and obedience. The monk must not let the weight or gravity of his past sin prevent him from entering the struggle.
At the beginning of our religious life, we cultivate the virtues, and we do so with toil and difficulty. Progressing a little, we then lose our sense of grief or retain very little of it. But when our mortal intelligence turns to zeal and is mastered by it, then we work with full joy, determination, desire, and a holy flame.
I have seen someone go to a doctor for one kind of problem, and, because of that doctor's skill, be treated with an astringent and be cured of failing eyesight, for it often happens that very definite and lasting results emerge through chance rather than through the workings of prescience and planning. So let no one tell me that he is unfit for the monastic life because of the weight and number of his misdeeds, or that because of his addiction to pleasure he must be excused for remaining stuck in his sin. The more the putrefaction, the greater the need for treatment, if the uncleanness is to be done away with, for the healthy do not make their way to the doctor's surgery.
16-17 One's station in life is not an obstacle to responding to God's call to holiness, although those caught up in the affairs of the world are slowed in their progress. The biggest threat, however, is spiritual inertia and laziness.
In this world when an emperor summons us to obedience, we leave everything aside and answer the call at once without delays or hanging back or excuses. We had better be careful then not to refuse through laziness or inertia, the call to the heavenly life in the service of the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods. Let us not find ourselves unable to defend ourselves at the great tribunal of judgment.
18-20 In the spiritual battle a monk must not fear his enemies but arm himself against them. They will not quickly engage the one who fights fiercely for the Lord. God, John explains, will even conceal the roughness of the battle from beginners so that they can enter into the fray without fear. However, the monk must fight fiercely and with all of his might in his youth so that he may enjoy the fruits of his labors in old age.
Let us hasten with joy and trepidation to the noble contest and with no fear of our enemies. They are themselves unseen but they can look at the appearance of our soul. If they are really to see our spirits bowed down by fear, then indeed they will make a harsher sally against us, knowing how much we tremble. Let us courageously arm ourselves against them. No one goes to battle against a plucky fighter.
The Lord has wisely eased the struggles of novices, lest they be driven back into the world during their first battles. So then rejoice always in the Lord, all you servants of God. Recognize this first sign of the Lord's love. It is He Who has summoned you. He has often been known to act in the following way: when He sees courageous souls He permits them to be embattled from the very beginning, in order the sooner to reward them.
The Lord has concealed from those in the world the tough, but fine, nature of the struggle. Indeed, if people really understood it, no one would renounce the world. Still, offer your labors gladly to Christ in your youth and He will make your old age happy with abundant goodness. The things which they have gathered in their youth will come to the support and encouragement of those worn down by age, so we should toil zealously when we are young and run our course with serious hearts.
No novice should heed the devilish words of his foes as they murmur: "Do not wear out your body, in case you fall prey to disease and weakness." Hardly anyone can be found in this day and age willing to bring low the body, although they may deny it the pleasure of abundant food. The aim of this demon is to make our entrance into the stadium weak and lethargic, and a fitting end will follow this beginning.
21-22 With the help of a spiritual guide the monk must choose the way of life that best suits him, his temperament and tendencies. John describes three forms of monastic life and the particular danger for the solitary man.
The real servants of Christ, using the help of spiritual fathers and also their own self-understanding, will make every effort to select a place, a way of life, an abode, and the exercises that suit them. Community life is not for everyone, because of gluttonous tendencies, and the solitary life is not for everybody, on account of the tendency to anger. Let each seek out the most appropriate way.
23 John concludes defining the faithful and wise monk as "the man who has kept unquenched the warmth of his vocation, who adds fire each day to fire, fervor to fervor, zeal to zeal, love to love, and this to the end of his life", and exhorts his readers not to turn back once the first step is taken.