I am fully aware, my good friends, that the struggles I have described will seem to some incredible, to others hard to believe, and will seem to some to breed despair. But to the courageous soul they will serve as a spur, and a shaft of fire; and he will go away carrying zeal in his heart.
The Ladder Of Divine Ascent by Saint John Climacus is a book intended for monks and the spiritually advanced, yet I read it as a neophyte around the time of my baptism into the Orthodox Church. Much of it just went over my head so I don’t seem to have been damaged through errant interpretations. Below is a selection of my favorite passages.
What does it mean to love God?
The man who really loves the Lord, who has made a real effort to find the future Kingdom, who is really pained by his sins, who is really mindful of eternal torment and judgment, who really lives in fear of his own departure, will not love, carry, or worry about money, or possessions, or parents, or worldly glory, or friends, or brothers, or anything at all on earth. But having shaken off all ties with earthly things and having stripped himself of all his cares, and having come to hate even his own flesh, and having stripped himself of everything, he will follow Christ without anxiety or hesitation
It is somewhat ironic that we need to pray to God for instruction on how to love Him. We are so fallen and our worldly souls so wicked that we don’t even know how to love our Creator as He intended, and instead are only capable of a fleshly love that is transactional or lustful.
You will suffer
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 disposition 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.
The newly repentant should use the full dose of grace given by God to develop a zeal that can begin the difficult task of turning away from passions that have become engrained from many years of sinful life.
How to live in the world
Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me: ‘We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?’ I replied to them: ‘Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate anyone; do not be absent from the divine services; be compassionate to the needy; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness, and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.’
Don’t be afraid of spiritual battle
Let us charge into the good fight with joy and love without being afraid of our enemies. Though unseen themselves, they can look at the face of our soul, and if they see it altered by fear, they take up arms against us all the more fiercely. For the cunning creatures have observed that we are scared. So let us take up arms against them courageously. No one will fight with a resolute fighter.
He who believes in dreams is completely inexperienced. But he who distrusts all dreams is a wise man. Only believe dreams that warn you of torments and judgments. But if despair afflicts you, then such dreams are also from demons.
The demons of vainglory prophesy in dreams. Being unscrupulous, they guess the future and foretell it to us. When these visions come true, we are amazed; and we are elated with the thought that we are already near to the gift of foreknowledge. A demon is often a prophet to those who believe him, but he is always a liar to those who despise him. Being a spirit, he sees what is happening in this lower air, and noticing that someone is dying, he foretells it through dreams to the more light-minded. But the demons know nothing about the future from foreknowledge.
I used to sleep with a notepad and pen at my bedside to write down memorable dreams, but I no longer do that because being able to remember certain dreams starts to ignite a craving within me for them to become true or to see them as a source of wisdom that I could use in the future. I now let dreams be naturally forgotten seconds after waking.
Do not be eager to share your opinions
He whose will and desire in conversation is to establish his own opinion, even though what he says is true, should recognize that he is sick with the devil’s disease. And if he behaves like this only in conversation with his equals, then perhaps the rebuke of his superiors may heal him. But if he acts in this way even with those who are greater and wiser than he, then his malady is humanly incurable.
Are conversations not an exercise of who can share the most opinions in the least amount of time?
Distracted thoughts during prayer
Constantly wrestle with your thought, and whenever it wanders call it back to you. God does not require from those still under obedience prayer completely free of distractions. Do not despond when your thoughts are plundered, but take courage, and unceasingly recall your mind. Inviolability is proper only to an angel.
This is one of my main problems in spiritual life. During prayer, it can happen that I think of when I’m going to cook pizza again, how I’m going to respond when a store clerk demands I wear a face mask, or what clothing I should wear the next day. And then I catch myself in the act and wonder how I was able to engage so deeply in the trivial thought that I completely forgot I was before God my King, and disrespected Him so offensively with my scattered brain.
Why we don’t know when we will die
Some inquire and wonder: ‘Why, when the remembrance of death is so beneficial for us, has God hidden from us the knowledge of the hour of death?’—not knowing that in this way God wonderfully accomplishes our salvation. For no one who foreknew his death would at once proceed to baptism or the monastic life; but everyone would spend all his days in iniquities, and only on the day of his death would he approach baptism and repentance.
How do you respond when offended?
I once saw three monks receive the same injury at the same time. One felt the sting of this and was troubled, but kept silent; the second rejoiced at his injury for the reward it would bring him, but was sorry for the wrongdoer; and the third, thinking of the harm his erring neighbour was suffering, wept fervently. And fear, reward, and love were to be seen at work.
You will know that you have completely freed yourself of this rot [remembrance of wrongs], not when you pray for the person who has offended you, nor when you exchange presents with him, nor when you invite him to your table, but only when, on hearing the has fallen in spiritual or bodily misfortune, you suffer and weep for him as for yourself.
When I am slighted, I am prone to get angry, or at least irritated, and I have to harness all my willpower to not respond with my tongue. Sometimes I’m successful.
Do not judge others
If you see someone falling into sin at the very moment of his death, even then do not judge him, because the divine judgment is hidden from men. Some have fallen openly into great sins, but they have done greater good deeds in secret; so their critics were tricked, getting smoke instead of the sun.
Do not condemn, even if you see with your eyes, for they are often deceived.
He who falls is to be pitied. But still more to be pitied is he who causes another to fall, because he bears the burden of the falls of both, and further, the burden of pleasure tasted by the other.
Let us listen again to another wile of our foes. Just as food which is bad for the body produces sickness after a time or some days, so this often happens in the case of actions which defile the soul. I have seen some give way to luxury and not at once feel the attacks of the enemy. I have seen others eat with women and converse with them, and at the time have no bad thoughts whatsoever in their mind. They were thus deceived and encouraged to grow careless and to think that they were in peace and safety, and then suffered sudden destruction in their cells.
Demons keep away from us when we are living in the world, that we may go on staying among worldly-minded people because we are not attacked there. Hence we should realize that the place in which we are attacked is the one in which we are certainly waging bitter war on the enemy; for if we ourselves are not waging war, the enemy is found to be our friend.
When I was living a secular life, I don’t remember being “attacked” by strange thoughts. I didn’t even have bad dreams, and actually lamented that I didn’t have sexual dreams more often. When I decided to become a Christian, the horrible dreams started, sometimes multiple nightmares per sleep, not only sexual but even demonic appearances. While awake, there are evil thoughts that come to my mind that I simply can’t block. If you’re not in the spiritual war, you will not have to face spiritual battles. With a secular life, you’re continually waving the white flag.
How to pray
For those who have not yet obtained true prayer of the heart, violence in bodily prayer is a great help—I mean stretching out the hands, beating the breast, sincere raising of the eyes to Heaven, deep sighing, frequent prostrations.
When prayer is finished wait soberly, and you will see that swarms of demons, as if challenged by us, try to invade us after prayer with absurd phantasies. Sit and watch; you will see those who are in the habit of snatching away the first-fruits of the soul.
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.
He who has experienced the good which comes from prayer will shun crowds like a wild ass; for what, if not prayer, makes him like a wild ass and free from all association with people?
“I need to get rich to be charitable”
The beginning of love of money is the pretext of almsgiving, and the end of it is hatred of the poor. So long as he is collecting he is charitable, but when the money is in hand he tightens his grip.
It’s not uncommon to encounter the belief that one must work hard for many decades to get rich and then you can take on the semblance of Christian life through almsgiving. The problem with that plan is you starve your soul during your years of money-making. You become spiritually dry, a desert of prayer, and at the end of it, may decide it’s better to keep the money for yourself since you worked so hard through your lofty abilities. Any thought that delays your participation in the Christian life by even one day is pure deception.
Complimenting people brings them spiritual harm
God often hides from our eyes even those perfections that we have obtained. But he who praises us or, rather, misleads us, opens our eyes by his praise, and as soon as our eyes are opened, our treasure vanishes.
The flatterer is a servant of devils, a guide to pride, a destroyer of contrition, a ruiner of virtues, a misleader. Those who pronounce you blessed, lead you astray, says the prophet.
‘Praises exalt and puff one up; and when the soul is exalted, then pride seizes it, lifts it up to heaven, and casts it down to the abyss.’
I refuse all compliments that are given to me, and try to forget them immediately. Insults and critiques, however, I carefully examine to identify if there is any truth in them.
What is pride?
Pride is denial of God, an invention of the devil, the despising of men, the mother of condemnation, the offspring of praise, a sign of sterility, flight from divine assistance, the precursor of madness, the cause of falls, a foothold for satanic possession, a source of anger, a door of hypocrisy, the support of demons, the guardian of sins, the patron of pitilessness, the rejection of compassion, a bitter inquisitor, an inhuman judge, an opponent of God, a root of blasphemy.
What is humility?
‘Humility means constant oblivion of one’s achievements.’ Another: ‘It is the acknowledgment 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 neighbour 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.’
Many have received salvation without prophecies and revelations, without signs and wonders; but without humility no one will enter the marriage chamber, because humility is the guardian of these gifts, and without her they will bring frivolous people to ruin.
When the body is sick, the demons rush to attack
We have need of considerable vigilance when the body is sick. The demons, seeing us laid low and temporarily incapable of entering into the struggle with them owing to our infirmity, try to attack us fiercely at such times.
Do not love the world
If any monk has spent an hour or a day in visiting people in the world, or has had them as guests, he ought to rejoice when he parts from them like someone who has been freed from a hindrance and a trap. But if on the contrary he feels the dart of sorrow, this indicates that he has become the toy either of vainglory or of lust.
If your faith is lukewarm, this book has the potential to put you in despair that you’re not doing nearly enough for salvation. Simply reviewing the quotes above may even have tugged at your conscience, but understand its context: this book was written during a time when Christians were on fire with holy zeal and a man could promptly be tonsured as a monk without waiting several years as is currently the case. Even the monks of today are nowhere near as strict as what you encounter in the book. Unless you’re an experienced Orthodox Christian who has read much of the other materials intended for laymen, I can’t recommend The Ladder Of Divine Ascent. As powerful as it is, and I believe I have gained some benefit from the book, it would be better to wait until your faith has matured.
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