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.

Ignore dreams

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.

Facing temptations

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.

Learn More: The Ladder Of Divine Ascent on Amazon

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The following citations are quite something. They speak to Christ's call to love our enemies, not just to pity them or endure them. They are an insight into God's unfathomable goodness.

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.

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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

How are we laymen supposed to understand this? Does God have different standards for different people at different times? If even the saints are worried for their salvation how can we who live worldly lives even hope to stand a chance? I admit this is something I've struggled with quite a bit with.

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How are we laymen supposed to understand this? Does God have different standards for different people at different times? If even the saints are worried for their salvation how can we who live worldly lives even hope to stand a chance? I admit this is something I've struggled with quite a bit with.

Even within the same generation not everyone has the same talents, skills, knowledge and upbringing but we're called to bring forth the most fruit we can with what we have been given. The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 speaks to this. Those who have more will be held to a higher standard. The following Gospel verses also speak to this.

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

Luke 12:47-48

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts.

But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.
They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

Mark 12:41-44

On top of that there are also differences between generations and geographies. The types and intensities of the sins that are generally pervasive in society, and that tempt us, vary somewhat by God's providence across time and space. I'm reminded of a quote by one of the Desert Fathers which reflects the variation across time:

The holy Fathers were making predictions about the last generation. They said, “What have we ourselves done?”

One of them, the great Abba Ischyrion replied, “We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.”

The others replied, “And those who come after us, what will they do?”

He said “They will struggle to achieve half our works.”

They said, “And to those who come after them, what will happen?”

He said, “The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will be approved in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers.”

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How are we laymen supposed to understand this? Does God have different standards for different people at different times? If even the saints are worried for their salvation how can we who live worldly lives even hope to stand a chance? I admit this is something I've struggled with quite a bit with.

Paul often speaks of this, drawing on the analogy of babies who can only drink milk and adults who can eat solid food (1 Corinthians 3, Hebrews 5). I admit it is difficult. We don't want to proclaim assurance of salvation like Calvinists, nor do we want to be universalists and say everyone is saved. That tension is one of the many struggles of the Christian walk.

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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.

This is something I encounter as well. I was speaking with a friend on this last week. The moment you realize the suffering that's taking place you can't unsee it. Sometimes I desire to be free from pain. Just be "enjoying" myself. But I can't anymore, it feels so distasteful to mock Jesus. Once I have seen sin in myself, i see it everywhere, I see the pride how people display their wealth on social media, pride in their "careers" on LinkedIn, pride in the famous people they hang our with. And somehow I can't enjoy that anymore. I just think, and then what? And ultimately these people are mocking me, those that disgust me.

Luke 23:34
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[a] And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

And that's why it's great we have Jesus, Father forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing. And it's true, because I have been on that side, and I had no clue.

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.

I totally agree, and money is one thing, I think giving our energy and skills is of great importance. Can be cleaning church, can be helping in communication, helping some elderly people in church, and giving money is great, money so easily becomes a god, donating it confronts myself with my obsession for it.

Complimenting people brings them spiritual harm​

I felt this always. I hate receiving compliments because 9/10 times it's a manipulation.

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Here's another quote by St Paisios I came across in relation to the differences between generations:

Elder, why does St. Cyril of Jerusalem say that the Martyrs of the last days will surpass all Martyrs?”

And he responds,

Because in the old times we had men of great stature; our present age is lacking in examples-and I am speaking generally about the Church and Monasticism. Today, there are more words and books and fewer living examples. We admire the holy Athletes of our Church, but without understanding how much they struggled, because we have not struggled ourselves. Had we done so, we would appreciate their pain, we would love them even more and strive with philotimo (zeal) to imitate them. The Good God will of course takes into account the age and conditions in which we live, and He will ask of each one of us accordingly. If we only strive even a little bit, we will merit the crown more than our ancestors.

In the old days, when there was a fighting spirit and everyone was trying to measure up to the best, evil and negligence would not be tolerated. Good was in great supply back then, and with this competitive spirit, it was difficult for careless people to make it to the finish line. The others would run them over. I remember once, in Thessaloniki, we were waiting for the traffic light to cross the street, when I suddenly felt pushed by the crowd behind me, as if by a wave. I only had to lift my foot and the rest was done for me. All I am trying to say is that when everybody is going toward the same direction, those who don’t wish to follow will have difficulty resisting because the others will push them along.

Today, if someone wishes to live honestly and spiritually, he will have a hard time fitting in this world. And if he is not careful, he’ll be swept by the secular stream downhill. In the old days, there was plenty of good around, plenty of virtue, many good examples, and evil was drowned by the good; so, the little disorder that existed in the world or in the monasteries was neither visible nor harmful. What’s going on now? Bad examples abound, and the little good that exists is scorned. Thus, the opposite occurs; the little good that exists is drowned by an excess of evil, and evil reigns.

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