A lot of mystical literature, from the Neo-Platonists to today, includes imagery of ascent. The fourth-century Syriac Liber Graduum is no exception. In 19 we read:
1. Give me now your full attention, O one who wishes to become a solitary and is anxious to travel quickly to the city of our Lord Jesus. I will show you how you may go directly to the city of our King, if you have the strength to journey as I will show you. Because the steps are difficult to climb, I will guide you [how] to climb. Since, however, there are also numerous paths that deviate from the straight road — on which many mountains loom about you, and day after day you are blocked until the day of your death comes — it will find you on [one of] the paths that turn off from one side or the [other], seeing that you do not know how to go directly on the road to that city. If during your life you do not investigate about that road, traveling diligently in order to reach that city, you will not be able to go to it when you have departed from this world, for the end of your road is Perfect and its beginning is when you begin to uproot from yourself all faults. (Trans. Kitchen & Parmentier, pp. 183-184)
Memra 19 goes on to discuss the ascent to the city of Jesus, discussing various commandments that one must follow in order to make the climb. There are two paths — the path of the Perfect that takes you straight up, and that of those less-so, that will not get you there ultimately, but will perfect you and mature you and make you strong enough to climb the narrow, treacherous path of the Perfect.
Alongside the ascetic labours (Memra 20: … there is no other ascent to this step … except by this ascent … much watching and fasting, lowliness, and powerful crying out with many tears, much supplication and with the sweat of afflictions [p. 217]), there is always prayer. It is very useful in the ascent of the Perfect and the fight against sin.
Fourth-century Syriac authors were not the only Christians in history to believe in Perfection. While his conception differs on some key points — the Liber Graduum‘s Perfect are celibate ascetics who have renounced all attachment to the world — John Wesley is very famous for his teaching on Christian Perfection.
This Lent, in fact, I read Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection.
We may disagree with what Wesley calls “Perfection”, but I believe that by the grace of God (as Wesley says), it is attainable. Christian Perfection is having your heart filled with naught but love — love of God and love of neighbour. These are the two commandments on which hang all the Law and the Prophets, after all. The Perfect in Wesley’s view may still commit sin involuntarily or through ignorance, but will not willfully sin.
Now, the question of sinlessness aside, can we fault Wesley’s answer to how we are to wait for this change?
Not in careless indifference, or indolent inactivity; but in vigorous, universal obedience, in a zealous keeping of all the commandments, in watchfulness and painfulness, in denying ourselves, and taking up our cross daily; as well as in earnest prayer and fasting, and a close attendance on all the ordinances of God. (Ch. 19)
Like the Liber Graduum, Wesley also calls us to prayer:
All that a Christian does, even in eating and sleeping, is prayer, when it is done in simplicity, according to the order of God, without either adding to or diminishing from it by his own choice.
Prayer continues in the desire of the heart, though the understanding be employed in outward things.
In souls filled with love, the desire to please God is a continual prayer. (Ch. 25, Q. 38, §5)
Wesley was a reader of the Fathers, with a special love of Chrysostom’s homilies and Ephraim the Syrian’s poetry. It is clear to me from reading A Plain Account that the Greek Fathers have influenced Wesley’s thinking about humanity. He believes that God is actually powerful enough to take the peccator that I am and make me really and truly justus.
Indeed, Wesley’s call to piety, like that of the other famous Anglican Patrist of that age, William Law, is an application of the ascetic, mystical writings of the Fathers to a modern layperson’s situation. The wisdom of texts such as the Liber Graduum is adapted for a new audience — much like how Cassian adapted the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers for a Gallic audience.
Besides having a more optimistic anthropology than the Lutherans or the Reformed, Wesley and the ancient ascetics call us forth to a holiness that is beyond virtue. I know that sounds silly, but it is true. We tend to think that we are “good” by being nice to people, even rude people and jerks, and by giving to the poor. Maybe we are “good” because we evangelise. Maybe it’s because we go to protests and write letters to MP’s. Maybe it’s because we don’t look at porn.
Wesley and the Fathers would applaud these things. And then they would tell us to go further.
They would tell us to live lives saturated with prayer, to do everything out of love, to fast, to study the Scriptures assiduously, and to seek out opportunities to do good whenever we can. By doing so, we will put to death “the flesh” and rise nearer to the likeness of God, healing the wounded image within.
I think we can do it. And I think most of us western Christians don’t even try out of sheer laziness.
Shame on me for being lazy rather than righteous.
“Kill the flesh, in order to acquire a body.” -Sergei Bulgakov