The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus

John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent (The Classics of Western Spirituality)John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book in Eastertide 2015. I’ve been meaning to write about it for about a year, now! Sorry about that. I felt today would be a good day since yesterday was his commemoration in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Anyway, The Ladder of Divine Ascent is one of the most popular works of spiritual writing in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Its popularity in the Christian East is similar to St Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ — this latter being the most copied, printed, and translated book of western Christendom next to the Bible. It is read in every Eastern Orthodox monastery in Lent as well as by many of the laity.

St John ‘of the Ladder’ (translating klimakos) was the late sixth-century abbot of the monastery at Sinai, now known as St Catherine’s. In this book, he distills the wisdom he has acquired through his own long years as a monk, a solitary, and a spiritual guide.

It is hard when reviewing such a classic as this to find the right words (I used this same cop-out in my review of City of God, I know). I found much of value in it, but it was hard-going. It is not an easy book. Books by monks for monks rarely are. Nonetheless, there is much here even for the lay Anglican. That may not be the strongest recommendation. Nonetheless, I do recommend this book for the determined inquirer in the spiritual reality of the Triune God.

A friend on Facebook asked me if this was a good guide to the via negativa. The answer is that this book is not a work of mystical theology. It is mainly a guide to praktike, the external practices that one must couple to theoria (or contemplation) in order to ascent the ladder to God. A great number of the steps are about how to do battle against the passions, using a slightly different schema of their division from the more famous Evagrian one that made its way into the 7 deadly sins via St Gregory the Great.

This is not to say that theoria is completely ignored by any means. Theoria is the point of the ascent. This text lies historically near the beginning of the Jesus Prayer tradition, as we see in this quotation:

“Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath. Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness.”

St John’s Ladder is about the heart of monastic spirituality. It is about the quest for apatheia — dispassion, that elusive state of being where the unclean logismoi of our flesh or of the demons, stirred up in our fallen hearts, break against our armour, as we storm the gates of Hell armed with prayer and the Holy Name of Jesus on our lips. In this, St John stands with Evagrian apatheia and St John Cassian’s purity of heart.

As the topics of discussion listed below show us, the ascetic practices of the Ladder are not restricted to those of prayer or those of daily life. They embrace the whole of our situation. This is in accord with Archimandrite Sophrony’s warnings in His Life Is Mine against engaging in spiritual practices without the rest of the virtuous life and the doctrine of the Church to uphold us. It resonates also with the introductory remarks to The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text, where the translators remind us of so many people who get caught up in the externals of Christian life, forgetting the better part of Mary of Bethany.

The 30 steps of the Ladder are:

1. On renunciation of the world
2. On detachment
3. On exile or pilgrimage
4. On blessed and ever-memorable obedience
5. On painstaking and true repentance which constitute the life of the holy convicts; and about the prison (this is about a monastery he visited in Alexandria where monks guilty of certain offences were sent to a “prison”)
6. On remembrance of death
7. On mourning which causes joy
8. On freedom from anger and on meekness
9. On remembrance of wrongs
10. On slander or calumny
11. On talkativeness and silence
12. On lying
13. On despondency (akkedia
14. On the clamorous, yet wicked master—the stomach
15. On incorruptible purity and chastity to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
16. On love of money or avarice
17. On poverty (that hastens heavenwards)
18. On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
19. On sleep, prayer, and psalm-singing in chapel
20. On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil and how to practise it
21. On unmanly and puerile cowardice
22. On the many forms of vainglory
23. On mad pride, and, in the same Step, on unclean blasphemous thoughts
24. On meekness, simplicity, guilelessness which come not from nature but from habit, and about malice
25. On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual feeling
26. On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues
27. On holy solitude of body and soul
28. On holy and blessed prayer, mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer
29. Concerning heaven on earth, or godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection
30. Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues

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Dispassion: Jesus & Superman (also John Climacus)

Dispassion (Gk apatheia) is one of the harder aspects of traditional Christian spirituality to sell today. I know that I have a hard time with it, and when I first heard John Michael Talbot sing, ‘Prayer is the state of dispassion’, I was greatly concerned.

At first glance, this term, whether applied to humans striving for perfection or to the already perfect Jesus/God, seems to be promoting not feeling anything, living life with a lack of emotion. And, certainly, there are times when spiritual writers sound like that’s just what they want — no laughter, no tears, no swellings of emotional feeling of any type at any point.

This past Sunday morning, my friend Cory was preaching about Matthew 8:23-27, where Jesus calms the storm:

Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (NIV)

Having just finished John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent, whose second-last step is ‘Dispassion’, I couldn’t help but be struck that Jesus here is, in fact, an example of dispassion. The wind stirs, the waves rise, the rain batters from above. ‘But Jesus was sleeping.’

Jesus knows where true power lies. He can command the wind and waves to stop at any time. Therefore, he can sleep through a storm because he is not afraid of its power. One greater than the storm is here.

Jesus is chill. In it’s earliest meaning, this is what is meant to be ‘cool’ — that bad stuff doesn’t faze you, that you can handle it and be level. When great stuff comes, you don’t get too wound up, either, because you know that the great things in this temporal existence are fleeting, anyway.

A similar point was recently made about Superman, in this article by Joshua Rivera for Business Insider article a friend posted on Facebook, ‘Why Is It So Hard to Get Superman Right in Movies?‘ The quotation that sprang to mind as I mulled on Jesus in the boat this past Sunday is this one:

There’s a great anecdote that legendary comics writer Grant Morrison — the man responsible for one of the best Superman stories in recent memory, 2005’s “All-Star Superman” — tells about Superman in his memoir “Supergods.” In the memoir, he mentions the inspiration for his story — he was at a convention, and he saw a handsome man in a Superman costume just sitting down and relaxing on a stoop.

That was Morrison’s epiphany: The most powerful man alive wouldn’t be tortured but instead would be the friendliest, most relaxed person you ever saw.

Now, Superman is fictional, and none of us is ever going to be as big as Jesus. Superman can fly, shoot lasers out of his eyes, use X-ray vision, lift really heavy stuff, and is impervious to bullets. Jesus is God in the flesh; in His time on earth, He walked on water, turned water into wine, rose people from the dead, healed the sick, cast out demons, calms storms with a word, and then rose from the dead Himself.

None of us is likely ever to do the sorts of things Superman does in Action Comics, although by the grace of God I think some may do the sorts of things Jesus does in the Gospels. Either way, we are not as likely to be as chill as either Jesus or Morrison’s Superman.

John Climacus’ descriptions of dispassion and how we attain it are not exactly encouraging — unless you want to spend your whole life seeking to purified of all sin and become immersed in virtues. He writes:

If complete enslavement to passion is indicated by the fact that one quickly submits to whatever the demons have sown in us, I take it then that a mark of holy dispassion is to be able to say unambiguously: “I did not recognize the evil one as he slipped away from me” (Ps. 100:4), nor did I know the time of his coming, the reasons for it, nor how he went. I am completely unaware of such matters because I am and will ever be wholly united with God. (Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 29, trans. Luibheid & Russell, p. 284)

I’ve blogged about the passions before, so I won’t detain us long on them. But it is freedom from the disordered desires of human life that dispassion refers to. The dispassionate person is not a soulless shell with no emotion. Rather, freed (by the grace of God) from being battered all day by his or her passions, the dispassionate can see clearly, can know truly what truth and good are, what falsehood and evil are. And can live accordingly.

All of this, as the best of the spiritual guides remind us (Climacus, Cassian, Theophan the Recluse among others), is by God’s grace alone. But, typically, God brings us to such a place only through the experiences and activities of life. As G. K. Chesterton said, ‘One cannot grow a beard in a fit of passion.’ I’ve a feeling that dispassion — or, as Cassian circumlocutes is, purity of heart — is the same way.

A story about Elder St Porphyrios

I decided to hold off sharing this story yesterday. It is another of my favourites from Elder Porphyrios (saint of the week here) in his memoirs, Wounded by Love. It is a reminder to meet people where they are when we encounter them and bring them softly to the light of the Gospel:

One Sunday afternoon I was passing the Archaeological Museum [in Athens] and since I had some free time I decided to go in. I walked through the rooms looking at the statues. In one of the rooms there was a group of people with a guide who was explaining things to them. There was complete silence. I went towards them. When the guide saw me, however, she whispered to them:

‘A priest’s just come in. I can’t stand priests, but this one doesn’t seem to be like the others.’

I came up closer and said:

‘Good afternoon.’

‘Good afternoon,’ replied the guide.

‘May I listen to what you are saying?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ she said.

We went from one statue to another. At one point we stood before a statue of Zeus. Zeus was on his throne and was in the act of hurling a thunderbolt at mankind. Once the guide had finished telling them what she knew, she turned to me and said:

‘What do you have to say about this, Pappouli? How do you see the statue?’

Not the Zeus you're looking for (my pic; National Archaeological Museum, Athens)
Not the Zeus you’re looking for (my pic; National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

‘I don’t know about these things,’ I said. ‘But as I see it, I marvel at the work of the artist and also at the human form, such a perfect divine creation. And I see that the artist who made it had a great sense of the divine. Look at Zeus. Although he his hurling his thunderbolt at mankind, yet his face is serene. He is not angry. He’s impassionate.’

The guide, and indeed the whole group, was very pleased with my explanation. What does that tell us? It tells us that God is without passion, even when he punished. –Wounded by Love, p. 59

Now is not the time for a discussion on divine dispassion, but I like the way Elder Porphyrios used the art and the situation he was in to say something meaningful about the divine.