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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Concupiscence beyond sex – a trip to the Desert

Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks
Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks

In Patristic anthropology, concupiscence is an important aspect of the inner workings of the human soul. Concupiscence is usually mentioned in the context either of the battle over grace & free will or of the early monastic movement. For a number of reasons I don’t have the time or energy or, in fact, will, to go into, concupiscence has a tendency in modern contexts to be framed mostly or only in terms of human sexuality.

I think we need to look first at the Desert.

The astute psychological readings of humanity provided by Evagrius Ponticus and the Desert Fathers, as well as the highly Evagrian author John Cassian, see our interior life dominated by concupiscence, irascibility, and reason. We have desires — concupiscence; we get hot/impassioned/angry/indignant about things — irascibility; we have intellect and rational thought — reason.

As I write this, it passes through my mind that these are the three parts of the human person/human society in Plato. In Plato, the goal is to have reason ruling the other two. St Augustine would certainly agree, and Evagrius might, but not strictly the way we typically imagine someone arguing for it.

What ‘reason’ or the intellective part of the human spirit means to Evagrius is a question for another day, though.

I’m here to discuss concupiscence.

Concupiscence and anger are both tied directly to the passions, on which I’ve blogged before. Concupiscence is swayed by the passions in terms of desire. According to St Augustine, our disordered desires, our desires that act independent of and even contrary to reason, are part of the evidence of the Fall. If the intellective part of a human is the highest part, Augustine cannot see how in the Adamic state something that is clearly concupiscible — the membrum virile and male desire for intercourse — would be so beyond the control of reason.

One cannot grow a beard in a fit of passion, says G K Chesteron. St Augustine would also observe that one cannot simply have an erection because reason dictates that it is time to procreate with one’s wife. That’s not how it works.

Thus, because of this Augustinian tradition that is picked up St Thomas Aquinas, when we hear ‘concupiscence’, we think immediately of sex and the human appetite for sex that is not tied directly to the reasoning part of the human soul.

However, concupiscence goes beyond sex.

We need to remember that in our hyper-sexualised culture. A lot of us would think that our job was done if we achieved apatheia — dispassion — in matters of non-legimitate sexuality. That concupiscence had been tamed in such a case.

However, fornication is not the only temptation, not the only logismos in Evagrius’ terms, not the only passion associated with concupiscence. Most obviously, there is gluttony. And greed/avarice. And vainglory and pride, which involve concupiscence for less tangible things.

Because everything can lead back to St Leo the Great, this wider reality of concupiscence — and its less material manifestations — came to me this week as I was reading Ep. 106 in a manuscript. In this letter, Leo rebukes Anatolius, Bishop of Constantinople for concupiscentia. At the Council of Chalcedon (451), it was approved that Constantinople would have honour second only to Rome and gain rights above those of several local metropolitans. Leo saw this as a breach of the Canons of Nicaea, and believed (if we are to take his letters at face value) that Anatolius was filled with his own pride and was seeking his own gain, to the detriment — most particularly — of the Apostolic See. By which I mean Antioch, which was second city to Rome and, when the terminology developed, was one of the Patriarchates, besides being a church founded by Apostles.

Concupiscentia, to Leo, is not about sex, most obviously. It is about grasping after honours — and, to quote Leo, Ep. 14 to Anastasius, Bishop of Antioch, ‘honor inflat superbium’: honour(s) (in this case, technically high office) inflates pride.

Pride. One of the most deadly of the deadly thoughts/logismoi in Evagrius.

The goal of the disciplined Christian life is to overcome these logismoi in order to know Christ better and live for him better. Therefore, we need to learn to control our desires, to make our concupiscence seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. As Abba Alonius said:

If only a man desired it for a single day from morning till night, he would be able to come to the measure of God.

Fasting – because Lent is only a month away

StJohnCassian_vice4We’ve just cleared the Christmas season, today being the First Sunday After the Epiphany. You might be thinking that now it’s time for your church leaders to kick back and relax. You’d be wrong, though! Even if all they’re doing is Lenten liturgies, and not organising special studies or thematic sermons, your clergy and lay leaders are probably already engaged in preparing for Lent. Easter is early this year, March 27, so Lent is early, too. Ash Wednesday comes on February 10. One month away.

My friend at the Urban Abbey in Thunder Bay, which I’ve mentioned before, graciously included me in their Lenten preparations, asking:

do you have some resources you would suggest for a six week preaching series on the role of fasting, and how it relates to Lent- even some crucial, often overlooked aspects- or simply put, what would you focus on?

I’ve been too busy preparing for a job interview to have given it a lot of thought, unfortunately. The interview has passed, though. So here I am, blogging about fasting. I still have to think more about this for my friend, though…

The first resource I would like to draw everyone’s attention to is my dear friend John Cassian (d. ca 435). In Book 5 of his Institutes, John Cassian discusses the ‘Spirit of Gluttony’ as part of his analysis of the Eight Deadly Thoughts/Spirits (these are an adaptation of Evagrius Ponticus that will be modified by Gregory the Great into the Seven Deadly Sins).

One of the themes running through both of Cassian’s major works (The Institutes and The Conferences) is discernment. Discernment is central to the disciplined life. It keeps you from doing more ascetic things than you can reasonably handle — a problem for ancient monks — as well as from being too lax (if a discipline is doing you no good at all or is really, really easy, is it really evidence of your sanctity?). Discernment is also helpful in our relationships with others — we cannot judge others if their rule of fasting or prayer is different, or if they are sore tempted by things we barely feel.1

Therefore, the first rule of fasting that comes out of Cassian is not to obsess over what others do. The second is related to it — set a fast that will challenge you (one meal, two meals, three meals, 24 hours, two days, a week, 40 days, or maybe two days out of a week or whatever). On a few occasions in Book 5 of the Institutes, the difference of the rule of fasting in different monastic or ecclesial communities addressed, as is the issue that a lot of monks break their rule of fasting in order to show hospitality to Cassian and his friend Germanus as they travel around the famous ascetics of Egypt.

The third rule is to remember what the purpose of fasting is.

Fasting is not an end in itself. As Cassian discusses in the first Conference, the point of all ascetic effort, of all the disciplines, is purity of heart. The goal of purity of heart is to see God (cf. Matthew 5:8). In Institues Book 5, the argument is set forth that we cannot attain to spiritual purity until we have learned to control our bodies. The spirit of gluttony lies at the root of many of our problems; if we can tame the stomach, we can start to tame the thoughts that run through our heads.

We need to remember that we humans are, indeed, spiritual beings, but that we are also a psychosomatic unity. Everything we do is embodied. The embodied reality of human life means that Christian disciplines are not simply spiritual and intellectual — prayer, Scripture reading, contemplative prayer, praise of our God — but they are also physical — fasting, kneeling, prostrations, Eucharist, baptism, sexual purity.

As Sergei Bulgakov says, we mortify the flesh in order to gain a body.

I hope these thoughts help as we look forward to the Lenten season.


1. One of the stories out of the Egyptian desert is about a young monk who was struggling with the spirit of fornication to a very high degree. He went to seek the advice and wisdom of one of the elders, and explained his thoughts and desires and temptations about fornication. The elder had never really suffered from strong temptations to fornication and was horrified at what he heard and berate the young monk so such an extent that the younger monk was on the verge of giving it up. An angel was watching and was not well-pleased, so he opened the elder monk up to just a small fraction of what temptations the younger monk was suffering, and the elder monk could barely handle it. The moral of the story is that you don’t know another person’s suffering and temptations; what they need from you are your advice, your prayers, and your love, not your judgement. That’s the role of discernment.

How can we have Jesus as our main focus?

Apse, St John's Lateran
Apse of St John’s Lateran, my pic

The fourth-century mystic, Evagrius Ponticus, proclaims in his controversial Kephalaia Gnostica that the highest end of the Christian life is contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

Which is all well and good for, you know, monks who live in the Egyptian desert, like Evagrius.

But what about the rest of us? How are we actually supposed to keep our focus on Jesus like the Franciscans/Capuchins in my most recent blog post? Life for all of us has many things that require focus. Driving a car, making dinner, filing taxes.

Or, more broadly and at a higher level, what kind of husband would I be if I did not focus on my wife? What kind of a father would my brother be if he never focussed on my nieces and nephew? What kind of a regional manager would one of my friends be if he never really focussed on the paint business? What kind of vegetables would a person grow who never focussed on gardening? How would I ever write my PhD if I never focussed on collating manuscripts, reading secondary sources, analysing Leo the Great’s style?

We all have things to focus on that are explicitly not Jesus.

And, really, these things take a lot of time, don’t they? Time and mental energy.

To provide for themselves, desert monks of Egypt would weave baskets and sell them at market. Not exactly the most mind-consuming task. Try taking care of a one-year old for a mere hour – let alone day after day – and you will find your mind very well-occupied.

I am a mere amateur at this – no Franciscan saint sits behind this laptop, no great geron of the Egyptian Thebaid types these posts. I have gone days without prayer within recent memory. Weeks without concerted Bible-reading. I am prone to frustration and anger and annoyance at other people. I can be a jerk. Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking on this question because of how bold and high I aimed in that last post.

So here are my thoughts.

First, get your butt in church on Sunday. Or Saturday evening. Try, if you can, to make it the same church most of the time (although I do enjoy a bit of ecclesiastical tourism, myself!) – whether Roman Catholic or Anglican or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Coptic Orthodox or Baptist or Ethiopian Tawehedo or Greek Orthodox or Methodist or whatever.

Here you will meet Jesus in ways beyond your control. Sometimes it will be hard to find him because some of the people annoy you or the preaching’s a bit weak or the theology too liberal or the theology to conservative. Be there. Be attentive to the Holy Spirit. Learn, as I am striving to, to be moved by the Most Holy Trinity whether it’s Gregorian Chant or acoustic guitar or traditional Presbyterian a cappella Psalms.

Second, read the Bible every day. The Bible is God’s normative way of communicating with the human race. Yes, He spoke to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses and the prophets and the Apostles and the mystics of the Church. Maybe He will speak to you in that way too.

Read the Bible. It is all about the Crucified God. I don’t care which translation you use, I don’t care which Bible reading program you follow, I don’t care what kind of meditation or study of Scripture you use. You want to focus on Jesus? Read a chapter or two of the Bible every day. Think about Jesus. You have time for this.

Third, pray every day. My Anglo-Catholic uncle once remarked that if a person doesn’t read the Bible and pray every day, he’s not sure what kind of a Christian they are. I’m not saying pull regular night-long vigils, or even a half-hour of intense prayer.

Just pray. Pray to Jesus. And pray that you will focus on Him more. I don’t care if you use the old evangelical acronym ACTS to guide you or the Daily Office or the Jesus Prayer or praying in tongues or seeking silence in your inmost being to find Christ there every day. Just pray.

These three things are probably the only things I think we should add to our regular lives. Everything else, all the spiritual disciplines, can be worked into our days without taking time from other activities and priorities. Fasting will take no time from your day.

Theophan the Recluse and anger

As I’ve mentioned here before, sometimes I get angry. Usually it’s a fairly tame frustration or annoyance. Sometimes it’s more powerful. I get angry at stupid things people post on Facebook. I get angry at dumb stuff I see in the news. I’ve been known to get angry at people who board airplanes too slowly, those who take forever in the checkout queue, road construction, slow walkers — you know, the usual.

Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) has some good stuff to say about anger. Of interest is the idea of redirecting this passion towards sin and the Devil:

You say that you cannot help being resentful and hostile? Very well then, be hostile — but towards the devil, not towards your brother. God gave us wrath as a sword to pierce the devil — not to drive into our own bodies. Stab him with it, then, right up to the hilt; press the hilt in as well if you like, and never pull it out, but drive another sword in as well. This we shall achieve by becoming gentle and kind towards each other. ‘Let me lose my money, let me destroy my honour and glory — my fellow-member is more precious to me than myself.’ Let us speak thus to each other, and let us not injure our own nature in order to gain money or fame. (The Art of Prayer, p. 212)

This idea of redirecting anger towards the Devil or towards the passions is found elsewhere, as in Evagrius Ponticus, whose ascetic works had a deep impact on Byzantine spirituality.* The idea is to talk back, to rebuke the passions and sins that tempt and beset you, to be angry with yourself and grieve for your sins. Thus we will use the passions, which are a natural part of the human person, to grow in virtue, rather than to sin.

Sometimes we see Christians in prominent positions who are filled with righteous indignation over various pieces of news and the troubles in society and politics. I know of one fellow who gets really angry with the Canadian government regardless of who is in power. I ask — is this anger, directed at the humans who make things happen, of use?

We should be angry at injustice, but love the unjust. This is what Theophan calls us to do, for anger towards another human being can lead to revilement and hatred, and these are a poison to the human soul. Be angry with sin and the Devil, not your brother!

*His theology, on the other hand, was deemed heretical.

Evagrius, Avarice, and Us

So, although I’ve fallen off the Read the Fathers cart (but hope to hop on again soon!), I’m still very much in the world of the Fathers. And since Thursday, I’ve returned a few times to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were my entry point into the patristic landscape of theology and spirituality.

This morning, over tea and toast, I read Evagrius Ponticus’ brief treatise ‘[To Eulogios.] On the Vices Opposed to the Virtues’, in Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (a translation of all the extant Greek versions of Evagrius’ ascetic writings). Herein Evagrius has some good things to say about anger, and I’ll probably blog on them soon.

But what caught my eye was ch. 3, ‘Avarice and freedom from possessions’:

Avarice is the parsimony of idols, the prophecy of the crowd, a vote for stinginess, a hoarding mentality, a wealth of captivity, a race of injustice, an abundance of illnesses, a diviner of many years, an enchanter for industriousness, a counsellor of sleeplessness, poverty of the belly, meagreness of foods, insatiable madness, a wickedness of many cares.

Freedom from possessions is the uprooting of avarice and the rooting of freedom from it, a fruit of love and a cross of life, a life free of suffering, a treasure free of envy, a heaven free of care, a sun without distraction, immeasurable matter, incomprehensible wealth, a scythe for cares, the practice of the Gospels, the world readily abandoned, a fast-running contestant. (PG 79.1141D; p. 63 in English)

I think every culture and every age is susceptible to certain of the Eight Thoughts* more than others, although all of us are beset by all of them to a greater or lesser degree. Today, we are hounded and beset on all sides by avarice — greed — in the ‘West’.

Many of us will not think that we are. But just as Cassian has thrown aside the veil covering our gluttony, so Evagrius here removes the mask of generousness that hides our avarice. Do you have ‘a hoarding mentality’? Does your desire for possessions or for money lead to injustice (whether directly by you or indirectly by companies and corporations)? Are you industriousness at work not for a job well done but a pay check well fattened? Do you worry about the fate of your earthly possessions — whether iTunes won’t allow you to pass your music on to your son or whether thieves will break in and steal?

Avarice is an attitude of the heart. When we are not free to give away our things or spend our money generously or give to the poor or loan things; when we feel a need to own that which we could as easily borrow — whether from a library or a friend; when we neglect other duties to make more cash; when we not only have an abundance but do not share that abundance with others; when we are never willing to open our homes up to friends and neighbours — we exhibit symptoms of avarice.

And the cure for avarice? Simplicity. As we shall see later.

*Although in this text, Evagrius gives us nine, adding Jealousy between Vainglory and Pride.

Anger (with a little help from the Desert Fathers and Evagrius)

Sts. Anthony and PaulI used to have a lot of anger issues. Rarely directed towards fellow humans (usually inanimate objects or myself) and certainly never physically violent — at least regarding humans (in first-year undergrad I once chucked a book across my room and made a hole in the wall; the book was the object of my anger). These issues, which rarely but still manifest themselves to do include a lot of physical energy and, if directed at a person, yellling.

Earlier today I got really angry with someone in a café. Which is always awkward. And I can’t get it out of my mind and focus on my work.

Out of remorse for the book-throwing and to mask my folly back in first-year undergrad, I memorised and posted on the wall over the hole James 1:19:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (NIV)

Anger, according the fourth-century ascetic movement (I’m thinking mostly of Cassian and Evagrius here) is a result of our inability, postlapsarianly (?), to control the irascible part of our soul. Irascible is just a Latin-based word that means ‘anger-able’. If we were holy, our irascible part would only result in anger towards actual injustice and the abandonment of the worship of God, as we see in Christ clearing the moneychangers out of the Temple. Most of us are not holy, though. And most of our anger arises out of selfishness, out of frustration, out of fallenness, out of a need to be right, out of wounded self.

So, as an exercise for myself, I’m writing this and wondering: What is the Desert teaching on anger? I have here beside me, pulled from my pile of Late Antique/Early Mediaeval monastic texts, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection as translated by Benedicta Ward, and The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus, translated by John Eudes Bamberger. Both are from Cistercian, whose monastic ressourcement I have extolled previously.

From the Sayings (the numbers in brackets are the number of each saying by Abba; this is not exhaustive):

Abba Agathon (19): A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.

Abba Ammonas (3): I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.

Abba Isaiah (8): When someone wishes to render evil for evil, he can injure his brother’s soul even by a single nod of the head.

Abba Isaiah (11) was also asked what anger is and he replied, ‘Quarrelling, lying and ignorance.’

Abba John the Dwarf (5): Going up the road again towards Scetis with some ropes, I saw the camel driving talking and he made me angry; so, leaving my goods, I took to flight.

Abba John the Dwarf (6): On another occasion in summertime, [Abba John] heard a brother talking angrily to his neighbour, saying, ‘Ah! you too?’ So leaving the harvest, he took to flight.

Abba Nilus (1): Everything you do in revenge against a brother who has harmed you will come back to your mind at the time of prayer.

Abba Nilus (2): Prayer is the seed of gentleness and the absence of anger.

Abba Nilus (6): If you want to pray properly, do not let yourself be upset or you will run in vain.

It is clear that the Desert Fathers (and, undoubtedly, Mothers) had a fairly bleak view of human anger. Evagrius Ponticus, who was a spiritual master who dwelt among them and was highly influential in later Byzantine spirituality, lists anger in the eight deadly thoughts, which are precursors to Gregory the Great’s Seven Deadly Sins. From The Praktikos:

There are eight general and basic categories of thoughts in which are included every thought. First is that of gluottony, then impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and last of all, pride. It is not in our our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions. (6)

What, we may ask Evagrius, is anger?

The most fierce passion is anger. In fact it is defined as a boiling and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury — or is thought to have done so. It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes. Then there comes a time when it persists longer, is transformed into indignation, stirs up alarming experiences by night. (Praktikos 11)

Evagrius is insightful. These and the Sayings are all well and good — but how do we fight anger?

Reading, vigils and prayer — these are the things that lend stability to the wandering mind. Hunger, toil and solitude are the means of extinguishing the flames of desire. Turbid anger is calmed by the singing of Psalms, by patience and almsgiving. But all these practices are to be engaged in according to due measure and at the appropriate times. What is untimely done, or done without measure, endures but a short time. And what is short-lived is more harmful than profitable. (Praktikos 15)

He has much more to say on anger than that. What is clear is that anger is not imagined to be part of the holy lifestyle of the Desert monk. And we are to fight anger through prayer, through Psalmody, by patience, and by almsgiving. The outward disciplines combined with an inner seeking after God, then, will help people like me be free from anger.

What more remains to me than this — Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.