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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The Maleficent Spirit: An Example of Patristic Interconnectedness

In Conference 8.17.1, Abba Serenus says to Cassian and Germanus, “Scripture testifies that two angels cling to each of us, a good one and a wicked one.”*  We all know about the doctrine of the good angel, for that is the popular “Guardian Angel,” with scriptural evidence at Mt 18:10, Ps 34:7, Acts 12:15 as cited by Cassian.

But what of this wicked angel?  The scriptural basis for belief in a maleficent spirit that follows someone his or her entire life is slim, indeed.  Cassian gives the weak arguments of Job and Judas, both of whom had Satan’s attentions.  Their examples are to encourage the monk, the former to embolden, the latter to warn.

However, although uncited by Cassian regarding the maleficent spirit, the Shepherd of Hermas — one of those popular books that did not quite make the cut for the New Testament, and the only non-canonical book quoted by Cassian alongside Scripture — makes mention of such a being at 2.6.2:

“Now listen,” he said, “concerning faith.  There are two messengers (angeloi) with a man, one of righteousness and one of wickedness.”

Cassian is a student not only of Hermas but also of Origen, largely via Evagrius Ponticus.  While Evagrius denies that a man has a particular demon which follows him all his life (Prak. 59), Cassian stands with Origen’s teaching at De Principatibus 3.2.4 and Homilies on Luke 3.5.3-5.

The question of whether Cassian or Evagrius deviates from the Egyptian tradition on this point is unanswerable.  Indeed, both may represent separate streams within that tradition.  That Cassian in turning from his master stays within the broad river of Egyptian monasticism is found in Palladius: The Lausiac History 19.3:

In the end this abandoned man [Abba Moses the Robber], conscience-stricken as a result of one of his adventures, gave himself up to a monastery and to such practising of asceticism that he brought publicly to the knowledge of Christ even his accomplice in crime from his youth, the demon who had sinned with him. (1918 trans. online)

Thus we see Cassian to be connected with Hermas, Origen, and Palladius/Abba Moses — the latter’s writing being something that would have brought Egyptian teaching to Constantinople.  The interconnection runs beyond the Desert, however, to Nyssa.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, in The Life Of Moses, expounds this doctrine as well.  At 2.45, he writes:

There is a doctrine (which derives its trustworthiness from the tradition of the fathers) which says that after our nature fell into sin God did not disregard our fall and withhold his providence.  No, on the one hand, he appointed an angel with an incorporeal nature to help in the life of each person and, on the other hand, he also appointed the corruptor who, by an evil and maleficent demon, afflicts the life of man and contrives against our nature.  (Trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson)

So we see that the patristic world was interconnected through this teaching of the maleficent spirit.  The root connection that this doctrine rests upon is the teaching that we are always beset by temptations.  Yes, God has appointed a “Guardian Angel” to be with us; yet we are also followed by a trail of maleficent spirits, spirits of wickedness.  Through these, too, shall we be perfected.

Through this underlying teaching, we see that Evagrius is still connected to the other Fathers in the foundations.  His denial of a single, lifelong maleficent spirit stems from his belief that as a person progresses in virtue and prayer, so stronger demons and tempters will have to be set against him (see On Thoughts 34).

Nevertheless, none of these writers deny the presence of daimones, and all of them believe that life is a struggle between virtue and vice, between fleshly lusts and spiritual glories.  We are all tempted and are never far from our tempter, be he Wormwood, Screwtape or Satan himself.

*Unless otherwise noted, all translations in this post are mine.