Previous: The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Ash Week
Copyright: Paulist Press (http://www.paulistpress.com),
Hello, and welcome again to the Ladder of Divine Ascent! Sorry for any delays, I’ve got bogged down in work last week, but I am back! This week we’ll be looking at steps 6-10. The first two (6-&7) deal with instilling virtues in the life of a monk, while 8-10 deal with helping the monk to control his vices, this week being anger, malice and slander respectively.
In the sixth step, Climacus looks at how a monk should always keep death in mind in order to enable him to think more and more of his salvation:
‘The remembrance of death brings labor and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community, whereas for those living away from turbulence it produces freedom from daily worries and breeds constant prayer and guarding of the mind, virtues that are the cause and the effect of the thought of death.’
Among the objects of meditation for those who think on death are ‘the love of God, the remembrance of death, the remembrance of God, the remembrance of the kingdom, the zeal of the holy martyrs, the remembrance of the presence of God as described in the saying: “I saw the Lord before me” (Ps.15:8), the remembrance of the holy and spiritual powers, the remembrance of death, judgment, punishment, and sentence’ (Pg.134). Therefore, it also brings to mind a sense of repentance as in the case that Climacus relates of a monk called Hesychius the Horebite who, after a carless life, was struck by a severe illness and, feeling that his end was near, decided to stay in his cell for twelve years grieving for his sins. Hesychius lived there without talking to anyone and lived mainly on bread and water. All the while, the other monks were in awe of him because of the change that came upon him. And when he died and they came to bury his remains, they couldn’t even find his body, which made the monks believe that God had accepted him for his act of repentance. ‘Just as some declare that the abyss is infinite, for they call it a bottomless pit, so the thought of death is limitless and brings with it chastity and activity. … Men like (Hesychius) unceasingly pile fear upon fear, and never stop until the very strength in their bones is worn out’ (Pg.135).
As for those who ask why doesn’t God actually tell us the time of death, Climacus claims the reason is because He does not want us to become slack in our activity. If anyone knew the hour of their passing before hand, they would ‘pass all his time in sin and would be baptized and do penance on the day of his demise. Habit would make him a confirmed and quite incorrigible sinner’ (Pg.133). At the same time, Climacus also chastises those who use the though of death for wrong motivations: ‘A habitual sinner prays humbly for death, but the man who does not want to change his ways may, in sheer despair, actually long for death. And there are some who out of conceit consider themselves to be dispassionate, and for a while they have no fear of death, while a rare few hunger to leave by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit’ (Pg.133).
The end result of a remembrance of death, apart from a sense of repentance, is that it would also enable the monk to avoid food and all sorts of physical pleasure as well. ‘To have an insensitive heart is to be dulled in mind, and food in abundance dries up the well of tears. Thirst, however, and the keeping of vigils afflict the heart; and when the heart is stirred the tears may run’ (Pg.133). Likewise, a monk will also will keep a strict control of his body and it would remain habitual, as an Egyptian monk told Climacus: ‘ “If it ever happened that I was inclined to offer some comfort to this carcass of mine, the remembrance of death that had been so firmly established in my heart would stand before me like a judge; and a – a wonderful thing – even if I wanted to push it aside, I simply could not do so’ (Pg.134). Some people in the secular world at the time of Climacus may be critical of not giving in to the senses, but Climacus says that the monks who are mindful of death and use it to discipline themselves are actually happier then those who are not mindful of death and give into their senses, whom Climacus depicts as depressed. In fact, Climacus even says that the highest aim in Greek philosophy is the thought of death, which shows that it is the end-all and by-all of all human thought.
Lamentation of Christ, Erfurt, c.1480
Moving onto the seventh step, which deals with sorrow and weeping, Climacus is very adamant about one thing: it has to be VERY heartfelt! In fact it stems so naturally from the sixth step that it is not surprising that Climacus also encourages the monk to think of death all the time in every way:
‘Think of your lying in bed as an image of the lying in your grave; then you will not sleep so much. When you eat at table, remember the food of worms [corpses]; then you will not live so highly. When you drink water, remember the thirst of the flames; then you will certainly do violence to your nature.
‘When the father superior visits an honorable rebuke, reprimand, or punishment on us, let us not forget the fearful sentence of the Judge [God], so that with meekness and patience – a two-edged sword – we may kill the irrational sorrow and bitterness that will surely be sown in us.’
Climacus says that true heartfelt sorrow can aid with our repentance, especially after a monk’s baptism where true tears can aid in cleaning any sins after baptism. The reason why is that, while baptism helps wash away the sins of a former life, tears after baptism help the monk to repent of any sins committed after baptism and would help keep the monk’s soul in check. At the same time Climacus also wants us to be genuine in our tears for, and, he gives many examples of those who faked their repentance. He writes against intellectual pride as well as having tears yet still persisting in sins such as anger and pride as well as avoiding any temptations from the demons. It would therefore do no good to appear mournful while still being proud of one’s tears while condemning others because it would make as much sense as a ‘man who asks the king for a weapon against the enemy – and then uses it to commit suicide’ (Pg.141). Perhaps, the most severe admonition that Climacus uses to help convey his message is that of a holy man named Stephen who, in spite of a holy life of withdrawal and fasting, was under condemnation by unseen spirits at the point of death. Stephen would look left and right at his invisible accusers and answer their questions with replies such as: ‘ “Of course it is true. That was why I fasted for so many years.” Or again: “Yes, that is correct, but I wept and served my brothers.” Or again: “No. You are accusing me falsely.” Or sometimes: “Quite right. No, I have no excuse. But God is merciful.” ’ (Pg.142). But the worst scene was when Stephen could not find any suitable answer to his accusers, only saying: ‘ “I do not know how to answer.” ’ (Pg.142). This terrible ordeal ended when Stephen finally died, but everyone around him did not know whether or not he received salvation and Climacus uses this story as an example of those who do not show a perfect depth of sorrow.
To achieve this perfect state of mourning, the monk needs to possess a real fear of God. On the one hand, the soul has to love God but it needs to keep in mind the idea that God, as Judge, would lead the soul to eternal punishment for any misdeeds. Therefore Climacus warns monks that God is not one who bestows mercy on anyone after they sinned, giving them an excuse to sin constantly! This would lead the monk be feel sadden and grieve for any sins they have committed in the past, as well any sinful temptation and/or thought they have felt recently. In turn this would also lead the monks to look away from earthly things and lead them into a state of dispassion where the only true source of contemplation is in God alone.
Having read these chapters, I would have to agree they are rather harsh for other Christians. In fact, if taken to an extreme, it might lead to some feeling depression. Indeed, one should temper the severity of God with His mercy as well; otherwise a Christian might end up with a one-sided portrayal of Him. On the one hand, our God is mentioned in the Bible as a “consuming fire” and He does inflict punishment on those who turn from His ways. At the same time, He does show mercy and He came down to earth to save our lives from sin and lead us to salvation during his First Coming, which is the main core of the Christian faith. So, it is always important that we should have a balanced idea of God in our minds, as represented in both the Bible and Christian doctrine. Having said that, it is always good to keep in mind that, as Christians, we can sin and therefore need to repent of any sins committing during our lives as well as those committed prior our conversion. Therefore, we need to show deep, heartfelt contrition for our sins and to avoid feeling too proud to need forgiveness. In the case of death, we need to be aware that we have only one life on earth and we need, therefore, to ask for God’s grace to help us continue His work on earth, and not to spend it just for our own enjoyment. And a time like Lent, with its focus on the passion and death of Jesus on the cross, is perfect for reminding us of our failures and that we need to confess our sins before God and, if necessary, with others in order to fully live the Christian life that God has given us. So there are moments when keeping in mind our death and mourning for our sins becomes necessary.
Saul attacks David Julius Schnoor von Karolsfeld
In the last three steps for the first week of Lent, Climacus turns his attention from virtues to overcoming vices. In Steps 8-9, he looks at the sin of anger and malice, and how monks should overcome this habit. In Step 8 Climacus says: ‘Freedom from anger is a triumph over one’s nature. It is the ability to be impervious to insults, and comes by hard work and the sweat of one’s brow’ (Pg.146). According to Climacus a quick-tempered person is in danger of getting caught up in pride because he is often full of his own self-esteem and is inclined to think himself in the right when bearing a grudge. However, this is contrary to the monastic spirit that Climacus is teaching and that the highest goal of a monk is to conquer anger by various stages:
‘The first stage of blessed patience is to accept dishonor with bitterness and anguish of soul. The intermediate stage is to be free from pain amid all such things. The perfect stage, if that is attainable, is to think of dishonor as praise. Let the first rejoice and the second be strong, but blessed be the third, for he exults in the Lord.’
To reach these stages, Climacus gives many different kinds of advice. For example for those who are still under the influence of sensuality, Climacus says these individuals should take up the solitary life because it would work ‘like a scalpel to cut away sensuality and corruption of the heart’ (Pg.148). But, if they are still in the grip of these passions, then Climacus says they should abandon the solitary life and learn to obey their superiors in a task that would help them control their tempers. Yet the main purpose of these exercises is for the monk to learn humility which is the reason Climacus emphasized the need to learn and practise meekness and mourning because they will need it to conquer anger. The reason is because ‘tears act like a bridle, (in the sense that they) hold in the anger’ (Pg.150). And by learning austerity a monk will give way to pride. To clarify this matter Climacus cites the case of three monks who each receive a wound and how they responded to it: ‘The first felt it keenly, but did not speak; the second was delighted by the thought of the reward the injury would bring him and he felt compassion for the wrongdoer (who inflicted him); the third wept fervently at the thought of the harm his offending neighbor was suffering. At work, then were fear, the sense of a reward due, and love’ (Pg.150). Therefore, anger within a monk must be kept under firm control.
The ninth step continues with this theme by looking at one of the children of anger: malice. Climacus describes it as a dark and loathsome passion and can give birth to other sins like gluttony and lust. Malice not only destroys all loving relationships, it can also ruin religion as well, saying it can ‘twist the words of the Spirit to suit itself’ and that a ‘malicious hesychast (monk) is like a lurking snake carrying about its own deadly poison’ (Pg.153). The only advice Climacus gives is to use our malice to subdue our bodies; to use religious exercises such as the Jesus Prayer and the remembrance of Christ’s passion to subdue it when it appears in a monk, and finally to forgive and forget any wrongs. By forgiveness, it will stop monks from bearing any grudges so they can possess a forgiving spirit that will subdue all kinds of malice.
One winds on the distaff what the other spins Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The tenth step is dedicated to stopping slander because it is a more subtle sin in that it can appear to be virtuous in that the one passing the slander says that he is trying to stop someone from sinning but, in the end, the slanderer is in sin because he is judging others more harshly then himself. As Climacus puts it: ‘Those who pass speedy and harsh judgments on the sins of their neighbors fall into this passion because they themselves have so far failed to achieve a complete and unceasing memory of and concern for their own sins. Anyone untrammeled by self-love and able to see his own faults for what they are would worry about no one else in this life. He would feel that his time on earth did not suffice for his own mourning, even if he lived a hundred years, and even if a whole Jordan of tears poured out of his eyes. Mourning of that kind has, as I know, no trace in it of slander or harsh judgment’ (Pg.156). To slander and defame somebody is to Climacus a usurping of God’s role because He alone can judge, and the slanderer is sinning because slander is a child of anger. The only remedy Climacus recommends is turning against the demon that causes slander, using humility as a means to see that we are all sinners, and concentrating mainly on the virtues of a person and not his vices. Doing so would rid us of slander and means that that we have finished the tenth step of Climacus’ ladder.
Upon reading these admonitions against the vices of anger, malice and slander I think that Climacus is at least in good company. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus Himself teaches against anger, saying it is worse than murder and that those who slander their brothers are in danger of judgment (Mt.5:21-26). Jesus also admonishes those who slander their brothers by trying to take the speck out of their brothers’ eye while ignoring the log in their own (Mt.7:1-6). And the apostle James teaches against the tongue saying that we should seek to control it because if left to its own devices it could cause great harm (Jm.3). As for the advice that Climacus gives concerning control of these passions, I think that it would vary for Christians living outside a monastery. However, like all sins, I believe that we should be accountable for any sins towards God and fellow Christians and that it would be useful for Christians living in the secular world because we need to leave a good impression in the name of our faith. We must also control any internal sins and leave them before God in order to prevent us from falling into sin. It is a lifelong struggle and it would take God’s grace in order to help us overcome these sins.
Thank you for reading about steps 6-10 in Climacus’ book! Next week we will be discussing steps 11-15. I will even release the final segment of our discussion of John Everidge’s Beautiful Outlaw.’ See you then!
John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid & Norman Russell. Paulist Press. 1982.