This Sunday of Lent is known as the Sunday of The Ladder. Saint John of The Ladder (“Klimakos” in Greek)was a 7th century monk at the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, and he later in life became the abbot. He is principally known for his book “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”, which acknowledges the real spiritual struggle needed for entrance into God’s Kingdom. While written for clergy, it is commonly read by Orthodox lay people during Lent. This Sunday also is an encouragement for the faithful to keep the goal of their Lenten efforts, for according to the Lord, only “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 24:13).
Protestant theology often considers salvation to be an instantaneous event; accept Christ as your personal saviour and you are saved forever regardless of future conduct. For Orthodox Christians, Salvation is not so much a 100 metre sprint with winners and losers at the end of 10 seconds effort, as an endless series of marathons, run day after day. Some days have a good outcome spiritually, some have a bad outcome. A slow, gradual process with inevitable setbacks and failures is how we understand the progress of spiritual life, rather than a dramatic epiphany and a lifetime of sinless bliss.
The Icon of this Sunday is a well known one, with Christ at the top of the ladder calling to humanity and his angels urging them to climb, while the forces of darkness try to thwart humanity’s efforts and drag us into slavery and grief.
What we need to achieve in this life is to regain our wholeness. Human nature can be seen as existing at two levels: the unfallen nature of the human person created in the image of God- the way we were before the fall of Adam and Eve, and the fallen, sinful nature. Man’s struggle on this earth is the search for the state of glory properly belonging to his nature.
In Paradise, before the fall, Adam was in the state of “theoria” (vision) of God. “Original sin” consists in the darkening of the nous and the loss of communion with God. Man becomes unable to encounter God, so reason undertakes the effort.
Man then needs to conquer his fallen nature, but he cannot do this on his own. His condition calls for God’s Grace, and thus man is always “in debt” (χρεώστης) to God. What man is meant to do is to lay down humbly before Christ his own weakness, to recognise his nothingness and ask for His Grace. But God does not act as a deus ex machina: He acts “synergistically” with man. Man needs to co-operate and respond to Divine Grace.
“Many are the paths of piety and destruction,” wrote St John of the Ladder. There exist, not just one, but many ways of salvation, and each person constitutes one unique – though not independent – way which leads to, or away from, salvation.
In general, Orthodox Christians who want to progress spiritually towards salvation strive to be guided by their spiritual father, and the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Many Fathers of the Church describe this spiritual ascent as proceeding through various stages. Living within the Church by Grace, man must first cleanse his heart of the passions; secondly attain the illumination of the nous – Adam’s state before the fall – and thirdly ascend to theosis, which constitutes man’s communion and union with God. These are the stages of spiritual perfection- the foundations of Orthodox spirituality.
1. The beginners stage – the cleansing of passions
The evil within man is not natural to him, but it can become something like second nature to him. Man was created good by God. There are many natural virtues, but no natural vices. Monastic writings describe passions as “alien or superfluous.” Sin is contrary to human nature (“παρά φύσιν”).
Some ascetic writers attempted to classify the passions. The order in the Evagrian list has an intrinsic logic.
a) The beginners stage is marked by the cruder and more materialistic passions, namely gluttony (greediness in eating), lust (uncontrolled and unlawful sexual desire) and avarice (greed for money)
b) The middle stage is identified by more inward passions, namely dejection and anger. Dejection (λύπη), is hard to define. It refers to depression/lowness of spirit. In the Philokalia 3(page 87, volume 1) we read that it prevents us from praying gladly, from reading Holy Scripture with profit and perseverance, from being gentle and compassionate towards our brethren. It instils a hatred of every kind of work. It persuades us to shun every helpful encounter and stops us accepting advice from true friends or giving them a courteous and peaceful reply. It fills the soul with bitterness and listlessness and despairing thoughts.
c) The advanced stage is recognised by the more subtle and spiritual vices of vainglory (caring about what others think of us) and pride. Pride is described by St John of the Ladder as “the denial of God’s assistance, the extolling of one’s own exertions, demonic in character.” “A proud monk,” St John sums up, “has no need of a demon; he has become a demon and an enemy unto himself.”
St John of the Ladder1 has added further passions to this list:
Μνησικακία- the remembrance of the wrongs that others have done to us
Slander (saying bad things about someone, which arises out of having passed judgment on that person)
Talkativeness. St John says, “The man who recognises his sins has taken control of his tongue, while the chatterer has yet to discover himself as he should. The lover of silence draws close to God….”
Insensitivity (hard heartedness, forgetfulness)
Despondency (ακηδία). This refers to listlessness, which the dictionary defines as, “Having or showing little or no interest in anything; languid; spiritless; indifferent.” Another synonym is torpor, which the dictionary defines as, “Sluggish inactivity or inertia, lethargic indifference; apathy.”
St John of the Ladder’s book also contains descriptions of the various stages of temptation leading to passion.
a) Assault. This is the first stage and signifies the initial presence within us of some alien impulse intervening into consciousness from outside by the will of the adversary. Abba Poimen said that “you cannot prevent thoughts from arising, but you can resist them.” This stage is not the same as sinful activity, it is “guiltless”, since only the surface of the heart is affected.
b) Converse. In this stage we start a conversation with the invading thought. Abba Poimen says: “Take care not to speak, but if you do speak, cut the conversation short.”
c) Consent. In this step one gives approval and sanction to the temptation. This step initiates sin.
d) Captivity. At this stage one’s free will is impaired and undermined, so that one is now forced to consent involuntarily. The heart is “carried away”, yet not irrevocably.
e) Struggle. This stage can be the occasion of crowns or of punishments.
f) Passion. This is the last stage, from which one is rescued in repentance, or for which one is punished.
Even after man has fallen into sin he can attain purity; in fact, ascetic writers such as St John of the Ladder personally prefer those who fall and subsequently mourn.
The Fathers of course do not just focus on sins and passions, they also stress positive attributes and virtues. In his book, “Ladder of Divine Ascent,” St John describes virtues constituting an ascent. As he said1, “At the beginning of our spiritual life, we cultivate the virtues, and we do so with toil and difficulty. Progressing a little, we then lose our sense of grief or retain very little of it. But when our mortal intelligence turns to zeal and is mastered by it, then we work with full joy, determination, desire and a holy flame.” (p77). We are warned not to attempt too much too soon, presuming that we can climb the ladder of perfection in one leap. Barsanuphios stressed: “We ought not to put our foot on the first step of the ladder and immediately expect to set foot on the top rung.”
In “Ladder of Divine Ascent”1, St John discusses the following virtues that constitute the rungs of the ladder leading to Heaven:
a) A break with the world
d) Remembrance of Death
e) Simplicity. (“An enduring habit within a soul that has grown impervious to evil thoughts.”)
j) Dispassion. The Cleansing of the entire person, to the most hidden parts of his subconscious. Through dispassion the heart is cleansed and God can, unhindered, enter “the house.” Christian ascetical writers see dispassion differently to ancient Greek Stoic philosophers: dispassion is more than being detached and unswayed by passions, for the Christian the truly dispassioned keeps his soul continuously in the presence of the Lord. St John of the Ladder and St Isaac the Syrian also stress that dispassion consists not in no longer feeling the passions, but in not accepting them.
k) Love. In the Ladder St John speaks of an intense love for God that he himself has experienced. To describe it he uses words like eros, the language of lovers: “Blessed is he who has obtained such love and yearning for God as a mad lover has for his beloved.” A single vivid experience of eros in all its intensity will advance one much further in the spiritual life; will be more effective than the most arduous struggle against the passions and the severest ascetic exercise.
2) The intermediate stage – Illumination
A characteristic trait of this level is the knowledge of beings, the “theoria” of the causes of beings and the participation in the Holy Spirit. The benefits of illumination are the purification of nous by Divine Grace, which consumes the heart like fire, the noetic revelation of the “eye of the heart” and the birth of the Word within the nous. In other words, in this state man acquires knowledge of God and unceasing noetic prayer.
3) Perfecting stage – Theosis
In this stage man becomes “deified”, he comes into communion with the angelic powers, he approaches the “uncreated Light,” the depths of God are revealed to him through the Holy Spirit, and thus he beholds the uncreated essential energy of God. Thus man comes to know many mysteries existing in Holy Scripture that are hidden from other people. He ascends to the “third Heaven,” like Apostle Paul, and hears ineffable words and sees what corporal man’s eyes cannot see.