The Secret is in the Climbing

The Secret is in the Climbing

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His name was John (AD 579 – 649). A seventh century monk and eventually the Abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at the base of Mt. Sinai, he came to be known in history as John of the Ladder (Κλιμακος), and he left Christendom with a text that has had a universal impact that few ascetical works have had. Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia wrote, “With the exception of the Bible and the service books, there is no work in Eastern Christianity that has been studied, copied, and translated more than The Ladder of Divine Ascent.”

On Sunday we commemorate this great monastic saint and ascetic. Why? Because his message in The Ladder provides the answer to the fundamental human question: How can I be truly happy in life? Furthermore, it gives us the pathway to achieving that happiness – the process of union with God. At is core, The Ladder speaks to hope, as Fr. John Chryssavgis writes: “There is an underlying optimism in John, consisting in his belief that man was created by God for joy and not for sorrow, for laughter and not for tears.”

To illustrate this teaching about union with God, St. John uses the image of a 30-rung ladder, a concrete, ordinary image easily identifiable to anyone. The ladder hearkens back to Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis 28:10-19. The idea of steady climbing upward was also used by St. Gregory of Nyssa two centuries earlier: “God’s dealings with man are on an ascending scale. If we see clearly the lowest rung on the heavenly ladder, the veil of mist shall depart and we will see the next above it, and then the next and, in due order, the next; and so the steps that slope away through darkness up to God will always be beckoning to greater and yet greater things.”

Progress towards intimacy with God is, therefore, dynamic, it implies movement on our part, it is about progression, it is not static nor does it occur automatically. St. Gregory further anticipates St. John’s own belief, gained from personal experience: “Having once put your foot on the ladder which God is leaning against, go on climbing…every rung leads up to the beyond…Finding God means looking for Him tirelessly…Seeing God means never to cease to desire Him.”

In the Ladder of Divine Ascent, the first three rungs are about detachment from worldly things; the next four address the virtues; the next 16 represent the struggles with the passions; the next three address the higher virtues in practice; and the final four represent union with God in the contemplative life (theoria). Critical to St. John’s message are the passions and their transformation into genuine virtues—virtues that are at the core of human happiness in God. What are the passions (πάθη)? They are the emotions and impulses that can control us as people who are body-soul, physical and spiritual.

Evagrius of Pontus, the first to identify a formal list of passions, notes they are as follows: gluttony, lust, greed, anger, dejection, despondency, listlessness, vainglory (vanity), and pride. Other patristic lists of passions exist and are, in some measure, at the root and foundation of all sins. They can never be satisfied, once and for all, and they are impulses that are etched into our brains and neural structure—programming automatic responses from us.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent helps us to overlay new responses, those not centered on our own egos but are rooted in God’s living image within our hearts. St. John Climacus warns us in Step 1: “Violence and unending pain are the lot of those who aim to ascend to union with God, and this especially at the early stages of the enterprise, when our pleasure-loving disposition and our unfeeling hearts must travel through overwhelming grief toward the love of God and holiness. It is hard, truly hard.”

We are called to break old habits. We are summoned to go against our baser, intuitive instincts and to walk the “via negativa”—the way of self-denial. As in contemporary Cognitive Therapy, we are called to develop entirely new ways of thought through the steady and disciplined “reprogramming” of our negative images and impulses. Simply put, this is the work of asceticism.

Our Passions Are Easy to Miss

The Orthodox spiritual writer Klaus Kenneth, author of the text Born to Hate/Reborn to Love, writes: “People who are attached to whatever they enjoy in their current life, have difficulty accepting the idea that they need to sacrifice anything for the sake of eternal life.”

Because the passions are so “natural” and seemingly part of our nature, they are easy to hold onto and even easier to miss. For this reason, each of us needs to “take an inventory” to clearly and honestly identify what passions are our greatest difficulty. If the passions work against our true happiness, then we need to deal with them. To do this, St. John counsels discernment which he describes as “…understanding the will of God in all times, in all places, in all things and it is found among those who are pure in heart, in body and in speech.” (Step 26) Knowing ourselves when it is difficult to do so requires self-honesty. Naming our passions (sins), “owning” our sins, is the first step up the spiritual ladder. St. Isaac the Syrian teaches: “It is a greater miracle that a person see their true self than that they raise someone from the dead!”

Our Passions Are Not So Much to Be Eradicated As Transformed

Once we identify our passions honestly, our task is not to try to extricate them completely out of our lives, but to transform them into their opposite virtues—to detoxify the soul, to mentally re-program our responses. Each passion has its ascetic antidote, or opposite virtue, in the therapeutic tradition of the Church. Every passion is an unnatural form of a virtue. Then our goal is to transform the negative sin into its positive virtue. In the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John shows this relationship: turn gluttony into moderation and balance; lust into chastity and guarding of our thoughts; greed into non-acquisitiveness and almsgiving; anger into meekness or gentleness; despondency (despair) into unremitting prayer and the remembrance of God’s goodness; sorrow (“lethargy” to use the Patristic term) into remembering our own sins and thinking of the eternal blessings awaiting those who are faithful; vanity into humility and self-honesty; and pride into creating simplicity of life and surrendering one’s own will.

St. John of the Ladder gives us the goals towards which we must move if we are to be genuinely spiritually happy and at peace. In this, he is rooted in the thought of the First Epistle of St. John the Divine: “Beloved, we are God’s children now and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.” (1 John, 3) Each passion gives us a clue about its opposite virtue and thereby points the way to transformation. We just need to climb.

Healing From Our Passions is a Restoration Project

By assiduously working to climb ever-upward, the person on the spiritual ladder, doing the hard work of struggling, is laboring to restore the pristine relationship that existed with God in Paradise, to restore the “natural” life that is intimacy with Divine Love. St. John describes this restoration this way: “God does not demand or desire that someone should mourn out of sorrow of heart, but rather that out of love for Him he should rejoice with the laughter of the soul. Take away sin and then the sorrowful tears that flow from bodily eyes will be superfluous. Why look for a bandage when you are not cut?

Adam did not weep before the fall, and there will be no tears after the resurrection when sin will be abolished, when pain, sorrow, and lamentation will have taken flight.” (Step 7) Day by day, you and I do the work God asks of us, we rise and we fall, we try and sometimes we fail, we sin and we hate our sin, we walk in darkness and yearn for the light—yet the important thing, above all else, is that we continue climbing—for union with God is not simply at the end of our journey upwards, it is in the climbing itself, it is in the process.

Metropolitan Kallistos suggests that in this way, our climbing is more like a journey up a spiral staircase than a straight ladder. We wander at times but always ascend. We move away from the center but always manage to find our way back again. St. John Klimakos closed The Ladder of Divine Ascent by lovingly giving us his assurance: “Ascend, ascend eagerly. Let your hearts resolve to climb. Listen to the voice of Him who says: Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of our God, who makes our feet like deer’s feet and sets us upon high places that we might be triumphant on His road.”

May God give you and me the strength to keep climbing!

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Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas

Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.