The Desert Fathers and The Ladder of Divine Ascent

Have you heard of the Desert Fathers?  If the answer is no then you will not have heard of St John Climacus whose treatise on monastic discipline I am reading for Lent.

Years ago, at one of those epiphany moments, I was made aware that giving things up for Lent wasn’t quite enough and that one should replace it with time given up to studying  and learning more about religion (and Christianity in particular) though not exclusively.  Every year since I have given up reading novels and read something more serious instead, so one year I read The Koran and another The Mahabharata.  I also recommend The Book of Silence by Sara Maitland, which I read during Lent recently.

This year, The Vicar and people in the parish where I attend church regularly are reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent, written at some point between 562 and 590AD by St John Climacus.  There is a Saturday book group to discuss the book and to discover more – all through Lent

The details of the life of John Climacus are unclear.  Based on the life written by Daniel of Raithu, who was possibly a contemporary, John was born in 532 and entered St Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai Desert when he was 16.  Later scholarship surmises that this is a misunderstanding of the text, and that actually John became a monk at a more mature age, having previously married and had a secular career.  Be that as it may, there is no doubt that at some point he did become a monk and wrote this seminal handbook as a guide to the monastic spiritual journey – the renunciation of the world; the shedding of sin; the practice of virtue and finally the ecstasy of spiritual enlightenment.  The steps towards this final aim are demonstrated in a metaphorical ladder, each step carefully and slowly taken towards the final 30th rung – Love.

Once undertaken, John Climacus urges progress, the pilgrim should not turn back but “ascend, my brothers, ascend eagerly”.

Although altogether a different order of magnitude, this book is not unlike John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  The Christian journeys through a landscape: unfamiliar, frightening and full of pitfalls, towards the light.  In John Bunyan’s version the journey takes Christian through the cities of the plain towards the mountains and, along the way, Christian sheds the sins of despondancy, vanity, pride and so forth, the load lightens and at last the ‘satchel’ (the burden of sin) falls from his back and he climbs up the mountain into the heavenly light.  I only add this because I think more people will have read Pilgrim’s Progress than have read The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

I do not think that any of the parish are seriously contemplating the monastic life, but there is much more to The Ladder of Divine Ascent than that.  Although expressly written for and indeed, to this day, read in Orthodox monasteries during Lent, this book can also be a handbook to anyone who seriously wants to change the way they are living, by concentrating on loosening the grip of the vices that impede our progress and cultivating the virtues that will make us better and nicer people – and thereby giving us greater understanding of both ourselves and others.

The first three rungs of the ladder specifically deal with the renunciation of the world – the leaving of families and friends, the first rung – “On Renunciation of Life” – talks of the help that we are going to need to accomplish the journey.  While the Israelites had Moses to lead them out of Egypt, Lot and his family and followers had an angel to lead them out of Sodom, so the monks who are following this book need a leader:

At the beginning of our religious life, we cultivate the virtues and we do so with toil and difficulty.  Progressing a little, we then lose our sense of grief [at parting from loved ones and worldly pleasures] 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. [my italics]

Further on, this step outlines the different ways of retiring from the world, each to his own – some will suit a life in a monastic community, some will retire to a life of stillness in smaller group and others will withdraw into a solitary hermitic condition (the spiritual athelete).

The real servants of Christ, using the help of spiritual fathers and also their own self-understanding, will make every effort to select a place, a way of life, an abode, and the exercises that suit them.  Community life is not for everyone, because of gluttonous tendencies, and the solitary life is not for everybody, on account of the tendency to anger.  Let each seek out the most appropriate way.

So what does this mean for the lay person?  If you follow these steps, even without retiring from society, will it make a difference to your life?  The camel passing through the eye of a needle springs to mind…


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