The Ladder of Divine Ascent
THE LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT
St. John Climacus
Translated by Archimandrite Lazarus Moore (Harper & Brothers, 1959)
Beginning the good fight:
A good foundation of three layers and three pillars is innocence, fasting and temperance. Let all babes in Christ begin with these virtues, taking as their model the natural babes. For you never find in them anything sly or deceitful. They have no insatiate appetite, no insatiable stomach, no body on fire; but perhaps as they grow, in proportion as they take more food, their natural passions also increase.
To lag in the fight at the very outset of the struggle and thereby to furnish proof of our coming defeat is a very hateful and dangerous thing. A firm beginning will certainly be useful for us when we later grow slack. A soul that is strong at first but then relaxes is spurred on by the memory of its former zeal. And in this way new wings are often obtained.
When the soul betrays itself and loses the blessed and longed for fervour, let it carefully investigate the reason for losing this. And let it arm itself with all its longing and zeal against whatever has caused this. For the former fervour can return only through the same door through which it was lost.
Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me:
‘We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?’ I replied to them: ‘Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate any one; be sure you go to church; be compassionate to the needy; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness; and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.’
On blessed and ever-memorable obedience:
Do not be so unreasonably silent as to annoy and embitter others. And do not be slow in your gait and actions when ordered to hasten. Otherwise, you will be worse than the possessed and the rebellious. Often I have seen, as Job says, souls suffering from slowness of character, but sometimes from eagerness. And I was amazed at the diversity of evil.
When we are bitten by remorse, let us remember our sins until the Lord, seeing the force of our efforts (the efforts of those who do violence to themselves for His sake), wipes out our sins and transforms the sorrow that is gnawing our heart into joy. For it is said: According to the multitude of my sorrows in my heart, thy consolations have gladdened my soul. At the right time let us not forget him who said to the Lord: O how many troubles and evils hast Thou shown me! Yet Thou didst turn and revive me; and from the depths of the earth after I had fallen, again Thou broughtest me up.
Blessed is he who, though maligned and disparaged every day, masters himself for the Lord’s sake. He will join the chorus of martyrs and boldly converse with the angels. Blessed is the monk who regards himself as hourly deserving every dishonour and disparagement. Blessed is he who mortifies his will to the end, and leaves the care of himself to his director in the Lord; for he will be placed at the right hand of the Crucified. He who will not accept a reproof, just or unjust, renounces his own salvation. But he who accepts it with an effort, or even without an effort, will soon receive the remission of his sins.
Show God in spirit your faith in your spiritual father and your sincere love for him. And God in unknown ways will suggest to him that he may be attached to you and kindly disposed towards you, just as you are well disposed towards him.
It is the property of angels, not to fall, and even, as some say, it is quite impossible for them to fall. It is the property of men to fall, and to rise again as often as this may happen. But it is the property of devils, and devils alone, not to rise once they have fallen.
A man will know his brotherly love and his genuine charity when he sees that he mourns for his brother’s sins, and rejoices at his progress and graces.
He whose will and desire in conversation is to establish his own opinion, even though what he says is true, should recognize that he is sick with the devil’s disease. And if he behaves like this only in conversation with his equals, then perhaps the rebuke of his superiors may heal him. But if he acts in this way even with those who are greater and wiser than he, then his malady is humanly incurable.
Let us keep guard over ourselves with all care. For when a harbour is full of ships it is easy for them to get crushed by each other, especially if they are secretly riddled with bad temper as by some worm.
Let us find in what is called quicksilver an image of perfect obedience. For with whatever material we roll it, it runs to the lowest place, and will mix with no defilement. Let the zealous be particularly attentive to themselves, lest by condemning the careless they themselves incur worse condemnation. And I think the reason why Lot was justified was because, though living among such people, he never seems to have condemned them.
On painstaking and true repentance:
Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously. And assuredly the angel who guards you will honour your patience. While a wound is still fresh and warm it is easy to heal, but old, neglected and festering ones are hard to cure, and require for their care much treatment, cutting, plastering and cauterization. Many from long neglect become incurable. But with God all things are possible.
Nothing equals or excels God’s mercies. Therefore he who despairs is committing suicide. A sign of true repentance is the acknowledgement that we deserve all the troubles, visible and invisible, that come to us, and even greater ones. Moses, after seeing God in the bush, returned again to Egypt, that is to darkness and to the brick-making of Pharaoh, symbolical of the spiritual pharaoh. But he went back again to the bush, and not only to the bush but also up the mountain. Whoever has known contemplation will never despair of himself. Job became a beggar, but he became twice as rich again.
On remembrance of death:
Every word is preceded by thought. And the remembrance of death and sins precedes weeping and mourning. Therefore, this subject comes in its proper place in this chapter.
The remembrance of death is a daily death; and the remembrance of our departure is an hourly sighing or groaning.
Fear of death is a natural instinct that comes from disobedience; but terror at death is evidence of unrepented sin. Christ fears death, but does not show terror, in order to demonstrate clearly the properties of His two natures.
As tin is distinct from silver although it resembles it in appearance, so for the discerning there is a clear and obvious difference between the natural and supernatural fear of death.
On mourning which causes joy:
Repentance is the cheerful deprival of every bodily comfort.
A characteristic of those who are still progressing in blessed mourning is temperance and silence of the lips, and of those who have made progress – freedom from anger and patient endurance of injuries; and of the perfect – humility, thirst for dishonours, voluntary craving for involuntary afflictions, non-condemnation of sinners, compassion even beyond one’s strength. The first are acceptable, the second laudable; but blessed are those who hunger for hardship and thirst for dishonour, for they shall have their fill of the food that does not cloy.
If you possess the gift of mourning, hold on to it with all your might. For it is easily lost when it is not firmly established. And just as wax melts in the presence of fire, so it is easily dissolved by noise and bodily cares, and by luxury, and especially by talkativeness and levity.
Greater than baptism itself is the fountain of tears after baptism, even though it is somewhat audacious to say so. For baptism is the washing away of evils that were in us before, but sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears. As baptism is received in infancy, we have all defiled it, but we cleanse it anew with tears. And if God in His love for mankind had not given us tears, few indeed and hard to find would be those in a state of grace.
When they weep, some force themselves unseasonably to think of nothing at all during this blessed time, not realizing that tears without thought are proper only to an irrational nature and not to a rational one. Tears are the product of thought, and the father of thought is a rational mind.
Both in creation and in compunction there is that which moves itself and that which is moved by something else. When the soul becomes tearful, moist and tender without effort or trouble, then let us run, for the Lord has come uninvited, and is giving us the sponge of God-loving sorrow and the cool water of devout tears to wipe out the record of our sins. Guard these tears as the apple of your eye until they withdraw. Great is the power of this compunction – greater than that which comes as a result of our effort and meditation.
When we see anger and pride in those who seem to be mourning in a way pleasing to God, then their tears are to be regarded as a repugnant to God. For what fellowship has light with darkness?
He who in his heart is proud of his tears, and secretly condemns those who do not weep, is like a man who asks the king for a weapon against his enemy, and then commits suicide with it.
On freedom from anger and on meekness:
As the gradual pouring of water on a fire completely extinguishes the flame, so the tears of true mourning are able to quench every flame of anger and irritability. Therefore we place this next in order.
If the Holy Spirit is peace of soul, as He is said to be, and as He is in reality, and if anger is disturbance of heart, as it actually is and as it is said to be, then nothing so prevents His presence in us as anger.’
Though we know very many intolerable fruits of anger, we have only found one, its involuntary offspring, which, though illegitimate, is nevertheless useful. I have seen people flaring up madly and vomiting their long-stored malice, who by their very passion were delivered from passion, and who have obtained from their offender either penitence or an explanation of the long standing grievance. I have seen others who seemed to show a brute patience, but who were nourishing resentment within them under the cover of silence. And I considered them more pitiable than those given to raving, because they were driving away the holy white Dove with black gall. We need great care in dealing with this snake; for it too, like the snake of physical impurities, has nature collaborating with it.
I have seen angry people push away food, out of bitterness; and yet through their unreasonable abstinence they only added poison to poison. And I have seen others who on being disgruntled for some specious reason, gave themselves up to gluttony, and fell out of a pit headlong over a precipice. But I have seen others who were sensible, who, by mixing both like good physicians, have gained from moderate consolation very great profit.
If you want, or rather intend, to take a splinter out of another person, then do not hack at it with a stick instead of a lancet for you will only drive it deeper. And this is a stick – rude speech and rough gestures. And this is a lancet – tempered instruction and patient reprimand. ‘Reprove,’ says the Apostle, ‘rebuke, exhort,’ but he did not say ‘beat’. And if even this is required, do it rarely, and not with your own hand (i.e. use the agency of another).
On remembrance of wrongs:
Be malicious and spiteful against the demons, and be at constant enmity with your body. The flesh is a headstrong and treacherous friend. The more you care for it, the more it injures you.
Remembrance of wrongs is an interpreter of Scripture of the kind that adjusts the words of the Spirit to its own views. Let it be put to shame by the Prayer of Jesus which cannot be said with it.
When, after much struggling, you are still unable to extract this thorn, you should apologize to your enemy, even if only in word. Then perhaps you may be ashamed of your long-standing insincerity towards him, and, as your conscience stings you like fire, you may feel perfect love towards him.
You will know that you have completely got rid of this rot, not when you pray for the person who has offended you, nor when you exchange presents with him, nor when you invite him to your table, but only when, on hearing that he has fallen into spiritual or bodily misfortune, you suffer and weep for him as for yourself.
On slander or calumny:
I have heard people slandering, and I have rebuked them. And these doers of evil replied in self-defence that they were doing so out of love and care for the person whom they were slandering. I said to them: ‘Stop that kind of love, otherwise you will be condemning as a liar him who said: “Him who secretly slanders his neighbour, him I drove away.”
If you say you love, then pray secretly, and do not mock the man. For this is the kind of love that is acceptable to the Lord. But I will not hide this from you (and of course think about it, and do not judge the offender):
Judas was in the company of Christ’s disciples, and the Robber was in the company of murderers. And what a reversal when the crisis came!’
He who wants to overcome the spirit of slander, should not ascribe the blame to the person who falls, but to the demon who suggests it. For no one really wants to sin against God, even though we do all sin without being forced to do so.
I have known a man who sinned openly and repented secretly. I condemned him as a profligate, but he was chaste before God, having propitiated Him by a genuine conversion.
Do not regard the feelings of a person who speaks to you about his neighbour disparagingly, but rather say to him: ‘Stop, brother! I fall into graver sins every day, so how can I criticize him?’ In this way you will achieve two things: you will heal yourself and your neighbour with one plaster. This is one of the shortest ways to the forgiveness of sins; I mean, not to judge. ‘Judge not, that you be not judged.’
Listen to me, listen, all you malicious reckoners of other men’s accounts! If it is true (as it really is true) that ‘with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged’, then whatever sins we blame our neighbour for, whether bodily or spiritual, we shall fall into them ourselves. That is certain.
Hasty and severe judges of the sins of their neighbour fall into this predicament because they have not yet attained to a thorough and constant remembrance and concern for their own sins. For if anyone could see his own vices accurately without the veil of self-love, he would worry about nothing else in this life, considering that he would not have time enough for mourning for himself even though he were to live a hundred years, and even though he were to see a whole river Jordan of tears streaming from his eyes. I have observed that mourning, and I did not find in it even a trace of calumny or criticism.
The demons, murderers as they are, push us into sin. Or if they fail to do this, they get us to pass judgment on those who are sinning, so that they may smear us with the stain which we our selves are condemning in another.
This is one of the marks by which we can recognize malicious and slanderous people: they are plunged in the spirit of hatred, and with pleasure and without a qualm they slander the teaching or affairs or achievements of their neighbour.
I have seen some committing the gravest sins in secret and without exposure, and in their supposed purity they have harshly inveighed against persons who have had a petty fall in public.
To judge others is a shameless arrogation of the Divine prerogative; to condemn is the ruin of one’s soul.
Self-esteem without any other passion can ruin a man, and in the same way, if we have formed the habit of judging, we can be utterly ruined by this alone, for indeed the Pharisee was condemned for this very thing.
A good grape-picker, who eats the ripe grapes, will not start gathering unripe ones. A charitable and sensible mind takes careful note of whatever virtues it sees in anyone. But a fool looks for faults and defects. And of such it is said: ‘They have searched out iniquity and expired in the search.’
Do not condemn, even if you see with your eyes, for they are often deceived.
The tenth ascent. He who has mastered it is one who practises love or mourning.
On talkativeness and silence:
Talkativeness is the throne of vainglory on which it loves to show itself and make a display. Talkativeness is a sign of ignorance, a door to slander, a guide to jesting, a servant of falsehood, the ruin of compunction, a creator of despondency, a precursor of sleep, the dissipation of recollection, the abolition of watchfulness, the cooling of ardour, the darkening of prayer
Deliberate silence is the mother of prayer, a recall from captivity, preservation of fire, a supervisor of thoughts, a watch against enemies, a prison of mourning, a friend of tears, effective remembrance of death, a depicter of punishment,a meddler with judgment, an aid to anguish, an enemy of freedom of speech, a companion of quiet, an opponent of desire to teach, increase of knowledge, a creator of contemplation, unseen progress, secret ascent.
He who has become aware of his sins has controlled his tongue, but a talkative person has not yet got to know himself as he should.
The friend of silence draws near to God, and by secretly conversing with Him, is enlightened by God.
The silence of Jesus put Pilate to shame, and by a man’s stillness vainglory is vanquished.
The offspring of flint and steel is fire; and the offspring of chatter and joking is lying.
A lie is the destruction of love, and perjury is a denial of God.
Let no one with right principles suppose that the sin of lying is a small matter, for the All-Holy Spirit pronounced the most awful sentence of all against it above all sins. If Thou wilt destroy all who tell lies, as David says to God, what will they suffer who stitch an oath on to a lie?
I have seen some who, priding themselves on their skill in lying, and exciting laughter by their jests and twaddle, have pitiably destroyed in their hearers the habit of mourning.
When the demons see that in the very beginning we intend to keep aloof from the witty lecture of a coarse leader, as from an infectious disease, then they try to catch us by two thoughts, suggesting to us:
‘Do not offend the story-teller,’ or: ‘Do not appear to love God more than they do.’ Be off! Do not dally, otherwise at the time of your prayer the jokes will recur to your mind. And not only run, but even piously disconcert the bad company by offering for their general attention the thought of death and judgment. For perhaps it is better for you to besprinkled with a few drops of vainglory, if only you can become a channel of profit for many.
The twelfth step. He who has mounted it has obtained the root of all blessings.
Despondency is a slackness of soul, a weakening of the mind, neglect of asceticism, hatred of the vow made. It is the blessing of worldlings. It accuses God of being merciless and without love for men. It is being languid in singing psalms, weak in prayer, stubbornly bent on service, resolute in manual labour, indifferent in obedience.
Let this tyrant be bound by the remembrance of your sins. Let us buffet him by manual labour. He should be brought into court by the thought of blessings to come. And when brought as before a tribunal let him be duly questioned:
‘Tell me, you nerveless, shuffling fellow, who viciously spawned you? Who are your offspring?
Who are your foes? Who is your destroyer?’ And despondency, under compulsion, may be thought to reply: ‘Among those who are truly obedient I have nowhere to lay my head; but with those amongst whom I have a place for myself, I live quietly. I have many mothers: sometimes insensibility of soul, sometimes forgetfulness of the things above, sometimes excessive troubles. My offspring who abide with me are: changing from place to place, disobedience to one’s spiritual father, forgetfulness of the judgement, and sometimes breach of the vow. And my opponents, by whom I am now bound, are psalmody and manual labour. My enemy is the thought of death. What completely mortifies me is prayer with firm hope of future blessings. And who gave birth to prayer? Ask her.’
This is the thirteenth victory. He who has really gained it has become experienced in all good.
On the clamorous, yet wicked master – the stomach:
The mind of a faster prays soberly, but the mind of an intemperate person is filled with impure idols.
Satiety of the stomach dries the tear springs, but the stomach when dried produces these waters.
He who cherishes his stomach and hopes to overcome the spirit of fornication, is like one who tries to put out a fire with oil.
If you have promised Christ to go by the strait and narrow way, restrain your stomach, because by pleasing it and enlarging it, you break your contract. Attend and you will hear Him who says:
‘Spacious and broad is the way of gluttony that leads to the perdition of fornication, and many there are who go in by it; because narrow is the gate and hard is the way of fasting that leads to the life of purity, and few there are who go in by it.
Purity means that we put on the angelic nature. Purity is the longed-for house of Christ and the earthly heaven of the heart. Purity is a supernatural denial of nature, which means that a mortal and corruptible body is rivalling the celestial spirits in a truly marvelous way.
He is pure who expels one love with the other love and who has extinguished the material fire by the immaterial fire.
Let no one thoroughly trained in purity attribute its attainment to himself. For it is impossible for anyone to conquer his own nature. When nature is defeated, it should be recognized that this is due to the presence of Him who is above nature. For beyond all dispute, the weaker gives way to the stronger.
A fox pretends to be asleep, and the body and demons pretend to be chaste; the former in order to deceive a bird, and the latter in order to destroy a soul.
With beginners falls usually occur by reason of luxury; with intermediates because of haughtiness as well as from the same cause which leads to the fall of beginners; and with those approaching perfection, solely from judging their neighbour.
He who has conquered his body has conquered nature; and he who has conquered nature has certainly risen above nature. And he who has done this is little (if at all) lower than the angels.
It is not surprising for the immaterial to struggle with the immaterial. But it is truly surprising for one inhabiting matter, and in conflict with this hostile and crafty matter, to put to flight immaterial foes.
The good Lord shows His great care for us in that the shamelessness of the feminine sex is checked by shyness as with a sort of bit. For if the woman were to run after the man, no flesh would be saved.
On avarice and poverty:
Avarice, or love of money, is the worship of idols, a daughter of unbelief, an excuse for infirmities, a foreboder of old age, a harbinger of drought, a herald of hunger.
The lover of money sneers at the Gospel and is a wilful transgressor. He who has attained to love scatters his money. But he who says that he lives for love and for money has deceived himself.
He who mourns for himself has also renounced his body; and at the appropriate time he does not spare it.
Do not say that you are collecting money for the poor; with two mites the Kingdom was purchased.
A hospitable man and a money-lover met one another, and the latter called the former unintelligible.
He who has conquered this passion has cut out care; but he who is bound by it never attains to pure prayer.
The beginning of love of money is the pretext of almsgiving, and the end of it is hatred of the poor. So long as he is collecting he is charitable, but when the money is in hand he tightens his hold
Poverty is the resignation of cares, life without anxiety, an unencumbered traveller, alienation from sorrow, fidelity to the commandments.
Great is he who piously renounces possessions, but holy is he who renounces his will. The one will receive a hundredfold, either in money or in graces, but the other will inherit eternal life.
Waves never leave the sea, nor do anger and grief leave the avaricious.
On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body:
He who has lost sensibility is a brainless philosopher, a self-condemned commentator, a self-contradictory windbag, a blind man who teaches others to see. He talks about healing a wound, and does not stop irritating it. He complains of sickness, and does not stop eating what is harmful. He prays against it, and immediately goes and does it. And when he has done it, he is angry with himself; and the wretched man is not ashamed of his own words. ‘I am doing wrong,’ he cries, and eagerly continues to do so. His mouth prays against his passion, and his body struggles for it. He philosophises about death, but he behaves as if he were immortal. He groans over the separation of soul and body, but drowses along as if he were eternal. He talks of temperance and self-control, but he lives for gluttony. He reads about the judgment and begins to smile. He reads about vainglory, and is vainglorious while actually reading. He repeats what he has learnt about vigil, and drops asleep on the spot. He praises prayer, but runs from it as from the plague. He blesses obedience, but he is the first to disobey. He praises detachment, but he is not ashamed to be spiteful and to fight for a rag. When angered he gets bitter, and he is angered again at his bitterness; and he does not feel that after one defeat he is suffering another. Having overeaten he repents, and a little later again gives way to it. He blesses silence, and praises it with a spate of words. He teaches meekness, and during the actual teaching frequently gets angry. Having woken from passion he sighs, and shaking his head, he again yields to passion. He condemns laughter, and lectures on mourning with a smile on his face. Before others he blames himself for being vainglorious, and in blaming himself is only angling for glory for himself. He looks people in the face with passion, and talks about chastity. While frequenting the world, he praises the solitary life, without realizing that he shames himself. He extols almsgivers, and reviles beggars. All the time he is his own accuser, and he does not want to come to his senses – I will not say cannot.
I have seen many people like this hear about death and the terrible judgment and shed tears, and with the tears still in their eyes they eagerly go to a meal. And I was amazed how this tyrant, this stinkpot of gluttony, by complete indifference, can grow so strong as to turn the tables even on mourning.
On sleep and prayer:
Let us observe and we shall find that the spiritual trumpet serves as an outward signal for the gathering of the brethren, but it is also the unseen signal for the assembly of our foes. So some of them stand by our bed and when we get up urge us to lie down again: ‘Wait,’ they say, ‘till the preliminary hymns are finished; then you can go to church.’ Others plunge those standing at prayer into sleep. Some produce severe, unusual pains in the stomach. Others egg us on to make conversation in church. Some entice the mind to shameful thoughts. Others make us lean against the wall as though from fatigue. Sometimes they involve us in fits of yawning. Some of them bring on waves of laughter during prayer, thereby desiring to stir up the anger of God against us. Some force us to hurry the reading or singing – merely from laziness; others suggest that we should sing more slowly for the pleasure of it; and sometimes they sit at our mouths and shut them, so that we can scarcely open them. He who realizes that he is standing before God will be as still as a pillar during prayer and will pray with heart-felt feeling; and none of the aforesaid demons will make sport of him.
The really obedient man often suddenly becomes radiant and exultant during prayer; for this wrestler was prepared and fired beforehand by his sincere service.
A vigilant eye makes the mind pure; but much sleep binds the soul.
A vigilant monk is a foe to fornication but a sleepy one mates with it.
Vigil is a quenching of lust, deliverance from dream phantoms, a tearful eye, a softened heart, the guarding of thoughts, the dissolving of food, the subduing of passions, the taming of spirits, the bridling of the tongue, the banishment of phantasies.
A proud soul is a slave of cowardice; it vainly trusts in itself, and is afraid of any sound or shadow of creatures.
Although all cowardly people are vainglorious, yet not all who are unafraid are humble, since even robbers and grave-plunderers may be without fear.
Do not hesitate to go late at night to those places where you usually feel afraid. But if you yield only a little to such weakness, then this childish and ridiculous infirmity will grow old with you. As you go on your way, arm yourself with prayer. When you reach the place, stretch out your hands. Flog your enemies with the name of Jesus, for there is no stronger weapon in heaven or earth. When you get rid of the disease (of fear), praise Him who has delivered you. If you continue to be thankful, He will protect you for ever.
Just as it is impossible to satisfy the stomach in one bout, so also it is impossible to overcome fear instantly. It will yield more quickly in proportion as you mourn; but to the extent that our mourning fails, we continue to be cowards.
It is not darkness and loneliness of place that gives the demons power against us, but barrenness of soul. And through God’s providence this sometimes happens in order that we may learn by it.
He who has become the servant of the Lord will fear his Master alone, but he who does not yet fear Him is often afraid of his own shadow.
In the presence of an invisible spirit the body becomes afraid; but in the presence of an angel the soul of the humble is filled with joy. Therefore, when we recognize the presence from the effect, let us quickly hasten to prayer, for our good guardian has come to pray with us.
He who has conquered cowardice has clearly dedicated his life and soul to God.
On the many forms of vainglory:
Some like to distinguish vainglory from pride and to give it a special place and chapter. And so they say that there are eight capital and deadly sins. But Gregory the Theologian and other teachers have given out that there are seven; and I am strongly inclined to agree with them. For who that has conquered vainglory has pride within him? The only difference between them is such as there is between a child and a man, between wheat and bread; for the one is the beginning and the other the end. And so now that the occasion calls for it let us speak briefly about the beginning and sum of the passions, unholy self-esteem. For if anyone were to try to philosophize at length on this subject he would be like someone who fusses over the weight of the winds.
A vainglorious person is a believing idolater; he apparently honours
God, but he wants to please not God but men.
Every lover of self-display is vainglorious. The fast of the vainglorious person is without reward and his prayer is futile, because he does both for the praise of men.
God often hides from our eyes even those perfections that we have obtained. But he who praises us or, rather, misleads us, opens our eyes by his praise, and as soon as our eyes are opened, our treasure vanishes.
The flatterer is a servant of devils, a guide to pride, a destroyer of contrition, a ruiner of virtues, a misleader. Those who honour you deceive you, says the prophet.
People of high spirit bear offence nobly and gladly, but only holy people and saints can pass through praise without harm.
Vainglory makes those who are preferred, proud, and those who are slighted, resentful.
Often after being stripped by vainglory, we turn and strip it more cleverly. I have seen some who began spiritual activity out of vainglory, and although they made a bad start, yet the end proved praiseworthy, because they changed their intention.
He who is proud of his natural advantages, I mean cleverness, ability to learn, skill in reading, a clear pronunciation, quick understanding and all such gifts received by us without labour, will never obtain the supernatural blessings, because he who is unfaithful in a little is also unfaithful and vainglorious in much.
On mad pride:
The beginning of pride is the consummation of vainglory; the middle is the humiliation of our neighbour, the shameless parade of our labours, complacency in the heart, hatred of exposure; and the end is denial of God’s help, the extolling of one’s own exertions, fiendish character.
He who refuses reproof shows his passion (pride), but he who accepts it is free of this fetter.
Concerning unmentionable blasphemous thoughts:
During the Holy Liturgy, at the very moment when the Mysteries are being accomplished, this vile enemy often blasphemes the Lord and the holy events that are being enacted. This shows clearly that it is not our soul that pronounces these unspeakable, godless and unthinkable words within us, but the God-hating fiend who fled from heaven for uttering blasphemies against the Lord there too, as it would seem. For if these shameless and disgraceful words are my own, how could I worship after receiving the gift? How can I praise and revile at one and the same time?
This deceiver and corrupter of souls has often driven many out of their mind. No other thought is so difficult to tell in confession as this. That is why it often remains with many to the very end of their lives. For nothing gives the demons and bad thoughts such power over us as nourishing and hiding them in our heart unconfessed.
He who is troubled by the spirit of blasphemy and wants to be delivered from it should know for certain that it is not his soul that is the cause of such thoughts but the impure demon who once said to the Lord: All these things will I give Thee if Thou wilt fall down and worship me. And so let us too humiliate him and, without paying the least regard to his suggestion, say to him: ‘Get thee behind me, Satan! I shall worship the Lord my God, and Him only will I serve. Thy labour and thy word will return upon thy head, and thy blasphemies will come down upon thy crown in the present and in the future world. Amen.’
On meekness and simplicity:
Meekness is an unchangeable state of mind, which remains the same in honour and dishonour. Meekness consists in praying calmly and sincerely for a troublesome neighbour. Meekness is a rock overlooking the sea of irritability, which breaks all the waves that dash against it yet remains completely unmoved.
Meekness is the buttress of patience, the door, or rather, the mother of love, and the foundations of discernment, for it is said: The Lord will teach the meek His way. It prepares us for the forgiveness of sins; it is boldness in prayer, an abode of the Holy Spirit. But to whom shall I look? Even to him that is meek and quiet.
Meekness is the fellow-worker of obedience, the guide of the brotherhood, a curb for the furious, a check to the irritable, a minister of joy, the imitation of Christ, something proper to angels, shackles for demons, a shield against peevishness.
Let all of us who wish to attract the Lord to ourselves draw near to Him as disciples to the Master, simply, without hypocrisy, without duplicity or guile, not out of idle curiosity. He Himself is simple and absolute, and He wants souls that come to Him to be simple and innocent. For you will surely never see simplicity separated from humility.
The evil man is a false prophet who thinks that from words he can catch thoughts, and from outward appearance, dispositions of the heart.
Let us run from the precipice of hypocrisy and from the pit of duplicity, hearing him who said: Evil-doers shall be destroyed, as the green herb they shall quickly wither, for such folk are food for demons
Let all who are led by the Spirit of God enter with us into this spiritual and wise gathering, holding in their spiritual hands the God-inscribed tablets of knowledge. We have met, we have investigated, and we have probed the meaning of this precious inscription. And one said: ‘It means constant oblivion of one’s achievements.’ Another: ‘It is the acknowledgement of oneself as the last of all and the greatest sinner of all.’ And another: ‘The mind’s recognition of one’s weakness and impotence.’ Another again: ‘In fits of rage it means to forestall one’s neighbour and be first to stop the quarrel.’ And again another: ‘Recognition of divine grace and divine mercy.’ And again another: ‘The feeling of a contrite soul, and the renunciation of one’s own will.’ But when I had listened to all this and had attentively and soberly considered it, I found that I had not been able to comprehend the blessed sense of that virtue from what had been said. Therefore, last of all, having gathered what fell from the lips of those learned and blessed fathers as a dog gathers the crumbs that fall from the table, I too gave my definition of it and said: ‘Humility is a nameless grace in the soul, its name known only to those who have learned it by experience. It is unspeakable wealth, a name and gift from God, for it is said: Learn not from an angel, not from man, and not from a book, but from Me, that is, from Me indwelling, from My illumination and action in you, for I am meek and humble in heart and in thought and in spirit, and your souls shall find rest from conflicts and relief from arguments.’
Thus we have ventured in a few words to philosophize about the blossoming and growth of this ever-flourishing fruit.
But what is the perfect reward of this holy virtue? You who are near the Lord must ask the Lord Himself. It is impossible to gauge the quantity of this holy wealth; and to explain its quality is still more impossible. However, as regards its distinguishing characteristics, we must try to express the thought that comes to our mind.
It is one thing to exalt oneself, another not to exalt oneself, and another to humble oneself. One person may be always judging others; another does not judge others, but he does not condemn himself; a third, although he is innocent, is always passing judgment on himself.
It is one thing to be humble, another to strive for humility, and another to praise the humble. The first belongs to the perfect, the second to the truly obedient, and the third to all the faithful.
There are some who all their lives use the bad deeds previously done by them, and for which they had received forgiveness, as a motive for humility, thereby driving out their vain self-esteem. Others, having in mind Christ’s passion, regard themselves always as debtors. Others hold themselves cheap for their daily defects. Others as a result of their besetting temptations, infirmities and sins have mortified their pride. Others for want of graces have appropriated the mother of graces (i.e. humility).
There are also people (if they still exist) who for the sake of the very gifts of God, in the measure that they receive them, humble themselves and so live as to account themselves unworthy of such wealth, and each day add it to their debt. Such is humility, such is beatitude, such is the perfect reward!
When you see or hear that someone has in a few years acquired the most sublime dispassion, then conclude that he travelled by no other way than by this blessed short-cut.
The Lord, knowing that the virtue of the soul is modelled on outward behaviour, took a towel and showed us how to walk the way of humility. For the soul becomes like its bodily occupations. It conforms itself to its activities and takes its shape from them. Sovereignty served as a ground for arrogance for one of the angels, although that was not why it was conferred on him.
Many have received salvation without prophecies and lights, without signs and wonders; but without humility no one will enter the marriage chamber, because humility is the guardian of these gifts, and without her they will bring frivolous people to ruin.
For those of us who do not wish to humble ourselves the Lord has arranged in His providence that no one can see his faults as well as his neighbour does. So we are bound to give thanks for our healing not to ourselves but to our neighbour and to God
The sinews of humility and its ways, but not its signs, are: poverty, hidden withdrawal from the world, concealment of wisdom, simplicity of speech, asking of alms, hiding of nobility, banishment of familiarity, putting chatter out of court.
On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues:
Discernment in beginners is true knowledge of themselves; in intermediate souls it is a spiritual sense that faultlessly distinguishes what is truly good from what is of nature and opposed to it; and in the perfect it is the knowledge which they possess by divine illumination, and which can enlighten with its lamp what is dark in others. Or perhaps, generally speaking, discernment is, and is recognized as, the assured understanding of the divine will on all occasions, in every place and in all matters; and it is only found in those who are pure in heart, and in body and in mouth.
In all our actions in which we try to please God the demons dig three pits for us. In the first, they endeavour to prevent any good at all from being done. In the second, after their first defeat, they try to secure that it should not be done according to the will of God. But when these rogues fail in this too, then, standing quietly before our soul, they praise us for living a thoroughly godly life. The first is to be opposed by zeal and fear of death, the second by obedience and humiliation, and the third by unceasing self-condemnation. We shall be faced by toil of this kind until the divine fire enters into our sanctuary. And then the force of bad habit will no longer exist in us. Our God is a fire consuming all fever (of lust) and movement (of passion), every inclination rooted in us and all blindness and darkness within and without, both visible and spiritual.
Divine Providence is one thing, Divine help is another, Divine protection is another, Divine mercy is another, and Divine consolation is another. Providence is displayed in all nature, help only in the faithful, protection in the faithful who truly have faith, mercy in those who serve God, and consolation in those who love Him.
Certain people asked me a question difficult to solve and which is beyond the powers of anyone like me, and is not to be found in any of the books that have reached me. For they said:
What are the particular offspring of the eight deadly sins? Or which of the three chief sins is the father of the other five (minor sins)? But by pleading praiseworthy ignorance as regards this difficulty, I learnt from the holy men the following: ‘the mother of lust is gluttony, and the mother of despondency is vainglory; sorrow and also anger are the offspring of those three (i.e. cupidity, sensuality, ambition); and the mother of pride is vainglory.’
When our good and all-gracious Lord and Master sees people too lazy in their exercises, He lays their flesh low with sickness, an exercise that gives them no labour; and sometimes it also cleanses the soul from evil thoughts or passions.
All that happens to us, seen or unseen, can be taken by us in a good or a passionate or some middle disposition. I saw three brethren punished: one was angry, one suppressed his grief, but the third reaped the fruit of great joy.
I have seen farmers who were casting the same seeds on the earth, yet each had his own special in tention. One was thinking of paying his debts; another wanted to get rich; another wished to honour the Lord with his gifts; another’s aim was to get praise for his good work from the passers-by on the way of life; another desired to annoy his neighbour who was envious of him; and another did not want to be reproached by people for idleness. Here are the names of those seeds cast to the earth by the farmers: fasting, vigil, alms, services and the like. Let our brethren in the Lord carefully test their intentions.
In drawing water from a well we sometimes without noticing it bring up a frog with the water, and so in acquiring the virtues we often get involved in the vices that are imperceptibly entwined with them. The kind of thing I mean is that gluttony is entangled with hospitality; lust with love; cunning with discernment; malice with thoughtfulness; duplicity, procrastination, laziness, contradiction, wilfulness and disobedience with meekness; contempt of instruction with silence; conceit with joy; indolence with hope; harsh judgment with love again; despondency and sloth with quietness; acerbity with chastity; familiarity with humility; and behind them all as a general salve, or rather poison, follows vainglory.
When confronted by evils, we should choose the least. For instance, it often happens that we are standing at prayer, and brothers come to us, and we have to do one of two things: either to stop praying, or to grieve the brother by leaving him without an answer. Love is greater than prayer, because prayer is a particular virtue but love embraces all the virtues.
Often Divine Providence leaves certain slight passions in spiritual people so that by unsparingly condemning themselves for those trifling and venial defects they may obtain that wealth of humility which none can steal.
It is impossible for those who have not first lived in obedience to obtain humility; for everyone who has learned an art on his own fancies himself
By the ineffable providence of God some have received holy returns for their toiling before their labours, some during their labours, some after labours, and some at the time of their death. It is a question which of them was rendered more humble?
When we see that some love us in the Lord, then we should not allow ourselves to be especially free with them, for nothing is so likely to destroy love and produce hatred as familiarity.
The eye of the soul is spiritual and extremely beautiful and, next after the incorporeal beings, it surpasses all things. That is why people who are still subject to passions can often know the thoughts in the souls of others on account of their great love for them, and especially when they have not been sunk and defiled by the clay. If nothing is so opposed to immaterial nature as material nature, let him who reads understand.
To waver in one’s judgments and to remain in doubt for a long time without assurance is the sign of an unenlightened and ambitious soul.
God is not unjust and does not close the door against those who knock with humility.
In all our actions, the intention must be sought from the Lord, whether in those that require haste or in those that require to be postponed. For all actions free from attachment and from all impurity will be imputed to us for good if they have been done especially for the Lord’s sake and not for anyone else, even though these deeds are not entirely good.
All creatures have received from the Creator their order of being and their beginning, and some their end too. But the end of virtue is infinite. For the Psalmist says: I have seen the end of all perfection, but Thy commandment is exceedingly broad and boundless. If some good ascetics pass from the strength of action to the strength of contemplation, and if love never ceases, and if the Lord will guard the coming in of your fear and the going out of your love, then from this it follows that there is actually no limit to love. We shall never cease to advance in it, either in the present or in the future life, continually adding light to light. And however strange what I have said may seem to many, nevertheless it shall be said. According to the testimonies we have given, I would say, blessed Father, even the spiritual beings (i.e. the angels) do not lack progress; on the contrary, they ever add glory to glory, and knowledge to knowledge.
God is not the cause or the creator of evil, and those who say that certain passions are natural to the soul have been deceived not knowing that we have turned the constituent qualities of nature into passions. For instance, nature gives us the seed for childbearing, but we have perverted this into fornication. Nature provides us with the means of showing anger against the serpent but we have used this against our neighbour. Nature inspires us with zeal to make us compete for the virtues, but we compete in evil. It is natural for the soul to desire glory, but the glory on high. It is natural to be overbearing, but against the demons. Joy is also natural to us, but a joy on account of the Lord and the welfare of our neighbour. Nature has also given us resentment, but to be used against the enemies of the soul. We have received a desire for pleasure, but not for profligacy
God is the judge of our intentions; but in His love He does also require us to act as far as we are able. Great is he who leaves undone nothing that is within his power; but greater is he who humbly attempts what is beyond his power.
It is the privilege of the perfect to know unerringly whether a thought in the soul comes from their own consciousness, or from God, or from the demons; for the demons do not at first suggest everything that is repugnant. This is indeed a dark problem and hard to solve.
The body is enlightened by its two corporeal eyes; but in visible and spiritual discernment the eyes of the heart are illumined.
As a snake cannot strip itself of its old skin unless it crawls into a tight hole, neither can we shed our old prejudices, our oldness of soul and the garment of the old man unless we go by the strait and narrow way of fasting and dishonour.
It is just as impossible for the person who nourishes and panders to his flesh to fly to heaven as it is for an overfed bird.
Dried up mire offers no attraction for swine, and in exhausted flesh demons no longer find anywhere to rest.
As too many sticks often choke a fire and put it out, while making a lot of smoke, so excessive sorrow often makes the soul smoky and dark, and dries the stream of tears.
As tempered iron can sharpen untempered, so a fervent brother has often saved an indolent one.
As eggs that are warmed in dung hatch out, so (bad) thoughts that are not confessed hatch out and proceed to action.
As galloping horses race one another, so a good community excites mutual fervour.
As those who exchange gold for clay are the losers, so are those who discuss and divulge the spiritual for material gain.
On holy solitude:
It is not safe to swim in one’s clothes, nor should a slave of passion touch theology.
Those whose mind has learned true prayer converse with the Lord face to face, as if speaking into the ear of the Emperor. Those who make vocal prayer fall down before Him as if in the presence of the whole senate. But those who live in the world petition the Emperor amidst the clamour of all the crowds. If you have learned the art of prayer scientifically, you cannot fail to know what I have said.
Take up your seat on a high place and watch, if only you know how, and then you will see in what manner, when, whence, how many and what kind of thieves come to enter and steal your clusters of grapes.
When the watchman grows weary he stands up and prays; and then he sits down again and courageously takes up his former task.
As far as my meagre knowledge permits (for I am like an unskilled architect) I have constructed a ladder of ascent. Let each look to see on which step he is standing: Is it self-will, or human glory, or weakness of tongue, or hot temper, or too great attachment? Is it to atone for faults, or to grow more zealous, or to add fire to fire? The last shall be first, and the first last. The first seven are the activities of this world’s week, some acceptable, and some unacceptable. But the eighth clearly bears the seal of the world to come.
He who is still troubled by bad temper and conceit, by hypocrisy and remembrance of wrongs, should never dare to set foot in the solitary way, lest he gain distraction and nothing else. But if anyone is clear of these, he will know what is best – and yet I think, perhaps not even he.
Faith is the wing of prayer; without it, my prayer will return again to my bosom. Faith is the unshaken firmness of the soul, unmoved by any adversity. A believer is not one who thinks that God can do everything, but one who believes that he will obtain all things. Faith paves the way for what seems impossible; and the thief proved this for himself. The mother of faith is hardship and an honest heart; the latter makes faith constant, and the former builds it up. Faith is the mother of the solitary; for if he does not believe, how can he practise solitude?
Reading enlightens the mind considerably, and helps it concentrate. For those are the Holy Spirit’s words and they attune those who attend to them. Let what you read lead you to action, for you are a doer. Putting these words into practice makes further reading superfluous. Seek to be enlightened by the words of salvation through your labours, and not merely from books. Until you receive spiritual power do not study works of an allegorical nature because they are dark words, and they darken the weak.
Often one cup of wine is sufficient to reveal its flavour, and one word of the solitary makes known to those who can taste it his whole inner state and activity.
On holy and blessed prayer:
When you are going to stand before the Lord, let the garment of your soul be woven throughout with the thread that has become oblivious of wrongs. Otherwise, prayer will bring you no benefit. Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.
Before all else let us list sincere thanksgiving first on our prayer-card. On the second line we should put confession, and heartfelt contrition of soul. Then let us present our petition to the King of all. This is the best way of prayer, as it was shown to one of the brethren by an angel of the Lord.
If you feel sweetness or compunction at some word of your prayer, dwell on it; for then our guardian angel is praying with us.
Try to lift up, or rather, to shut off your thought within the words of your prayer, and if in its infant state it wearies and falls, lift it up again. Instability is natural to the mind, but God is powerful to establish everything. If you persevere indefatigably in this labour, He who sets the bounds to the sea of the mind will visit you too, and during your prayer will say to the waves: Thus far shalt thou come and no further. Spirit cannot be bound; but where the Creator of the spirit is, everything obeys.
Soiled prayer is one thing, its disappearance is another, robbery another, and defection another. Prayer is soiled when we stand before God and picture to ourselves irrelevant and inopportune thoughts. Prayer is lost when we are captured by useless cares. Prayer is stolen from us when our thoughts wander before we realize it. Prayer is spoilt by any kind of attack or interruption that comes to us at the time of prayer.
It is one thing frequently to keep watch over the heart, and another to supervise the heart by means of the mind, that ruler and bishop that offers spiritual sacrifices to Christ. When the holy and heavenly fire comes to dwell in the souls of the former, as says one of those who have received the title of Theologian, it burns them because they still lack purification, whereas it enlightens the latter according to the degree of their perfection. For one and the same fire is called both the fire which consumes and the light which illuminates. That is why some people come from prayer as if they were marching out of a fiery furnace and feel relief as from some defilement and from all that is material, while others are as if illumined with light and clothed in a garment of joy and humility. But those who come from prayer without experiencing either of these two effects have prayed bodily (not to say after the Jewish fashion), and not spiritually.
If a body is changed in its activity from contact with another body, then how can he remain unchanged who touches the body of God with innocent hands?
We have not all got the same needs, neither as regards the body noras regards the spirit. For brisk chanting suits some, and more leisurely singing suits others. For the former are struggling with captivity of the mind, and the latter with ignorance.
Concerning heaven on earth, or godlike dispassion:
If it is the acme of gluttony to force oneself to eat even when one has no appetite, then it is certainly the acme of temperance for a hungry man to overcome nature when it is blameless. If it is extreme sensuality to rave over irrational and even inanimate creatures, then it is extreme purity to hold all persons in the same regard as inanimate things. If it is the height of cupidity to go on collecting and never be satisfied, it is the height of poverty not to spare even one’s own body. If it is the height of despondency, while living in complete peace, not to acquire patience, then it is the height of patience to think of oneself even in affliction as being at rest. If it is called a sea of wrath for a person to be savage even when no one is about, then it will be a sea of long-suffering to be as calm in the presence of your slanderer as in his absence. If it is the height of vainglory when a person, seeing no one near him to praise him, puts on affected behaviour, it is certainly a mark of its absence, not to let your thought be beguiled in the presence of those who praise you. If it is a sign of perdition (that is to say, pride) to be arrogant even in poor clothing, then it is a mark of saving humility to have humble thoughts in the midst of high undertakings and achievements. If it is a sign of complete enslavement to the passions to yield readily to everything the demons sow in us, then I take it as a mark of holy dispassion to be able to say honestly: The evil one who dodges me, I have not known; nor how he came, nor why, nor how he went; but I am completely unaware of everything of this kind, because I am wholly united with God, and always will be.
He who has been granted such a state, while still in the flesh, always has God dwelling within him as his Guide in all his words, deeds and thoughts. Therefore, through illumination he apprehends the
Lord’s will as a sort of inner voice. He is above all human instruction and says: When shall I come and appear before the face of God? For I can no longer bear the force of love; I long for the immortal beauty which Thou hast given me in exchange for this clay.
Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues (love – hope – faith):
God is love. So he who wishes to define this, tries with bleary eyes to measure the sand in the ocean.
Love, by reason of its nature, is a resemblance to God, as far as that is possible for mortals; in its activity it is inebriation of the soul; and by its distinctive property it is a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility.
Love is essentially the banishment of every kind of contrary thought for love thinks no evil.
Love, dispassion and adoption are distinguished as sons from one another by name, and name only. Just as light, fire and flame combine to form one power, it is the same with love, dispassion and adoption.
As love wanes, fear appears; because he who has no fear is either filled with love or dead in soul.
If the face of a loved one clearly and completely changes us, and makes us cheerful, gay and carefree, what will the Face of the Lord not do when He makes His Presence felt invisibly in a pure soul?
He who loves the Lord has first loved his brother, because the second is a proof of the first. One who loves his neighbour can never tolerate slanderers, but rather runs from them as from fire. He who says that he loves the Lord but is angry with his brother is like a man who dreams that he is running. The power of love is in hope, because by it we await the reward of love. Hope is a wealth of hidden riches. Hope is a treasure of assurance of the treasure in store for us. It is a rest from labours; it is the door of love; it is the superannuation of despair; it is an image of what is absent.