How not to Throw Yourself down the Ladder

The fourth Sunday of the Great Lent is dedicated to the memory of Saint John Climacus (†649), a great Orthodox ascetic. St. John was the abbot of the famous Sinai Monastery. He became well-known in the Christian world thanks to his ascetic work titled The Ladder. This book lists thirty steps of spiritual ascent and describes methods of fighting one’s passions. It deserves enormous respect and attention. Its reading during the Lent is mandatory. However, we should utilize the tools it gives into our hands with extreme caution and ask more experienced people for advice so as to avoid errors. There are some overzealous Christians nowadays who take the author’s advice too literally and don’t bear in mind their own spiritual condition or the fact that the book was written in and for a different age. Here is a list of possible mistakes immature Christians can make and the possible ways to apply the spirit of The Ladder rather than its letter in our daily life.

1. On Renouncing Worldly Life

Christians who decide to become a monk or a nun or those who choose to stay celibate and commit themselves to God renounce worldly life. We should renounce all that is in the world, namely, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16), and not the world as such.

Marital life should be regarded as a special obedience. This life is blessed by God and therefore should not be jettisoned without serious reasons.

2. On Detachment

This monastic ideal, when taken up by people who live in the world, means giving up vain goals and doing one’s best to stop complaining when one cannot achieve those goals. At times, detachment is understood as refusal or neglect with regard to daily routines of one’s family and work life. It is because of this position that Christian values are going to play lesser role in the society and the voice of the Gospel won’t be heard in the streets, in houses, and in the public sphere. Every Christian’s duty is to perform his or her responsibilities at work and at home to the same extent as he or she would perform religious duties. Only in that case non-Christians will respect us as responsible and hardworking people and listen to what we say.

4. On Blessed and Ever-Memorable Obedience

Obedience is a characteristic of monastic living when a monk forgoes his own will and does everything with an abbot’s blessing. A layman’s mistake is an insatiable desire to find a ‘spiritually advanced’ elder, although it is quite a feat to find even a good spiritual father these days. The phenomenon of the so-called ‘young elderism’ and the falsely understood obedience has taken its toll on many people, to the extent of ruined families and broken lives. Obedience to your spiritual father is a level of trust that you have to get to. While we are at it, unwillingness of some people to take up responsibility for their own lives and to make basic decisions is another issue of our contemporary church life. It makes people ask their spiritual father for advice concerning even the most insignificant problems.

6. On Remembrance of Death

Constant remembrance of one’s death and sins is an indisputable virtue, which helps to avoid sinning. It is useful to remind yourself of the imminent death every evening as you pray and ask the Lord to forgive your sins. Holy Fathers used to say, “If you remember your death hour, you will never sin again.” With that said, this virtue should not transform into depression, fear of death, and fear of not having your sins forgiven. We shouldn’t forget Apostle Paul’s words, Rejoice evermore (1 Thess.  5:16). The Orthodoxy isn’t solely contrition because of your sins and the remembrance of your death. It is the joy of remembering the Risen Christ and the gratitude to God for his love and his care for us. That is why Christians should learn to combine repentance and the joy of communication with God, so as not to fall into any of the extremes.

11. On Talkativeness and Silence

Obviously, talkativeness, especially during the Lent, doesn’t bode well a Christian. It is always useful to stay silent and quiet, especially in our age of incessant information influx. We read the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian during the Lent and ask God to set us free from the spirit of idle talk. With that in mind, let us remember that our loved ones need words of comfort, advice, or interest in their lives sometimes. We should treat everything wisely.

17. On Voluntary Poverty

We shouldn’t take the virtue of voluntary poverty too literally as a prohibition of active financial activities and the ostensible sinfulness of the desire to get paid what you deserve. Sadly, voluntary poverty sometimes is taken as an excuse for sinful sloth, unwillingness to work for the good of one’s family, and an apathetic attitude at work. Rather, the meaning of voluntary poverty is to refrain from putting too much emphasis on getting rich no matter what for the sake of wealth, vainglory, and satisfying one’s egoistical whims. Clement of Alexandria († ca. 215) elaborates in his book aptly titled Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? that wealth isn’t bad per se but it can either spoil a person or save him if he uses it sensibly to do good to his neighbors and to promote God’s glory.

19. On Sleep, Prayer, and Psalm-Singing in Chapel

Modern-day Christians should also treat this issue wisely. On the one hand, physical fasting should, according to many spiritual leaders, be accompanied by an increased prayer rule, which takes time and could possibly be done at the expense of sleep. On the other hand, if this sleep deficiency leads to loss of attention while driving, at work, etc., you shouldn’t neglect the possible outcomes and find time for prayer at the expense of something else. It must be pointed out, though, that many believers claim that they feel more refreshed after they pray. Prayer and participation in church services undoubtedly play a key part in the life of Orthodox Christian but we should pay a lot of attention to whether it doesn’t interfere with our family and friendly duties and whether it doesn’t make our relationships with people we love too aloof and detached. If the answer is yes or maybe, we should do our best to get closer to the people we love, care for them, and help them.

We honor the great monastic Saint John Climacus. We ask for his holy prayers and are amazed at the ideal of holiness that he drew for monastic life. It is immensely edifying to read his famous book, The Ladder, and pick up some useful advice, which you can apply to your family life and the life in the world in general. The Gospel ideal is the same for all Christians, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself (Luke 10:27). However, we should apply The Ladder to our life in the world – as opposed to the monastery – with great caution, asking priests for advice, and sticking to reasonable limits. Only then can a lay person climb the ladder of virtue step by step and progress in his or her living with Jesus Christ.

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