Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Ladder Steps 29-30: The End

Sadly, this is the last post on the Ladder of Divine Ascent. I am sorry to see it come to an end. I am sure I learned much more than my class in studying it. There was much I could not teach because I could not come close to an accurate understanding much less practical experience of the truth. Hopefully the summaries have been helpful, and they will drive you to the original. As I said in the first post Fr. John Mack's book is an excellent primer to get you started and then I heartily recommend the original Ladder. I know many who read through this book every Lent as the monastics do.

Let me know if this was helpful and if a different format for future notes would be better.

Step 29 - On Dispassion

-the spiritual state where the passions do not exist.

St. John says that this man "regards the artifice of demons as a contemptible joke."

At this stage, the passions of man have become transformed by Christ so much so that temptation, although it may be relentless and fierce, has no affect on the dispassionate man.

Here we come close to the end of the book, and St. John lays out the fruit of our labor to let us know that there is more. Even if you have achieved great strides spiritually…there is more. We never stop growing in God. Christianity is not static, it is always a dynamic relationship with the Trinity. C.S. Lewis in his final Narnia book perfectly describes this journey as "further up and further in". Because we are finite and God is infinite, there is no end to our discovery. Even those saints who achieve dispassion in this life never stop growing in God. Even throughout eternity we continue to grow in God.

Step 30 - On Faith, Hope & Love

In this final step, St. John summarizes the goal of spiritual development much as Jesus and Paul. When questioned about the greatest commandment, Jesus said that it was love God and to love others. Paul after discussing all the gifts that God gives to man, says, “And now, finally, after all that we have said, there remain these three that bind and secure the union of all: faith, hope, love; and the greatest of these is love, for God Himself is so called. (I Corinthians 13:13 and I John 4: 8 and 16)”

Love is the ulimate expression of our life with God. Love is present in all the steps. Yet each step purifies us so that we can love more truly and rightly. Unfortunately, there is so much self in our life that we do love as we ought and thus the steps train us to love God and man.

This is the goal. It's is not to become better pray-ers or fasters or almsgivers. It is to love. Those disciplines are necessary but they are means and not the ends.

So this study ends with the exhortation, "Love one another."

Monday, August 28, 2006

Louisville Orthodox Book Club & Institute for Orthodox Studies

The Orthodox Book Club will be meeting on Sunday, September 24, at 6:00 PM at the Dryden home to discuss The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death, by Fr. John Behr.

Fr. Behr will be the keynote speaker at the "Institute for Orthodox Studies" on September 22 and 23. He is Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir's Seminary.

The following is the summary of the book given by the publisher: "By returning to the methodology of the early Church, Fr. Behr invites readers to approach the mystery of Christ in the same way that the first disciples of Jesus Christ learned theology. Fr. Behr examines how we search the scriptures to encounter Christ and thereby realize that we were created for this encounter, thus opening a profound perspective on creation, fall, sin, and salvation history. He further explains how Christ is born in those who are born again in the Church, their 'Virgin Mother,' so that they become truly human, after the stature of Christ, and continue the incarnation of the Word by glorifying God in their bodies."

Fr. Behr has also written The Way to Nicaea and The Nicene Faith.

Click on the name below for more info about his books on Amazon.

Fr. John Behr

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Ladder Step 28

Step 28 - On Prayer

“[Prayer is] A dialogue and union of man with God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves reconciliation with God.”

This is the goal of all our spiritual work which is union with God.

“War reveals the love of a soldier for his king, and the time and practice of prayer show a [Christian’s] love for God. So your prayer shows where you stand.”

“Get ready for your time of prayer by unceasing prayer in your soul.”

The rule of prayer is essential to the spiritual life. This is addressed in any Orthodox work on prayer. The rule of prayer should be something done every day regardless of anything else. It should be the minimum that is done that is consistent to your daily life.

“However pure you may be, do not be forward in your dealing with God. Approach Him rather in al humility and you will be given still more boldness.”

Personal Prayer should contain:

1. Thanksgiving

2. Confession

3. Requests

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Prayers from St. Ephraim

"I have the will, but I cannot say that I have the strength. I give what I have. Consider my situation and if it pleases Thee to give me what I lack, grant it to me."
-from St. Ephraim in The Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God excerpted by Bishop Theophan the Recluse.

The above book is an excellent little book that I bought a couple of lents ago. I enjoyed it upon purchase, but only recently picked it up again. I don't know why I put it down. St. Ephraim was an early Christian saint in the whereabouts of modern day Iraq/Turkey. He has written an incredible amount of wonderful poetry that is reflective of his own prayer life.

This book is actually a compilation of another saint of the Church--St. Theophan the Recluse. St. Theophan is a wonderful saint for 19th century Russia. His works are easy to read and contain practical instructions on living the Christian life. St. Theophan took many of the prayers of St. Ephraim and compiled them into 150 prayers so they resembled the Psalter.

This treasure is full of pryaers that encourage repentance and humility and is worth incorporating into your prayer life at least during the fasting periods of the Church. It should be a trustworthy guide toward a life of repentance.

You can find another book review here

& a life of St. Ephraim here and here.

a great blog about a current travel experience with St. Ephraim.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Ladder Step 27

Step 27 - On Stillness

St. John "We are like purchased slaves, like servants under contract to the unholy passions. And because this is so, we know a little of their deceits, ways, impositions, and wiles. We know of their evil despotism in our wretched souls. But there are others who fully understand the tricks of these spirits, and they do so because of the working of the Holy Spirit and because of the freedom they themselves have managed to achieve. We in our sickness can only imagine the sort of relief that would come with good health."

This is one of the rewards of the spiritual life. The place of rest that one comes when they are no longer affected by temptation of sin.

Even though we may not experience this continually we do experience this from time to time.

The paradox is that the path to this type of lasting continuous peace is attained by great spiritual struggle.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Ladder Step 26

Step 26 - On Discernment

Discernement is the ability to know God’s will in every situation; to know how to do battle in the spiritual life; and to understand all the schemes of the devils.

St. John discusses three levels of discernment in the spiritual life and how discernment develops in our lives.

  1. Beginners – self-knowledge.

-What does this mean? The phrase “Know Thyself” comes from Greek philosophy, but what do the Fathers mean by this?

- Knowing yourself is not necessarily a pleasant enterprise. It is a honest self-evaluation that results in repentance, mourning, and humility. It an acute awareness of ones weaknesses, sins, and tendencies to sin.

  1. Midway – know the difference between good and evil in every situation. This does not just refer to ethical dilemmas that may seem gray, but our interaction in the battle for our soul. We begin to see and understand the schemes of the devil.

  1. Perfect – to be so illumined by God that you are able to illumine others. This is not just referring to the ability of good advice, but the ability to help someone actualize God’s grace, to be transformed, to be released from the bondage of their own sins.

St. John then spends the rest of the step discussing the path to discernment, which is to be pure in heart. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Oftentimes we define knowing God’s will as God putting His stamp of approval on what we are doing.

General Advice toward purity: Destroy gluttony, vainglory, and avarice then you will destroy lust, despondency, pride, dejection, anger.

Demons plan to thwart purity which leads to discernment, and our battle plan:

1. Impede spiritual achievement. Strategy: zeal for God and remembrance of Death.

2. Act against God’s will. Strategy: obedience & humility.

3. Vainglory. Strategy: unceasing self-condemnation.

Other advice in the battle: Be watchful when physically sick for the attack on your soul. Watch the motives for your actions.

A life of prayer is essential in the battle for purity. St. John gives advice on how we respond to prayer in the context of the struggle for purity. What does it mean when God delays answer your cry for help?

1. God's answer would be premature.

2. We are praying from wrong motives primarily vainglory

3. If answered it would lead us to more sin.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Ladder Steps 25

Step 25 - On Humility

St. John begins this step talking about the futility of talking about humility. He says that he can speak about it, but unless we act upon it then we can never learn.

Humility begins when we begin the struggle for godliness. If we are not struggling to be holy, then we will not learn humility.

Signs of humility in your life: (Church sign: If you think you have it, you have lost it. )

1. Willingness to be humiliated. “The delighted readiness to accept indignity, to receive it with open arms, to welcome it as something that relieves and cauterizes the diseases of the soul.” “indignity shows the true state of the heart.”

2. Freedom from anger. “Wiping out of anger—and modesty over the fact that this has happened.”

3. Humble about spiritual progress. “Honest distrust of one’s virtue, together with the unending desire to know more.” Unfortunately, to become prideful over the development of virtue is to lose what is gained. This is a great trap of the devil. Much ascetical literature is full of stories of the demons coming to someone praising him for his virtues. If the person, falls for this then he finds himself falling into delusion or some other vice.

The Path of Humility:

  1. Meditate on past sins that are forgiven.
  2. Remember the passion of Christ.
  3. Recount your daily lapses
  4. Remember the gifts of God and know how unworthy you are to receive them
  5. Perform humble acts. “virtues of the soul are shaped by our outward behavior.”

-we never separate the physical from the spiritual. Ex. Jesus washing the disciples feet.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Ladder Step 24

Step 24 - On Meekness, Simplicity, Guilelessness, Wickedness

Meekness can be difficult to define. I think our culture hears this word and thinks weakness. It is gentleness of the spirit. It is between apathy and unrestrained zeal or anger. It is the stability of soul because it is grounded in the love and sovereignty of God.

St. John further defines meekness by discussing simplicity and guilelessness which is part of being meek.

Simplicity: not hypocritical; what you see is what you get.

-“those who have simplicity as part of their nature are good, but those who come by it through struggle are better. The reason is that it is the gateway to humility

- simplicity opens our life to God’s grace.

- Children embody this virtue of simplicity. (Mt. 18:3) "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Guilelessness: uncalculating—no hidden agenda; not being cunning or crafty

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Ladder Step 23

Step 23 - On Pride

Pride is a denial of God; reason for Satan’s fall Is 14:12ff; 1 Tim 3:6

“I have seen people who speak aloud their thanks to God but who in their hearts are glorifying themselves” (Pharisee in Lk 18:11)

Markers of Pride:

1. Need for Control “The proud man wants to be in charge of things. He would feel lost otherwise.”

2. Can’t accept criticism. “to reject criticism is to show pride”

3. Argumentative

Dangers of Pride:

1. You become opposed to God. James 4:6 – this word for resist is a battle word meaning that the person’s pride sets himself as an enemy of God.

2. Dimishes virtues developed. St. John “Pride loses the profits of all hard work and sweat.” --nobody gives humility trophies.

3. It cascades into other sins.


1. Confession.

2. Lives of the Saints. Reading the lives of the saints help puts our spiritual efforts in perspective. Whatever virtue or ascetic endeavors where we may have found "success", their is another's life who dwarfs our own.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Ladder Step 22

Step 22 - On Vainglory

St. John “The sun shines on all alike, and vainglory beams on all activities. For instance, I am vainglorious when I fast; and when I relax the fast in order to be unnoticed, I am again vainglorious over my prudence. When well-dressed I am quite overcome by vainglory, and when I put on poor clothes I am vainglorious again. When I talk I am defeated, and when I am silent I am again defeated by it. However I throw this prickly-pear, a spike stands upright.”

Vainglory is the first step before pride. This is a not a word in much use today, much like avarice. However, we are awash in it. Obsession with the outward appearance. We are screaming, "Look at me...look at my stuff...look at what I have done."

Signs of Vainglory

1. rejoices in appearance both physical and behavior; how we appear before men.

2. the motive for everything is to please men rather than God

3. Response to praise. “men of high spirit endure offence nobly and willingly. But only the holy and the saintly can pass unscathed through praise.

4. Response to criticism. “not the self-critical who reveals his humility. Rather it is the man who continues to love the person who criticizes him.”

-This is a tough one, because we are encourage in society to stand out and be noticed. The key to our defeat of this sin is our motivation for action. Do we act to be noticed, especially in our spiritual pursuits?

Dangers of Vainglory:

1. Vainglory will often bring dishonor into our life…. "pride goes before a fall” Prov 16:18

2. Vainglory inhibits answers to prayers because an answer would increase our vainglory.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Ladder Steps 18-21

Step 18 Insensitivity - Getting Serious about God

Insensitivity is a callousness to spiritual things; just as we can become desensitized to bad things; we can become numb to things of God as well.

The following is a longer quote than I would normally read, but it seems so pertinent and convicting. St. John, “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 philosophizes 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 becomes 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. 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 those who live in stillness 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 say cannot.”

Insensitivity is when we we allow our handling of holy things to become too familiar. Remember the Old Testament story about Uzzah mis-handling the ark of the covenant. The Israelites were transporting the ark back from its exile with the Philistines. This was a good thing. However, this was an object that was holy. Holiness implies separateness. The ark was different, and was only used for one purpose and that was in the worship of God. Therefore it should not be treated as commonplace. In order to cement, this idea of separateness, in the minds of the Jews, God gave special instructions for the way it was to be handled. Therefore when it was brought out of exile, it should have been handled appropriately. Uzzah sin was probably not so much in touching the ark, but in treating it lick mere goods to be transported. He place it on an ox-cart. To put it in modern Orthodox understanding, it would be like eating beer and pizza on the altar table. I think most would see the sacreligious nature in that.

Most of us don't mishandle holy objects, but we may not treat the things of God properly. One of the easiest ways for us to become insensitive is to begin thinking of Orthodoxy as an ideology that we can talk about and discuss rather than a way of life that pushes us to continual repentance.

Fr. John Mack, “We must always push ourselves. We will always talk better than we live. But let us always be bothered by this.”

St. John always gives solutions to avoid a vice. One of St. John’s solutions here is to contemplate the judgment.

Step 19 On Sleep - Staying Awake

Prov 6:10,11 “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep—So shall your poverty come upon you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man.”

St. John, “Just as over-drinking is a matter of habit, so too from habit comes over-sleeping.”

So when does sleep become a problem?

1. When it keeps us from prayer.

2. When we choose to sleep rather than pray then we enter the danger zone (Fr. John Mack).

St. John of Kronstadt said that when we go to sleep without prayer we leave our mind open to sinful influences.

One Orthodox tradition to say a prayer to our Guardian Angel prior to bed.

St. Nicholai of Ochrid, a twentieth century saint, with ties to America says, "Begin to pray. Pray for five minutes. After that if the exhaustion remains, shorten your prayers and go to sleep. If, however, at the end of five minutes , the exhaustion has lifted finish your prayers. The exhaustion was from the evil one."

Step 20 On Alertness Staying Alert

This follows the previous step, and is the more positive aspect of the same action. Once you get out of bed…how do we stay attentive during prayer.

Have you ever said the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed or another familiar prayer, and get to the end realizing that you were not paying attention the whole time?

Alertness is doing battle with lack of interest in prayer.

How do we battle this?

1. One way is to realize that corporate prayer enhances our personal prayer and vice versa. As we force ourselves to be attentive during the Divine Services, we learn to become more attentive in our personal prayers, and vice versa.

2. realize that prayer is usual hard work and a battle.

3. Using a prayer rope. This physical/material action can help focus the mind an heart. In a sense you are using your whole being --body and mind.

4. Standing in Prayer. This is definitely traditional in Orthodox services. In fact, most churches in traditional Orthodox countries and some in this country, have no pews.

5. Prostrations. Once again joining the body with spirit. If nothing else, the mere physical exertion with this act should lead to good blood flow and alertness.

6. Remember the object of our prayer. St. John Chrysostom “"We must pray with ever vigilant attention. And this will be possible if we understand well with whom we are conversing, and that during such time we are his servants offering sacrifice to God.”

St. John of the Ladder says: "Even if your mind is constantly distracted from your prayer, you must struggle unceasingly to recall it. We shall not be condemned because our attention was distracted in prayer, but rather because we did not attempt to bring it back."

Step 21 On Unmanly Fears - Facing our Fears

Who says religion and Christianity are femine, at least within Orthodoxy there is still a celebration of the masculine. The desire to battle and act courageously in spite of the dangers and fear that may lurk ahead, because One has gone before us and conquered.

Fear can create spiritual danger.

“Fear is a lapse from faith that comes from anticipating the unexpected. Fear is a rehearsing of danger beforehand; or again, fear is a trembling sensation of the heart, alarmed and troubled by unknown misfortunes. Fear is a loss of assurance.”

Why is fear dangerous to the spiritual life?

-it hinders obedience and love. A biblical example is the response of the disciples at the passion of Christ. They were unable to love their master for fear of their own demise.

What are the things that we can fear?

-Ultimately we fear the death of our person. This may be physical in nature, but it usually emotional or spiritual. For example, "I am afraid of looking weak (having my self diminished or dying in the eyes of others) before others therefore I must assert myself and even belittle others so that I do not die."

Why do we fear?

St. John gives to reasons: pride, demonic oppression

We must consider Paul's advice to Timothy. 2 Tim 1:7-8 "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God." To love through suffering and the potential death of self....that's manliness.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Ladder Steps 16 & 17

Step 16 On Avarice

-unfortunately Avarice is not a word often used in the English language, and it is my guess that most would not know what it means. In fact, I remember looking it up just a few years back.

Just in case you do not know, it means the love of money.

Avarice, according to St. John, is Idolatry, and the offspring of unbelief. This is obvious because it wealth becomes the substance that trust to provide for us (1 Tim 6:10). It will sustain us, and shows our lack of faith in God.

St. John, "The man who has conquered this vice has cut our care, but the man trapped by it can never pray freely to God."

Met. Bloom's book, Beginning to Pray, discusses this holding onto the material as it relates to prayer. According to Bloom, prayer is a relationship of love. And we can only understand this relationship with God through the beatitude of poverty. All that we possess as humans is a gift from God, and we must realize that we possess nothing that we can keep.

Everything that we have is a sign of God's love. When we hold on tightly to those possessions it takes us out of the realm of love, and this out of the ability to pray rightly. Our focus becomes the gifts of God rather than God Himself.

What a difficult vice to overcome in this world. Compared with other times in human history we are flooded with material stuff, and I know that I worry about my financial state. I spend too much time thinking about how to jockey for more money so that I may be more "secure".

Lord have mercy.

Step 17 On Poverty

Remember that St. John is speaking to monastic who are following the early Church pattern of renouncing all wealth, and holding all in common with other believers. So we may think that poverty is easy for the monastic because it is imposed outwardly, yet having nothing they may still struggle with this in their heart.

St John, "Indeed he is not genuinely poor if he starts to worry about something."

Could the opposite be said of us? Even though we are rich, if we do not worry over material things are we poor.

Once again John emphasizes the impact that stuff has on our pray life: "A man who has embraced poverty offers up prayer that is pure, while a man who loves possessions prays to material images."

St. John holds up Job as a model of poverty. "There was no trace of avarice in Job, and so he remained tranquil when he lost everything." Perhaps he is a perfect model for our times. Job was a wealthy man for his day, yet he lost all. God eventually restored his wealth more than before, yet Job was still considered free from stuff.

St. John's solution is "detachment" which comes from an experience and taste of God's grace. The more that we taste of God, the less attached we are to the things of this world.

There is a movement toward simplicity within our culture. Although it seems to be counter-cultural. I am not sure if its roots are Christian, but the principles can help us in our effort to become detached. Hoarding is easy. We accumulate without thinking. In our society, it is harder to say we don't need something. Recently I have been cleaning out closets and going through clothes. I felt ashamed at how much I had, and felt ridiculous at the stuff I am keeping. Do I really need 26 t-shirts? After giving and throwing away alot, there is a liberation that comes.

May be become detached from things and attached to God.


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