The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Step 3 - On Exile
With this third step, John concludes the first section of his treatise describing renunciation and the break with the world which is a prerequisite to the spiritual journey of the monk. As with the two previous steps, exile involves the painful stripping away of worldly attachments - renouncing all for God. Exile means leaving all that one finds familiar. For those in the religious life, it means separation from relations.
John is quick to point out that this does not mean hatred of family, but the recognition that even what is good can be used to draw one away from God. Once a person has renounced the world and entered the monastic life, the strength of his feelings for his family can draw him away from his commitment.
1-3 Exile defined.
There is such a thing as exile, an irrevocable renunciation of everything in one's familiar surroundings that hinders one from attaining the ideal of holiness. Exile is a disciplined heart, unheralded wisdom, an unpublicized understanding, a hidden life, masked ideals. It is unseen meditation, the striving to be humble, a wish for poverty, the longing for what is divine. It is an outpouring of love, a denial of vainglory, a depth of silence.
Exile is a separation from everything, in order that one may hold on totally to God.
4-5 Exile as the Mother of Detachment: when possessions or relations are not in plain sight the monk has less incentive to desire them.
Detachment is good and its mother is exile. Someone withdrawing from the world for the sake of the Lord is no longer attached to possessions, that he should not appear to be deceived by the passions. If you have left the world, then do not begin to reach out for it. Otherwise your passions will come back to you. Eve had no wish to be driven from Paradise, whereas a monk will abandon his homeland willingly; she would have wished again for the forbidden tree, but he has rebuffed the sure danger coming from the kinship of the flesh. Run from the places of sin as though from a plague. When fruit is not in plain sight, we have no great urge to taste it.
6-10 Once exile is embraced, a monk must not be tempted to think greater triumphs can be found for him in the world. Nor should he let vanity lead him back to the world; convincing himself that he could rescue others through his teaching and holiness. A true exile is careful not even to enter into conversation with others easily - knowing that it might be an act of vanity, the wish to display his knowledge.
You have to beware the ways and the guile of thieves. They come with the suggestion to us that we should not really abandon the world. They tell us of the rewards awaiting us if only we stay to look on women and to triumph over our desire for them. This is something we must not give in to at all. Indeed, we must do the very opposite.
Then again we manage for some time to live away from our relatives. We practice a little piety, compunction, self-control. And then the empty thoughts come tramping towards us, seeking to turn us back to place we knew. They tell us what a lesson we are, what an example, what a help to those who witnessed our former wicked deeds. If we happen to be articulate and well informed, they assure us that we could be rescuers of souls and teachers to the world. They tell us all this so that we might scatter at sea the treasures we have assembled while in port. So we had better imitate Lot, and certainly not his wife. The soul turning back to the regions from which it came will be like the salt that has lost savor, indeed like that famous pillar. Run from Egypt, run and do not turn back. The heart yearning for the land there will never see Jerusalem, the land of dispassion.
A true exile, despite his possession of knowledge, sits like someone of foreign speech among men of other tongues.
11-12 An exile does not abhor his family relations but he is seeking to imitate Christ, whose love for his heavenly Father and His will had absolute value. Do not think, John warns, that you can have two masters even if both are good.
If we have taken up the solitary life, we certainly ought not to abhor our own relations or our own places, but we ought to be careful to avoid any harm that may come from these. Here, as in everything, Christ is our teacher. It often looked as if He were trying to rebuff His earthly parents. Some people said to Him, "Your mother and your brothers are looking for you," and at once Christ gave an example of detachment that were nonetheless free from any harsh feelings. "My mother and my brothers are those who do the will of my Father in heaven," He said. So let your father be the one who is able and willing to labor with you in bearing the burden of your sins, and your mother the compunction that is strong enough to wash away your filth. Let your brother be your companion and rival in the race that leads to heaven, and may the constant thought of death be your spouse. Let your longed-for offspring be the moanings of your heart. May your body be your slave, and your friends the holy powers who can help you at the hour of dying if they become your friends.
If you long for God, you drive out your love for family. Anyone telling you he can combine these yearnings is deceiving himself. "No one can serve two masters" (Matt. 6:24). "I did not come to bring peace on earth," says the Lord, knowing how parents would rise up against sons or brothers who chose to serve Him. "It was for war and the sword" (Matt. 10:34), to separate the lovers of God from the lovers of the world, the materially-minded from the spiritually-minded, the vainglorious from the humble.
13 Those in exile must keep a close watch on their feelings; when drawn away from the noble contest because of its difficulty they must reflect upon their own mortality and even their own past sins.
Do not let the tears of parents or friends fill you with pity, lest you find yourself weeping forever in the afterlife. When they circle around you like bees, or rather wasps, when they pour out their laments over you, do not hesitate at all but think at once of your death and keep the eye of your soul directed unswervingly to what it used to do, that you may be able to counteract one pain with another.
14-15 A monk must shield his efforts in humility, never thinking of what he has done as his own achievement.
When demons or men lavish praise on us for our exile as if it were a great achievement, let us remind ourselves at once of Him Who came down from heaven for our benefit and exiled Himself to earth. Nothing we could ever do would match that.
16-17 Even the slightest attachment can gradually draw a monk back to the world and cool the fire of his contrition. Simply being in the presence of the worldly and those of bad character can defile a monk's heart, or lead him to hold others in contempt, which would certainly be his downfall.
An attachment to any of our relations or even to a stranger is hard enough to deal with. It can gradually pull us back toward the world and make cool the fire of our contrition. You cannot look to heaven and to earth at the same time; similarly, if you have not turned your back completely on your relatives and others in thought and in body, you cannot avoid endangering your soul.
To establish a good and firm character within ourselves is something very difficult and troublesome, and one crisis can destroy what we have worked so hard to set right. Bad, worldly and disorderly company destroys good character (cf. 1 Cor. 15:33). When a man has renounced the world and still returns to its affairs or draws near to it, he will either fall into its snares or will defile his heart with thoughts of it. He may perhaps be uncorrupted himself. But if he comes to feel contempt for those who are corrupted, then assuredly he will join them in their corruption.
18-24 In these final paragraphs, John turns his attention to the dreams of novices. After a monk has left home and family for the sake of the Lord, the demons try to shake him through the stirrings of the mind during the body's rest.
After we leave home and family for the sake of the Lord, after we have gone into exile for the love of God, the demons try to shake us with dreams. They show us our relatives grieving, near death, poverty-stricken or imprisoned because of us. But the man who believes in dreams is like someone running to catch up with his own shadow.
To the credulous, a devil is a prophet; and to those who despise him, he is just a liar. Because he is a spiritual being, he knows what is happening in the lower regions, that someone is dying, for instance, so by way of dreams he passes the information on to the more gullible. However, demons lack actual foreknowledge. If they did not, these tricksters would be able to foretell our deaths.
Devils often take on the appearance of angels of light or martyrs and they appear to us in sleep and talk to us, so that they can push us into unholy joy and conceit when we wake up. But this very effect will reveal their trick, for what angels actually reveal are torments, judgments, and separation, with the result that on waking up we tremble and are miserable. And if we start to believe in the devils of our dreams, then we will be their playthings when we are also awake.
The man who believes in dreams shows his inexperience, while the man who distrusts every dream is very sensible. Trust only the dreams that foretell torments and judgment for you, but even these dreams may also be from demons if they produce despair in you.
This is the third step, equaling the number of the Three Persons. Whoever has reached it should look neither to right or left.