The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Step 2 - On Detachment
John does not hide the difficulty of the struggle ahead for those who have entered the religious life, and provides little hope for an easier way to progress in virtue. To give oneself up to God requires a stripping of oneself of all possible attachments, concerns, anxieties, possessions, and even certain loves and friendships. In short, one must strip oneself of anything and everything and live solely for God. Only in doing this, John states, can one be truly able to pray as the psalmist, "I will cling close to you" (Ps 62:9).
There are many things, John calls them demons, which try to attack a monk after he has renounced the world. In convincing a monk that he is no better off for the renunciation, the monk either returns to the world, or falls through his grief into despair.
The grief, John tells us, comes from the love of things left behind in the world and, therefore, a monk must be diligent in guarding his heart. Once beginning the difficult journey on the narrow way, John states, it is easy to fall again onto the broad highway that leads to destruction. When the thoughts of the world threaten to overwhelm, the best weapon is prayer.
1-2 To renounce one's life and the world is worthless if after having done so the monk still pines for the things he left behind. In fact, it reveals that he did not have a good start in the spiritual journey and that he may not have had the proper motivation. The monk must throughly examine his thoughts and fight against all temptations.
If you truly love God and long to reach the kingdom that is to come, if you are truly pained by your failings and are mindful of punishment and of the eternal judgment, if you are truly afraid to die, then it will not be possible to have an attachment, or anxiety, or concern for money, for possessions, for family relationships, for worldly glory, for love and brotherhood, indeed for anything of earth. All worry about one's condition, even for one's body, will be pushed aside as hateful. Stripped of all thought of these, caring nothing about them, one will turn freely to Christ.
It would be a very great disgrace to leave everything after we have been called - and called by God, not man - and then to be worried about something that can do us no good in the hour of our need, that is, of our death.
There are demons to assail us after our renunciation of the world. They make us envy those who remain on the outside and who are merciful and compassionate. They make us regret that we seem deprived of these virtues. Their hostile aim is to bring us by way of false humility either to turn back to the world or, if we remain monks, to plunge down the cliffs of despair.
3-4 Pride and vanity may destroy the value of a monk's renunciation. Conceit may lead him to disparage the secular life or secretly despise those on the outside. Vanity may be the source and motivation of his renunciation, making his external asceticism lifeless.
Conceit may lead us to disparage the secular life or secretly to despise those on the outside. We may act in this way in order to escape despair or to obtain hope.
We should investigate why those who have lived in the world, and have endured nightlong vigils, fasting, labors, and suffering, and then have withdrawn from their fellowmen to the monastic life, as if to a place of trial or an arena, no longer practice their former fake and spurious asceticism. I have seen many different plants of the virtues planted by them in the world, watered by vanity as if from an underground cesspool, made to shoot up by love of show, manured by praise, and yet they quickly withered when transplanted to desert soil, to where the world did not walk, that is, to where they were not manured with the foul-smelling water of vanity.
5-7 Grief over what was left behind still shows some attachment - that something still has a hold upon the monk's heart. Therefore, living a monastic lifestyle is no guarantee of sanctity or salvation. A monk may just as easily be led astray by his own inner longings for the things of this world.
If someone has hated the world, he has run away from its misery; but if he has an attachment to visible things, then he is not yet cleansed of grief. For how can he avoid grief when he is deprived of something he loves? We need great vigilance in all things, but especially in regard to what we have left behind.
I have observed many men in the world assailed by anxiety, by worry, by the need to talk, by all-night watching, and I have seen them run away from the madness of their bodies. They turned to the monastic life with totally free hearts, and still were pitiably corrupted by the stirrings of the body.
We should be careful in case it should happen to us that while talking of journeying along the narrow and hard road we may actually wander onto the broad and wide highway.
8-9 Exterior mortification and renunciation will lead a monk to the greater and more difficult interior detachment from the desire for respect and honor.
Mortification of the appetite, nightlong toil, a ration of water, a short measure of bread, the bitter cup of dishonor - these will show you the narrow way. Derided mocked, jeered, you must accept the denial of your will. You must patiently endure opposition, suffer neglect without complaint, put up with violent arrogance. You must be ready for injustice, and not grieve when you are slandered; you must not be angered by contempt and you must show humility when you have been condemned.
10 In this final paragraph, Climacus discusses the means by which a monk can strengthen his resolve and keep himself faithful to his commitment to God.
Whenever our feelings grow warm after our renunciation with the memories of parents and of brothers, that is all the work of demons, and we must take up the weapons of prayer against them. Inflamed by the thought of eternal fire, we must drive them out and quench that untimely glow in our hearts. If a man thinks himself immune to the allurement of something and yet grieves over its loss, he is only fooling himself. Young men who still feel strongly the urge for physical love and pleasure and yet who also want to take on the regime of a monastery must discipline themselves with every form of vigilance and prayer, avoiding all dangerous comfort, so that their last state may not be worse than their first. For those sailing the tides of spirituality know only too well that the religious life can be a harbor of salvation or a haven of destruction, and a pitiable sight indeed is the shipwreck in port of someone who had safely mastered the ocean.
This is the second step, and if you take it, then do as Lot did, not his wife, and flee.