John begins this step with a somewhat moderate and encouraging tone by describing repentance as a "renewal of one's baptism and a contract with God for a fresh start in life." With repentance there is always hope and never despair. As penitents we stand before our God guilty, but never disgraced. Indeed, we inflict punishments on ourselves out of love for God, in an attempt to reconcile ourselves to him and to receive the peace that comes through his forgiveness.
However, if there is a step in the "Ladder" which pierces one's heart, if there is any part of the book which really shakes us and brings the message home, it is precisely this step concerning those blessed and compunctionate and voluntary inmates of "the Prison." For truly these holy ones, crazed for Christ, described by John, are a mirror for us, the sluggish and indolent, to look into and to behold how wanting we are in the realm of true heartfelt repentance. They were earnest and serious about their repentance; we are light and distracted concerning our salvation. Some are repelled by the Prison of the "Ladder", while others are pierced and moved by the love for God and strength of soul of these stouthearted inmates, and mourn the lack of both in themselves.
1-3 Repentance described and defined.
Repentance is the renewal of baptism and is a contract with God for a fresh start in life. Repentance goes shopping for humility and is ever distrustful of bodily comfort. Repentance is critical awareness and a sure watch over oneself. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the refusal of despair. (The penitent stands guilty - but undisgraced.) Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the performance of good deeds which are the opposites of the sins. It is the purification of conscience and the voluntary endurance of affliction. The penitent deals out his own punishment, for repentance is the fierce persecution of the stomach and the flogging of the soul into intense awareness.
4-16 John then tells of his visit to the "Prison". He begins by describing the actions of the penitents and how their grief over their sin was expressed. He examines their attitudes toward their sin; their bitter sorrow and contrition and how they humbly and without excuse acknowledged their failures.
Let us give first place to the story of the dishonored workers - who still earned respect. Let us listen, take heed, and act - we who have suffered an unexpected fall. . . Listen, all you who long to be reconciled with God again in a true conversion.
I, the weakling, heard that there was a great and strange way of life and lowliness for those living in a separate monastery call "The Prison."
I went . . .to that abode of penitents, to that place of true grief, and if I may be so bold as to say so, I actually saw what the eye of an inattentive man never saw, what the ear of a lackadaisical man never heard, what never entered the heart of a sluggard. I saw things done and said that could only draw down the mercy of God, deeds and attitudes of body that quickly win His love for men.
I saw there humble and contrite souls who were saddened by the weight of their burden. The stones themselves would have been moved to pity by their voices and by their cries to God. Looking down to the ground, they would say this: "We know, we know that we deserve every punishment and every torment. Rightly so. How could we make up for all that we owe, even if we had the entire world there to weep for us? All we ask, all we pray for, all we implore is that 'in your anger You do not rebuke us or chasten us in Your wrath' (Ps. 6:2). Be sparing. It is enough for us if You deliver us from Your great threat and from unknown and hidden torments. We dare not ask for complete forgiveness. How could we, when we have failed to keep our vow unstained, but after all Your past loving kindness and forgiveness have defiled it?
The words of David could surely be seen to be fulfilled there, for there were men in hardship and bowed down to the end of their lives, going about each day in sadness, their bodies' wounds stinking of rottenness (Ps. 37:6-7) and yet unnoticed by them. They forgot to eat their bread; their drink was mixed with tears. They ate dust and ashes instead of bread; their bones stuck to their flesh and they were dried up like grass (Ps. 101:4-12). The only words you could hear from them were these: "Woe, woe, alas, alas! It is just, it is just. Spare us, spare us, O Lord." Some said, "Be merciful, be merciful"; others, more sadly: "Forgive us, Lord, forgive us if it is possible."
17-20 After having described their attitudes and behaviors, John then considers the effects of their penitence; the extreme humility it created and the detachment from worldly possessions and honors it fostered. Their repentance became a source of blessing and holiness.
Would you witness any laughter among them? Idle talk? Irritation? Anger? No, indeed. They no longer knew what it was for a man to be angry, for grief had done away with their capacity for rage.
Where was quarreling among them? Or merrymaking? Or bold speech? Or concern for the body? Where among them was any trace of vanity, or longing for comfort, or the thought of wine, or the taste of fresh fruit, or the enjoyment of cooked food, or the pleasing of the palate? The fact was that even the hope of such things in this world had been extinguished in them.
Did any of them worry about earthly things? Or pass judgment on anyone? Certainly not.
21-25 John takes us into their minds and hearts by showing us the kinds of questions they would ask themselves - how they refused to be presumptuous about the mercy and forgiveness of God.
All of them sat ceaseless contemplating death, saying, "How will it go for us? What will be the verdict on us? How will life end for us? Will we receive pardon? Will there be forgiveness for those in darkness, for the lowly, for the convicted? Is our prayer vigorous enough to come before the face of the Lord, or has it been rejected - and rightly so - for being worthless and shameful? . . . Would our prayer reconcile us completely with the Judge or only in part, only to the extent of half our wounds, which are very great and require much sweat and hard work?"
"Let us do what we can. If He opens the door, well and good; if not, then blessed be the Lord God Who in His justice has shut the door to us. At least we should continue to knock at the door as long as we live. Maybe He will open to us on account of our persistence."
26-27 John then tells us how they approached the experience of death and again how they were never presumptuous about the judgment of God or the value and effectiveness of their penitence.
The last hour of one of these was fearful to behold. When the penitents in the prison learned that one of their number was finishing his course and going ahead of them, they would gather round while his mind was still working. Thirsty, tearful, and sad, they would look at him compassionately, shaking their heads, racked with tenderness, and they would speak to the dying man: "Brother and fellow penitent, how is it with you? What will you say? What are your hopes and expectations? Have you achieved what you worked for so hard, or have you not? Has the door been opened to you, or are you still under sentence? Did you reach your goal, or did you fail? Has any kind of assurance come to you, or are you still uncertain in your hopes? Are you free at last, or does darkness and doubt still hang over your thoughts? Have you sensed any illumination in your heart, or is it still in darkness and dishonor?
Some of the dying would answer: "Blessed be God who has not turned away my prayer nor His mercy from me" (Ps 65:20). Others would say, "Blessed be the Lord Who has not given us a prey to their teeth" (Ps 123:6). But others would be sad and say: "Will our soul pass through the impassable water of the spirits of the air?" (Ps. 123:5) These would be unsure, and would be worried about the rendering of accounts after death. And more sadly yet, others would say: "Woe to the soul that has not kept its vow unblemished! In this hour, and in this one only, it will discover what is prepared for it."
28-32 John invites us to compare our indifference to their zeal in mourning for their sins. He then examines what would motivate a person to embrace such penitence and mourning.
I came close to despair when I had seen and heard all this among them and when I had compared my own indifference with what they went through. What a dreadful place they lived in! . . . Just the sight of it would teach you penitence and mourning.
Yet what for some is hard and unbearable is easy and tolerable for those who have fallen away from virtue and spiritual treasures. A soul that has lost its one-time confidence and abandoned its hope of dispassion, that has broken the seal of chastity, that has squandered the treasury of divine graces, that has become a stranger to divine consolation, that has rejected the Lord's command, that has extinguished the beautiful fire of spiritual tears - and that is wounded and pierced by sorrow as it remembers all this - will not only take on the labor mentioned above with all eagerness, but will even decide devoutly to kill itself with penitential works. It will do so if there is in it only the tiniest spark of love or of fear of the Lord. And of such a kind were these blessed men.
They would think of their former achievements and, weeping for them as though they were children that had died, they would say: "Where is the purity of my prayer? The confidence that was in it? Where are the sweet tears, instead of these bitter ones? Where is that hope of perfect chastity and purification? Where is that expectation of blessed dispassion?
33-36 John then speaks of the value of penitence and the humility needed to embrace such a path.
"It seems to me that those who have fallen and are penitent are more blessed than those who have never fallen and who do not have to mourn over themselves, because through having fallen, they have pulled themselves up by a sure resurrection."
Now I know well, my friends, that these labors I have described will seem unbelievable to some, unattainable to others, and be a source of despair to others still. Yet they will actually be an incentive to a brave soul, a fiery blast, so that he will go away with zeal in his heart, whereas the man who feels a great incapacity in himself will understand his own weakness, be humbled easily by the reproach he levels against himself, and will at least try to follow the soul who is brave. And I am not at all sure but that he may even overtake him. But the careless man had better stay away from my stories, for otherwise he may fall into despair, throw away the little he has achieved, and prove to be like that man of whom it was said: "From the man who has no eagerness, even that which he seems to have will be taken away" (cf. Matt. 25:29). It is impossible for those of us who have fallen into the sink of iniquity ever to be drawn out of it unless we also plumb the depths of the humility shown by the penitent.
The sad humility of penitents is one thing. The reproach of conscience of those who are still sinners is another. The blessed treasure of humility that, with God's help, the perfect manage to attain is yet another. And we should be in no hurry to find words adequate to this third kind of humility, for our effort will be useless. But a sign of the second kind is the perfect bearing of indignity.
37-51 The causes of moral lapses are considered and the need for courage and perseverance in the face of recurring failures. John exhorts the penitent to trust in the mercy and grace of God but also warns against presumption. Once again, humility is key and true repentance will keep one from judging or even recognizing another's faults.
An old habit often dominates even someone who mourns. No wonder, for the judgments visited by God and our own lapses make up a list hard to understand, and it is impossible to be sure which of our failings are due to carelessness, which are due to the fact that God permitted them, and which arise from God's having turned away from us. I have been told, however, that lapses occurring as a result of divine providence cause us to repent swiftly, since He Who delivers us does not permit us to be held captive for long. But above all we must fight off the demon of dejection whenever we happen to slip, for he comes right beside us when we are praying and reminds us of our former good standing with God and tries to divert us from our prayer.
Do not be surprised if you fall every day and do not surrender. Stand your ground bravely. . . A fresh warm wound is easier to heal than those that are old, neglected, and festering, and that need extensive treatment, surgery, bandaging, and cauterization. Long neglect can render many of them incurable. However, all things are possible with God (Matt. 19:26).
God is merciful before a fall, inexorable after - so the demons say. And when you have sinned, pay no attention to him who says in regard to minor failings: "If only you had not commit that major fault! This is nothing by comparison." The truth is that very often small gifts soften the great anger of the Judge.
He who really keeps track of what he has done will consider as lost every day during which he did not mourn, regardless of whatever good he may happen to have done.
Let no one who grieves for his sins expect reassurance at the hour of death. There can be no assurance about the unknown.
He who weeps for himself will not be wrapped up in the grief, lapse, or reproach of someone else.
We ought to be on our guard, in case our conscience has stopped troubling us, not so much because of its being clear but because of its being immersed in sin.
A proof of our having been delivered from our failings is the unceasing acknowledgement of our indebtedness.
Nothing equals the mercy of God or surpasses it. To despair is therefore to inflict death on oneself.
All of us - but especially the lapsed - should be especially careful not to be afflicted with the disease of the godless Origen. This foul disease uses God's love for man as an excuse and is very welcome to those who are lovers of pleasure.
52-53 John concludes by telling his readers to above all let the image of the inmates at the "Prison" be imprinted upon their minds and hearts. They are to let the example of these holy men be their rule and model for repentance.
Let the holy prisoners, described above, be a rule for you, a pattern, a model, a true picture of repentance, so that for as long as you live you will have no need of a treatise; until at last Christ, the divine Son of God, will enlighten you in the resurrection of true repentance. Amen.