Monday, July 15, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step Fifteen On Chastity

In this step, St. John writes about the struggle for chastity: "The man who decides to struggle against his flesh and to overcome it by his own efforts is fighting in vain.  The truth is that unless the Lord overturns the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the man wishing to overcome it has watched and fasted for nothing.  Offer the Lord the weakness of your nature.  Admit your incapacity and, without your knowing it, you will win for yourself the gift of chastity."
            Sadly, in today's world, these words sound foreign.  As a society, we have abandoned the concept of sexual virtue and purity.  On our television screens and in the movie theaters, we calmly watch without reaction repeated violations of chastity.  As Christians we have come to accept and tolerate attitudes and behaviors in ourselves and others that at another time would have been unthinkable.  In so many ways we have lost sight of the fact that Chastity is not only precious in the eyes of God but a necessary virtue for us to obtain in our ascent to heaven.  Holy Scripture makes this clear: "Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness . . . and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal 5:19,21).  For this reason, St. John calls unchastity "a sort of death within us, a sin that is catastrophic."
            What then is Chastity?  St. John answers: "The chaste man is not someone with a body undefiled, but rather a person whose members are in complete subjection to the soul."  One must remember that for St. John the body is both adversary and friend: adversary in as much as it has been marred by the fall, friend in as much as it remains God's creation and is called to share in the resurrection glory.  For the Christian, the body is not a tomb or prison, not a piece of clothing to be worn for a time and then cast aside, but an integral part of the true self.  The Christian's aim is "a body made holy."  Likewise, the passions, although a consequence of the fall and therefore no true part of human nature, are merely the distortion of the natural impulses implanted by God.  While repudiating the passions, we should not reject the natural God-given impulses that underlie them, but should restore to good use that which has become misdirected as a result of the fall.  Our watchword should be "transfigure" not "suppress"; "educate" not "eradicate".  Therefore, physical eros is not to be considered sinful, but can and should be used as a way of glorifying God.  Sin is evil, but not the body and its natural impulses.  In fact, physical love can be a paradigm of our longing for God.  The struggle for chastity, then, begins with controlling the body's sexual desires, through prayer and spiritual discipline, and ends with their transfiguration.  Having overcome the passion, we are free to be our true selves, free to love others, free to love God.
            How do we fight against the spirit of unchastity?  St. John speaks a great deal about the necessity of doing serious battle against  "evil thoughts" - that is, thoughts provoked by demons.  This also includes conceptual images such as fantasies.  Through ascetical discipline and prayer we must foster watchfulness - a state of spiritual sobriety, alertness, and vigilance in which one constantly guards the heart and intellect.  In our discipline we must be as relentless and cunning as the demons who tempt us.  With one difference - - We must in humility recognize our weakness and absolute dependence upon God to attain this virtue.

1-8            Chastity defined: its nature and qualities.  As a rightly ordered love it shares something in common with and belongs to all virtues.

            Chastity is a supernatural denial of what one is by nature, so that a mortal and corruptible body is competing in a truly marvelous way with incorporeal spirits.  A chaste man is someone who has driven out bodily love by means of divine love, who has used heavenly fire to quench the fires of the flesh.
            Chastity is a name common to all virtues.

            Anyone trained in chastity should give himself no credit for any achievements, for a man cannot conquer what he actually is.  When nature is overcome, it should be admitted that this is due to Him Who is above nature, since it cannot be denied that the weaker always yields to the stronger.

            The chaste man is not someone with a body undefiled but rather a person whose members are in complete subjection to the soul, for a man is great who is free of passion even when touched, though greater still is the man unhurt by all he has looked on.  Such a man has truly mastered the fires of earthly beauty by his attention concentrated on the beauties of heaven.  In driving off this dog by means of prayer he is like someone who has been fighting a lion.  He who subdues it by resistance to it is someone still chasing an enemy.  But the man who has managed to reduce its hold completely, even when he himself is still in this life, is someone who has already risen from the dead.

9-19            John then describes the different levels of self-restraint.  He warns, however, that whatever level of restraint we may have achieved we must never trust ourselves.  It the battle for chastity, we must rely only on the grace of God.  It alone can transform nature.

            The man who struggles against this enemy by sweat and bodily hardships is like someone who has tied his adversary with a reed.  If he fights him with temperance, sleeplessness, and keeping watch, it is as if he had put fetters on him.  If he fights with humility, calmness, and thirst, it is as though he had killed the enemy and buried him in sand, the sand being lowliness since it does nothing to feed the passions and is only earth and ashes.

            The fox pretends to be asleep; the body and the demons pretend to be chaste.  The former is on the watch to seize a bird, the latter to catch a soul.  So as long as you live, never trust that clay of which you are made and never depend on it until the time you stand before Christ himself.  And never imagine that abstinence will keep you from falling.  It was a being who never ate that was nevertheless thrown out of heaven.

            Do not imagine that you will overwhelm the demon of fornication by entering into an argument with him.  Nature is on his side and he has the best of the argument.  So the man who decides to struggle against his flesh and to overcome it by his own efforts is fighting in vain.  The truth is that unless the Lord overturns the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the man wishing to overcome it has watched and fasted for nothing.  Offer up to the Lord the weakness of your nature.  Admit your incapacity and, without your knowing it, you will win for yourself the gift of chastity.

20-26            John warns that we must not be fooled by periods of continence.  Rather we must take precautions against the enemy, studying how he works.

            When our spiritual foes are drawn up to do battle with us, we should ponder what it is they can do, just as we would take precautions in a visible war.  For those foes have their proper tasks, strange as this may seem.

            In the battle against ascetics and those leading the solitary life, the devil regularly uses all his force, zeal and low skill, all his intrigue, cleverness, and evil designs to overpower them by means that are unnatural rather than according to nature.  And so it happens that when ascetics meet women and find themselves assailed neither by desire nor by evil thoughts, they occasionally come to imagine that they have achieved true blessedness.  Poor idiots!  They do not realize that a smaller lapse was not required since a major fall had in fact been prepared for them.

            Our relentless enemy, the teacher of fornication, whispers that God is lenient and particularly merciful to this passion, since it is so very natural.  Yet if we watch the wiles of the demons we will observe that after we have actually sinned they will affirm that God is a just and inexorable judge.  They say one thing to lead us into sin, another thing to overwhelm us in despair.  And if we are sorrowful or inclined to despair, we are slower to sin again, but when the sorrow and the despair have been quenched, the tyrannical demon begins to speak to us again of God's mercy.

27-51            In the following paragraphs John tells us that in striving for chastity we need not only cultivate temperance, but the virtues of obedience wherein one learns to renounce his own life and desires to God, stillness through which one develops and accurate knowledge of his feelings, thoughts and perceptions, and humility wherein one acknowledges his absolute dependence upon the grace of God.  In every way we must be sober and watchful, guarding each of the senses, knowing the times when temptation is most likely to come, and arming ourselves with the necessary weapons for battle.

            The mother of chastity is stillness and obedience.  Often the dispassion of body attained by stillness has been disturbed whenever the world impinged on it.  But dispassion achieved through obedience is genuine and is everywhere unshakable.

            The man who imagines he can conquer the demon of fornication by gluttony and by stuffing himself is quite like someone who quenches fire with oil.  And the man who tries to put an end to this struggle by means of temperance only is like someone trying to escape from the sea by swimming with just one hand.  However, join humility to temperance, for the one is useless without the other.

            The body can be defiled by the merest touch, for of all the senses this is the most dangerous.

            We have to be especially sober and watchful when we are lying in bed, for that is the time when our mind has to contend with demons outside our body.  And if our body is inclined to be sensual then it will easily betray us.  So let the remembrance of death and the concise Jesus prayer go to sleep with you and get up with you, for nothing helps you as these do when you are asleep.

            When temptation comes, our best weapons are sackcloth and ashes, all-night vigils standing up, hunger, the merest touch of water and most important of all, humility of heart; and if possible a spiritual director or a helpful brother, old in wisdom rather than years, should also support us.  Indeed it would come as a great surprise if anyone could, by his own efforts alone, save his ship from the sea.

52-60            It is also important to know the reasons behind periods of continence.  We must guard against becoming prideful or easing up on our discipline.  Demons, John warns, often hide themselves in order to bring about a greater fall.  Therefore, we must never look upon or listen to those things which may lead to impurity.  We must not subject ourselves even once to anything that is sinful.  To do so is to weaken our resolve and to expose ourselves to future conflict.

            If we have to go out into the world one some legitimate task, we have the hand of God to guard us, probably because our spiritual director is praying that we may not be a cause of blasphemy against the Lord.  Sometimes we are protected by our insensitivity or by the fact that long experience has exhausted for us the spectacle of the world, its sounds and all its works.  But sometimes the reason lies in the fact that the devils have left deliberately so that only the demon of pride remains to take over from all of them.
            But all of you who wish to practice purity and preserve it would listen now to another cunning stratagem of that deceiver, for I have been told by someone who had to suffer the experience that the demon of sensuality often hid himself completely.  Then he would have a monk sit or talk with women.  He would inspire him with great piety and even a flood of tears, and then suggest that he speak about the remembrance of death, judgment, and chastity.  The unfortunate women, deceived by his words and spurious piety, would rush to him, thinking him to be a shepherd instead of the wolf he really was.  Acquaintance would grow into familiarity, and the wretched monk would suffer his downfall.
            We should strive in all possible ways neither to see nor to hear of that fruit we have vowed never to taste.  It amazes me to think we could imagine ourselves to be stronger than the prophet David, something quite impossible indeed.

            The serpent of sensuality has many faces.  To those who have had no experience of sin he suggests the idea of trying it once and then stopping.  Then the crafty creature, exploiting the recollection of having sinned once, urges them to try again.  And many of the people without experience feel no conflict within themselves because they do not know what is evil, whereas the experienced, knowing the evil for what it is, suffer disturbance and conflict . . .

61-74            John gives us an analysis of the process of temptation in order that we might learn how the demons seek to incite us to sin.  He admits, that while one may understand this process, the onslaught of a disturbance and thought is often so swift that it is beyond a man's recognition.  This demon is persistent and patient.  It is cunning; even when thwarted by our efforts it will always seek a new point of entry.  We must fight hard and get into the habit of waging war for, as John warns, this demon tries harder than all the others.

            Among the discerning Fathers, distinctions are recognized between provocation, coupling, assent, captivity, struggle, and the disease called passion, which is in the soul.  These blessed Fathers say that provocation is a simple word or image encountered for the first time, which has entered into the heart.   Coupling is conversation with what has been encountered, whether this be passionately or otherwise.  Assent is the delighted yielding of the soul to what it has encountered.  Captivity is a forcible and unwilling abduction of the heart, a permanent lingering with what we have encountered and which totally undermines the necessary order of our souls.  By struggle they mean force equal to that which is leading the attack, and this force wins or loses according to the desires of the spirit.  Passion, in their view, is properly something that lies hidden for a long time in the soul and by its very presence it takes on the character of a habit, until the soul of its own accord clings to it with affection.
            The first of these conditions is free of sin, the second sometimes, the condition of the soul determines whether or not the third is sinful.  Struggle can earn a crown or punishment.  Captivity is judged in different ways, depending on whether it happens at the time of prayer or at some other time, whether it happens in regard to what is unimportant or in the context of evil thoughts.  But passion is unequivocally denounced in every situation and requires suitable repentance or future punishment.  From all of which it follows that he who regards the first encounter with detachment cuts off with one blow all the rest that follow.
            The most exact of the spiritual Fathers point to another more subtle notion, something they call pararripismos, or disturbance of the mind.  What happens is this.  In a moment, without a word being spoken or an image presented, a sudden passionate urge lays hold of the victim.  It comes faster than anything in the physical world and is swifter and more indiscernible than any spirit.  It makes its appearance in the soul by a simple memory, which is unconnected with anything, independent of time and inexpressible, and in some cases comes without the person himself realizing the fact.  Someone who has been able to detect such a subtlety, someone with the gift of mourning, may be able to explain how with the eye alone, with a mere glance, by the touch of the hand, through a song overheard, the soul is led to commit a definite sin of unchastity without any notion or evil thought.

            After we have fought long and hard against this demon, this ally of the flesh, after we have driven it out of our heart, torturing it with the stone of fasting and the sword of humility, this scourge goes into hiding in our bodies, like some kind of worm, and it tries to pollute us, stimulating us to irrational and untimely movements.  This particularly happens to those who have fallen to the demon of vainglory, for since dirty thoughts no longer preoccupy their hearts they fall victim to pride.  Such people can discover whether or not this is true if once they have attained a certain stillness they quietly take stock of themselves.  For they will then discover that deep down in their hearts, like a snake in dung, is the notion that by their own efforts and enthusiasm they made great advances in purity.  Poor wretches!  They forget the saying: "What have you got that you did not receive as a gift either from God or as a result of the help and prayers of others?" (cf. 1 Cor 4:7).  Let them beware then.  Let them with all zeal eject from their hearts the snake mentioned above.  Let them kill it with great humility . . .  .

             This demon is especially on the lookout for our weak moments and will viciously assail us when we are physically unable to pray against it.
            The effort of bodily prayer can help those not yet granted real prayer of the heart.  I am referring to the stretching out of the hands, the beating of the breast, the sincere raising of the eyes heavenward, deep sighs and constant prostrations.  But this is not always feasible when other people are present, and this is when the demons particularly like to launch an attack and, because we have not yet the strength of mind to stand up against them and because the hidden power of prayer is not yet within us, we succumb.  So go somewhere apart, if you can.  Hide for a while in some secret place.  If you can, lift up the eyes of your soul, but if not, the eyes of your body.  Stand still with your arms in the shape of the cross so that with this sign you may shame and conquer your Amalek.  Cry out to God, Who has the strength to save you.  Do not bother with elegant and clever words.  Just speak humbly, beginning with, "Have mercy on me, for I am weak" (Ps. 6:3).  And then you will come to experience the power of the Most High and with help from heaven you will drive off your invisible foes.  The man who gets into the habit of waging war in this way will soon put his enemies to flight solely by means of spiritual resources, for this is the reward God likes to bestow on those who put up a good struggle, and rightly so.

            All demons try to darken our minds so that they may then suggest to us what they want us to do, and so long as the mind stays awake we will not be robbed of our treasure.  But the demon of fornication tries harder than all the others.  First, by darkening our minds, which guide us, it urges and inclines us in the presence of other people to do things that only the mad would think of.  Then when our minds are cleared we become ashamed of these unholy deeds, words, and gestures, not only before those who saw us but before ourselves, and we are astounded by this earlier blindness of ours.

75-79            In these final paragraphs John poetically describes the mystery of the human person, the disunity that we experience within ourselves and the nature of our quest for personal integration.

            By what rule or manner can I bind this body of mine?  By what precedent can I judge him?  Before I can bind him he is let loose, before I can condemn him I am reconciled to him, before I can punish him I bow down to him and feel sorry for him.  How can I hate him when my nature disposes me to love him?  How can I break away from him when I am bound to him forever?  How can I escape from him when he is going to rise with me?  How can I make him incorrupt when he has received a corruptible nature?  How can I argue with him when all the arguments of nature are on his side?
            If I try to bind him through fasting, then I am passing judgment on my neighbor who does not fast - with the result that I am handed over to him again.  If I defeat him by not passing judgment I turn proud - and I am in thrall to him once more.  He is my helper and my enemy, my assistant and my opponent, a protector and a traitor.  I am kind to him and he assaults me.  If I wear him out he gets weak.  If he has a rest he becomes unruly.  If I upset him he cannot stand it.  If I mortify him I endanger myself.  If I strike him down I have nothing left by which to acquire virtues.  I embrace him.  And I turn away from him.
            What is this mystery in me?  What is the principle of this mixture of body and soul?  How can I be my own friend and my own enemy?  Speak to me!  Speak to me, my yoke-fellow, my nature!  I cannot ask anyone else about you.  How can I remain uninjured by you?  How can I escape the danger of my own nature?  I have made a promise to Christ that I will fight you, yet how can I defeat your tyranny?  But this I have resolved, namely, that I am going to master you.
            And this is what the flesh might say in reply: "I will never tell you what you do not already known.  I will speak the knowledge we both have.  Within me is my begetter, the love of self.  The fire that comes to me from outside is too much pampering and care.  The fire within me is past ease and things long done.  I conceived and give birth to sins, and they when born beget death by despair in their turn.  And yet if you have learned the sure and rooted weakness within both you and me, you have manacled my hands.  If you starve your longings, you have bound my feet, and they can travel no further.  If you have taken up the yoke of obedience, you have cast my yoke aside.  If you have taken possession of humility, you have cut off my head."
            This is the fifteenth reward of victory.  He who has earned it while still alive has died and been resurrected.  From now on he has a taste of the immortality to come.

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step Fourteen On Gluttony

We are all familiar enough with the urges of gluttony.  But perhaps we have not stopped to fully consider the spiritual dangers of gluttony.  This is something St. John spends a great deal of time discussing.  His analysis is very helpful, for he opens up to us the interconnectedness of the spiritual life.  St. John expresses the teaching of the Fathers in this way: "the belly is the cause of all human shipwreck."
         Why?  For two reasons: first, a gluttonous lifestyle feeds the passions which are inherent in man.  Unrestrained eating habits spill over into an unrestrained lifestyle.  The reason for this is clear: "Gluttony is the prince of the passions."  St. John gives several examples.  If you struggle with unclean thoughts, remember: "The mind of someone intemperate is filled with unclean longings."  If you struggle with talking too much, remember: "The tongue flourishes where food is abundant."  If you struggle with a lack of repentance, remember: "A full stomach dries up one's weeping."  If you struggle with sexual sin, remember: "The man who looks after his belly and at the same time hopes to control the passion of fornication is like someone trying to put out a fire with oil." Of course, these are just a few examples of many.  The point which St. John is making may be summarized as follows.  The passions with which you struggle are energized by your gluttonous habits.  Gluttony feeds your passions.  Fasting takes away their nourishment.

            The nature of the spiritual life is that all passion are interconnected.  We cannot allow just one passion to be unrestrained.  This is especially true of gluttony.  If we are gluttonous we will be overwhelmed by other passions as well.  And what is true in a negative way is also true in a positive way.  If we struggle with gluttony and gain some victory, we also gain victory over our other passions.

            But gluttony is not only dangerous because it unleashes our passions.  The Fathers also teach that gluttony is dangerous because the demon of gluttony is the front man for other more dangerous demons.  "You should remember," counsels St. John, "that frequently a demon can take up residence in your belly and keep a man from being satisfied, even after having devoured the whole of Egypt and after having drunk all of the Nile.  After we have eaten, this demon goes off and sends the spirit of fornication against us, saying: `Get him now!  Go after him.  When his stomach is full, he will not put up much of a fight.'  How seldom do we consider this when we are moved to eat.  We have been taught to pamper our bodies and submit to their ever demand.  Very few of us, however, question what spirit may be behind these desires.

1-2            Gluttony defined.  What it produces in the soul.

            Gluttony is hypocrisy of the stomach.  Filled, it moans about scarcity; stuffed, and crammed, it wails about its hunger.  Gluttony thinks up seasonings, creates sweet recipes.  Stop up one urge and another bursts out; stop that one and you unleash yet another.  Gluttony has a deceptive appearance: it eats moderately but wants to gobble everything at the same time.  A stuffed belly produces fornication, while a mortified stomach leads to purity.  The man who pets a lion may tame it but the man who coddles the body makes it ravenous.

3-4            The thoughts and behaviors of the gluttonous are described, as well as the self-deceit that accompanies this vice.

            The gluttonous monk celebrates on Saturdays and Sundays.  He counts the days to Easter, and for days in advance he gets the food ready.  The slave of the belly ponders the menu with which to celebrate the feast.  The servant of God, however, thinks of the graces that may enrich him.
            If a visitor calls, then the slave of gluttony engages in charitable acts - but for the reasons associated with his love of food.  He thinks that by allowing relaxations for himself, he is bringing consolation to his brother.  He thinks that the duties of hospitality entitle him to help himself to some wine, so that while apparently hiding his virtuous love of temperance, he is actually turning into a slave of intemperance.

5-7            We must constantly cultivate temperance while we have the strength, not letting up on our discipline unless we have good reason.

            As long as the flesh is in full vigor, we should everywhere and at all times cultivate temperance, and when it has be tamed - something I doubt can happen this side of the grave - we should hide our achievement.
            I have seen elderly priests tricked by demons so that on feast days they dispensed the young men with a blessing, though they were not in their charge, from abstinence from wine and so on.  Now if priests giving such permission are quite clearly holy men, we may indulge.  But within limits.  If such priests tend to be careless, then we should ignore the permission they give, and we should do so especially if we are in the thick of the fight against the flesh.

8-10            Our temperance must be sensible and prudent.  We must know what kind of food to eat and when to eat it.  John also warns us that we must guard against the demon who suggest that we should modify our fast or extend it.

            When our soul wants different foods, it is looking for what is proper to its nature.  Hence, we have to be very cunning in the way we deal with this most skillful opponent.  Unless we are caught up in some crisis or unless we happen to be doing penance for some particular failings, what we ought to do is to deny ourselves fattening foods, then foods that warm us up, then whatever happens to make our food especially pleasant.  Give yourself food that is satisfying and easily digestible, thereby counteracting endless hunger by giving yourself plenty.  In this way we may be freed from too great a longing for food as though from a plague by rapid evacuation.  And we should note too that most food that inflates the stomach also encourages desire.
            Be sure to laugh at the demon who, when supper is over, says that in the future you should eat later, for you may be sure that at the ninth hour he will change the arrangements made on the previous day.
11-13            If we are guided by the right spirit, we should find joy in our discipline, rather than constantly longing to bring it to an end.  We should only be looking for the consolation that God offers.

            Joy and consolation descend on the perfect when they reach the state of complete detachment.  The warrior monk enjoys the heat of the battle, but the slave of passion revels in the celebrations of Easter.
            In his heart, the glutton dreams only of food and provisions whereas all who have the gift of mourning think only of judgment and of punishment.

14-16            Fasting strengthens prayer, calms one's thoughts, makes one more docile and puts a curb on talkativeness; whereas Gluttony dries up the tears of compunction and encourages the spirit of fornication.

            A fasting man prays austerely, but the mind of someone intemperate is filled up with unclean imaginings.
            A full stomach dries up one's weeping, whereas the shrivelled stomach produces these tears.  And the man who looks after his belly and at the same time hopes to control the spirit of fornication is like someone trying to put out a fire with oil.
            Begrudge the stomach and your heart will be humbled; please the stomach and your mind will turn proud.  And if you watch yourself early in the morning, at midday, and in the hour before dinner, you will discover the value of fasting, for in the morning your thoughts are lively, by the sixth hour they have grown quieter and by sundown they are finally calm.  If you can begrudge the stomach your mouth will stay closed, because the tongue flourishes where food is abundant.  Fight as hard as you can against the stomach and let your vigilance hold it in.  Mark the effort, however little, and the Lord will quickly come to help you.

 17-18            Nature will eventually work in favor of the one who fasts.

            If leather bottles are kept supple, they can hold more; but they do not hold so much if they are neglected.  The man who stuffs food into his stomach expands his insides, whereas the man who fights his stomach causes it to shrink, and once it has shrunk there is no possibility of overeating, so that henceforth one fasts quite naturally.

19            How the demon of fornication pursues the gluttonous man.

            You should remember that frequently a demon can take up residence in your belly and keep a man from being satisfied, even after having devoured the whole of Egypt and after having drunk all of the Nile.  After we have eaten, this demon goes off and sends the spirit of fornication against us, saying: "Get him now!  Go after him.  When his stomach is full, he will not put up much of a fight."  Laughing the spirit of fornication, that ally of the stomach's demon, comes, bind us hand and foot in sleep, does anything he wants with us . . .

20-22            In these paragraphs, Climacus touches upon the mystery of the human person, the relationship between body and spirit and how the body is both enemy and friend.  It is a subject he will explore in greater detail in Step 15, On Chastity.  The path of true temperance is straight and narrow, John tells us, and we must keep to it, always remembering our destiny and what Christ suffered for us.

23            Fasting described: what it fosters and helps to conquer.

             To fast is to do violence to nature.  It is to do away with whatever pleases the palate.  Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts, frees one from evil dreams.  Fasting makes for purity of prayer, an enlightened soul, a watchful mind, a deliverance from blindness.  Fasting is the door of compunction, humble sighing, joyful contrition, and end to chatter, an occasion for silence, a custodian of obedience, a lightening of sleep, health of the body, an agent of dispassion, a remission of sins, the gate, indeed, the delight of Paradise.

24-26            John concludes by telling us to listen to Gluttony describe herself, her children and her enemies.

            Let us put a question to this enemy of ours, this architect of our misfortunes, this gateway of passion . . .this guide to every uncleanness.  Let us ask her from whom she is born, who her children are, what enemy there is to crush her, who finally brings her low.  Let us ask this bane of all men, this purchaser of everything with the gold coin of greed: "How did you gain access to us?  To what does your coming lead?  How do you depart from us?
            Angered by such abuse, raging and foaming, Gluttony answers us: "Why are you complaining, you who are my servants?   How is it that you are trying to get away from me?  Nature has bound me to you.  The door for me is what food actually is, its character and quality.  The reason for my being insatiable is habit.  Unbroken habit, dullness of soul, and the failure to remember death are the roots of my passion.  And how is it that you are looking for the names of my offspring?  For if I were to count them, their number would be greater than the total of the grains of sand.  Still, you may learn at least the names of my firstborn and beloved children.  My firstborn son is the servant of Fornication, the second is Hardness of Heart, and the third is Sleepiness.  From me flow a sea of Dirty thoughts, waves of Filth, floods of unknown and unspeakable Impurities.  My daughters are Laziness, Talkativeness, Breezy Familiarity, Jesting, Facetiousness, Contradiction, Stubbornness, Contempt, Disobedience, Stolidity of Mind, Captivity, Boastfulness, Audacity, Love of Worldly Things, followed by Impure Prayer, Distracted Thoughts, and sudden and often unexpected Catastrophes, with which is linked that most evil of all my daughters, namely, Despair.  The thought of past failings is an obstacle to me, but hardly overcomes me.  The thought of death is my enemy always, but nothing human can really wipe me out.  He who has received the Paraclete prays to Him against me; and the Paraclete, when entreated, does not allow me to act passionately.  But those who have never tasted Him inevitably seek pleasure in my sweetness."
            Victory over this vice is a brave one . . . 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step Thirteen On Despondency or Tedium of Spirit

          St. John explains "tedium of the spirit" in this way: "Tedium is a paralysis of the soul, a slackness of the mind, a neglect of religious exercises, a hostility to vows taken.  It is an approval of things worldly."  The word for despondency in the Greek is "akidia" and it indicates a listlessness or torpor.  The best English word that could be used to explain this is the word "BOREDOM" or perhaps we could even use the word "DISTRACTION."  Very often, it begins with a loss of a sense of purpose and ends in despair and spiritual death.  St. John gives numerous examples which are sure to strike home to us.

           In our day and age, this demon is very much at work.  How often does he confuse us with the suggestion that our spiritual labors are in vain!?  How often does he suggest to us that our efforts are accomplishing no good result?  How often does he point out to us many others who seem to be "gaining ground" without laboring as hard as we are?  How often does he suggest that we shouldn't take the spiritual life quite seriously?  How often does he remind us of our failures and suggest that perhaps we are wasting our time in pursuing the spiritual life?  How often does he weigh our hearts down with earthly cares and thoughts even in the midst of our prayers?  How often does he encourage us to take a day off, to sleep in and skip our prayers, to take a spiritual vacation?  How often does the demon of boredom confuse our thoughts so that we forget what the goal is and how we are to achieve it? 

            How do we battle such a powerful demon?  St. John suggest two things: Perseverance in the course taken and cooperation with others who are struggling.  The only way to beat boredom is to labor through it.  Once we have been started on a certain path of prayer and struggle, we must keep on keeping on without allowing ourselves to be distracted.  Furthermore, we beat boredom by reminding ourselves of what others have done and are doing.  Tedium is rebuffed by the common life and by the constant remembrance of the lives of the saints.  Knowing that we are not alone, gives us the encouragement and motivation to persevere when we feel like quitting. 
1-2            Despondency defined: its causes and qualities.

            Tedium is a paralysis of the soul, a slackness of the mind, a neglect of religious exercises, a hostility to vows taken.  It is an approval of worldly things.  It is a voice claiming that God has no mercy and no love for men.  It is a laziness in the singing of the psalms, a weakness in prayer, a stubborn urge for service, a dedication to the work of the hands, an indifference to the requirement of obedience.  An obedient person does not know such tedium, for he has used the things of the senses to reach the level of the spirit.

3            The forms of life that are particularly subject to this vice.

            Tedium is rebuffed by community life, but she is a constant companion of the hermit, living with him until the day of his death, struggling with him until the very end.  She smiles at the sight of a hermit's cell and comes creeping up to live nearby. 

4            The time of day when this when the demon of despondency shows itself and is most powerful.

            The doctor calls on the sick in the morning, but tedium visits the hermit at noon.

5            How this demon uses every means to lead a monk away from solitude, silence and prayer.

            Tedium loves to be involved in hospitality, urges the hermit to undertake manual labor so as to enable him to give alms, and exhorts us to visit the sick, recalling even the words of Him Who said, "I was sick and you came to visit me" (Matt. 25:36).  Tedium suggest we should call on the despairing and the fainthearted, and she sets one languishing heart to bring comfort to another.  Tedium reminds those at prayer of some job to be done, and in her brutish way she searches out any plausible excuse to drag us from prayer, as though with some kind of halter.

6            How it shows its itself and works on a monk at different times of the day.

            At the third hour, the devil of tedium causes shivering, headache, and vertigo.  By the ninth hour, the patient has recovered his strength, and when dinner is ready, he jumps out of bed.  But now when the time for prayer comes, his body begins to languish once more.  He begins his prayers, but the tedium makes him sleepy and the verses of the psalms are snatched from his mouth by untimely yawns.

7-9            Why despondency is the gravest of the eight deadly sins.

            There is a particular virtue available to overcome all the other passions. But tedium is a kind of total death for the monk.
            A brave soul can stir up his dying mind, but tedium and laziness scatter every one of his treasures.
            Tedium is one of the eight deadly vices, and indeed the gravest of them all, and so I must discuss it as I did the others.  Still, just not this much.  When the psalms do not have to be sung, tedium does not arise, and the Office is hardly over when the eyes are ready to open again.

10            The great spiritual gain that comes from fighting against it.
            The real men of spirit can be seen at the time when tedium strikes, for nothing gains so many crowns for a monk as the struggle against this.  Note how tedium hits you when you are standing, and if you sit down, it suggests that it would be a good thing to lean back.  It suggest that you prop yourself up against the walls of your cell.  It produces noise and footsteps - and there you go peeping out the window.

11            The means by which it is prevented and overcome.  John reveals its many sources and offspring and how they may be mastered.                       

            The man who mourns for himself does not suffer from tedium.  This tyrant should be overcome by the remembrance of past sins, battered by hard manual labor and brought to book by the thought of the blessings to come.  And when led before the tribunal, let these be questions put to him: "You there!  You crass and sluggish creature, what was it that evilly begot the likes of you?  Who are your children?  Who are your enemies?  Who can destroy you?"  And tedium may be constrained to reply: "I cannot lay my head among those who are truly obedient, and I live quietly where I may.  I have many mothers - - Stolidity of Soul, Forgetfulness of the Things of Heaven, or, sometimes, Too Heavy a Burden of Troubles.  My children who live with me are Changing from Place to Place, Disobedience to One's Superior, Forgetfulness of the Judgment to Come, and sometimes, the Abandonment of One's Vocation.  The singing of psalms and manual labor are my opponents by whom I am now bound.  My enemy is the thought of death, but what really slays me is prayer backed by a firm hope in the blessings of the future. . .  .
            This is the thirteenth victory.  He who has won it is really outstanding in all virtue.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent Step Twelve - On Falsehood

            Throughout the Ladder John Climacus discusses the logical progression from one vice to another.  And so it is with the vice of falsehood.  It arises out of undisciplined chatter, talkativeness and foolery.  Falsehood, or lying, John states, is the destroyer of charity and perjury is the denial of God himself.  Thus, he tells us, we must not be fooled into thinking that lying is a minor offense.  In reality, it is a sin "above all others."

            The effects of one who lies are not restricted to himself, but have the consequence of leading others into sin.  Through their ability to deceive, and provoke laughter in doing so, they often distract others from their spiritual pursuits and dry up their tears of contrition.  Therefore, John argues that we should seek to separate ourselves from such people, or, when appropriate and helpful, to offer fraternal correction with charity.


         To combat such a vice we must foster a genuine fear of the Lord and the judgement He will bring.  A strong and well-formed conscience will serve us well in this task.  Likewise, true compunction will aid us in this struggle.  Sorrow for one's sins will destroy this vice.

1-2            Falsehood defined: where it comes from and what it leads to in the spiritual life.

            From flint and steel comes fire; from chatter and joking comes lying.  Lying is the destruction of charity, and perjury the very denial of God.

            No sensible man imagines that lying is a minor failing.  Indeed the All-Holy Spirit pronounced the most dreadful sentence on this sin above all others; and if, as David says to God, "You will destroy everyone speaking a lie" (Ps. 5:7), what will happen to those who swear to their lies on oath?

3            How one must respond to lying and liars.

            I have seen men, proud of their ability to lie, and exciting laughter by their clowning and joking, who have miserably destroyed in their hearers the habit of mourning.  But when the demons observe that we stay clear of the sallies of some outstanding wit, as though we were avoiding the plague, they try to catch us with two seemingly plausible thoughts, namely that we should not be offensive to the person telling the witty story and we should not give the appearance of loving God more than he does.  Be off!  Do not dawdle!  Otherwise the jokes will start coming back to you when you are at prayer.  But do not simply run away.  Break up the bad company in a devout way by setting before them the thought of death and judgment . . .  .

4            The Mother and cause of lying.

            Hypocrisy is the mother of lying and frequently its cause.  Some would argue that hypocrisy is nothing other than a meditation on falsehood, that it is the inventor of falsehood laced with lies.

5            What makes one give up lying: the fear of God and a good conscience.

            The man gifted with fear of the Lord has given up lying, for within him he has conscience, that incorruptible judge.

6            Various forms of lying.  Each harms in its own way.

            Various kinds of harm can be observed in the passions, and lying is no exception.  So one judgment awaits the man who lies out of fear, another the liar who has nothing at all to worry about.  One man lies for the sheer pleasure of it, another for amusement, another to raise a laugh among bystanders, another to trap his brother and do him harm.

7-8            Some lies mask themselves as prudence and as serving the good.  Admittedly, John states, there may be some circumstances when one may resort to concealing the truth, but only when there is no desire to do such a thing and when compelled by fear or necessity.  True innocence, however, knows nothing of this vice.

            Magistrates can root out lying with tortures, though it is an abundance of tears that truly destroys it.  A man may lie on the grounds of prudence, and indeed regards as an act of righteousness the actual destruction of his own soul.  The inventor of lies declares that he is following the example of Rahab and maintains that his own destruction is the cause of salvation for others.

            Only when we are completely free of the urge to lie may we resort to it, and then only in fear and out of necessity.  A baby does not know how to lie, and neither does a soul cleansed of evil.

9-10            One who is honest with himself will be honest with others.  Truth, John concludes, is the root of all blessings.  The more we tell the truth the more pure our hearts become and the more surely and intimately do we know God.  "He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit" (1 Peter 3:10).           

            A man drunk on wine unwittingly tells the truth about everything.  And a man drunk with compunction cannot lie.

            This is the twelfth step.  The man who has taken it has obtained the root of all blessings.  

Ladder of Divine Ascent Step Eleven - On Talkativeness and Silence

             Springing from the previous step which considered the danger of slander and judging one's brother, we now see the primary cause of that vice and how it can be conquered. 
            Our talkativeness, John argues, imperils our souls, and through it we reveal our vainglorious nature.  Rather than expressing our holiness or wisdom, talkativeness in reality reveals a host of different vices.  It is "a sign of ignorance, a doorway to slander, a leader of jesting, a servant of lies, a ruin of compunction, a summoner of despondency, a messenger of sleep, a dissipation of recollection, the end of vigilance, a cooling of zeal, the darkening of prayer."  We can see from this list that vocalizing all of our thoughts can lead us to great sin and reveal our ignorance of what is truly valuable.
            As spiritual sojourners we are called to the discipline of what John calls intelligent silence.  Such silence creates the opposing virtues to the vices arising from talkativeness.  In a hidden way, we journey toward God in our prayer, compunction, mourning and recollection, always abiding with him in our silence.  Through these virtues we come to recognize our sins and soon learn to hold our tongue.  We should be lovers of silence, John tells us, for in it we draw close to God and remember his great mercy to us.
            Briefly, John describes three possible causes of talkativeness.  First, through leading a relaxed lifestyle we give free reign to our tongue.  Like any other member of our body, John states, our tongue requires discipline and often of the most severe sort.
            Secondly, talkativeness comes from vainglory.  As often happens to those involved in spiritual or intellectual athleticism, there is a tendency to become puffed up through individual achievements or gifts.
            Finally, gluttony, if not restrained, will give way to chattering.  Through keeping a strict rule over our stomachs it would seem that our tongue loses its strength.

1-2            Talkativeness and related vices.

            Talkativeness is the throne of vainglory on which it loves to preen itself and show off.  Talkativeness is a sign of ignorance, a doorway to slander, a leader of jesting, a servant of lies, the ruin of compunction, a summoner of despondency, a messenger of sleep, a dissipation of recollection, the end of vigilance, the cooling of zeal, the darkening of prayer.

3            Intelligent silence: the guardian of prayer and spiritual zeal.

            Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage, custodian of zeal, a guardian of our thoughts, a watch on our enemies, a prison of mourning, a friend of tears, a sure recollection of death, a painter of punishment, a concern with judgment, a servant of anguish, foe of license, a companion of stillness, the opponent of dogmatism, a growth of knowledge, a hand to shape contemplation, hidden progress, the secret journey upward.  For the man who recognizes his sins has taken control of his tongue, while the chatterer has yet to discover himself as he should.

4            The lover of silence seeks and finds intimacy with God and the light He alone can give.  The unguarded tongue brings sorrow.

            The lover of silence draws close to God.  He talks to Him in secret and God enlightens him. . .  Peter wept bitterly for what he had said.  He had forgotten the one who declared: "I said: I will guard my ways so that I may not sin with my tongue" (Ps. 38:1).  He had forgotten too the saying, "Better to fall from a height to the ground than to slip with the tongue" (Ecclus. 20:18).

5            The causes of talkativeness.

            Someone who had asked me once about stillness told me that talkativeness invariable results from one of the following causes: from a bad or relaxed lifestyle ( "the tongue," he said, "is a member of the body, like the rest, and therefore needs to be trained in its habits"); or it comes from vainglory, a particular problem with ascetics; or it comes at times from gluttony, which is why many who keep a hard check on the stomach can more easily restrain the blathering tongue.

6            Overcoming talkativeness through the remembrance of death and compunction.

            The man who is seriously concerned about death reduces the amount of what he has to say, and the man who has received the gift of spiritual mourning runs from talkativeness as from a fire.

7-8            The lover of silence cherishes his room; the talker finds it to be a prison.

            The lover of stillness keeps his mouth shut, but the man who likes to ramble outside is driven from his cell by this passion.
            The man who has known the odor of heavenly fire runs from a gathering of men, like a bee from smoke, since smoke drives off a bee just as company militates against a man.
9-10            A difficult virtue to attain, but precious.

            It is hard to keep water in without a dike.  But it is harder still to hold one's tongue.
This is the eleventh step.  He who succeeds in taking it has with one blow cut off a host of evils.