Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step Twenty Two on Vainglory

             I am sure that each one of us can easily relate to what St. John is describing in this step.  Vainglory is the beginning of pride; it is the congratulation of self for work well done.  It is the desire to be recognized by others; the love of praise.  St. John writes: "The spirit of despair exults at the sight of mounting vice, the spirit of vainglory at the sight of the growing treasures of virtue."

            What are the signs that we have succumbed to this passion and been overwhelmed by this demon?  St. John list several.  Vainglory enters our lives when we grow concerned about what other people think about us.  It puts down its roots into our hearts when we begin to worry about their disapproval and to be pleased by their approval.  It captures our hearts when we enjoy their words of praise.  It takes over our hearts when we begin to work for these words of praise that bring us joy.

            How can we conquer vainglory?  St. John is very clear in his instructions.  "The first step is overcoming vainglory is to remain silent and accept dishonor gladly.  The middle step is to check every act of vainglory while it is still in thought.  The end (insofar as one may talk of an end to an abyss) is to be able to accept humiliation before others without actually feeling it."  These words are so easy to type and to read - - but not so easy to put into practice.

            John knows that we must work to gradually change our intentions.  His advice as always is very practical.  "If ever we seek glory, if it comes our way uninvited, or if we plan some course of action because of vainglory, we should think of our mourning and of the blessed fear on us as we stood alone in prayer before God.  If we do this we will assuredly outflank shameless vainglory, that is, if our wish for true prayer is genuine.  This may be insufficient.  In which case let us briefly remember that we must die.  Should this also prove ineffective, let us at least go in fear of the shame that always comes after honor, for assuredly he who exalts himself will be humbled not only there but here also.  When those who praise us, or rather, those who lead us astray begin to exalt us, we should briefly remember the multitude of our sins and in this way we will discover that we do not deserve whatever is said or done in our honor."

            It is very interesting that St. John insists that the battle against pride is either won or lost here.  "A worm, fully grown, often sprouts wings and can fly up high.  Vainglory, fully grown, can give birth to pride, which is the beginning and the end of all evil."  What a valuable insight for the spiritual life.  What a great source of hope it is to know that we can deal a fatal blow to our pride by working on our attachment to the praise of others.  Each day we can take small steps; asking ourselves difficult but honest questions:  "Does my behavior change when no one can see me and when no one is around?" "Do I find myself telling others about all my spiritual efforts and blessings?"  "Do I find myself replaying what others have said to me or what I have said to them over and over again in my mind?"  "Do I act and talk as if I have experiential knowledge of spiritual truths that I have only read about?"  "Do I become discouraged and quit when no one notices what I do or when I do not receive the praise and thanksgiving I think I deserve?"  "Do I hide my sins and failings from others, even to the point of lying or shading the truth so that my true faults are not discovered by others?"  "Do I become defensive when I am criticized?  Do I feel the need to always make sure that everyone knows why I did something?"

            Again, this is not easy.  But the promise St. John holds out should be enough to make us keep trying: "Anyone free from this sickness is close to salvation."

1-6            Vainglory defined and its qualities described.  It is a vice that touches every occupation and work and is a form of idolatry - self worship.

            From the point of view of form, vainglory is a change of nature, a perversion of character, a taking note of criticism.  As for its quality, it is a waste of work and sweat, a betrayal of treasure, an offspring of unbelief, a harbinger of pride, shipwreck in port, the ant on the threshing floor, small and yet with designs on all the fruit of one's labor.  The ant waits until the wheat is in, vainglory until the riches of excellence are gathered; the one a thief, the other a wastrel.
            The spirit of despair exults at the sight of mounting vice, the spirit of vainglory at the sight of the growing treasures of virtue.  The door for the one is a mass of wounds, while the gateway for the other is the wealth of hard work done.

            A vainglorious man is a believer - and an idolator.  Apparently honoring God, he actually is out to please not God but men.  To be a showoff is to be vainglorious, and the fast of such a man is unrewarded and his prayer futile, since he is practicing both to win praise.  A vainglorious ascetic doubly cheats himself, wearying his body and getting no reward.

7-9            Flattery often opens to the door to vainglory and therefore should be avoided.

            The Lord frequently hides from us even the perfections we have obtained.  But the man who praises us, or, rather, who misleads us, opens our eyes with his words and once our eyes are opened our treasures vanish.
            The flatterer is a servant of the devils, a teacher of pride, the destroyer of contrition, a vandal of excellence, a perverse guide.  The prophet says this: "Those who honor you deceive you" (Isaiah 3:12).
            Men of high spirit endure offense nobly and willingly.  But only the holy and the saintly can pass unscathed through praise.

            "No one knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit within him" (1 Cor. 2:11).  Hence those who want to praise us to our face should be ashamed and silent.

10-16            St. John describes how to respond when praised or denounced by men or when tempted by demons to think more of ourselves than we should.

            When you hear that your neighbor or your friend has denounced you behind your back or indeed in your presence, show him love and try to compliment him.
            It is a great achievement to shrug the praise of men off one's soul.  Greater still is to reject the praise of demons.
            It is not the self-critical who reveals his humility (for does not everyone have somehow to put up with himself?).  Rather it is the man who continues to love the person who has criticized him. 

            Ignore him [a demon] when he tells you to accept the office of bishop or abbot or teacher.  It hard to drive a dog from a butcher's counter.
            When he notices that someone has achieved a measure of interior calm, he immediately suggest to him the need to return from the desert to the world, in order to save those who are perishing.

17-22            What vainglory induces in a soul.  How it seeks to cause honor or dishonor depending upon one's vulnerability and how it encourages one to lead a double life.

            Vainglory induces pride in the favored and resentment in those who are slighted.  Often it causes dishonor instead of honor, because it brings great shame to its angry disciples.  It makes the quick-tempered look mild before men.  It thrives amid talent and frequently brings catastrophe on those enslaved to it.

            The servant of vainglory leads a double life.  To outward appearance, he lives with monks; but in his heart of hearts he is in the world.

23-25            St. John teaches that we must in humility see ourselves as debtors before God, who in His mercy has bestowed gifts upon his unworthy servants.  We must never yield to the temptation to show off our virtues. 

            A man who takes pride in natural abilities - I mean cleverness, the ability to learn, skill in reading, good diction, quick grasp, and all such skills as we possess without having to work for them - this man, I say, will never receive the blessings of heaven, since the man who is unfaithful in little is unfaithful and vainglorious in much.  And there are men who wear out their bodies to no purpose in the pursuit of total dispassion, heavenly treasures, miracle working, and prophetic ability, and the poor fools do not realize that humility, not hard work, is the mother of such things.  The man who seeks a quid pro quo from God builds on uncertainty, whereas the man who considers himself a debtor will receive sudden and unexpected riches.
            When the winnower tells you to show off your virtues for the benefit of an audience, do not yield to him.  "What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and destroy himself?" (Matt. 16:26).

26-28            How the demon works on us.

            A man of insight told me this: "I was once sitting at an assembly," he said.  "The demon of vainglory and the demon of pride came to sit on either side of me.  One poked me with the finger of vainglory and encouraged me to talk publicly about some vision or labor of mine in the desert.  I shook him off with the words: `Let those who wish me harm be driven back and let them blush' (Ps. 39:15).  Then the demon on my left at once said in my ear: `Well done!  Well done!  You have become great by conquering my shameless mother.'  Turning to him I answered appropriately, making use of the rest of the verse: `Defeat and shame on all who say, "Well done!  Well done!"'"  And how is it, I asked him, that vainglory is the mother of pride.  His answer was this: "Praise exalts and puffs me up, and when the soul is exalted, pride lifts it up as high as heaven - and then throws it down into the abyss."

29-32            St. John then describes how vainglory is overcome through accepting dishonor and humiliation, checking one's thoughts, mourning and the blessed fear of God, remembrance of death, fear of shame, and the remembrance of the multitude of one's sins.

            The Lord often humbles the vainglorious by causing some dishonor to befall them.  And indeed the first step in overcoming vainglory is to remain silent and to accept dishonor gladly.  The middle stage is to check every act of vainglory while it is still in thought.  The end - insofar as one may talk of an end to an abyss - is to be able to accept humiliation before others without actually feeling it.

            If ever we seek glory, if it comes our way uninvited, or if we plan some course of action because of our vainglory, we should think of our mourning and of the blessed fear on us as we stood alone in prayer before God.  If we do this we will assuredly outflank shameless vainglory, that is if our wish for true prayer is genuine.  This may be insufficient.  In which case let us briefly remember that we must die.  Should this also prove ineffective, let us at least go in fear of the shame that always comes after honor, for assuredly he who exalts himself will be humbled not only there but here also.
            When those who praise us, or, rather, those who lead us astray, begin to exalt us, we should briefly remember the multitude of our sins and in this way we will discover that we do not deserve whatever is said or done in our honor.

33-37            In conclusion, St. John tells us that the battle with pride is either lost or won by how we address vainglory. 

            A worm, fully grown, often sprouts wings and can fly up high.  Vainglory, fully grown, can give birth to pride, which is the beginning and the end of all evil.
            Anyone free of this sickness is close to salvation.  Anyone affected by it is far removed from the glory of the saints.
            Such, then, is the twenty-second step.  The man untouched by vainglory will not tumble into that senseless pride which is so detestable to God.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step Twenty One on Unmanly Fears

            St. John describes this spiritual danger in these words: "Fear is danger tasted in advance, a quiver as the heart takes fright before unnamed calamity.  Fear is a loss of assurance . . . it is a lapse from faith that comes from anticipating the unexpected." 

            This spiritual phenomenon takes place in our lives more than we realize.  For each person the fear is slightly different.  Sometimes we fail to follow Christ because we are afraid of what it will cost us.  There is a cost associated with each step of the spiritual journey; a further detachment from the things of this world, a new step of faith and trust, a great reliance upon Christ.  When we face those moments of truth when the cost is made abundantly clear, we can feel very threatened and vulnerable.  For so long we have lived in a certain way, for so long our security has been wrapped up in the things and ways that we are now being asked to put aside.  The fears can grow very large.  Other times we falter in our journey towards God because we are afraid of the reactions of others.  As we grow towards God, we change.  Very often these changes are not immediately accepted by those who have known us.  When we move towards God in positive and challenging ways, we run the risk of misunderstanding, abuse and rejection.  Once again, the fears loom large.  Other times we are afraid of our own inability to do that which God has asked us to do.  Perhaps we have failed so many times in the past that we are afraid of falling again.  It seems easier to do nothing than to step out in obedience to the call of God.

           These and many others represent the nature of our fears.  But St. John pushes us to see the "why" behind the "what."  He isolates two factors.  First we are overwhelmed with fear because of our pride.  "A proud soul is the slave of cowardice.  Trusting only itself, it is frightened by a sound or shadow."  Secondly, we often are overwhelmed by fear through demonic oppression.  St. John describes it this way: "It is barrenness of soul, not the darkness or emptiness of places, which gives the demons power against us.  And the providence of God sometimes allows this to happen so that we may learn from it."

            How do we overcome such fears?  The answer is clear: through sincere humility and heartfelt trust in God and through the rejection of all Satanic fantasies.  We must not allow fear to keep us from pursuing God.  We must look neither to the right nor to the left, but walk faithfully on that path which God has laid before us, looking to Jesus the Author and Finisher of our faith.

1-6            St. John begins by defining cowardice and describes how it has its roots in a lack of faith and vainglory.

            Cowardice is childish behavior within a soul advanced in years and vainglory.  It is a lapse from faith that comes from anticipating the unexpected.
            Fear is danger tasted in advance, a quiver as the heart takes fright before unnamed calamity.  Fear is a loss of assurance.
            A proud soul is the slave of cowardice.  Trusting only itself, it is frightened by a sound or a shadow.
            Those who mourn and those who are insensitive suffer no cowardice, but the fearful and the frightened often collapse and their minds are unhinged.

7            St. John then tells us why it is important to overcome this vice and what means are available to us.

            The slightest concession to this weakness means that this childish and absurd malady will grow old with you.  So as you go where fright will lay hold of you, put on the armor of prayer, and when you reach the spot, stretch out your hands and flog your enemies with the name of Jesus, since there is no stronger weapon in heaven or earth.  And when you drive the fear away, give praise to the God Who has delivered you, and He will protect you for all eternity, provided you remain grateful.  Just as one morsel will not fill your stomach, so you will not defeat fear in one move.  It will fade in proportion to your mourning and the less we mourn the greater will be our cowardice.

8-9            Interestingly, St. John says that as we grow in the spiritual life, we will begin to detect the presence of spiritual beings through the presence and absence of fear.  John then concludes by telling us that the greater our fear of God and His judgment, the less we will fear the things of this world.

            "My hair and my flesh shuddered" (Job 4:15).  These were the words of Eliphaz when he was talking about the cunning of this demon.  Fear starts sometimes in the soul, sometimes in the body, and the one communicates the weakness to the other.  But if your soul is unafraid even when the body is terrified, you are close to being healed.  However, it is barrenness of soul, not the darkness or the emptiness of places, which gives the demons power against us.  And the providence of God sometimes allows this to happen so that we may learn from it.

            The servant of the Lord will be afraid only of his Master, while the man who does not yet fear Him is often scared by his own shadow.  The body is terrified by the presence of an invisible spirit.  Yet when an angel stands nearby, the soul of the humble is exultant.  So if we detect an angel by the effect he is producing, let us hasten to pray since our heavenly guardian has come to join us.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step Twenty On Alertness

              As we labor to ascend to God (understanding that prayer is both the way of and the end of the ascent) we must prepare ourselves for the test of prayer.  The first battle is getting to the place and time of prayer.  This is what St. John talked about in Step 19: overcoming sleep, getting out of bed (or staying out of bed) and actually forcing ourselves to attend to the time of prayer.  In Step 20 he talks about the next part of our struggle in prayer - alertness.

            Alertness begins when we approach the time of prayer. "The bell rings for prayer.  The monk who loves God says, `Bravo! Bravo!'  The lazy monk says, `Alas.  Alas.'  Mealtime reveals the gluttonous, prayer time the lovers of God.  The former dance and the latter frown when the table is made ready."  We should not be surprised if we "don't feel like praying."  This is part of our fallenness, our own sinful condition,  the disorientation of our internal selves.  There are many times when the desire for prayer is almost nonexistent.  We must rouse ourselves to prayer.  Alertness is doing battle with our laziness and our lack of interest in prayer.  Alertness is motivating ourselves to attend to the things of God rather than the things of this world.  It is the triumph of the spirit over the body, of the will for God over the will for self.

            Alertness continues as we pray.  "The inexperienced monk is wide awake when talking to his friends but half asleep at prayer."  We learn from this that the labor of prayer is a labor with the thoughts.  We are far too "lazy" and "undisciplined" when it comes to our minds.  Instead of directing our thoughts and controlling them we allow them to run free, here and there, wherever they wish to go.  So, during prayer, we find ourselves often thinking about all kinds of other things.  How many times have we come to the end of a prayer only to realize that we have no idea what we just said?  How many times in the middle of liturgy do we catch ourselves reviewing yesterday's events and planning for the rest of the day?  Alertness is the struggle to control our minds and center them on the one thing that is needful.  It is the attempt to center our mind in our hearts, to eliminate not simply the bad thoughts but even the good thoughts which distract us from the pursuit of God. 

            This is not easy.  In our beginning attempts we will fail many more times than we succeed, but we must keep up the struggle.  For, as St. John promises: "This is the twentieth step.  He who has climbed it has received light in his heart."

1-3            Alertness defined.

            Alertness keeps the mind clean.  Somnolence binds the soul.  The alert monk does battle with fornication, but the sleepy one goes to live with it.  Alertness is a quenching of lust, deliverance from fantasies in dreams, a tearful eyes, a heart made soft and gentle, thoughts restrained, food digested, passions tamed, spirits subdued, tongue controlled, idle imaginings banished.

4-6            A description of the vigilant and the lazy.

            The vigilant monk is a fisher of thoughts, and in the quiet of the night he can easily observe and catch them.
            The bell rings for prayer.  The monk who loves God says, "Bravo, Bravo!"  The lazy monk says, "Alas, Alas!"
            Mealtime reveals the gluttonous, prayer time the lovers of God.  The former dance and the latter frown when the table is made ready.

7-9            The value and importance of keeping vigils and the dangers of excessive sleep.

            Long sleep produces forgetfulness, but keeping vigil clears the memory. 
            The farmer collects his wealth on the threshing floor and in the winepress.  Monks collect their wealth and knowledge during the hours of evening and night when they are standing at prayer and contemplation.
            Excessive sleep is a bad companion, stealing half a lifetime or more from the lazy man.

10-13            The dissipation that comes from laziness.

            The inexperienced monk is wide awake when talking to his friends but half asleep at prayer time.  The lazy monk is a great talker whose eyes begin to shut when the sacred reading is started.  When the trumpet sounds the dead will rise, and when idle talk begins the dozing wake.
            The tyrant sleep is a cunning fiend who slips away from us when our stomachs are full and attacks strongly when we are hungry and thirsty.  It proposes that we do manual work at prayer time, for in no other way can it interfere with the prayers of those who are keeping watch.  Its first step is to attack beginners, trying to make them careless from their first day.  Or it strives to prepare the way for the demon of fornication  Hence until we conquer it we ought never seek to be absent from common prayer, since shame at least may keep us from dozing off.

14            John warns that we must also be alert at the time following prayer.  It is then that the demons attack seeking to steal what we have gained from God.

            When prayer is over, wait quietly and you will observe how mobs of demons, as though challenged by us, will try to attack us after prayer by means of wild fantasies.  Watch carefully and you will note those that are accustomed to snatch away the first fruits of the soul.

15-16            The alertness maintained during the day can be sustained even when we our sleeping.

            It can happen that our meditation on the psalms may persist even into our time of sleeping.

            . . . the soul endlessly preoccupied by day with the word of God will love to be preoccupied by it in sleep too.  This second grace is properly the reward for the first and will help us to avoid spirits and fantasies.

            Such then is the twentieth step.  He who has climbed it has received light in his heart.


Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step Nineteen On Sleep

              There is a saying in the book of Proverbs which introduces the theme of Step 19 very well: "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep - - so shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man." (Interestingly, this saying is repeated twice: Proverbs 6:10,11 and Proverbs 24:33,34).  In step 19, St. John reminds us that too much sleep, like too much of anything, can be spiritually dangerous.  Of course, we all need to sleep.  Just as we need to eat, so we need to sleep in order to live.  But, although sleep is natural and needful, like desire it has many sources.
            How can we tell the difference?  St. John does not spend a great deal of time in explaining the answer.  He simply reminds us: it is too much sleep when it keeps us from fulfilling our rule of prayer.  When we choose to sleep rather than to pray - we have entered into the spiritual danger zone.
            Many of the fathers have pointed out that Satan can oppress and make us feel more tired than we are in order to keep us from praying.  This often happens at night when it is time to say your prayers before  going to bed.  All of a sudden, you are hit with a tremendous sense of fatigue so that you can barely make it to your bed without falling asleep.  Sometimes, undoubtedly, this is natural, but more often than not it comes from the evil one.  It is a trick to get us to go to bed without prayer.  For if we go to bed without prayer, we leave open our minds and imaginations for demonic assault all night.  When we are sleeping, we cannot be vigilant over our thoughts.  Therefore, our prayer before sleep is of the greatest importance.
            In this short step, John describes sleep and its sources, the habit of oversleeping, the tactics of demons especially at the time of prayer, and finally how these demons may be overcome.

            Sleep is a natural state.  It is also an image of death and a respite of the senses.  Sleep is one, but like desire it has many sources.  That is to say, it comes from nature, from food, from demons, or perhaps in some degree even from prolonged fasting by which the weakened flesh is moved to long for repose.

            Just as too much drinking comes from habit, so too from habit comes overindulgence in sleep.  For this reason one has to struggle against it especially at the start of one's religious life, because a long standing habit is very difficult to correct.

            Let us observe and we shall find that the spiritual trumpet that summons the brethren together visibly is also the signal for the invisible assembly of our foes.  Some stand by our bed and encourage us to lie down again after we have got up.  "Wait until the first hymns are over," they say.  "Then it will be time enough to go to church."  Others get those at prayer to fall asleep.  Still others cause a bad and unusual stomachache, while others encourage prattle in the church.  Some inspire bad thoughts, others get us to lean against the wall as though we were weary or to start yawning over and over again, while still others cause us to laugh during prayer so as to provoke the anger of God against us.  Some get us in our laziness to hurry up with the singing, while others suggest we should sing slowly in order that we may take pleasure in it.  Others, by sitting on our mouths, shut them so that we can scarcely open them.

            However, the man who considers with sensitivity of heart that he is standing before God will be an immovable pillar of prayer, and none of the demons mentioned above will delude him.

            A furnace tests gold.  Prayer tests the zeal of a monk and his love for God.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step 18 on Insensitivity

According to St. John, as we pursue the heavenly goal we need to be aware of the great danger of becoming desensitized to the importance of spiritual realities.  What he describes should be familiar to all.  When we are first awakened to the spiritual life and introduced to its depths, we are awestruck and experience a godly fear.  Yet, familiarity often breeds contempt or at least invites one to have a casual attitude.
            Insensitivity develops when we allow a division to exist between our words and our actions.  It is brought on by a lengthy illness which prevents a person from engaging in spiritual disciplines, carelessness and prolonged negligence.  In many ways it is hypocrisy at its worst and most pathetic.  We speak to others about certain spiritual practices and their importance and yet rarely embrace themselves for ourselves.  We remain unmoved and untouched by our own words and exhortations.  Even the reality of death and the judgement of God provoke no response.
            To understand such a vice and overcome it, John tells us, we must deliberately take hold of it and scourge it with unceasing prayer and the fear of God.  The source of this vice is not the same for all, and so greater effort is required from us to expose its causes and defeat them.   

1            John begins by defining insensitivity and its dominant qualities.

            Insensitivity is deadened feeling in body and spirit, and comes from long sickness and carelessness.  Lack of awareness is negligence that has become habit.  It is thought gone numb, an offspring of predisposition, the gateway to despair, the mother of forgetfulness giving birth to loss of fear of God and, in turn, to a deadened spirit . . .  .

2            The insensitive man is one who does not live as he speaks and teaches.  He remains unaffected by his own words and exhortations.

            The insensitive man is a foolish philosopher, an exegete condemned by his own words, a scholar who contradicts himself, a blind man teaching sight to others.  He talks about healing a wound and does not stop making it worse.  He complains about what has happened and does not stop eating what is harmful.  He prays against it but carries on as before, doing it and being angry with himself.  And the wretched man is in no way shamed by his own words.  "I'm doing wrong", he cries, and zealously continues to do so.  His lips pray against it and his body struggles for it.  He talks profoundly about death and acts as if he will never die.  He groans over the separation of soul and body, and yet lives in a state of somnolence as if he were eternal.  He has plenty to say about self-control and fights for a gourmet life.  He reads about the judgment and begins to smile, about vainglory and is vainglorious while he is reading.  He recites what he has learnt about keeping vigil, and at once drops off to sleep.  Prayer he extols, and runs from it as if from a plague.  Blessing he showers on obedience, and is the first to disobey.  Detachment he praises, and he shamelessly fights over a rag.  When he is angry he gets bitter, and then his bitterness makes him angry, so that having suffered one defeat he fails to notice that he has suffered another.  He gorges himself, is sorry, and a little later is at it again.  He blesses silence and cannot stop talking about it.  He teaches meekness and frequently gets angry while teaching it.  Having come to his senses, he sighs and shaking his head embraces his passion once more.  He denounces laughter, and while lecturing on mourning he is all smiles.  In front of others he criticizes himself for being vainglorious, and in making the admission he is looking for glory.  He looks people in the eye with passion and talks about chastity.  Out in the world he is full of praise for the solitary life and cannot see how much he is disgracing himself.  He glorifies almsgivers and despises the poor.  In everything he shows himself up for what he is, and does not come to his senses, though I would not say he was incapable of doing so.

3            Such a man remains unmoved even by the harshest and most fearful of realities - death and judgement. 

            I have seen such men weep as they hear of death and the dread judgment, and with the tears still in their eyes they rush off to dinner.  And it amazed me to see how this stinking tyrant by means of complete insensitivity could even manage to overpower mourning.

4            Fear of God and endless prayer alone gain the upper hand in the battle with this vice.

            I have described, as much as my poor talents permit, the wiles and the havoc wrought by this stony, stubborn, raging, ignorant passion, and I refuse to dwell on it.  If there is anyone with the God-given skill to heal the sores, let him not shrink from the task.  I am not ashamed to admit that my powers fail here, for I am very sorely tried by this vice and I would not have been able alone to analyze its wily ways if I had not laid hold of it, gripping it hard, examining it to discover what has been described above, scourging it with fear of the Lord and endless prayer.  That is why this tyrannical evildoer said this to me:  "Those who are under my sway laugh when they see the bodies of the dead.  At prayer they are stony, hard, and blinded.  In front of the altar they feel nothing.  They receive the Holy Gift as if it were ordinary bread.  And I laugh at people when I see them stirred by compunction.  My father taught me to kill everything born of courage and love.  I am the mother of Laughter, the nurse of Sleep, the friend of the Full Stomach.  When I am found out I do not grieve, and I am the ally of Fake Piety."

5            Parents and Offspring.

            Amazed by the words of this demented fury, I asked, in my astonishment, for the name of her father.  "I was not born of just one parent," she said.  "I am of mixed and uncertain origin.  Big meals keep me going, time adds to my stature and bad habit fixes me in such a way that he who possesses me will never be rid of me.  But if you are always on the watch and think of eternal judgment, maybe I shall let go of you to some extent.  If you discover why I came to be within you, it will be possible for you to do battle with my mother, since she is not the same for all.  Pray often where the dead are laid out and paint in your heart an indelible image of them, traced there with the brush of fasting.  For otherwise you will never defeat me."

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Steps 16 and 17 On Avarice and Poverty

We will be looking at these two steps together because they represent opposite sides of the same coin.  Step 16 describes the spiritual illness, while Step 17 prescribes the spiritual cure.  The words of Jesus fittingly introduce their theme: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth . . . but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:19-21).  There is very little which reveals the state of our hearts more clearly than our attitude towards our possessions and the way we use them.  It is easy to say we are living for heaven.  The way that we use our money demonstrates the veracity of our claim.  Are we living for the kingdom or do the things of this world predominate and consume us?
            The cure for avarice is poverty.  For the monk this poverty is absolute.  The true monk owns nothing, having forsaken it all in his pursuit of God.  For those of us who live in the world, this poverty is approximate.  We have obligations ("mouths to feed, bodies to clothe, shelter to obtain") and we must fulfill these obligations.  Poverty is best approximated in our position by striving to reduce the amount of our obligations.  What we should be aiming for is the simple life, not deprivation.  Severe deprivation can be as distracting as financial prosperity.  The words of scripture reveal the royal way: "Give me neither poverty nor riches - - feed me with the food allotted to me, lest I be full and deny you, and say, `Who is the Lord?'  Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God" (Prov. 30:8,9).


1-5            In these paragraphs John describes Avarice and the avaricious man.  His words are brief but full of insight and strike to the heart of the matter.  They ask us: "Do we trust in God or do we trust in the things of  this world?"  "Do we believe that God can and will take care of our needs if we seek first his kingdom?"  "Does the future belong to him or to our financial planner?"  "Do we claim that we are prudent and discerning in our use of our money and possessions as a cover for our lack of faith?" 

            Avarice is the worship of idols and is the offspring of unbelief.  It makes excuses for infirmity and is the mouthpiece of old age.  It is the prophet of hunger, and the herald of drought.
            The miser sneers at the gospel and is a deliberate transgressor.  The man of charity spreads his money about him, but the man who claims to possess both charity and money is a self-deceived fool. 

            A generous man met a miser, and the miser said the other man was without discernment.

6            This issue is truly a spiritual one.  If we worship worldly goods, we won't truly worship God.  The more we have, the more complicated our lives become.  The more things we own, the more we have to worry about their care and preservation.  All of these issues, although not sinful and wrong, may work to distract us and keep us from pursuing the one thing which alone is needful.  The less cares we have the more we can pursue God undistractedly.

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

7            In addition to making our lives more difficult and spiritually distracting, material possessions also can make us insensitive to the needs of others around us.  It seems that the more we have the less we are inclined to give away. 

            The pretext of almsgiving is the start of avarice, and the finish is detestation of the poor.  The collector is stirred by charity, but, when the money is in, the grip tightens.

8            John teaches here that material poverty and living among those who are poor in spirit can eventually make one rich spiritually.  A monk gradually learns how poverty leads him to acknowledge his dependence upon God and to reach out to Him.  In doing so he discovers a treasure greater than anything this world can offer.

            I have seen the poverty-stricken grow rich and forget their want, through living with the poor in spirit.

9            One driven by avarice is never subject to tedium of spirit; that is, spiritual boredom.  The reason for this is clear: They have no spiritual life to begin with.  The spirit of avarice drives them to work excessively, taking them away from their spiritual labors and the silence and solitude of prayer.

            The monk who is greedy for money is a stranger to tedium of spirit.  Always he turns over within himself the words of the Apostle: "The man who does not work does not eat" (Thess. 3:10) and, "These hands of mine have served me and those who were with me" (Acts 20:34).


1-7            John begins by defining poverty.  The one who embraces poverty is truly free - a slave to no one and no thing.  Such poverty concerns not only one's possessions, but one's will.  Obedience is the truest and most personal form of poverty.  The greater the renunciation the more pure one's prayer becomes and one's hunger for the things of heaven.  John warns, however, that poverty not offered or directed to God simply leaves one destitute.  If we do not turn to God in this poverty we simply remain empty. 

            The poverty of a monk is resignation from care.  It is a life without anxiety and travels light, far from sorrow and faithful to the commandments.  The poor monk is lord of the world.  He has handed his cares over to God, and by his faith has obtained all men as his servants.  If he lacks something he does not complain to his fellows and he accepts what comes his way as if from the hand of the Lord.  In his poverty he turns into a son of detachment and he sets no value on what he has.  Having withdrawn from the world, he comes to regard everything as refuse.  Indeed he is not genuinely poor if he starts to worry about something.
            A man who has embraced poverty offers up prayer that is pure, while a man who loves possessions prays to material images.
            Those living in obedience to another are free of all cupidity, for when the body has been given up, what else is there to call one's own? 

            The man who has tasted the things of heaven easily thinks nothing of what is below, but he who has had no taste of heaven finds pleasure in possessions.
            A man who is poor for no good reason falls into a double misfortune.  He goes without present goods and is deprived of these in the future

            The man who gives up possessions for religious motives is great, but the man who renounces his will is holy indeed.  The one will earn money or grace a hundred times over, but the other will inherit eternal life.

8-10            Anger John tells us is the constant plight of the miserly.  With an increase of goods comes the need to protect them.  He who has a lust for possessions is often willing to use force to obtain them.

            Waves never leave the sea.  Anger and gloom never leave the miserly.
            The man who thinks nothing of goods has freed himself from quarrels and disputes.  But the lover of possessions will fight to the death for a needle.  Sturdy faith cuts off cares, and remembrance of death denies the body.

            Avarice is said to be the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10), and it is so because it causes hatred, theft, envy, separations, hostility, stormy blasts, remembrance of past wrongs, inhuman acts and even murder.

11-14            The saving virtue in the struggle with avarice is detachment.  This is attained when one's experience and taste for the things of heaven increases.  The more one longs for the imperishable, the less he will cling to what is passing and corruptible.           

            A small fire can burn down an entire forest.  But one virtue can help many to escape all the vices mentioned above. That virtue is detachment, which is a withdrawal from all evil desires, and which grows from experience and taste of the knowledge of God and from a meditation on the account to be rendered at death.

            This is the seventeenth step. He who has climbed it is traveling to heaven unburdened by material things.