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We continue to follow Cassian as he discusses the relationship between grace and free will. God is not only the beginning and end of all things but his grace is the source of our growth in virtue and our rising out of vice when we have fallen. Our free will is used to embrace that grace in obedience or to turn away from it. Discussion then ensued about the importance and centrality of desire in the spiritual life. Christianity in its essence is relational and we create an illusion when we make the ascetical life about the performance of a muscular will as opposed growing in the freedom to embrace the grace that God offers us in love.  

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As we noted in the beginning of our study of The Ladder, the goal of all spiritual labors is communion with God. We do not seek an abstract vision of the Divine, nor do we labor for a legal verdict declaring us "not guilty." Rather, we aim at communion and union; we set our sights on the true, intimate knowledge of God which is "life eternal" (John 17:3). According to St. John, prayer must be looked at as both the means to and the achievement of this knowledge.
The goal of prayer is God. This is important to note as we begin. In prayer and through prayer we seek Him. How easy it is for us to reduce prayer to the fulfillment of some external "rule of prayer" which must be completed before we can continue on with the fulfillment of our other "external" requirements. The great tragedy of our spiritual lives is that prayer itself can become part of this "world and its ways" rather than an abandonment of this world so as to pursue the next. "Rise from the love of the world and the love of pleasure. Put care aside, strip your mind, refuse your body. Prayer, after all, is a turning away from the world, visible and invisible. What have I in heaven? What have I longed for on earth besides You? Nothing except to cling to You in undistracted prayer. Wealth pleases some, glory others, possession others, but what I want is to cling to God and to put the hopes of my dispassion in Him" Understood in this light, prayer thus is itself a means of purification and of judgment. "War reveals the love of a soldier for his king, and the time and practice of prayer show up a monk's love for God. So your prayer shows where you stand." Prayer is a mirror, showing to us the true nature of our desires and of our love. If we love God, we will love to pray. The stronger the love for God, the greater our hearts will be drawn to the dialog of prayer, the more He will be the object of our thoughts and desires, the more He will consume us and become the end of our struggles.
Prayer has its external aspects: the words, the discipline, the posture, the knots on the prayer rope. But these external aspects must find their realization in the internal state of our soul. St. John outlines a continuous method of prayer which incorporates both of these: "Get ready for your set time of prayer by unceasing prayer in your soul." For the true struggler for God, prayer is not episodic; it is a way of life. Its external expression changes: sometimes it is the reading of psalms, other times the singing of hymns, still further it may be the quiet saying of the Jesus prayer or the recollection of God in the fulfillment of our daily tasks. Gradually, prayer itself establishes its own rhythm in our lives. In the beginning we force ourselves to pray; in the end it is prayer itself which forces us.


For those who are beginning the spiritual life, prayer requires hard work. Here the external aspects of prayer dominate. We can only learn to prayer one way: by doing it. And by doing lots of it . . . over and over again, training our hearts to recognize and feel the words spoken by our mouths and considered in our minds. We force ourselves to practice. Very often this seems strange and foreign to us. It does not seem natural; we totter and stumble. We finish our prayers and feel as if we have simply said "words" without really praying them. We may often feel "hypocritical" in our prayers, as if they are external and therefore fake. This is the beginning of prayer. If we persevere, pushing ourselves to say the words and urging our hearts to join the mind and the mouth, prayer will become internalized. Prayer will not be something which comes from the outside, but it will come from the inside out. The words will flow from our hearts, rather than off the page. We will still say and think the same words, but these words will be ours, rather than someone else's. Our mouths, minds and hearts will be one. Our being will be united in prayer. This is the middle stage of prayer. If we persevere in this, not allowing our hearts to become distracted, the experience of prayer becomes so much a part of us that the words themselves fade away and prayer becomes ecstasy and the immediate presence of God. This is the third and final stage; this is deification, the heights of theosis, to which only the saints rise in this life.

As we struggle to pray, there are several attitudes which we must be careful to maintain. The first is humility. Satan tries to rob us of our humility during prayer by taking away from us the simplicity necessary to true prayer. He divides us by getting us to think about ourselves even as we are praying. We observe ourselves from the outside, thinking about how well we are praying, how long we have been praying, etc. To pray is to lose ourselves in God; it is to abandon the pursuit of self by pursuing God. Satan also tries to rob us of our humility after we pray by telling us how good we are and how effective and powerful our prayers are for others. Once again, notice how he tempts us to externalize our prayer and to focus not on God, but on ourselves as "pray-ers" The truth is: we cannot pursue God so long as we think about ourselves.

Another important attitude necessary for true prayer is gratitude. St. John advises: "Heartfelt thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer." All prayer to be true prayer must be eucharistic. This means that prayer must flow out of a thankful heart. Before it becomes intercession, prayer is first a response to grace received. A thankful heart is of necessity driven to give thanks. It cannot remain silent, but is must communicate its thankfulness to the Source of all blessings.
Still further, for our prayer to lead to union with God, it is always necessary for it to be offered in a spirit of contrition. St. John notes: "Even if you have climbed the whole ladder of the virtues, pray still for the forgiveness of sins." If we ever appear in God's presence and think that we belong there, if we ever lose sight of the priority of grace and our need for it at all times, then we have lost prayer. It is for certain that we are not talking to God but only to ourselves or worse yet to Satan who has the capacity of transforming himself into an angel of light. Contrition is the key to being delivered from spiritual delusion. Those who pray in a spirit of repentance are not easily fooled by Satan and his demonic hosts.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, we must understand that prayer is not something gained simply from the teaching of others. St. John writes: "You cannot learn to see just because someone tells you to do so. For that, you require your own natural power of sight. In the same way, you cannot discover from the teaching of others the beauty of prayer. Prayer has its own special teacher in God. He grants the prayer of him who prays. And He blesses the years of the just."

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35-64 St. John then describes how to cultivate the presence of humility within our hearts. The truly humble, he teaches, will never trust in himself or his own strength. He who has genuine humility will not sin voluntarily. Through his lowly self-abasing actions he will seek to form this virtue in his soul. Humble is as humble does!

Some drive out empty pride by thinking to the end of their lives of their past misdeeds, for which they were forgiven and which now serve as a spur to humility. Others, remembering the passion of Christ, think of themselves as eternally in debt. Others hold themselves in contempt when they think of their daily lapses. Others come to possess this mother of graces by way of their continuous temptations, weaknesses, and sins. There are some - and I cannot say if they are to be found nowadays - who humble themselves in proportion to the gifts they receive from God and live with a sense of their unworthiness to have such wealth bestowed on them, so that each day they think of themselves as sinking further into debt. That is real humility, real beatitude, a real reward! And you may be sure that it is by this particularly blessed route that anyone has traveled who in a few short years has arrived at the summit of dispassion.

. . . God is delighted when He sees us courting dishonor for the purpose of crushing, striking, and destroying our empty esteem. And virtue of this sort comes only from a complete abandonment of the world and only the really great can endure the derision of their own folk.

A lemon tree naturally lifts its branches upwards when it has no fruit. The more its branches bend, the more fruit you will find there. The meaning of this will be clear to the man disposed to understand it.

Just as birds fear the sight of a hawk, those who practice humility fear the sound of an argument.

A humble man will always hate his own will as a cause of error. In his petitions to the Lord which he makes with unwavering faith he learns what he should do and obeys. He does not spend his time scrutinizing the lifestyle of his superiors. He lays all his burden on the God Who used an ass to teach Balaam what had to be done. All the acts, thoughts, and words of such a man are directed to the will of God and he never trusts himself. Indeed, to a humble man, self-confidence is as much a thorn and a burden as the orders of someone else are to a proud man.

Humility cannot be genuine and at one and the same time have a worldly strain. Genuine humility is not in us if we fall into voluntary sin, and this is the sign that there is something material still within us.
The Lord understood that the virtue of the soul is shaped by our outward behavior. He therefore took a towel and showed us how to walk by the road of humility (cf. John 13:4). The soul indeed is molded by the doings of the body, conforming to and taking shape from what it does.

A man who sits on a throne acts in one way, and the man who sits on a dunghill acts in another. That, perhaps, is the reason why that great and just man sat on the dunghill outside the city. Totally humbled, he said in all sincerity, "I despise myself, waste away" (Job 42:6), and have regarded myself as dust and ashes.

Humility has its signs. It also has its sinews and its ways, and these are as follows - - poverty, withdrawal from the world, the concealment of one's wisdom, simplicity of speech, the seeking of alms, the disguising of one's nobility, the exclusion of free and easy relationships, the banishment of idle talk.
Nothing can ever so humble the soul as destitution and the subsistence of a beggar. We will show ourselves true lovers of wisdom and of God if we stubbornly run away from all possibility of aggrandizement.

65-66 St. John concludes by reminding us once again that humility is not a virtue that one obtains through struggle alone, but it is given by God and comes through loving union with Him.

Someone discovered in his heart how beautiful humility is, and in his amazement he asked her to reveal here parent's name. Humility smiled, joyous and serene: "Why are you in such a rush to learn the name of my begetter? He has no name, nor will I reveal him to you until you have God for your possession. To Whom be glory forever." Amen.

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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).
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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.
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Signs of obedience in the monk; Obedience and how it is to be fostered in community life - silence, watchfulness, humility, constancy, and faith; Things that help or hinder the growth of obedience.  Again Climacus addresses the choice of one's director and how a monk must cherish this relationship above all; Applying John's teaching to contemporary life and relationships.

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FOSTERING OBEDIENCE, THE DEVIL'S ASSAULTS ON THE OBEDIENT, THE VALUE OF A SPIRITUAL FATHER

Climacus then turns his thoughts to how this virtue is fostered and developed. One must begin by being watchful of every thought, seeking purity of heart through true contrition.  A monk should willingly accept rebukes and criticism, freely exposing his thoughts to his director.  If one is truly obedient this will be reflected in his speech and his unwillingness to cling to his own opinions.

The truly obedient need have no fear of death or judgment.

Having to confess one's thoughts to spiritual father will keep a monk from committing sins.  Obedience is perfected when simply the thought of the spiritual father keeps a monk from doing wrong.  The truly obedient monk in humility attributes all good that he does to the prayers of his spiritual father.

The Devil's attacks on those who are obedient.

The necessity of constancy in obedience and completeness in the revelation of thoughts.  A monk must develop that habit of doing both.

Climacus warns that a monk should not get into the practice of leaving one healer for another.  Again the monk should not enter the solitary life or leave his spiritual father too quickly.

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What must be done from the start: Choosing a spiritual father and submitting one's self and one's thoughts to him completely.  Climacus gives an example of how the wisdom and sternness of a spiritual father brought true humility to a monk through the public confession of his sins.  Although himself shocked by the severity of the test and the humiliation experienced, Climacus recognizes the spiritual healing it brought to the young monk and the power of his example for the rest of the community.

Climacus describes the obedience of the monks at a monastery in Alexandria and the wisdom of their holy superior.  The obedience of the monks was constant, even in the absence of their superior.  They supported each other in the practice and did penance for each other's indiscretions.  The superior was strict in his application of remedies, applying them quickly and expecting them to be used without question.  The value of this, Climacus states, was in the fruits it produced.

Multiple examples of obedience are given as well as the responsibility of a director of souls of testing the virtue of his monks.

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On Exile:detachment from relations and absolute value of commitment to Christ; the necessity of humility and avoiding corrupting influence of demons and those of bad character; Dreams and the dangers of deception through literal interpretation.

On Obedience: renunciation of self-will and self-direction

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