Philokalia Ministries
Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step 26 On Discernment Part II

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step 26 On Discernment Part II

November 28, 2013

St. John begins to discuss what discernment allows us to see and how it must be used. (a) Discernment, he states, helps us to understand the capital vices and their offspring. It is the ability to see how certain actions and thoughts give rise to sin and teaches us how to avoid them. (b) Discernment helps us to examine our motives honestly and allows us to see that virtues and vices are sometimes intermingled. It even helps us to understand why certain prayers go unanswered by God. (c) Furthermore, such a gift helps us to know and anticipate the ways of demons and teaches us how to respond to situations involving multiple evils. (d) It leads us to scrutinize ourselves as a matter of course - thoroughly examining every virtue and vice.  (e) He who has received this gift can detect hidden vices in others as well as in himself. He knows the seasons of the spiritual life, when the fruits of spiritual labors come, the movements of one's spirit and the different levels of sorrow and despair. (f) He makes the will of God his rule of life. (g) He knows which of the spiritual gifts are the most important and valuable. (h) He neglects no fault, no matter how small, seeing that it may bring his downfall. (i) A discerning man understands that sometimes we are vulnerable to certain sins simply because of body weaknesses. (j) He understands that relationships must be properly understood if they are to remain undefiled and holy. (k) He knows and desires to give what is best to God - the first fruits of his labors and his day. (l) He chooses the path in life which best suits him - the path that leads to sanctity. (m) Discernment helps him to see all things in their proper light.

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step 26 On Discernment Part I

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step 26 On Discernment Part I

November 21, 2013

How many times do we struggle to know God's will for our lives. As St. John notes: There are many roads to holiness - - and to Hell. A path wrong for one will suit another, yet what each is doing is pleasing to God." How are we to live our lives? What are we to do? In a moment of crisis, when a decision has to be made and to made quickly, what does God want us to do? What will please Him? What will bring us heavenly rewards? Am I hearing the voice of God or the voice of self or worse still, the voice of Satan? How do I know? Anyone who is traveling the spiritual road knows in the depths of his being how agonizing these questions truly are. In response to this feeling, St. John offers some practical advice from his own experience.

First, he insists that "those who wish to discover the will of God must begin by mortifying their own will." St. John recognizes that it is easy for us to say that we want to know God's will when, in fact, we really only want our will. It is also easy for us to convince ourselves that what God wants is what we want, and then to imagine that our voice is the voice of God. This deception (known as "prelest" in the spiritual tradition) leads us to hell. Once we have confused our voice for God's, we are easy prey for the Devil. Humility, the recognition that our will is confused and confusing, is the necessary prelude to knowing the will of God. To keep us from playing games with ourselves and to insure that we are totally humble before God so that we can be guided by Him, St. John suggest that we make no decisions without the input and agreement of others. Do nothing without a blessing! This blessing may be obtained from one's confessor, superior, spiritual guide, the writings and examples of the saints and from our brothers and sisters in Christ.

St. John also suggest that we discover the will of God through abandoning every attachment. We human beings are impulsive; our desires are awakened and immediately we want to fulfill them. Usually, if we say "No" to our immediate desires to do something, they fade away and are replaced by desire for other things. If we detach ourselves from that which awakened our desires, they tend to go away. This is especially true if we submit ourselves during this time to a strict regiment of prayer and fasting. Human desires (even those Satanically inspired) cannot sustain themselves if they are detached from the object of their desire and if they are not fed by constant thought and imagination. However, a call from God will grow stronger during a time of prayer and fasting. The will of God is not dependent upon human impulses. The more it is nurtured and fed with prayer and fasting the stronger it grows. The more detached we are from those things which feed the flesh and its desires and the more attached we are to those things which feed our soul the more we are able to discern the will of God for our lives.

Furthermore, St. John teaches that trials and difficulties are often reliable signposts in discerning the will of God. We often start something which we think is of God and as soon as it gets difficult we grow discouraged and think that maybe we made a mistake and that maybe it really wasn't of God. How different is the reasoning of St. John. If we start something and experience tremendous troubles in the doing of it, then we probably are on the right track. Satan will only oppose something that is good; the better and purer it is, the more Satan will try to stop us at every turn.
Yet to know God's will is not easy; we often make mistakes. This should keep us humble but it should not depress us. For our encouragement, St. John writes: "God is not unjust. He will not slam the door against the man who humbly knocks. . . .And every act that is not the product of personal inclination or of impurity will be imputed to us for good, especially if it is done for the sake of God. . . . God judges us by our intentions, but because of His love for us He only demands from us such actions as lie within our power."
Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step 25 on Humility Part II

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step 25 on Humility Part II

November 14, 2013

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.

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step 25 on Humility

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Step 25 on Humility

November 7, 2013

There is something very misleading about "reading about humility" as if one could learn about true humility from a book. In fact, St. John says this precisely: "Do you imagine that talk of such matters will mean anything to someone who has never experienced them? If you think so, then you will be like a man who with words and examples tries to convey the sweetness of honey to people who have never tasted it. He talks uselessly. Indeed I would say he is simply prattling. Our theme sets before us as a touchstone a treasure stored safely in earthen vessels, that is, in our bodies. This treasure is of such quality that it eludes adequate description. It carries an inscription of heavenly origin which is therefore incomprehensible so that anyone seeking for words for it is faced with a great and endless task. The inscription reads as follows: Holy Humility."

Therefore, St. John approaches this step with some concern. His hesitancy to write about humility stems from at least two sources. First, as he insists, humility is a virtue won through struggle. There is a very real sense in which humility can only be learned existentially - through the experience of the struggle for God. In the context of this struggle, we are taught by God Himself what it means for us to be humble. It is one thing to write about it and to give mental assent to it. But how many of us really know that this is true, how many of us feel that it is true, how many of us experience the torturous presence of pride moment to moment? There is only one way to learn: life-long struggle with oneself.

Second, it is difficult to write about it because humility expresses itself in different ways in different people. Since humility is a grace of God in the soul, learned existentially in the context of my own individual struggle to find God, it is inescapably personal. What it means for me to be humble is tied to who I am, where I have come from, where I am going and how I am supposed to get there. The uniqueness of my own road to God means that humility is going to be different for me than for anyone else. Furthermore, as I grow older and my life changes, humility will take on new meaning and new expression.

However, as beginners we are in need of some direction. St. John gives us general guidelines to follow in the specifics of our own struggle. First, he reminds us that the struggle for humility is the most important struggle of our spiritual lives. Humility is victory over every passion, a love of prayer, and the guardian of all other virtues.
Second, he teaches us how to recognize the presence of humility in our hearts. (Remember: his purpose in giving us these "signs of humility" is not to make us proud because they are there, but to make us humble because they are not!) Sign number one of humility is "the delighted readiness of the soul to accept indignity, to receive it with open arms, to welcome it as something that relieves and cauterizes diseases of the soul and grievous sins." Sign number two is "the wiping out of anger - - and modesty over the fact that it has subsided." Sign number three is "the honest distrust of one's own virtues, together with an unending desire to learn more."

Third, he teaches us how to cultivate the presence of humility in our hearts. Here St. John reminds us that there is not one way to humility. The heights of humility may be scaled from various vantage points: 1) We can develop humility by reminding ourselves often of our sins. Nothing keeps us from thinking that we are "holy" like the remembrance of what we have done and are doing wrong, 2) We can develop humility by reminding ourselves of how much grace we have received. If we cannot "handle" the constant remembrance of our sins or if this grace has not been given to us, then perhaps we can humble ourselves by the constant remembrance of God's mercy and grace. True gratitude leads to humility, 3) We can develop humility by reminding ourselves of how weak and vulnerable to sin we are. If we cannot continuously remind ourselves of our sin, and if we cannot remain continuously thankful, at least we should be able to remember at all times how easy it is for us to fall. We are not strong in and of ourselves; we are vulnerable, we cannot defend ourselves spiritually or physically. Let us be humbled. This is why the holy fathers say that physical labor, vigils, fasting, etc. are important aids to humility. They reveal the weakness of our flesh, so that we might put no trust in it. Recognition of our own mortality and frailty leads to humility.
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