|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries
The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Moral Improvement
The Fourth Sunday of Great Lent
in the Orthodox Church, is dedicated to St. John Climacus, the author of
the ancient work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is a classic
work describing “steps” within the life of the struggling ascetic. There
is an icon associated with this work, picturing monastics climbing the
rungs of a ladder to heaven, battling demons who are trying to pull them
off. However, ladders are dangerous things to put in the hands of a
Modernity likes ladders. We
like the idea of upward mobility, of continuing improvement, of moral
progress. We speak of “career ladders” and the “ladder of success.”
It is the myth of personal power. Modernity is a cultural phenomenon
created by the theology of the Reformation and the philosophy of the
Enlightenment. Freed from the constraints of inherited tradition (such
as the Catholic Church) and the royal state (hurrah for democracy),
modernity is a story told to individuals that they can now become
whatever they want. Freedom and personal industry are the twin rails
supporting the rungs of progress. As a philosophy, this idea and its
associated notions are the bedrock of free-market capitalism. As
theology, it is the foundation for self-help Christianity and the
positive, motivational preaching of contemporary religion. “Be all that
you can be, and Jesus can help!”
Nurtured in this culture,
contemporary Orthodox believers are not immune to its allure,
particularly if the images appear in the guise of desert monasticism and
Byzantine/Russian-style striving. More than once I have heard the sad
confession, “I don’t feel like I’m a very good Orthodox Christian.”
Implied in this statement is that Orthodox Christians should, somehow,
be better than other Christians. Some foolish people even call us the
“marines” of the spiritual life.
Of course, all of this,
particularly when applied to writings such as St. John’s Ladder,
is pure distortion and delusion. Its most subtle and seductive version
is that of moral progress. I wrote a series of articles last year
denouncing the concept of moral progress, identifying it as largely a
modern notion and not consistent with the mind of the fathers. Here, I
reaffirm that without equivocation.
We simply are not saved by
getting better. It is a false image and a false goal. Of course, critics
will charge that I’m being defeatist and suggesting a path devoid of
moral effort. I am doing nothing of the sort. Everyone should, at all
times, struggle against sin. But measuring, even watching for
improvement can be not only self-defeating but sinful in itself. The
Ladder points to a very different path:
“You cannot escape shame except
by shame,” St. John says (4.62).
We do not gradually improve and
thereby leave our shame behind us. The way down is the way up. The
ladder of divine ascent is actually a ladder of divine descent.
The path to union with God is only found in making the descent with Him.
“Lo, if I descend into hell, Thou art there” (Ps 139:8). St. Gregory the
Theologian says, “If He descends into hell, go with Him” (Oration 45).
The path of modernity carries
no humility. It breeds pride, and frequently contempt. Failure is its
nemesis. We blame ourselves for laziness and sloth, certain that a
little more effort will make the difference. Like a child given a bad
grade, we plead that we’ll try harder. Confession is seen as the Second
Chance, the opportunity to pull up our grades. “Loser!” is the taunt of
the modern world (a word spawned in the pit of hell).
But St. John points us towards
our shame. He does not describe a path of moral improvement. His path
follows the Cross, which is the descent into Hades. My failure, not
sought for its own sake (we do not sin in order to gain grace), is
always and immediately the gate of Hades and the gate of Paradise. When
I acknowledge my failure and refuse to hide from its shame, we can call
out for Christ to comfort us. “I did not turn my face from the shame and
the spitting” (Is. 50:6). He will meet us in our shame, and takes it
upon Himself. My failure becomes the failure of God (2 Cor. 5:21). It
does not separate me from Christ, but, ironically, unites me to Him in
the paradox that is at the very heart of our salvation. God became what
we are, that we might become what He is. God does not meet us in the
middle. He meets us at the bottom and asks us to meet Him there as well.
It is within that place that
true humility is born. Judgment ceases. If I accept my shame in union
with Christ, how can I judge another? Indeed, it is largely my efforts
to avoid my shame that makes me judge my brother. We can only avoid
judging if we “see our own transgressions” (as we are taught in the Prayer
of St. Ephrem).
Modernity loves excellence. The
moral improvement pitches of the motivational preachers love the drive
for excellence. Our bosses and the owners demand that we strive for
excellence. God is not our boss, nor does He place us in His debt
(“freely you have received”). The constant nagging voice demanding
improvement and excellence is not the voice of God. It is often nothing
more than the neurotic echo of modernity sounding in our brains. It
drives us with the threat of shame. However, Christ has trampled down
shame by shame and invites us to do the same thing. “You cannot escape
shame except by shame.”
Become a Christian who follows
Christ. We do not seek to please Him with our excellence. We seek to
imitate Him by going where He has gone.
Article published in English on: 06-04-2019.
Last update: 06-04-2019.