The first three steps of the Ladder of Divine Ascent all have to do with aspects of detachment, of leaving the world. For those of us not called to the monastic life, this detachment is played out inwardly more so than outwardly. But even monks quickly discover that outward renunciation is only a tool, albeit a very helpful tool, in achieving inner detachment. That is, whether one is in a cloister or making a living in the secular world, growth in the spiritual life begins with an inner detachment from the world. St. John, the author of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, acknowledges this in many ways, but particularly in the first verse of the fourth step.
The fourth step of the Ladder begins St. John’s discussion of obedience. Obedience, however, is built on the foundation of “exile, either of body or will.” That is, one may be an exile in body by leaving family life and entering a monastery or by physically leaving what is familiar in the world and living in a place where she or he is considered an outsider. However, exile may also be of the will, even when the body remains among family and what is familiar in the secular world.
The Greek word zeniteia, which is translated as ‘exile’ refers to being a foreigner or stranger, or living like one. We live as foreigners and strangers, as pilgrims, when we live in this world with a firm knowledge that this world is quickly passing away. I think that is what St. John means when he refers to being an exile according to our will. St. John tells us that exile, or living as an exile, is a fundamental step in developing Christ-like virtue. So long as we are attached to this world, so long as our identity and sense of self value comes from our position, wealth, power, rank or popularity, we are still slaves to this world and find it almost impossible to love others in any tangible way without some pay back, without some benefit in it for us. This does not mean that worldly people cannot or do not do a lot of good.
Often our first steps in righteousness are completely motivated by the desire for some personal benefit—earthly or heavenly. Schools and parents often reward children for doing good in the hope that children will learn to be charitable, kind and generous on their own. St. Maximus the Confessor speaks of this very thing when he says that many people begin living righteously out fear of punishment (like a slave), and then out of the desire for a reward (like a hired worker). However, the goal is to do good out of love, love both for God and neighbour (like a true son).
Learning to detach from the world in our will, if not in our body, goes a long way in helping us become sons and daughters of God who do good out of love, not out of either fear of punishment or hope of reward. And what I find particularly interesting is that most of the twelve specific markers of detachment that St. John mentions in the first paragraph of Step 3 in his Ladder of Divine Ascent are things that one doesn’t have to be a monk to do. Or to use the words of Jesus, one can live in the world and not be of the world. Here is the first paragraph of Step 3. I will number the twelve markers to make them easier to identify.
Exile means that we leave forever everything in our own country that prevents us from reaching the goal of piety. Exile means (1) modest manners, (2) wisdom which remains unknown, (3) prudence not recognized as such by most, (4) a hidden life, (5) an invisible intention, (6) unseen meditation, (7) desire for humiliation, (8) longing for hardship, (9) constant determination to love God, (10) abundance of love, (11) renunciation of vain glory, (12) depth of silence.
Notice in the first sentence (before the list), St. John tells us that exile means leaving everything in our own country that keeps us from reaching the goal of piety (‘piety’ here refers to doing what is appropriate before God). In my experience, one of the mistakes people make in trying to forsake the world is that they begin with too much. Instead of focusing on that bit of the world that is clearly and specifically keeping them from the goal of piety, they want to make a sweeping change such as a radical change of employment or location or some other dramatic shift. While occasionally, rarely actually, such big moves are needed, often such grand gestures are only a smokescreen. Moving from one city to another doesn’t help one achieve the goal of piety if what is really needed is less T.V. and more prayer and spiritual reading.
For most people most of the time, forsaking that bit of the world that keeps them from reaching the goal of piety requires no obvious, public change. It is the victory in the hidden struggle that actually changes people. This hidden struggle, we will see in a moment, is key to actually achieving exile from the world. Besides, grand gestures and public commitments seldom work and very often cause depression when they fail; or when they do seem to work, they generate an unbearable pride of the I-did-it-why-can’t-you-do-it variety.
And so, on to St. John’s twelve markers of exile. The first marker of exile from the world is “modest manners.” One need not be a monk to be modest in words, actions and dress. Modesty is not drawing attention to yourself, to your wisdom, your charm, your humour or your physical beauty. Modesty is acting in public in ways that do not draw attention to yourself. If you want to begin to live in exile from the world, St. John recommends that you start with modesty. Dress, speak and act in ways that don’t draw attention to yourself. Those who see themselves as exiles do not seek to stand out.
The second marker of exile from the world is a continuation of the first: “Wisdom that remains unknown.” An important aspect of modesty is keeping your wisdom to yourself, unless it is asked for or you are a required to speak (as a teacher or parent, for example). There is a certain “lust of the mouth,” as a priest friend of mine has put it, that drives us to speak at every opportunity about any little insight or wisdom we may have stumbled across in our life. But when we keep our mouths shut, we begin to separate ourselves from those aspects of the world that keep us from the goal of piety. When we can keep our mouths shut, we keep wisdom hidden in our hearts where it belongs and where it may actually do us some good. But when we speak wisdom, especially before it has matured through years of application in our own life, we often end up losing the bits of wisdom we have gathered. For the exile, wisdom grows in the darkness of our hearts and only later bears fruit in our love for others.
The third marker of exile from the world is “prudence that is not recognized as such by most people.” Prudence is applied wisdom. If we keep wisdom hidden in our hearts, it will likely, eventually, influence our behaviour producing prudence. That is, it will lead us to wise behaviour. However, for the exile, prudence is not recognized as such by most people, it’s not what the world would call wise or prudent. Prudent action is often seen by most people as not sensible or unnecessary or too earnest. The prudent exile controls or limits herself, but is generous with others trusting God to care for her needs. She is modest and doesn’t give herself over to the spirit, attitudes and priorities of a group or a party or an event, just because everyone else is doing it. She does what is right and prudent according to the wisdom in her heart the goal of piety, not explaining or defending herself. The exile understands that most others won’t get it. Prudent action that most others don’t recognize is, according to St. John, an essential part of becoming an exile in this world.
Let’s take the next three markers together: “a hidden life, an invisible intention, and unseen meditation.” Exile from this world involves a hidden life that sets one’s inner compass. It is an inner life that no one sees. This hidden, inner life is a life in relationship with God that is nurtured through outer quiet and inner prayer. It is nurtured through spiritual reading and meditation that you almost never talk about except with a spiritual mentor. This hidden life forms an invisible intention because no one outside you can see how it motivates you. Thus you remain a kind of outsider to the wisdom of this world.
Next comes the desire for humiliation and the longing for hardship. This truly is a kind of wisdom that this world does not understand. Humiliation does not necessarily refer to public humiliation, although it can include that. The desire for humiliation means a desire not to be the star of the show, but rather to work behind the scene, to do the job no one else wants to do, to help in ways that others would rather not: and all without being recognized, or at least with the desire not to be recognized. The hardship and humility of those who are exiles from this world is not extreme nor even noticed. It is doing what needs to be done just because it needs to be done. It is suffering hardship that only you know out of love for God and others.
The next two markers are “constant determination to love God and abundance of love” (for neighbour). We often fail to love God as we would like, but what marks an exile from this world is not success in loving God, but remaining constantly determined to love God despite failure. So long as we are in our corruptible bodies, St. Isaac the Syrian tells us, we will be subject to a certain amount of instability. This is why love or any other virtue is not something that remains constant in us. However, an exile remains determined, determined to love God despite the failures. And as we stay determined to love God, love for those in the image of God will also increase in us. Determination to love God produces abundant love for people. And this love for others, despite their instability, despite their lack of success or apparent unworthiness is too a marker of someone who is an exile from this world.
However, on the heals of love for neighbour comes vain glory, or as other translators put it, self esteem. When our self esteem or identity comes from what we do—even the good things we do—we tie ourselves back to this world. The “renunciation of vain glory” is the ongoing process of not finding our identity, fulfilment, or sense of worth in the good we do for others. Our identity is hidden in Christ. We find it in our hidden relationship with God. The good we do is merely the overflow of this hidden identity, this secret life with God. However, so long as we are in this “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4), we will be tempted to find our identity in what we do and thus to tie ourselves again to this world from which we are fleeing. And so we who are exiles find ourselves continually renouncing vain glory and returning to find our identity again in the hidden life with God.
The final marker of exile from this world is “depth of silence.” At least one experience that depth of silence refers to the stilling of thoughts, both good and bad. It is a quietness of heart and mind that I, personally, may have never experienced, or if I have, then very seldom and only for brief moments. However, I have known some monks who are able remain in deep silence for a long time. These holy monks tell me that this experience is the silence of heaven, the prayer of the heart that goes where words are “unlawful” (2 Cor. 12:4), where presence is prayer, where being is fulness. But for those of us whose active life in the world precludes long periods of physical silence, depth of silence can also refer to a kind of holy not caring. What I mean by that is dispassion, the ability to accept from God’s hand whatever comes without a barrage of contrary and contradicting thoughts. I call this holy not caring, or a not caring that cares deeply. When I can still my thoughts and let go of my need to figure it out—especially when it is not even my responsibility to figure it out—then I am beginning to act as an exile from this world.
And so as you can see many of the markers of exile from this world are constant struggles that many of us who strive to live for Christ in the world experience every day. Keeping my mouth shut when I lust to speak, wanting to be thanked and acknowledged for good works, striving not to find my identity in what I do, these are daily struggles of mine. And even though I do not find much success in my endeavours for righteousness, still I do endeavour, and to endeavour is to be on the Way, to be fleeing the world. And this is my point. You don’t have to be a monk to flee the world. You just have to want to draw near to God and strive to do so. This is enough to put you somewhere on one of the first three rungs of St. John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent.