The central problem of the monastic life is the nature of the passions, the nature of the battle against the passions and the nature of dispassion. This has nothing to do with the proper way to meditate.
When the modern reader reads the Ladder, he is ‘freaked out’ by the severity of the Prison. What we should understand is that the passions are very deeply rooted in the human person, that their eradication is very difficult and that the spiritual damage sin does to a Christian is greater than realized.
Why would anyone become a monk? After all, he could, presumably, repeat ‘Maranatha’ twice a day in the married state.
The angel is the light of the monk and the monk of the layman. The ideal of the monk is the angel; the ideal of the layman is the monk.
In the monk, the movement from passion to dispassion—in Western terminology, the ‘conversion of morals’: the passage of the soul through the purgative stage, then the illuminative stage, then into the unitive stage of the mystical life—is a passage, ideally, from an ordinary human condition to the condition of an angel. This is explicit both in Evagrius’ Monk and in
It is not by accident that in the late step of the Ladder that discusses Hesychasm, the Hesychast is described as ascending through the angels until he reaches the Seraphim.
1, 10 A monk is the order and condition of the bodiless powers accomplished in a material and sordid body. A monk is he who has only the commandments and words of God in every time, place and thing. A monk is continual violence to nature and a faultless guard of the senses. A monk is a purified body, a cleansed mouth and an enlightened mind. A monk is a soul full of pain that is occupied in the uninterrupted memory of death both awake and sleeping.
Contrast this to the instructions that
1, 38 I heard some men who were settled in a negligent state in the world asking me: ‘How can we, living together with spouses and surrounded by public cares, follow the monastic state?’ I replied to them: ‘All things good that you can do, do. Revile no one. Steal from no one. Lie to no one. Be arrogant with no one. Hate no one. Do not separate yourselves from the services of the Church. Be sympathetic towards those in need. Cause scandal to no one. Do not approach the portion of another and be satisfied with the wages that your wives can give you. If you do thus, you are not far from the Kingdom of the Heavens.’
The monastic calling is a calling of perfection. The monk works at eradicating his passions so as to become angelic. Here we understand ‘passion’ to be an emotional tendency to sin founded on a pleasure of the senses. Our Episcopalian reader is right: it is our desires that are at the root of the passions; and we cure our passions by refusing desire. However, in the classic analysis of the Orthodox monastic Fathers (articulated originally by Evagrius but enunciated by many other Fathers, especially including St John of Sinai), it is the demons that excite the passion, awakening desire in us. In the practice of the Jesus Prayer, the inception of a tempting image in the mind is due to the demon that has approached and excited our passion, our desire. This is true of any of the eight passions. It would be impossible to understand the
The ‘fundamental theorem’ of this school, recapitulated by St Maximos the Confessor in his ascetical writings, is that you cannot see God before you have eradicated your passions. In the Monk, Evagrius says this:
61 The mind will not advance nor depart that good departure and come to be in the land of the bodiless [powers] if it has not corrected what is within. For the disturbance of the familiar [parts of the soul] is accustomed to return it to those things from which it has departed.
What Evagrius is saying is that the monk will not be able to enter into the illuminative stage of the mystical life (here identified with ‘the land of the bodiless powers’, i.e. the condition of the angels) until he has passed from his impassioned state to a state of virtue. That is what it means to have ‘corrected what is within’. The ‘disturbance of the familiar parts of the soul’ is the disturbance the monk experiences in his consciousness due to passions that he has not yet eradicated. Evagrius is saying plainly that a person who enters into contemplation before he has got rid of his passions will be obliged to return to the earth, to his impassioned reality, because of disturbances of soul caused by his uneradicated passions.
It is not easy for us to eradicate the passions.
In the doctrine of St John of Sinai in the Ladder, the layman does not attempt to eradicate his passions; he attempts to live a just life. We might say a virtuous life.
But someone might object: well, that’s just what Evagrius says in the precondition for me to enter into contemplation.
Evagrius has a doctrine of purity from the passions, and of virtue, that goes far deeper than anything that could be expected of a layman. The virtuous layman continues to have a residue of the passions within. Indeed, in his married state he can work on a complete eradication of the passions only if he voluntarily accepts to live with his wife in chastity. But that is not a condition for his salvation and it is not imposed on him by the Church.
When we are discussing the eradication of the passions we must understand that the ideal is the monk who has become the equal of an angel: he no longer has any passions at all. He has a complete accession of virtue.
Most monks start off in the coenobium. The Ladder itself is intended for coenobites and not for Hesychasts, even though its author was a Hesychast for forty years. If we think that the Ladder is severe even though it is only for coenobites, we should consider the standard that St John of Sinai is setting for Hesychasts. Absolute purity, including in thought.
The steps of the Ladder are intended to purify the coenobite of his passions. They prescribe largely external means. By and large they do not enter into the issue of purifying the coenobite in his thoughts. That is reserved for the Hesychast.
Now it might be thought that St John of Sinai was ignorant. He didn’t know that with an oriental method of meditation with a Christian mantra he could enter into direct contact with God, surpassing self, in the married state.
However, poor old
Eradicating our passions in our actions, which is the task of the coenobite, is hard. It requires ascesis. That is why a layman might choose to become a monk: he might decide he wants to become perfect and that he will take the hard road.
Eradicating our passions in our thoughts, which is the task of the hermit or Hesychast, is even harder. It is for those few monks who are able to carry through the Hesychast program.
Again let us quote this passage from Evagrius:
40 The mind would not be able to see the place of God in itself not having become higher than all [mental representations] which are in [sensible] objects. It will not become higher, however, if it does not unclothe itself of the passions, which are what, by means of the mental representations, bind it together with the sensible objects. And the passions it will lay aside by means of the virtues; the mere thoughts, then, by means of spiritual contemplation; and this [i.e. spiritual contemplation], again, when, during the time of prayer, that light shines upon the mind that works in relief the place which is of God.†
Starting from Evagrius and continuing with St John of Sinai and the other members of the School of Sinai, the precondition of having ‘that light shine upon the mind that works in relief the place which is of God’—of being divinely illuminated—is complete purification from the passions even in thought. Hence, normally in the Orthodox tradition, it is only the Hesychast who has this experience. This is at the heart of the Hesychast controversy on Mt Athos in the 14th Century.
Part of the Hesychast program in the Orthodox tradition is the repetition of the Jesus Prayer, but there is much more to the Orthodox tradition of Hesychasm than just the repetition of the Jesus Prayer. The tradition contains explicit instructions for combating the passions in thought so as to attain to that complete purification from the passions even in thought which is necessary for divine illumination. The end-result is called by St John of Sinai dispassion.
When he is addressing coenobites, St John of Sinai changes somewhat the traditional formulation of the goal of the monk. He makes the goal of the coenobite deep humility, not divine illumination. He leaves divine illumination to the Hesychast in the cave.
This should make us realize not only just how difficult the monastic vocation is, but just how difficult is the further vocation of the monk to Hesychasm.
 The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart, Fr Theophanes (Constantine), Vol. II, The Evagrian Ascetical System, p. 27. 2006.
† The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart, Fr Theophanes (Constantine), Vol. II, The Evagrian Ascetical System, p. 178. 2006.