The infamous 'prison' chapter of The Ladder of Divine Ascent

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Ix Byssus Ash SteamshipTime

Weak as I am, I heard that there was a certain powerful and strange way of life and humility for those living in a separate monastic establishment called ‘The Prison’ which was under the authority of the above-mentioned man, that light of lights. So when I was still staying there I asked the good man to allow me to visit it. And the great man, never wishing to grieve a soul in any way, agreed to my request.

And so, coming to this abode of penitents and to this true land of mourners, I actually saw (if it is not audacious to say so) what is most cases the eye of a careless person never saw, and what the ear of a slothful and easy-going person never heard, and what never entered the heart of a timid person — that is, I saw such deeds and words as can incline God to mercy; such activities and postures as speedily attract His love for men.

I saw some of those guilty yet guiltless men standing in the open air, all night till morning and never moving their feet, by force of nature pitifully dazed by sleep; yet they allowed themselves no rest, but reproached themselves, and drove away sleep with dishonours and insults.

Others lifted up their eyes to heaven, and with wailings and outcries, implored help from there.

Others stood in prayer with their hands tied behind their backs like criminals, their faces, darkened by sorrow, bent to the earth. They regarded themselves as unworthy to look up to heaven. Overwhelmed by the embarrassment of their thoughts and conscience they could not find anything to say or pray about to God, how or with what to begin their prayers. But as if filled with darkness and a blank despair, they offered to God nothing but a speechless soul and a voiceless mind.

Others sat on the ground in sackcloth and ashes, hiding their faces between their knees, and striking the earth with their foreheads.

Others were continually beating their breasts and recalling their past life and state of soul. Some of them watered the ground with their tears; others, incapable of tears, struck themselves. Some loudly lamented over their souls as over the dead, not having the strength to bear the anguish of their heart. Others groaned in their heart, but stifled all sound of their lamentation. But sometimes they could control themselves no longer, and would suddenly cry out.

I saw there some who seemed from their demeanour and their thoughts to be out of their mind. In their great disconsolateness they had become like dumb men in complete darkness, and were insensible to the whole of life. Their minds had already sunk to the very depths of humility, and had burnt up the tears in their eyes with the fire of their despondency.

Others sat thinking and looking on the ground, swaying their heads unceasingly, and roaring and moaning like lions from their inmost heart to their teeth. And some were praying in good hope and asking for complete forgiveness. Others out of unspeakable humility condemned themselves as unworthy of forgiveness, and would cry out that it was not within their power to justify themselves before God. Some begged the Lord that they be punished here, and receive mercy in the next world. Others, crushed by the weight of their conscience, would say in all sincerity: ‘Spare us from future punishment, even though we are not worthy to be granted the Kingdom. And that will satisfy us.’

I saw there humble and contrite souls depressed by the weight of their burden. Their voices and outcries to God would have moved the very stones to compassion. For, casting their gaze to the earth they would say: ‘We know, we know that in all justice we deserve every punishment and torment. For how could we make satisfaction for the multitude of our debts even if we were to summon the whole world to weep for us? But this is our only petition, this our prayer, this our supplication, that He may not rebuke us in anger, nor chasten us in His wrath. Punish, but spare! It is sufficient for us if Thou deliverest us from Thy great threat, from the unknown and hidden torments. For we dare not ask for complete forgiveness—how could we? For we have not kept our vow but have defiled it, even Thy past loving kindness and forgiveness.

And there, friends, the fulfilment of the words of David could be clearly seen, men enduring hardship and bowed down to the end of their life, going about with a sad countenance all day long, the wounds in their body stinking of rottenness, and they took no notice of them, and they forgot to eat their bread, and they mingled their drink of water with weeping; they ate dust and ashes with their bread, and their bones cleaved to their flesh, and were withered like grass. You could hear from them nothing but the words: ‘Woe, woe! Alas, alas! It is just, it is just! Spare us, spare us O Lord.’ Some were saying: ‘Have mercy, have mercy,’ and others still more plaintively: ‘Forgive, O Lord; forgive if it is possible.’

One could see how the tongues of some of them were parched and hung out of their mouths like a dog’s. Some chastised themselves in the scorching sun, others tormented themselves in the cold. Some, having tasted a little water so as not to die of thirst, stopped drinking; others having nibbled a little bread, flung the rest of it away, and said that they were unworthy of being fed like human beings, since they had behaved like beasts.

Where could you see anything like laughter, or idle talking, or irritation, or anger? They did not even know that such a thing as anger existed among men, because in themselves grief had finally eradicated anger. Where were disputes among them, or frivolity, or audacious speech, or concern for the body, or a trace of vanity, or hope of comfort, or thought of wine, or eating of fruit, or the cheer of cooked food, or pleasing the palate? For even the hope of all such things had been extinguished in them in this present world. Where amongst them is there any care for earthly things, or condemnation of anyone? Nowhere at all.

Such were the unceasing utterances and cries to the Lord which they made. Some, striking themselves hard on the breast, as if standing before the gates of heaven would say to God: ‘Open to us, O Judge, open! We have shut ourselves out by our sins. Open to us.’ Others would say: ‘Only show the light of Thy face, and we shall be saved.’ Another again: ‘Give light to the humble sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death; and another: ‘Let Thy mercies speedily forestall us, O Lord; we have perished, we have despaired; for we have utterly fallen away.’ Some would say: ‘Will the Lord ever again show the light of His face to us?' Others: ‘Will our soul pass through the insupportable debt?‘ Another said: ‘Will the Lord at last be moved to mercy for us? Shall we ever hear Him say to us who are in unending bonds, Come forth, and to us who are in the hell of repentance, Be forgiven? I our cry reached the ears of the Lord?’

They all used to sit with the sight of death unceasingly before their eyes and say: ‘How will it be with us? What will be our sentence? What kind of end shall we have? Will there be a reprieve for us? Will there be forgiveness for those in darkness, the humble, the convicted? Is our prayer powerful enough to enter before the Lord? Or has it not been deservedly rejected, deemed worthless and shameful? And if it did reach the Lord, how much of the Divine favour would it gain there? What success would it have? What profit would it bring? What power would it have? Coming from foul lips and bodies, it would not have great power. And so, would it reconcile us with the Judge completely or only in part—only to the extent of half our sores? Because they really are tremendous, calling for much sweat and labour. Have our guardian angels drawn nearer to us, or are they still far from us? And until they come nearer to us, all our labours are futile and useless. For our prayer has not the power of access nor the wings of purity to reach the Lord unless our angels approach us and take it and bring it to the Lord.’

Some often expressed their doubts to each other and said: ‘Are we accomplishing anything brothers? Are we obtaining our requests? Will the Lord accept us again? Will He open to us?’ And to this others would reply: ‘Who knows, as our brothers the Ninevites said, if God will repent and will deliver us even from great punishment? In any case, let us do our part. And if He opens the door, well and good. And if not, blessed is the Lord God who in His justice has closed the door to us. At least let us persist in knocking at the door till the end of our life. Perhaps He will open to us for our great assiduity and importunity.’ Therefore they exhorted one another, saying: ‘Let us run, brothers, let us run. For we need to run, and to run hard, because we have fallen behind our holy company. Let us run, and not spare this our foul and wicked flesh, but let us kill it as it has killed us.’

And that is what these blessed ones who had been called to account were actually doing. From the number of their prostrations their knees seemed to have become wooden, their eyes dim and sunk deep within their sockets. They had no hair. Their cheeks were bruised and burnt by the scalding of hot tears. Their faces were pale and wasted. They were quite indistinguishable from corpses. Their breasts were livid from blows; and from their frequent beating of the chest, they spat blood. Where was to be found in this place any rest on beds, or clean or starched clothes? They were all torn, dirty and covered with lice. In comparison with them, what are the sufferings of the possessed, or of those weeping for the dead, or of those living in exile, or of those condemned for murder? Their involuntary torture and punishment is really nothing in comparison with this voluntary suffering. I ask you, brothers, not to regard all this as a made-up story.

Often they applied to the great judge, I mean the shepherd, that angel among men, with requests and begged him to put irons and chains on their hands and neck, and to manacle their legs in the stocks, and not to set them free until the tomb received them, or not even the tomb.

For I shall certainly not hide this most moving lowliness in these blessed men, and their contrite love for God and repentance. When one of these good inhabitants of the land of repentance was about to go to God and stand before the impartial tribunal, then as soon as he saw that his end was at hand, he would beg the great abbot through the superior set over them with adjurations not to give him human burial, but to fling him, like an irrational animal, into a river bed or to give him up to wild beasts in the fields. And this was often done by that lamp of discernment who would order the dead to be carried out without any psalmody or honour.

Most terrible and pitiful was the sight of their last hour. When his fellow-defaulters learnt that one of their number was ready to precede them by finishing his course, they gathered round him while his mind was still active and with thirst, with tears, with love, with a tender look and sad voice, shaking their heads, they would ask the dying man, and would say to him, burning with compassion: ‘How are you, brother and fellow criminal? What will you say? What do you hope? What do you expect? Have you accomplished what you sought with such labour or not? Has the door been opened to you, or are you still under judgment? Have you attained your object, or not yet? Have you received any sort of assurance, or is your hope still uncertain? Have you obtained freedom, or is your thought clouded with doubt? Have you felt any enlightenment in your heart or is it still dark and ashamed? Has any inner voice said: Behold thou art made whole, or: Thy sins are forgiven thee, or: Thy faith has saved thee? Or, have you heard a voice like this: “Let the sinners be turned into hell,” and: “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness,” and again: “Let the wicked man be removed that he may not see the glory of the Lord?“What, quite simply, can you say, brother? Tell us, we beg you, that we too may know in what state we shall be. For your time is already closed, and you will never find another opportunity.’ To this some of the dying would reply: ‘Blessed is God who has not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me.’ Others again: ‘Blessed is the Lord, who has not given us for a prey to their teeth.’ Others said dolefully: ‘Will our soul pass through the impassable water of the spirits of the air?‘—not having complete confidence, but looking to see what would happen in that rendering of accounts. Others still more dolefully would answer and say: ‘Woe to the soul that has not kept its vow intact! In this hour, and in this only, it will know what is prepared for it.’

But when I had seen and heard all this among them, I nearly despaired of myself, seeing my own indifference and comparing it with their suffering. For what a place and habitation theirs was! All dark, reeking, filthy and squalid. It was rightly called the prison and house of convicts. The very sight of the place was sufficient to teach all penitence and mourning. But what is hard and intolerable for others becomes easy and acceptable for those who have fallen away from virtue and spiritual riches. For the soul that has lost its former confidence; that has lost hope of dispassion; that has broken the seal of chastity; that has allowed its treasury of gifts to be robbed; that has become a stranger to divine consolation; that has rejected the commandment of the Lord; that has extinguished the beautiful fire of spiritual tears, and is wounded and pierced with sorrow by the remembrance of this will not only undertake the above-mentioned labours with all readiness, but will even devoutly resolve to kill itself with works of penance, if only there is in it a remnant of a spark of love or fear of the Lord. Such, in truth, were these blessed men. For keeping these things in mind, and considering the height of virtue from which they had fallen, they would say: ‘We remember the days of old and that fire of our zeal.’ Some would cry to God: ‘Where are Thine ancient mercies, O Lord, such as Thou didst reveal to our soul in Thy truth? Remember the reproach and hardships of Thy servants.’ And another would say: ‘O that I were reinstated as in times past, in the days of the months when God watched over me, when the lamp of His light shone over the head of my heart!’

How they would recall their former attainments! And be- wailing them as if they were children that had died, they would say: ‘Where is my purity of prayer? Where is its boldness? Where the sweet tears instead of the bitter? Where is the hope of perfect chastity and purification? Where is the expectation of blessed dispassion? Where is my faith in the shepherd? Where is the effect of his prayer in us? All this is lost, and has slipped away as if it had never appeared, and has vanished as if it had never been.’

And some prayed to become possessed by devils; others begged the Lord that they might fall into epilepsy; some wished to lose their eyes and present a pitiful spectacle; others, to become paralyzed, only that they might not experience sufferings hereafter. And I, my friends, found so much pleasure in their grief that I forgot myself, and was wholly rapt in mind, and could not contain myself.

Having stayed for thirty days in the prison, impatient as I am, I returned to the great monastery and the great shepherd. And when he saw that I was quite changed and had not yet come to myself like a wise man he understood what this change meant and said: ‘Well, Father John, did you see the struggles of those who labour at their task?’ I replied: ‘I saw them, Father, and I was amazed; and I consider those fallen mourners more blessed than those who have not fallen and are not mourning over themselves; because as a result of their fall, they have risen by a sure resurrection.’ ‘That is certainly so,’ he said; and his truthful tongue related to me this story: ‘About ten years ago I had a brother here who was extremely zealous and active. And so, when I saw that he was so burning in spirit, I trembled for him lest the devil out of envy should trip his foot against a stone, as he sped along on his course as is apt to happen to those who walk swiftly. And that is just what happened. Late one evening he came to me, showed me the open wound, wanted plaster, asked for cauterization, and was very alarmed. Then, when he saw that the doctor did not wish to make too severe an incision (because he deserved sympathy), he flung himself on the ground, embraced my feet, moistened them with abundant tears, and asked to be shut in the prison which you saw. “It is impossible for me not to go there,” he cried. Finally— a rare and most unusual thing among the sick—he urged the doctor to change his kindness to sternness, and with all haste he went to the penitents and became their companion and fellow sufferer. The grief that springs from the love of God pierced his heart as with a sword and on the eighth day, he departed to the Lord, asking that he should not be given burial. But I brought him here, and buried him among the fathers, as he deserved, be cause after his week of slavery, on the eighth day he was released as a free man. And there is one who knows for certain that he did not rise from my foul and wretched feet before he had won God’s favour. And no wonder! For having received in his heart the faith of the harlot in the Gospel, he moistened my lowly feet with the same assurance. All things are possible to him who believes, said the Lord. I have seen impure souls raving madly about physical love; but making their experience of carnal love a reason for repentance, they transferred the same love to the Lord; and, over coming all fear, they spurted themselves insatiably into the love of God. That is why the Lord does not say of that chaste harlot: “Because she feared”, but: “Because she loved much,” and could easily get rid of love by love.’

I am full aware, my good friends, that the struggles I have described will seem to some incredible, to others hard to believe, and will seem to some to breed despair. But to the courageous soul they will serve as a spur, and a shaft of fire; and he will go away carrying zeal in his heart. He who is not up to this will realize his infirmity, and having easily obtained humility by self- reproach, he will run after the former; and I do not know whether he may not even overtake him. But the careless man should leave my stories alone, lest he despair and squander even the little which he has accomplished, and thus correspond to the man of whom it was said: From him who is without alacrity or generosity even what he has will be taken away from him.’
Team Zissou

As a matter of stewardship, I know priests who tell their flock not to read The Ladder. Not because it's wrong but because most of us don't have the capacity.

I have heard the same about the Philokalia.