Exile: Learning from John Climacus’ “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”

We have reached our third and final day of the series of talks dealing John Climacus’ The Ladder of Divine Ascent. If you have wandered across my blog for the first time today, I would recommend you go back and read the previous two as well! I have discussed the last two days Climacus’ teaching on renouncing ourselves and detaching from material possessions. Just to jog your memory, Climacus was a monk around 600 CE and wrote this classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which is still a central read and teaching on ascetic monasticism. Climacus wrote his book with 30 “rungs” on the ladder to correspond with Jesus’ 30 years before he launched his earthly ministry. While not required to be read in order, the first three rungs are an ongoing process which all believers should seek.

The third and final topic deals with the idea of exile. Before diving into Climacus’ meaning behind his call for exile, let me first clarify the original purpose behind exile in the Christian church. When we hear the word exile, we think stories such as John, who was exiled to the island of Patmos to live the rest of his life alone until his death. Instead, the original purpose of exile in the church was to bring about repentance of the one who is exiled. When somebody refused to give up their sinful lifestyle and other methods to end the stalking are unsuccessful, the church would exile the person for a period of time (sometimes a set period while other times until the sin was ended), and then would welcome the member back after a time when they were free of sin. Exile was not a punishment or a bad thing, rather it was a form of discipline intended to improve the character of the individual. Exile was not always used in this manner and in time became a way of removing people permanently.

Exile was a form of discipline and correction, not a permanent punishment.

Even more, exile was a positive thing.

With this understanding of the original purpose of exile, we can now understand that when Climacus teaches that we are to “exile” ourselves from worldly things, it is a positive thing. Admittedly, Climacus was not advocating for a temporary exile from worldliness. Yet, this is still something beneficial for believers to desire. What does it mean then to exile yourself from the worldliness that surrounds you?

We are to separate ourselves from things which are not of the kingdom.

Climacus has told us that we are to renounce ourselves and live for Christ, we are to detach from the material things which come between us and Christ, and anything else that remains we are to exile ourselves from. Climacus is teaching us to be thorough and diligent in our lives to make sure that Jesus is the first priority. It is not that we are to exile ourselves from non-believers and live a separatist cultist lifestyle. On the contrary, we are supposed to live in the world, but not be of the world (John 17). We are also to shine like cities on a hill in the darkness (Matthew 5:14-6).

Jesus modeled this idea of exile to perfection. We see that Jesus dined with sinners and ate alongside them. Yet, Jesus also regularly retreated to pray and seek the heart of God. Everything Jesus did in his life was following God’s leading. Jesus loved and dined with sinners because that is what God led him to and he healed for the same reason. This is what Climacus means when he tells us to exile ourselves of worldliness. We are not to be living our lives with our eyes set on material possessions, pleasure, or our own desires. Instead, our eyes and heart are to be set on the Lord, and we live our lives modeled in this way. Follow the teaching of Paul, who said to “set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2, NRSV).

These Christian classics are classics because the fact that they withstand the tests of time. Climacus’ writings are still influencing and teaching ascetic monks today 1400 years later and can and should be teaching us as well. While it takes discernment to understand in our time, place, and context, do not think that this has nothing to say for us today.

Renounce yourself. Detach and detox. Exile worldliness. Set your eyes on Jesus.

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