By John Chryssavgis
The true nature of dispassion emerges in Climacus' identification of it with love. The two, he says, "are only distinguished in name," and constitute the positive and negative sides of the same reality. In the words of Abba Isaiah:
"Blessed is the soul that has reached such love; for it is dispassionate."
There are many ways in which one could describe the spiritual life of an ascetic, his aim and struggle. Dispassion is one; "passion", paradoxically, is another. Climacus delights in the imagery of erotic love and fire. The two images are closely connected: "love," he says, "is a source of fire," and he commands a love which he has personally experienced: "And now you have ravished my soul. I cannot contain your flame. So I will go forward praising you." It is appropriate that he should speak of eros in this way of sexual union (synousia), for there is a blessed madness (makaria mania) in love. To acquire virtue, for one thing, is not a mere addition to the human person: it is integral to him, at one with him as if in wedlock. Fire is for Climacus the most adequate image for expressing man's love of God: it conveys both the warmth of love and its luminous impress on life, the burning desire enshrined in it and its unquenchable quality, the searing or consuming effect it has on human passions and the power it has to test us, like silver or gold in fire, the swiftness with which it may both spread and be extinguished. Our thirst and the yearning of our love for God continually burns us.
Divine Eros and Worldly Love
John uses imagery taken from daily life and applies it to ascetic spirituality. In the search for virtues, John wants us to act as jealous husbands towards their wives, and we are told that love of God is far greater and stronger than the love of a mother for her child, which is her own flesh. Interestingly enough, a text as early as the Shepherd of Hermas states that "there are pleasures that are able to save people." John is impelled to use erotic imagery. Eros is not merely an icon, a symbol or figure of speech, but above all an energy, a way, a prototype, a specific mode of existence; his words are τύπος and υπόδειγμα!
As an example of fear of the Lord, let us take the fear that we feel in the presence of rulers and wild beasts; and as an example (υπόδειγμα) of desire for God, let carnal love serve as a model (τύπος) for you. There is nothing against taking (ποιείσθαι ημᾶς) examples of the virtues from what is contrary (ἐναντίον).
The phrase ποιείσθαι ημᾶς shows that carnal love is not good in itself but must be "made" good as will be seen below. The word ἐναντίον further shows clearly that, for John, there is a contrast as well as an analogy between carnal and divine love. With this qualification, the Ladder speaks the vivifying language of lovers: "Blessed is he who has obtained such love and yearning for God as a mad lover has for his beloved."
Human, including physical, bodily eros does not exclude but includes a divine spark. John approves of people whose worldly love many Christians eagerly but quite incongruously condemn but who, in effect: "...transferred the same love to the Lord, and spurred themselves insatiably on to the love of God." Worldly love can be readily redirected (metaphora) towards God, and it is Climacus' firm conviction that "if anyone is willing, it is possible and easy to graft a wild olive tree onto a good one." The Macarian Homilies say that "the soul is accepted not because of what it has done, but because of what it has desired." Because the prostitute in the Gospel account "loved much" (Lk. 7:37-48), John claims that she could "easily expel love by love." Consequently, even corporeal, that is, worldly or allegedly corrupt love, must not be condemned out of hand or even censured, because it, too, can be transfigured into a spiritual love. One love can retrieve another, just as spiritual fire can quench the material fire of the passions. The unloving person, he who is not burnt with desire, will be diminished in the fervor of his search for God.
Nevertheless, John does not advocate carnal love as such. When seen as an end in itself, without the Person of Christ as its sacred dimension, it becomes something unnatural, even "inhuman" and insane: without God, it is not fully human. The natural does not exist without the supernatural, although, or even because, the supernatural is not superimposed on the natural. According to Clement of Alexandria: "This is the only good violence, to do violence to God, and to seize life from God... for God rejoices when he is thus overcome." Abba Serapion describes monks as those who "anticipate the things of the future through their desire." And, in John, monks are regarded as "those who do violence" against man's unnatural state, as "desirers" of the heavenly Kingdom, of the natural "relationship" with God, whom they seek "insatiably". The ascetic sets out on the long road of spirituality with a view to attaining Love and, as its insane lover and suitor, he seeks to behold the beauty of God's countenance. It is his personal pursuit and endeavor. Driven by a desire for God he leaves behind all mundane cares: "Exile (xeniteia) means... constant determination to love God, an abundance of eros." A single vivid experience of eros in all its intensity will advance much further in the spiritual life, will be more effective than the most arduous struggle against the passions and the severest ascetic exercise. By the same token, however, it is this erotic desire for the beloved person of Christ which alone accounts for the otherwise unaccountable and seemingly senseless or extreme ascetic feats.
Even the virtues are referred to not only as women or kinswomen, but are described as qualities of lovers: they seduce man on the way to his ultimate Love, and it would be wrong to cling to them as ends in themselves. Both virtues and passions have a feminine gender in the Greek. Climacus stresses "remembrance of God" (mneme Theou) which has the same root as the word "spouse" (mnester): one ought to remember God just as a husband loves his spouse. Similarly, sin is often regarded by the Fathers as an act of unfaithfulness, of adultery. John's contemporary, Isaac the Syrian, writes: "The world is a whore and by the desire of its beauty, it attracts those who see it so that they may love it."