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ON RENOUNCING BY A HOLY VIOLENCE,
THE VANITY OF A WORLDLY LIFE.

1. Our Lord and our King, who is infinite and incomprehensible goodness, --for it is proper that we should commence our discourse of God’s servants in His holy name, --has endowed His rational creatures with the sublime dignity and noble privilege of our free-will, so that we may say of these creatures, some are His friends, others His faithful servants, many entirely strangers to Him, and not a few directly opposed to Him, although they cannot move a single step without His permission. It seems to me, O holy Abbot,1 from the little knowledge I have, that the intellectual and immortal spirits surrounding the throne of God, are, strictly speaking, His friends; that His faithful servants are those who obey in all things His holy will, with zeal and exactitude; that the servants, who are strangers to Him, and neglect His employments, are those who have been favoured with the grace of baptism, but have not fulfilled the promises to which they pledged themselves when they contracted that sacred alliance; and that His enemies are all those who have not been baptized, or who are walking in the darkness of heresy, or who proclaim war against Him, either by violating His divine law themselves, or by persecuting those who are anxious for its observance.

2. Each one of theses classes of persons would, were I capable of the undertaking, require a separate treatise. But ignorant as I am, I must confine myself to what will be useful for the edification of those faithful servants of God, to whose piety, zeal, and confidence I pay respect, and to whose wishes I am constrained to yield obedience. From them, I may say, I receive my pen, however unworthily I may hold it. The ink into which I dip it shall be the humble submission I owe them. From this obedience, painful though it is to my love of perfect retirement and seclusion, I hope to reap the fruits of wisdom and discretion, whilst I trace, as upon a sheet of white and spotless paper, or rather upon the living tables of their hearts, the rules of a holy life.

3. The possession of God, the gift of grace, eternal salvation, are universal blessings, susceptible of attainment by all persons in the enjoyment of free-will, whether in the household of faith or unbelievers, whether just or wicked, pious or profane, perfect or imperfect, religious or seculars, learned or ignorant, the sound in health as well as the sick, young and old, in the same manner as the light of day, the beams of the sun, and the variations of the seasons are common to them all, and within their reach and enjoyment. For with God there is no exception of persons.

4. The impious is he who, dwelling in a mortal body, is endowed with reason, yet shuns the true Life, and thinks no more of his Creator, the self-existent and eternal God, than if He had no being, no sway over the universe. The rebel against God’s law is he who corrupts the divine precepts by attaching to them his own erroneous meaning, and fancies that he is following the torch of truth, when he is running after an ignis fatuus, that is, some heretical opinion which is entirely destructive of truth. The Christian is he who imitates, as much as such imitation is possible for human nature, Jesus Christ, and who testifies by his thoughts, words and actions, that he entertains no other but the sound and orthodox belief of the Blessed Trinity. The lover of God is he who uses all things that are innocent, and with due permission, and who neglects no good work, which falls within the reach of his power. The man of self-denial is he who, amidst the temptations, dangers, and troubles that surround him, exerts all his energy to imitate those who have freed themselves from these turmoils. The solitary is he who represents perfectly, in a material and perishable body, the order and condition of the heavenly spirits; who, in every place, at all times, and in all his actions, is attached to the things of God, and to them only; who does violence to his nature, and keeps a perpetual watchfulness over his sense; who is chaste in body, faultless in tongue, and in mind enlightened with heavenly wisdom; who cherishes in his heart a salutary contrition for his sins, and whether asleep or wake is constantly occupied with the thought of death.

5. Retirement from the world is a voluntary hatred and renunciation of the goods of nature, for the purpose of enjoying those which are supernatural and eternal.

6. All who have cordially and with a holy alacrity abandoned the conveniences and pleasures of this life, have made this sacrifice, either through the hope of possessing a future and everlasting kingdom, or through sorrow for their manifold sins or from an ardent love of God. They, however, who have taken this step without any of these praiseworthy motives, have acted rashly and without discretion. Nevertheless, so generous is He who crowns our victory, that He regards not the motive through which we entered upon our religious career, provided the end corresponds with His wishes.

7. He who forsakes the world to weep in silence for his sins, and to obtain their remission, imitates those who leave the city to visit the cemetery and weep over the tombs of the dead. He checks not the flow of his warm and heartfelt tears, nor interrupts his profound sighs and moans, until he beholds himself like another Lazarus, with Jesus weeping over him, and commanding the stony entrance of his heart to be removed, and the windingsheet and the bandages of sin to be untied, and His angels to loose him, and let him free from the grave of his passions, that he may enjoy the happy liberty of a soul no longer fettered with the galling chains of sin. If this be not his manner of proceeding, he will derive no fruit from his retirement into solitude.

8. If we sincerely desire to be delivered from the bondage of Egypt, and to escape from the tyranny of Pharao, we must remember that, like the Hebrew people, we require a Moses to be mediator between us and God, and who, uniting contemplation with action, will lift up his hands to heaven in our favour, that marching under his standard as our general, we may pass over the Red Sea of our sins dryshod, and put the Amalec of our passions to flight. For this reason, those who have had so much confidence in themselves as to imagine, that they stood not in need of any guide, have been deceived. The Israelites, when they departed from Egypt, had Moses for their captain; and they who fled from Sodom had an angel to direct them on their journey. They who went out of Egypt represent those who seen the aid of a spiritual physician to heal the diseases of their souls. They who fled from Sodom, are types of those who wish to be preserved from the concupiscence of these miserable bodies. The latter, indeed, have need of an angel, that is, of one, if I may venture to use the terms, who is equal to an angel; for according to the depth of the ulceration which our sins have caused, so much the greater skill is required in the surgeon to probe them and close up the wounds.

9. Truly must we confess that they who, still clothed with the mortal body, have undertaken the task of mounting up to heaven, have occasion to do great violence to themselves, and to allow of no truce to their mortifications, especially at the commencement of their renunciation, until the love of those delights and pleasures to which they were formerly devoted, and the insensibility of their hearts is changed into a true and sincere love of God, and a perfect purity of mind is established by heartfelt repentance. Certainly, it is necessary to undertake many and great labours, to expect many secret trials and contradictions, principally if we be slothful and deficient in fervour, until the spirit, which previously resembled a dog that perpetually dwelt in the kitchen, and was obedient merely for the sake of its belly, becomes simple, mild, vigilant, a lover of purity and continual application to the great business of salvation. Nevertheless, let us take courage, however subject we may be to our passions, or however feeble we may be in virtue at the present moment. Let us offer ourselves to Jesus Christ with an unshaken faith, and acknowledge to Him our weakness and spiritual deficiency, and then we may hope confidently to receive the assistance of His grace, although we have not deserved it, if we but continually descend into the abyss of our humility.

10. Those who desire to walk in the distinguished path of virtue, which, however narrow and thorny it may prove at first, is afterwards smoothened and made easy for us by grace, are fully aware that they must pass through the furnace of tribulation, if they wish the divine fire of heavenly love to be enkindled in their breasts, and to warm their hearts with its chaste and holy flames. This is the reason why every one should prove himself, and eat his bread with wild lettuce, and mingle his drink with tears, lest his warfare on earth should terminate in his utter defeat and confusion. If all who are baptized are not saved, nor all who enter into the religious state, it is easy to draw the consequence, which I here refrain from mentioning.

11. All who would serve God with fidelity, must renounce every thing, despise every thing, and cast from them every thing with contempt, that they may lay a good and solid foundation. But this foundation is good and solid only, when it is composed of three essential materials: simplicity, abstemiousness, and chastity. All who would become the children of Jesus Christ, must begin with the practice of these three virtues. Little children, in whom there is found no malice, no duplicity, must be their model. Children are not the slaves of gluttony; they are not harassed and molested by the stings of the flesh. Whereas the indulgence of the sensual appetite is generally followed by the assaults of concupiscence.

12. The gladiator who shows signs of fear and cowardice at his first entrance into the amphitheatre, exposes himself to the aversion of the spectators, and to certain defeat. It is half the battle to begin in earnest and with courage. To grow somewhat remiss afterwards will not be attended with the same fatal consequences. For when the soul, once so vigorous and determined, sees itself languishing and losing its valour, it will, at the very remembrance of its former heroism, be animated by a powerful stimulant to renewed exertion, and be warmed with fresh fire for the combat, When, however, we feel our fervour and intrepidity evaporating, we should search diligently the cause of this degeneracy; and having found it, take all the arms in our possession to battle with it with all our might; since it is impossible to recover our first ardour, save by the means through which it was lost, that is, unless we remove the cause of this baneful negligence and tepidity.

13. He who renounces the world through fear, may be compared to incense, which at first emits a pleasant fragrance, but finally sends up nothing but smoke. He who renounces the world through the hope of reward, resembles a millstone which turns only in one particular direction. But he who retires from the world from the motive of divine love, is all on fire with this heavenly flame, and feels the warmth increase in proportion as he increases in piety, in the same manner as the flames which consume the forest ascend higher and become more intense as they advance and acquire more fuel.

14. Some persons upon a foundation of stone build an edifice of brick. Others erect the columns of their edifice upon the mere earth without any foundation. Many when they have walked a short distance on foot, become warm and their blood circulates freely, and they journey onwards with the greatest ease and rapidity. The intelligent reader will readily understand what is meant by these similitudes.2

15. Since it is our God and our King that hath called us to His holy service, let us endeavour with all our power to serve Him; lest after this short life we find ourselves destitute of good works, which are the support of the soul in the hour of dissolution, and we die in the state of famine or despair. Let us be as anxious to please God, as soldiers are to please and gratify their king. For when we are enrolled under His banner, He requires that we, as honourable and valiant soldiers, should serve Him with all care and fidelity.

16. Let us fear God as much, at least, as we dread ferocious beasts. For I have seen men who had no fear whatever of God, leave home with the intention of committing a robbery; but when they heard the dogs barking, returned immediately through fright. Thus the very terror which they had of a barking dog, made them abstain from that which the fear of the divine judgment would not have prevented.

17. Let us love God as much, at least, as we love and honour our friends. For I have frequently known those who had grievously offended God perfectly unconcerned about appeasing His wrath, totally indifferent to any reconciliation with his offended justice. But when they displeased their friends, though in matters of trifling importance, they employed all sorts of inventions, made use of the most artful address, testified a thousand regrets, and offered to make every satisfaction requisite, either personally, or through their friends and neighbours, adding even presents,--that their former friendship might be restored, and the offence forgiven and forgotten.

18. In the commencement of our retired life we do not practise virtue without much labour, opposition, and bitterness. But when we have made some progress in the religious life, we experience little or no difficulty in this holy career. When all our earthly affections have been subdued by an ardent zeal for God’s service, then we can run on with joy and alacrity in the way of the evangelical precepts, and feel the lively activity, the fervent desires, and the interior flames of divine love.

19. As much as we are bound in justice to praise those, who, from the very first day of their retirement from the world, lived virtuously, and fulfilled the divine precepts cheerfully and with promptness; so much likewise must we censure those, who, after many years spent in solitude, find great difficulty in the practice of the virtues of holy religion; though, however, they do practise them with considerable hesitation and labour.

20. We must not condemn those renunciations of the world, which are brought about by some extraordinary accident, or some unlooked for and sudden event. For I have known some, who, flying from their King, our Lord Jesus Christ, have met Him in their very flight, contrary to all their expectations, and have thenceforth been received into the number of His servants, have entered with Him into His palace, and have been admitted even to His table. I have seen the divine seed apparently scattered at random upon the earth, produce much and excellent fruit; whilst that which was sown with every care produced no fruit at all. I have likewise known a person come to the school of spiritual medicine, that is, to the monastery, upon an affair which regarded not his soul; and there a wise and skillful physician among his friends, desirous of his salvation, has so wrought upon him by his ingenious civility and address, as at once to win him over to the service of the Almighty, and to dispel that cloud by which hitherto the light of his mind had been obscured. From these examples we may observe, that the renunciation of the world, which is in some persons was involuntary at first, finally became more solid and permanent than that of others who adopted it from their own choice, and after great preparation.

21. Let no one pretend that the multitude and heinousness of his sins render him unworthy of the religious profession, and that it is an act of humility to believe himself unfit for this holy state; when, in fact, he shuns it merely for the purpose of enjoying the pleasures and delights of the world; thus seeking vain pretexts for continuing in his impenitence, and grovelling in his sins. For when there is much proud flesh in a wound, great skill is required from the surgeon in removing it. But they who are in health need not a physician. If an earthly monarch invited us to accept some appointment near his person, and to attend in his presence-chamber, we should not hesitate or delay a moment. No excuse would be alleged, no dilatoriness would be permitted in assuming our office. Let us watch, therefore, lest when the King of kings and Lord of lords calls us to march under His standard, we should be found so faint-hearted and slothful, as to disobey His commands, and be without excuse at the tribunal of our Almighty Judge. It is, indeed, not impossible for those who are bound, as it were, in bands of iron, by the cares and distractions of the world, to walk in the way of the Lord; but it will be with the difficulty of those who have heavy gyves upon their legs. They walk, it is true, but with frequent interruption, and under great pain, from the wounds cased by their galling chains. A single man, who is engaged in secular employments, is like one who has merely manacles on his hands. Hence if he wishes to retire into the holy state of religion, there is nothing to prevent his desire. But he who is married is bound hands and feet. Certain persons in the world, who had little thought or care about their salvation, one day said: “How can we, living with our wives, and surrounded by the innumerable cares of public business, which entangles us almost with as many threads as the spider’s web, how can we possibly embrace a retired and solitary life?” I replied: “Do all the good in your power; speak injuriously of no one; defraud no one; deceive no one by falsehood or hypocrisy; treat no one with contumely; hate no one; fail not to assist at the services of the Church; have compassion upon the poor; give no scandal; commit not adultery, but let each one respect his own wife; practice these instructions, conduct yourselves in this manner, and you will not be far from the kingdom of Heaven.”

22. Let us march with a holy joy, mingled with fear, to the combat assigned us against the evil spirits, and let us meet them, not with dread, but with fortitude. Although they are invisible, yet they watch our souls; and when they see us trembling with fright, they will assault us with greater rage and fierceness, after having discovered by their ordinary sagacity that we are afraid of them. Let us, then, buckle on our armour with undaunted courage. They cannot resist those who join battle with them with an intrepid and magnanimous heart.

23. The admirable Providence and Goodness of God, soften, as we can testify, the rude and fierce shocks of our spiritual warfare, to those who have but recently been converted from sin, through fear, lest the first onslaught might frighten them, and induce them to return to the world. For this reason, you who are His servants, should rejoice in the Lord always, confessing that this is the first testimony of His affection for you, and of your vocation to His service. We have, however, not unfrequently observed, that when God has seen those who forsook the world strong and generous, He has allowed them to experience at the very commencement of their religious life, the fierce assaults of their mortal enemy, that they might speedily win by their valour their crown of glory. With equal wisdom He likewise conceals from those in the world the pain and difficulty of the religious state, (although in reality there is more happiness than sorrow,) lest if the labour and hardship were known to them, few or none would leave the world.

24. Consecrate your youth to Jesus Christ by the exercise of penance and in your old age you will rejoice, in having received for your reward on earth perfect peace, by the complete victory over your passions. That which we gather in our earlier years will nourish and support us in more advanced age. Let us labour with earnestness whilst young; let us run with energy and swiftness, that we may win the race, for the hour of our death is uncertain. We have leagued against us adversaries thoroughly wicked, cruel, wily, devising against us all kinds of snares and deceptions. They are powerful, valiant, immaterial, and invisible. They hold in their hands a torch, in order to set on fire, and burn the living temple of God, with the same criminal flames with which they destroyed their own happiness. Let no young person listen to these artful foes, who say: “Do not humble and macerate your bodies by divers kinds of austerities, lest you bring on sickness and infirmity of constitution.” For we cannot easily find any one, in these days at least, who has so mortified his flesh, as either to injure or kill himself by his fasts and penances. The object of the infernal spirits in persuading us to moderate our austerities is, to make us cowardly and negligent at the beginning of our religious career, hoping that the end will correspond with the lukewarm beginning.

25. But, before all things, it is necessary that they who wish to serve Jesus Christ with fidelity, should employ all their care and industry in choosing, by the advice of their seniors in religion, and according also to the best of their own knowledge, the locality, the kind of life, and the exercises most suitable to their disposition and circumstances. For all cannot dwell in monasteries, particularly those with an unbridled tongue; nor can all endure the stillness of solitude, especially those most prone to impatience. Let each one, therefore, examine that which is proper to his disposition.

26. The whole of the religious life may be classified under three general heads. The 1st is that of anchorets, who dwell alone. The 2nd is a life of retirement and solitude, with one or two companions. The 3rd is that of community life, in the exercises of mortification and patience in a monastery. “Decline not,” says the wise man, “neither to the right hand, nor to the left.....and the Lord will make thy courses straight, he will bring forward thy ways in peace.”3......Hence the second kind of life is one which will be found well adapted for many persons. For the holy Scripture says: ‘Woe to him that is alone, for when he falleth into fretfulness, or sluggishness, or despair, he hath none to lift him up.”4 Whereas our Blessed Redeemer hath told us that, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”5 Who, then, may be termed a wise and faithful solitary? He who has preserved his first fervour, without ever permitting it to become cold, and who, to the last hour of life, never ceases to add fire to fire, fervour to fervour, industry to industry, and desire to desire for greater and more sublime virtue. Let not those who have mounted this first step in the Ladder of Perfection, look back.


  1. John, Abbot of Raithu, at whose request the Holy Ladder was composed.

  2. The first, who build a brick edifice upon a foundation of stone, are those who, having entered into the religious state, lead an ordinary and somewhat worldly life, an edifice little corresponding to the excellent foundation upon which it is raised. The second, who place their pillars upon mere sand, are they who wish to become anchorets and to attain to the highest and most sublime kind of life, without having first prepared themselves by a cenobitical life in a monastery. Hence their goodly columns,-their stately structure, proves but a baseless fabric,- and is swept away by the winds and the waves of temptation. The third, who become warm and improve their energy by walking, are those who place themselves under some skillful master of a religious life. The more they are trained by him in holy discipline, the more they are warmed and animated by obedience, humility, and patience, the more vigorously they pursue the path of virtue, and advance by more rapid steps to perfection.

  3. Proverbs iv. 27.

  4. Ecclesiastes iv. 10.

  5. Matt. xviii. 20.



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