A friend of God is the one who lives in communion with all that is natural and free from sin and who does not neglect to do what good he can…. Withdrawal from the world is a willing hatred of all that is materially prized, a denial of nature for the sake of what is above nature.
St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 1
The wisdom of the fathers can be hard to decipher. Sometimes they seem to completely contradict the conventional wisdom. Other times, like this quote from St. John Climacus, they seem to contradict themselves. These two sentences are, in fact, found in the very same paragraph, the one in the middle and the other at the end. While I understand the impulse of many (including scholars at times) to rashly declare any apparent contradiction a true contradiction, the more charitable (and more careful and respectful) assumption would be to assume that apparent contradictions are not simply contradictions, but rather that they are simply apparent. That is, beneath the surface they speak a high nuance of thought worth slowing down to consider.
So then, if a friend of God is “one who lives in communion with all that is natural and free from sin [etc.],” how is it that the same writer recommends “a denial of nature for the sake of what is above nature”? What is the distinction? Are we to live in communion with nature or deny it? Can these two statements be reconciled?
The following paragraph sheds a little more light on the latter of the two statements:
All this [he had listed many more spiritual goals] is done by those who willingly turn from the things of this life, either for the sake of the coming kingdom, or because of the number of their sins, or on account of their love of God. Without such objectives the denial of the world would make no sense.
He continues in the same vein a little later on:
The man who renounces the world because of fear is like burning incense, which begins with fragrance and ends in smoke. The man who leaves the world in hopes of reward is like the millstone that always turns around on the same axis. The man who leaves the world for love of God has taken fire from the start, and like fire set to fuel, it soon creates a conflagration.
The basic idea here is that there are (at least) three reasons why people withdraw from the world:
The first is for fear, presumably fear of punishment “because of the number of their sins.” While this may produce some initial progress, if one does not move beyond it, it “ends in smoke.”
The second is for desire for reward or “for the sake of the coming kingdom.” This produces movement, to be sure, but such movement is circular, i.e. it does not constitute progress. Ironically, a future-focused spirituality cannot ultimately move one forward in the spiritual life.
The third is for the love of God. Mixed with ascetic effort (the fuel), the love of God creates an explosion of spiritual progress.
These three reasons correspond quite well to a distinction of St. Basil the Great, i.e. that there are those who serve God as slaves, out of fear of punishment; those who serve him like servants or stewards, out of desire for reward; and those who serve him like sons, out of love. All three are service, even incense gives off a fragrant beauty, but only the third is befitting of those who have been adopted by God in Christ.
Thus, one can withdraw from the world inadequately. When we read the words “denial of nature” then, we must assume that there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and thus there is a right way and a wrong way to read it.
As for the first statement, that we should live “in communion with all that is natural,” it is important to note that it is not unqualified, but rather only as what is natural is “free from sin” and characterized by doing what good one can. Many fathers, in fact, refer to sin as that which is “against nature.”
The fathers typically assumed some form of what is known as natural law: that the conscience testifies to the basic principles of morality as found in the Ten Commandments: do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; and so on. These are the basic requirements of a just society. No one really needs to be taught these commandments, though it helps to have them written out and detailed to prevent us from finding ways of rationalizing our transgressions.
To live “in communion with what is natural and free from sin,” then, ought to be understood in the sense of living according to natural law or conscience, i.e. living justly. When St. John recommends just a few sentences later that we embrace “a denial of nature,” we should not presume that he means for us to murder, fornicate, steal, and so on. In fact, this latter statement is not unqualified either: he adds, “for the sake of what is above nature.”
We thus have three more categories: that which is against nature (sin), that which is in accord with nature (natural law), and that which is above nature (divine love). These do not perfectly correspond to the three ways of withdrawing from the world, but they are somewhat related. Slaves seek to avoid that which is against nature. Servants live according to nature with the hope of what is above it. Sons live above nature now, aflame with the love of God.
Nevertheless, we have not quite answered the question: in what sense does he mean “a denial of nature”? We have at least two options.
He could mean nature that is not “free from sin.” Thus, he would be recommending denying all that naturally leads us towards what is unnatural. Our appetites and passions are not evil in themselves, but they can and often do lead us to sin. Or, to be clearer, as rational animals designed for virtue, human beings ought not to live like the beasts, pushed around by every passion and desire. In animals this is fully natural. In human beings this is a distortion of what is natural into habits unworthy of our dignity, i.e. vice.
The other option would be that he has in mind natural law or justice. In this sense, what he would be recommending would not be a denial in the sense of violation, but rather in the sense of transcendence. When someone is wronged, they may justly ask to be repaid, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24). This is God’s standard of justice. Yet if, when wronged, a person does not seek out what is due to them but rather pardons the offender out of mercy, denying his/her right to justice, this is divine love. It does not violate justice—the wrongdoer is the one who has done that—but rather it freely transcends justice; it is a higher standard and truly a cross.
Paradoxically, however, this higher standard, which strikes us as apparently more difficult, is a lighter burden and an easier road. There is nothing wrong with the natural law; the spiritual law is simply better. And according to St. John Climacus, it is the first step of the ladder of divine ascent of the one “who adds fire to fire, fervor to fervor, zeal to zeal, love to love, and this to the end of his life.” He continues, “Let him who has set foot on it not turn back.”
I fear sometimes I may struggle my whole life just to set my foot upon that first step, but whether by fear or desire or true love itself, I hope to ever progress, however minimally, in the right direction.