Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: “How can we who are married and living amid public cares aspire to the monastic life?”
I answered: “Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.”
~ St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 1
In my previous post, I briefly mentioned “the tyranny of the ordinary.” By that I meant the way in which our daily routines can dominate our lives. But this passage from the Ladder is a helpful corrective. The ordinary can be oppressive, but it can also be an achievement.
What is St. John’s advice to “people living carelessly in the world”? Don’t be a jerk. Don’t say mean things. Tell the truth. Love your neighbor. Go to church. Care for the poor. Be respectable. Be faithful to your spouse. “If you do all this,” he says, “you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.”
What does this amount to? Basically Ten Commandments stuff—the bare minimum. You live in the world? You’re married? You have kids? Okay then. Have you killed anyone? Committed adultery? Do you hold any grudges or slander your neighbor? No? Well, then, you’re doing fine.
I am reminded of a passage from the Didache, an early second century manual of Christian practice: “if you can bear the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect, but if you cannot, do what you can” (Didache 6.2). St. Ambrose, among many others, even distinguishes between two goals: “Every duty is either ‘ordinary’ or ‘perfect.’” The perfect duties, according to St. Ambrose (who bases this distinction on Scripture), are for monastics, people who have devoted their whole lives to an intense and intentional asceticism.
Ordinary duties, on the other hand, are for everyone. These he identifies with the Ten Commandments. He uses the story of the rich young man in the Gospel who claims to have kept them all since his childhood. Jesus then replies, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your goods and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
I like this reading a lot. For one thing, it puts a sad story in a little better light. That young man (who walks away sad and distraught) really did need to let go of his attachment to wealth and follow Jesus, but nevertheless perhaps he is not without hope. Indeed, hope for this man seems to be the point of the story:
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:23-26)
The point of this is that what seems impossible to us is possible for God. Even the rich man can be saved. Even the ordinary can “become a living flame.”
This is important to remember. It is easy to go away in despair, forgetting that the Son of God stands before us, saying, “Follow me.” He will help us find a way. If we do not neglect such a seed and resign its fate to the weeds, if we do not despair of the growth we had hoped to gain but, even in the midst of the messes of life and the “tyranny of the ordinary,” maintain hope in Christ who says simply, “Follow me,” then that minimum too might bear great fruit for love. Then even the ordinary, by God’s grace, can be an achievement.