Third Step of The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John of Sinai – On Exile7 min read
Now being exiled in our own homes let us draw from the words of St. John Abbot of Sinai.
Translation: Fr. Lazarus Moore
- Exile means that we leave forever everything in our own country that prevents us from reaching
the goal of the religious life. Exile means modest manners, wisdom which remains unknown, prudence
not recognized as such by most, a hidden life, an invisible intention, unseen meditation, desire for
humiliation, longing for hardship, constant determination to love God, abundance of charity,
renunciation of vainglory, depth of silence.
- Those who have come to love the Lord are at first unceasingly and greatly disturbed by this
thought, as if burning with divine fire. I speak of separation from their own, undertaken by the lovers
of perfection so that they may live a life of hardship and simplicity. But great and praiseworthy as this
is, yet it requires great discretion; for not every kind of exile, carried to extremes, is good.
- If every prophet goes unhonoured in his own country,3 as the Lord says, then let us beware lest our
exile should be for us an occasion of vainglory. For exile is separation from everything in order to keep
the mind inseparable from God. Exile loves and produces continual weeping. An exile is a fugitive
from every attachment to his own people and to strangers.
- In hastening to solitude and exile, do not wait for world-loving souls, because the thief comes
unexpectedly. In trying to save the careless and indolent along with themselves, many perish with
them, because in course of time the fire goes out. As soon as the flame is burning within you, run; for
you do not know when it will go out and leave you in darkness. Not all of us are required to save
others. The divine Apostle says: ‘Each one of us shall give account of himself to God.’4 And again he
1 St. Matthew xii, 45.
2 This is a double translation for a single Greek word xeniteia which means ‘living as a stranger’ (not necessarily
as a vagrant) and might be translated ‘unworldliness’.
says: ‘Thou therefore who teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?’1 This is like saying: I do not
know whether we must all teach others; but teach yourselves at all costs.
- In going into exile, beware of the demon of wandering and of sensual desire; because exile gives
him his opportunity.
- Detachment is excellent; but her mother is exile. Having become an exile for the Lord’s sake, we
should have no ties of affection at all lest we seem to be roving in order to gratify our passions.
- Have you become an exile from the world? Do not touch the world any more; because the passions
desire nothing better than to return.
- Eve was exiled from Paradise against her will, but the monk is a willing exile from his home. She
would have liked the tree of disobedience again; and he would certainly expose himself to frequent
danger from relatives according to the flesh.
- Run from places of sin as from the plague. For when fruit is not present, we have no frequent desire
to eat it.
- Be on the look out for this trick and wile of the thieves. For they suggest to us that we need not
separate ourselves from people in the world and maintain that we shall receive a great reward if we
can look upon women and still remain continent. We must not believe these suggestions, but rather the
- When we have lived a year or two away from our family, and have acquired some piety or
contrition or continence, then vain thoughts begin to rise up in us and urge us to go again to our
homeland, ‘for the edification of many’, they say, ‘and as an example, and for the profit of those who
saw our former lax life’. And if we possess the gift of eloquence and some shreds of knowledge, the
thought occurs to us that we could be saviours of souls and teachers in the world—that we may waste
in the sea what we have gathered so well in the harbour. Let us try to imitate not Lot’s wife, but Lot
himself. For when a soul turns back to what it has left, like salt, it loses its savour and becomes
henceforth useless. Run from Egypt without looking back; because the hearts which look back upon it
with affection shall not see Jerusalem, the land of tranquility.2’ Those who left their own people in
childlike simplicity at the beginning, and have since been completely purified may profitably return to
their former land, perhaps even with the intention, after saving themselves, of saving others, too. Yet
Moses, who was allowed to see God Himself and was sent by God for the salvation of his own people,
met many dangers in Egypt, that is to say, dark nights in the world.
- It is better to grieve our parents than the Lord. For He has created and saved us, but they have often
ruined their loved ones and delivered them up to their doom.
- He is an exile who, having knowledge, sits like one of foreign speech amongst people of another
- It is not from hatred that we separate ourselves from our own people or places (God forbid!), but to
avoid the harm which might come to us from them. In this, as in everything else, it is Christ who
teaches us what is good for us. For it is clear that He often left His parents according to the flesh. And
when He was told, ‘Thy Mother and Thy brethren are seeking for Thee’, our good Lord and Master at
once showed us an example of dispassionate3 hatred when He said, ‘My Mother and My brethren are
they who do the will of My Father who is in heaven’.4
1 Romans ii, 21.
‘Dispassion’, Gk. apatheia. Jerusalem means ‘City of Peace’. The only true peace is freedom from passion, and
the technical word for this is ‘dispassion’.
3 apathes, i.e. free from human emotions and feelings.
4 St. Matthew xii, 49.
- Let him be your father who is able and willing to labour with you in bearing the burden of your
sins; and your mother—contrition, which can cleanse you from impurity; and your brother—your
comrade who toils and fights side by side with you in your striving toward the heights. Acquire an
inseparable wife—the remembrance of death. And let your beloved children be the sighs of your heart.
Make your body your slave; and your friends, the Holy Powers (Angels) who can help you at the hour
of your death, if they become your friends. This is the generation (family) of those who seek the Lord.1
- Love of God extinguishes our love for our parents. And so he who says that he has both deceives
himself. He should listen to Him who says: No man can serve two masters.2 I have not come, says the
Lord, to bring peace on earth (that is, love of parents among sons and brothers who have resolved to
serve Me) but war and a sword3 in order to separate lovers of God from lovers of the world, the
material from the spiritual, the proud from the humble. For strife and separation delight the Lord when
they spring from love for Himself.
- Look, beware, lest you be exposed to the deluge of sentiment through your attachment to the things
of your home, and all that you have be drowned in the waters of earthly affection. Do not be moved by
the tears of parents or friends; otherwise you will be weeping eternally. When they surround you like
bees, or rather wasps, and shed tears over you, do not for one moment hesitate, but sternly fix the eye
of your soul on your past actions and your death, that you may ward off one sorrow by another. Our
own, or more correctly, those who are not our own, flatteringly promise to do everything to please us.
But their aim is to hinder our splendid course, and afterwards to bend us in this way to their own ends.
- For our solitary life let us choose places where there are fewer opportunities for comfort and
ambition, but more for humility. Otherwise, we shall be fleeing in company with our passions.
- Hide your noble birth and do not glory in your distinction, lest you be found to be one thing in
word and another in deed.
- No one has gone into exile so nobly as that great patriarch4 to whom it was said: ‘Get thee out of thy
country and from thy kindred and from thy father’s house.’5 And then he was ordered to go into a
foreign and barbarous land.
- Sometimes the Lord has brought more glory to the man who has gone into exile after the manner of
this great patriarch. But even if glory is God-given, yet it is excellent to divert it from oneself with the
shield of humility.
- When men or devils praise us for our exile, as for some great success, then let us think of Him who
for our sake was exiled from heaven to earth, and we shall find that throughout all eternity it is
impossible for us to make return for this.
- Attachment either to some particular relative or to strangers is dangerous. Little by little it can
entice us back to the world, and completely quench the fire of our contrition. It is impossible to look at
the sky with one eye and at the earth with the other, and it is equally impossible for anyone not to
expose his soul to danger who has not separated himself completely, both in thought and body, from
his own relatives and from others.
- By much labour and effort a good and firm disposition is developed in us. But what is achieved
with great labour can be lost in an instant. ‘For evil company doth corrupt good manners’6, being at
once worldly and disorderly.7 The man who associates with people of the world or approaches them
1 Psalm xxiii, 6.
2 St. Matthew vi, 24.
3 St. Matthew x, 34.
5 Genesis xii, 1.
6 1 Corinthians xv, 33.
‘Worldly and disorderly’, a pun on kosmos, ‘world’ and akosmos, ‘disorder’.
after his renunciation will certainly either fall into their traps or will defile his heart by thinking about
them; or if he is not defiled himself yet by condemning those who are defiled, he too will himself be