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Staircase to hell

Sinful falls don't happen all at once; the holy Elder Cleopa of Romania describes sin as a progression through 12 stages, the last of which is suicide. Amelia relays his outline of those stages, explaining what happens at each, followed by a look at the hopelessness that leads to suicide.
As Christians, we take comfort in knowing that heaven is always within reach. What we usually forget is that hell is, too.

When we hear the words "taking steps" toward something, we usually think of progress in a forward or upward direction. But not all progress is good; there are steps we can take in a backward and downward direction, as well. In other words, just like there's a process of Christian transformation, meaning toward holiness, there's also a process of transformation that leads to destruction.

The holy Elder Cleopa of Romania outlined this progression toward evil by dividing it into twelve "degrees," which can also be translated as "steps." On the first few steps, our sins might be involuntary or by negligence, but the farther we progress down the staircase, the more intentional and evil our errors become. Based on the holy elder's ideas, the following interpretation of the twelve steps is meant to help us always be aware of where we stand.


The first step is simply not having the desire to do good deeds. When God told us to love Him, He meant we should follow His commandments. When He said to love our neighbors, He meant we should be kind, we should help others whenever we see a need, and we should care for people's souls, not just cater to their desires and inclinations. These are only a few examples of what "doing good deeds" could mean. Living like a Christian is an important part of actually being a Christian. By failing to do good when we have the opportunity to do so, we take the first step into sin.


The second step is closely related: Doing good deeds for the wrong reasons. If we perform some act of compassion or charity because we want to be recognized for it or given credit, our pride changes it into something sinful. If we use an opportunity to help someone as an opportunity to get ahead, we're acting out of selfishness and not Christian love. If we do something kind for someone for the sake of hurting someone else, we're acting out of spite. There are many other loveless motives for which we do things that otherwise would be good deeds, but the lack of love is what makes them sinful. Father Cleopa also said that if we do a good deed imperfectly or defectively, we likewise find ourselves at this second step of sin. The standard for perfection that's expected of us is our individual "absolute best." If we fail to live up to that standard of perfection in performing our good works—even if our half-hearted act is "better" or accomplishes more than someone else's very best, we still will have missed the mark.


The third step of sin comes quickly and not necessarily with our consent; this is when a sinful idea enters our mind. Maybe the devil plants a thought. Maybe someone around us ignites a passion. Maybe we turn on the TV and see an image that taunts us. Maybe something trips our memory and we remember the splendor of a past sin. No matter what the source, as soon as an unholy thought attacks by popping into our awareness, we're already on the third step down.


We take the fourth step when we choose to entertain that thought. What enters our minds isn't always within our conscious control, but what stays there is. If we start to have a mental conversation with an unholy idea, its evil becomes more and more our own. If an unholy thought sneaks up on us by surprise, we have the responsibility of pushing it out of our minds. This is no different from turning on the TV and seeing something unexpectedly dirty; although we might not have intended to see what we saw, we become responsible for changing the channel and forgetting about it. Once we join our minds to an unholy thought, we tell the demons something like: "Sure, come on in. Let me make you a cup of coffee, and we'll chat." When evil comes knocking, God expects us to keep the door shut and locked.


The fifth step of sin is the point at which we begin to fight with an evil thought. Likely, at this point we still know better than to give in, but we find ourselves torn between wanting to do the right thing and wanting to concede to a temptation that's already managed to gain a strong hold on us. We're not the only ones involved in this fight. On one side, we have at least one angel, our guardian, trying to protect us. On the other, we have at least one demon reminding us of "how good it could be." Caught in the middle is our human intellect, our ability to reason, which really isn't much of a match against any demonic ambush. Angels can only help us if we don't reject their help and push them away. We might chuckle when we think of the cutesy depictions of this in cartoons—the little devil with a pitchfork on one shoulder, and the little angel with wings and a halo on the other—but it mirrors something very real. This step doesn't just represent a cognitive dilemma; it's also a spiritual battleground. It's better never to come to this fifth step, because the war is a difficult one to win.


The sixth step is where we finally give in. If we don't bother to make the sign of the cross and to pray for deliverance from the temptation at the fifth step, sincerely desiring to be delivered, eventually we lose the strength to keep fighting. We relax a bit, giving ourselves consent to think about whichever things we initially tried to fend off. At this step, we tell God that we're no longer interested in His help. We're more interested in the temptation.


Once we've given our mental consent to muse on something sinful, the seventh step is to have the actual fantasy about it. When we imagine doing something forbidden, we're already sinning in our hearts. It is like the Lord says, in the Gospel of Matthew (5:28), that whoever looks at someone with lust has already committed adultery in his heart. So much of our enjoyment of sinful things exists in the mind that, in many instances, we can find as much gratification from dreaming about something scandalous as we would from actually doing it. Often, the pretend version is even sweeter.


The eighth step of sin is where fantasy becomes reality. If we didn't first guard our thoughts, we'll find that it's nearly impossible to guard our actions at this point. Our sinful imaginings can only remain buried under all the other garbage in our minds for so long; eventually, they surface and become actions. The newfound danger at this step is that the sins are no longer only our own. Usually, at this step, they extend to include other people. For example, having impure thoughts about someone doesn't truly involve that person until the scenario begins to play out in real life. Hatred doesn't hurt anyone until we open our mouths or raise a fist. By dragging other people into our sins, whether as willing participants or blindsided victims, we thrust our once-secret sins out of our contemplations and dreams and into the open.


Once we've taken the eighth step of sinning in our actions, the taking ninth step becomes much easier: To repeat the sin. Sometimes it takes a long time to bring ourselves to that first instance of doing something sinful. Maybe we're afraid, maybe we feel nervous. But once we've crossed that threshold for the first time and seen that we can do it, and once we've received the desired illicit reward for doing so, it becomes much easier to do it again and again. Our sins become customary for us at this step. We become used to them, so they no longer seem like such a big deal in our minds. This is where our behavior collides into and slowly begins to merge with our character.


On the tenth step, habit turns into addiction. The sinful things that we once did for pleasure, for relief, as an escape, or for whatever other reason become, at this step, heavy chains that bind us. We don't sin so much out of habit at this stage as we do because we "need a fix." We may not even enjoy our sinning anymore. In all likelihood, we'll have already come to the point of hating ourselves for it. The problem is that we don't know how to stop ourselves—or perhaps we know how, but we're afraid to commit to it. We're terrified of dealing with things (with life, with ourselves, with whatever) alone, meaning without the miserable but familiar companionship of our favorite vice.


At the eleventh step, we finally see ourselves for how we really are: Helpless, out of control, and drowning in regret. Here, honesty sets in and we finally stop making excuses. Maybe we never admit to anything out loud, but inside we know that we were fully responsible for bringing ourselves to this point. This is the point of despair, the place at which we lose all hope that God could or would ever want to forgive us. At this step more than any other, rekindling our faith is critical. By the time we come to this step, we have very few shards of faith left; otherwise, it wouldn't have been possible for us to progress this far. Once we leave this eleventh step and reach the bottom, we will have abandoned Christ God and our faith forever.


At the twelfth step, for truly the first time, it's too late to turn back. The twelfth step is suicide.

A life without hope is dark and frightening. Without the promise of salvation, without the inner peace that comes from continually and actively seeking it, we have no real reason to live. But we're the ones that push this hope and this promise away. God doesn't abandon us; we abandon Him. One of the ways we abandon Him is when we start thinking we're so horrible that He could no longer find it within Himself to forgive us. God never tells us that we're too imperfect to be forgiven or too hopeless to be helped. In fact, the worse off we are, the more of His love we need and can receive. But the demon of despair wants to convince us that it's too late to ask for forgiveness. Until we commit suicide, it's not in any way too late.

No sin of ours could ever be so powerful that we can't be redeemed of it; the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is more powerful than even the most wicked thing we could imagine. To receive that redemption, we first have to turn to Him and ask for it. Mercy isn't automatically granted to us just because we're baptized or feel entitled to it. When we lack the desire to be forgiven, which is often accompanied by a lack of desire and motivation to change, we cut ourselves off from all possibilities of both change and forgiveness. This isolation from God is what leads us to suicidal thinking. We may not recognize that this is our specific problem, but we most certainly feel as though we've been cut off; we just might not realize from Whom.

The decision to commit suicide, which often follows the feeling of complete isolation and abandonment, is in fact a decision. Mental health professionals point out that when people act in desperation or despair, they're not thinking clearly and, thus, aren't really able to make an informed decision; suicide is supposedly just their knee-jerk reaction to the pain. In select instances this can be true, but how do people end up in such a desperate place to begin with? Except in instances of psychoticism, hopelessness always precedes suicide—so how do people become so hopeless? Psychology and medicine don't have a sure answer to these questions, but Christian Orthodoxy does.

From the Orthodox perspective, the alternative to the hopelessness that leads to suicide is very straightforward: We must find hope. Hope comes from God, from faith, from trusting His promises, and from praying for His help. If we live long enough without these things, of course we're going to end up in a dangerously hopeless, confusing, overwhelming, frightening, out-of-control, suicidal state of mind. We're all helpless without God. He comes right out and tells us so: Without me, you can do nothing (John 15:5). Without Him, we're not even capable enough to go on existing.

Having hope, particularly the hope of God's mercy, is a very important part of what it means to be Christian. But living like a Christian is also a very important part of being able to possess that hope. Many, many times, the reason that we lose hope in the first place is because we don't know how to handle our regrets. We don't know how to accept the things we've done wrong, to take accountability for them, to repent and ask for forgiveness, and, finally, to move past them. We don't know what to do with the knowledge that we had eleven prior steps—eleven sets of opportunities—for things not to turn out this way. Maybe we never called them steps or knew that there were eleven of them, but somehow we still know that we missed every single ship that came in.

The way back up.

What should we do, then, when we find ourselves standing on any of these steps of sin, whether we're confidently near the top or trembling as we graze the point of no return? How do we keep ourselves from going even lower? If we're already at the bottom, how do we keep ourselves alive?

The answer has to do with how we understand Christianity. If we misunderstand or misinterpret it, there's nothing a false faith can do to help us.

People sometimes look at Christianity and think it teaches us to feel guilty for our sins, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Christianity is about repentance, which takes away all guilt through the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Saint Peter the Apostle sinned terribly; he denied the Lord three times, even after having been warned that he would do precisely that. But he immediately felt extreme remorse for his sin, and he fell to his knees and wept bitterly, as the Gospels tell (Matthew 26). As a result, Peter was forgiven, and he became a great saint and a great leader of the Church. He didn't wallow in guilt or despair for the rest of his life. He admitted his error, and God allowed and helped him to move on.

Other people think that Christianity automatically exempts us from having to think about our sins, assuming we'll be forgiven by default. But let's consider another example from the same Passion Gospel. Judas, during that same short window of time as Peter's denial, also sinned against God. He felt remorseful, as did Peter. He didn't even want the 30 pieces of silver that were the reward for his heinous betrayal. But Judas didn't go on to become a saint. Judas wasn't blessed with God's mercy or the mental peace that comes from being forgiven. Unable to face what he had done, Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27).

According to the way Orthodox faithful have understood things since the beginning of Christian times, repentance is critical. We all fall down the spiritual stairs now and then, but we always have two choices afterward: To end up like Saint Peter, or to end up like Judas. The difference between Peter and Judas is that Peter repented and chose to ask for forgiveness, whereas Judas never did. In his despair, Judas didn't weep over what he had done. He didn't humble himself by falling to his knees, neither literally nor in his heart. He didn't think to apologize or confess. He didn't bother to attempt, not even once, to try and prevent the darkest hour in all of history from taking place. The Scriptures needed to be fulfilled, of course—a Resurrection couldn't take place without a Passion—but Judas didn't want forgiveness for the bloody hand he'd played in it. And once he had taken his own life, no matter how sorry he might have been for his prior sin, it was too late to tell God so. Surely this isn't the path we want to follow.

No matter where we are on the staircase to hell, at whichever step of sin we find ourselves, it's possible to turn around at any point in our descent—unless, of course, we've reached the final destination. Staircases always go in two directions. Even if we've started traveling in the downward direction, with God's help we can still make some changes and climb back up. Of course, the farther down we go, the longer and more difficult the climb back up, but the top always remains within reach if we want it to be. The only mistake we make in trying to climb is in thinking we can do it alone. We all need God's help. We need the protection of His angels, the prayers of His saints, and even the support of His other servants here on earth.

Every now and then, the Lord's hand descends and He carries us to the top of the staircase in a single effort. Every now and then, we can take the steps up two or three at a time. More often than not, though, we stumble and hurt ourselves all over again at every single step on the journey back toward safe, higher ground. Usually, it takes us a long time to learn from our past mistakes. But no one ever said it has to be this way. Healing is a matter of how humble we are, how much we're willing to ask for help and accept it, and how much we sincerely desire to change for the better.

No one is perfectly sinless, but no one has God's permission or an excuse not to be, either. God expects us to keep trying harder, no matter how hard we're already trying, and repentance is what enables us to do that. No mistake is too small to need repenting, and no mistake is too great to be erased by it. May God help us to remember Father Cleopa's twelve steps, and may He always remind us of where we are on the staircase so that, out of love for Him, we can choose to repent and climb back up.