March 2009 - Vol. 28

Monastery of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai, Egypt

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

wisdom from John Climacus

The following short excerpts are from The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus, abbot of St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, Egypt during the 7th century. John Climacus is revered in many Eastern churches as a great teacher of spiritual wisdom. Orthodox monasteries throughout the centuries have read his Ladder of Divine Ascent during Lent. 
Light, fire and flame
Love in its nature makes a human being like God, as far as is possible for a human being. The soul is intoxicated by the effects of it. Its characteristics are a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, an ocean of humility.

Love is the complete repudiation of any unkind thought about one’s neighbor, since, "Love thinks no evil" (1 Corinthians 13:5).

Love, unchangeable tranquility, and our adoption as children of God are different from each other only in name. As light, fire and flame are present in the selfsame operation, so are these three manifestations of the Spirit.

When someone is completely permeated with the love of God, the brightness of his soul is reflected by his whole personality as if in a mirror.

Therefore the one who loves God also loves his brother or sister. Indeed, the second love is the proof of the first.

Poison in your heart: the memory of insults
The memory of insults is the residue of anger. It keeps sins alive, hates justice, ruins virtue, poisons the heart, rots the mind, defeats concentration, paralyzes prayer, puts love at a distance, and is a nail driven into the soul.

If anyone has appeased his anger, he has already suppressed the memory of insults, while as long as the mother is alive the son persists. In order to appease the anger, love is necessary.

Remembrance of Jesus’ passion will heal your soul of resentment, by making it ashamed of itself when it remembers the patience of the Lord.

Some people have wearied themselves and suffered for a long time in order to extract forgiveness. By far the best course, however, is to forget the offences, since the Lord says: "Forgive at once and you will be forgiven in generous measure" cf. Luke 6:37-38.

Forgetting offences is a sign of sincere repentance. If you keep the memory of them, you may believe you have repented but you are like someone running in his sleep.

Let no one consider it a minor defect, this darkness that often clouds the eyes even of spiritual people.

Repentance, baptismal renewal, daughter of hope
Nothing equals or excels God's mercies. Therefore, he who despairs is committing suicide. A sign of true repentance is the acknowledgment that we deserve all the afflictions, visible and invisible, that come upon us, and ever greater ones. 

Repentance is the renewal of baptism. Repentance is a contract with God for a second life. A penitent is a buyer of humility. 

Repentance is the daughter of hope and the renunciation of despair. 

Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the practice of good deeds contrary to the sins. Repentance is purification of conscience. Repentance is the voluntary endurance of all afflictions. 

Hypocrisy and lies, mother and daughter
Fire is produced from stone and steel; lying comes from loquacity and gossip. And the lie destroys love.

No one who has any sense would say that telling lies is not an important sin. The Holy Spirit has severely condemned it. "You destroy those that speak lies," says David to God ( Psalm 5: 7).

The mother of lying is hypocrisy, mother and also, often, its substance as well. Hypocrisy in fact works out the lie beforehand and then puts it into practice.

Those who possess the fear of God are the furthest from telling lies, because they have an honest judge, their own conscience.

As with all the passions, we ought to recognize various types of lying according to the damage done. One person tells lies from fear of punishment; another when no danger is threatening; another because of conceit; another for enjoyment; another to raise a laugh; and yet another to do harm to his neighbor.

A child does not know what a lie is, so his soul is free of malice. Someone who is elated with wine speaks the truth on all subjects, even without meaning to. In the same way, anyone who is inebriated with the spirit of penitence will never be able to tell lies.

Do not give up, but stand courageously 
Let us charge into the good fight with joy and love without being afraid of our enemies. Though unseen themselves, they can look at the face of our soul, and if they see it altered by fear, they take up arms against us all the more fiercely. For the cunning creatures have observed that we are scared. So let us take up arms against them courageously. No one will fight with a resolute fighter.

Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously. And assuredly, the angel who guards you will honor your patience.

He who really keeps account of his actions considers as lost every day in which he does not mourn, whatever good he may have done in it.

I consider those fallen mourners more blessed than those who have not fallen and are not mourning over themselves; because as a result of their fall, they have risen by a sure resurrection. 

Life of John Climacus

John Climacus, also known as John of Sinai or John of the Ladder, was born around 579, possibly in Syria. He read widely in his early years. At the age of 16 John decided to join the monastic community at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt at the spot believed to be where Moses spoke to God face to face. 

At the age of 35 John lived as a hermit at a place called Tholas which was about five miles from the main monastery. Many people sought him out as a teacher and spiritual guide. John received so many guests that some monks complained that he had become a chatterbox. John remained silent for a year until his accusers asked that he go back to receiving guests as had been his practice. 

It was also customary at the time for small clusters of monks to gather together in a close-knit semi-eremitical way of life. John accepted a disciple, named Moses, to live with him. He also traveled to visit sick hermits and monasteries near Alexandria and solitaries in the Egyptian desert. He was recognized for his great love for God and for people, and he was also known for his miracles, and his healing of the sick. 

During this period, political unrest and  persecution broke out in the region. Forty-four monks were martyred at the monastery of Sabas during the Persian invasion of Jerusalem in 614. Some monks had fled, forced to wander from place to place as the Persians advanced. Syria fell to Islam in 636, Palestine fell in 638, and Egypt fell by 642. Many monks in these regions fled to the west as the Arab empire took form.

Ladder of Divine Ascent, icon from St. Catherine Monastery, Sinai

The monastery at Sinai survived these invasions. Around 649, after John had spent some 40 years of solitude in the desert, John was persuaded by the monastic community at Sinai to serve as their abbot. John's widespread fame and admiration as a holy man of God was evident when six hundred pilgrims arrived at the monastery on the occasion of his installation as abbot. 

The abbot of a nearby monastery at Raithou asked John to write a book of spiritual wisdom for the monks in the desert communities. John called the book The Ladder of Divine Ascent, from which his name “John of the Ladder” or "John Climacus" (climacus is the Greek word for ladder) is derived.

John knew that he was living at the end of an age, in a time of great turmoil and uncertainty. He wrote not only for the monks in the desert but also for Christians elsewhere, to strengthen them in the faith as well.

John wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent primarily as an invitation to the journey toward holiness and union with God in the monastic life. It records what John had learned from his forty-year journey in the wilderness, both as a solitary hermit and as a brother in monastic community. John wrote as a pastor to help his fellow monks grow in faith through “a personal encounter with Christ at each step of the ladder.” 

John died between 654 and 679.  Soon afterward, The Ladder was translated from the Greek into Syriac. By the tenth century, it had also been translated into Arabic and Georgian. It appeared in Latin by the eleventh century.

John is a very important saint within the Orthodox Church. No other book, except the Bible and liturgical books, has been as carefully studied within the Orthodox tradition. It is read aloud in Orthodox monasteries during Lent.

[For further reading see the book, John Climacus, From the Egyptian Desert to the Sinaite Mountain, by John Chryssavgis. Click here for a PDF version of the book.]


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