The Holy Feast Day of St. John Climacus, Author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.

ON MARCH 30TH WECOMMEMORATE THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN CLIMACUS, AUTHOR OF THE LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT

On March 30 and on the Fourth Sunday of Holy Lent the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates our Righteous Father John Climacus. He is called Climacus due to his authorship of the great spiritual work The Ladder of Divine Ascent. His commemoration is designated by the Orthodox Church on one of the Sundays of Holy and Great Lent as his life and writings affirm him as a supreme bearer and proponent of Christian asceticism. The ascetic example of this great Saint of the Church inspires us in our Lent journey.

Saint John Climacus was probably born in the second half of the 6th century; but his country and origins are alike unknown because, from the beginning of his renunciation of the world, he took great care to live as a stranger upon earth. "Exile," he wrote, "is a separation from everything, in order that one may hold on totally to God." We only know that, from the age of sixteen, after having received a solid intellectual formation, he renounced all the pleasures of this vain life for love of God and went to Mount Sinai, to the foot of the holy mountain on which God had in former times revealed His glory to Moses, and consecrated himself to the Lord with a burning heart as a sweet-smelling sacrifice.

Setting aside, from the moment of his entry into the stadium, all self-trust and self-satisfaction through unfeigned humility, he submitted body and soul to an elder Martyrios and set himself, free from all care, to climb that spiritual ladder (klimax) at the top of which God stands, and to "add fire each day to fire, fervor to fervor, zeal to zeal." He saw his shepherd as "the image of Christ" and, convinced that his elder (geronda) was responsible for him before God, he had only one care: to reject his own will and "with all deliberateness to put aside the capacity to make [his] own judgment," so that no interval passed between Martyrios' commands, even those that appeared unjustified, and the obedience of his disciple. In spite of this perfect submission, Martyrios kept him as a novice (dokimos) for four years and only tonsured him when he was twenty, after having tested his humility. Strategios, one of the monks present at the tonsure predicted that the new monk would one day become one of the great lights of the world. When, later, Martyrios and his disciple paid a visit to John the Savaite, one of the most famous ascetics of the time, the latter, ignoring the elder, poured water over St. John's feet. After they had left, John the Savaite declared that he did not know the young monk but, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he had washed the feet of the Egoumenos (Abbot) of Sinai. The same prophecy was confirmed by the great Anastasios the Sinaite (+ April 21st), whom they also went to visit.

In spite of his youth, St. John showed the maturity of an elder (geronda) and great discernment. Thus one day, when he had been sent into the world on a mission, and finding himself with lay-people, he had preferred to give in somewhat to vainglory be eating very little, rather than to gluttony; for, of these two evils, it was better to choose that which is less dangerous for beginners in monastic life.

He thus passed nineteen years in the blessed freedom from the care that obedience gives, freed from all conflict by the prayer of his spiritual father and on "a safe voyage, a sleeper's journey," moved towards the harbor of impassibility. On the death of Martyrios, he resolved to continue his ascension in solitude, a type of life suitable for only a small number, who, made strong on the rock of humility, flee from others so as not to be even for a moment deprived of the "sweetness of God." He did not commit himself to this path, one so full of snares, on his own judgment, but on the recommendation of the holy elder George Arsilaites, who instructed him in the way of life proper of hesychasts. As his exercise ground, he chose a solitary place called Tholas, situated five miles from the main monastery, where other hermits lived, each not far from the others. He stayed there for 40 years, consumed by an ever increasing love of God, without thought for his own flesh, free of all contact with men, having unceasing prayer and vigilance as his only occupation, in order to "keep his incorporeal self shut up in the house of the body," as an Angel clothed in a body.

Saint John's prayer also had the power to heal visible and invisible wounds. It was thus that he delivered a monk from the demon of lust, which had pushed him to the point of despair. On another occasion, he made rain fall. Yet it was above all in the gift of spiritual teaching that God manifested His grace in him.

When the Saint had sojourned these 40 years in the desert, he was changed by God, like a second Moses, to be at the head of this new Israel by becoming Egoumenos (Abbot) of the Monastery at the foot of the holy mountain. It is recounted that, on the day of his enthronement, six hundred pilgrims were present, and when they were all seated for the meal, the great prophet Moses himself, dressed in a white tunic, could be seen coming and going, giving orders with authority to the cooks, the cellarers, the stewards and the other helpers.

The Egoumenos (Abbot) of Raitho, who was also named John, having been informed of the wonderful manner of life of the monks of Sinai, wrote to Saint John Climacus, asking him to explain briefly but in an methodical way what those who had embraced the angelic life should do in order to be saved. He who did not know how to go against the wishes of another, thus engraved with the stylus of his own experience the Tablets of the Spiritual Law. He presented this treatise as a Ladder of thirty steps, that Jacob, "he who supplanted the passions" contemplated while he was lying on the bed of ascesis (Genesis 28:12).

At the end of his life, the blessed John designated his brother George, who had embraced the hesychast life from the beginning of his renunciation, as his successor at the head of the monastery. When he was about to die, George said to him: "So, you are abandoning me and leaving! I prayed, however, that you would send me to the Lord first, for without you I cannot shepherd this brotherhood." But Saint John reassured him, and said: "Do not grieve and do not be afraid. If I find grace before God, I shall not let you complete even a year after me." And it was so: ten months after Saint John's falling asleep, George departed in his turn to the Lord.

The feast day of Saint John Climacus is March 30th, however, due to the popularity of the Saint and the practice of not having weekday Divine Liturgies during Holy and Great Lent, the Orthodox Church commemorates the Saint on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. As a Sunday of Great Lent, the commemoration is celebrated with the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, which is preceded by a Matins (Orthros) service. A Great Vespers is conducted on Saturday evening.

There is also a related holy icon known by the same title. It depicts many people climbing a ladder; at the top is Jesus Christ, prepared to receive the climbers into Heaven. Also shown are Angels helping the climbers, and demons attempting to shoot with arrows (temptations) or drag down the climbers, no matter how high up the ladder they may be. Most versions of the holy icon show at least one person falling.

Structure and Purpose

The aim of the treatise is to be a guide for practicing a life completely and wholly devoted to God. The ladder metaphor--not dissimilar to the vision that Patriarch Jacob received--is used to describe how one may ascend into heaven by first renouncing the world and finally ending up in heaven with God. There are thirty chapters; each chapter covers a particular vice or virtue. They were originally called logoi, but in the present day, they are referred to as "steps." The sayings are not so much rules and regulations, as with the Law that Moses received at Sinai, but rather observations about what is being practiced. Metaphorical language is employed frequently to better illustrate the nature of virtue and vice. Overall, the treatise does follow a progression that transitions from start (renunciation of the world) to finish (a life lived in love).

The steps are:

  1. On renunciation of the world
  2. On detachment
  3. On exile or pilgrimage; concerning dreams that beginners have
  4. On blessed and ever-memorable obedience (in addition to episodes involving many individuals)
  5. On painstaking and true repentance which constitutes the life of the holy convicts; and about the Prison
  6. On remembrance of death
  7. On joy-making mourning
  8. On freedom from anger and on meekness
  9. On remembrance of wrongs
  10. On slander or calumny
  11. On talkativeness and silence
  12. On lying
  13. On despondency (depression)
  14. On that clamorous mistress, the stomach
  15. On incorruptible purity and chastity, to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
  16. On love of money, or avarice
  17. On non-progressiveness (that hastens one Heavenwards)
  18. On Insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
  19. On sleep, prayer, and psalmody with the brotherhood
  20. On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil, and how to practice it
  21. On unmanly and puerile cowardice
  22. On the many forms of vainglory
  23. On mad pride and (in the same Step) on unclean blasphemous thoughts; concerning unmentionable blasphemous thoughts
  24. On meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness which come not from nature but from conscious effort, and about guile
  25. On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception
  26. On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues; on expert discernment; brief summary of all aforementioned
  27. On holy stillness of body and soul; different aspects of stillness and how to distinguish them
  28. On holy and blessed prayer, the mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer
  29. Concerning Heaven on earth, or Godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection

30. Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues; a brief exhortation summarizing all that has said at length in this book.

Guide to Reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent

Like with other ascetical and spiritual texts, this one should be read carefully. Since the original audience was those practicing the monastic life, the language is very strong when contrasting the life of the world and the life devoted to God. This is one of the reasons why this work should be read under the guidance of a spiritual father. This work can be read at once with careful attention and intense concentration, trying to replicate as much as possible the monastic life. Yet it can also be read in its individual steps as well. The bottom line is that a spiritual father should be there as guiding hand with this work.

English language editions

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. This edition, based on Archmandrite Lazarus Moore's translation is generally preferred over the Pualist Press edition of the Ladder. It is also physically beautiful and much nicer to have on one's bookshelf. It contains an icon of "The Ladder."

(Sources: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and OrthodoxWiki)

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MY BLESSING TO ALL OF YOU

The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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Glory Be To GOD For All Things!

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With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George