SUNDAY OF SAINT JOHN CLIMACUS
The Orthodox Church is fortunate to have a rich tradition of monks and ascetics who lived difficult, yet illuminating lives that left us many practices and much literature of great spiritual value. Their contributions have been so seminal that we recognize three of them during the Lenten season. We spoke of St. Gregory Palamas and the light of the Transfiguration two weeks ago; we will speak of Ste. Mary of Egypt next week.
Today we honor St. John Climacus, who was born in Constantinople in about the year 570. He arrived at the monastery built by the Emperor Justinian at Mt. Sinai at the age of 16. Four years later he became Monk John, the ascetic calling he followed for another 15 years. After his spiritual father at the monastery passed away, St. John became a hermit and spent the next 40 years praying and fasting and observing periods of silence in a wild, desolate place five miles from the monastery. He would have been able to look on Mt. Sinai, where Moses went up the mountain alone to speak with God. In the other direction, he could see the monastery, which was dedicated to the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mt. Tabor. Accounts of St. John’s holiness spread far and wide. Many sought out St. John, for his spiritual insights, knowledge and blessings.
At the age of 75 St. John became the Abbot of the monastery. He was asked to write a book of instruction for monks by the Abbot of another monastery. The request was for “a ladder of affirmation, which would lead those wishing it to the Heavenly gates. . . .” The result was the book called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” The 30 chapters of the book are 30 rungs on the ladder, drawing on St. John’s struggles, and offering advice on cleansing one’s self from impurities, vices and passions, and growing toward God in prayer and faith and love. He spoke of monastic concerns such as renunciation of life, detachment, obedience, penitence and poverty; he spoke of vices to be overcome such as malice, slander, falsehood, gluttony, passions and pride; he spoke of positive virtues such as humility, prayer, faith, hope and love.
St. John’s life was one of unceasing prayer, virtue and adoration for God. God granted St. John visions and great peace of soul. He was an incomparable spiritual father and teacher, and his words and observations, particularly in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, are as current today as they were when they were written. Indeed, reading the book, it is difficult to imagine it was written 1500 years ago. Many monasteries read The Ladder aloud a chapter at a time, every Lent, and treasure its relevance.
Though the book was meant for monks, it has much to say to each of us about our growth toward spirituality. It does not offer rules, but it describes many of the struggles we will encounter. It does not leave us struggling, however. It offers advice, observations, stories, inspiration and hope.
One sign of St. John’s goodness and wisdom is his respect for all people who strive for goodness, whether Christian or not. He says:
God is the life of all free beings. He is the salvation of all, of believers or unbelievers, of the just or the unjust, of the pious or the impious, of those freed from the passions or caught up in them, of monks or those living in the world, of the educated or the illiterate, of the healthy or the sick, of the young or the very old. He is like the outpouring of light, the glimpse of the sun, or the changes of the weather, which are the same for everyone without exception. . . . A Christian is an imitator of Christ in thought, word and deed, as far as this is humanly possible, and he believes rightly and blamelessly in the Holy Trinity. A friend of God is the one who lives in communion with all that is natural and free from sin and who does not neglect to do what good he can.