My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ God,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF HOLY AND GREAT LENT: SAINT JOHN
“Holy Father John, most glorious, you shed
a well-spring of tears and your soul thus was
purified; you propitiated God by your standing
in prayer all night, Thus given wings, you
ascended to His love and to His beauty, all
blessed as you are; which now you worthily
are enjoying endlessly as you rejoice with your
fellow athlete-monks, O godly-minded Saint.”
On this Sunday our Holy Church commemorates Saint John Climacus, Egoumenos of Sinai, who is assigned a special Sunday in Lent because of his writings and his own life, he forms a pattern of the true Christian ascetic. Saint John is the author of The Ladder of Paradise, one of the spiritual texts appointed to be read in church during Holy Lent.
Saint John lived in the second half of the sixth century, survived into the seventh, passed forty years of solitude at a place called Tholas; that he became Egoumenos (Abbot) of the great Monastery of Mount Sinai and he composed there The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The Ladder was written for a particular group, the Egoumenos, and the community of a monastic settlement at Raithu on the Gulf of Suez. It was put together for a restricted audience and to satisfy an urgent request for a detailed analysis of the special problems, needs, and requirements of the monastic life. Saint John Climacus was not immediately concerned to reach out to the general mass of believers. The Ladder became a classic, spreading it effects throughout all Eastern Christendom, the principal reason lay in the continuing impact on those who had committed themselves to a disciplined observance of an ascetic way as far removed as possible from daily concerns.
According to Saint John once inside the walls of the monastery, the monk, has to live under the scrutiny of a God Who is undoubtedly loving, merciful, and omnipotent, but Who is also just, stern, and conscious of protocol. For Saint John Climacus is concerned not so much with the outward trappings of monasticism as with its vital content. For him the monk is a believer who has undertaken to enter prayerfully INTO UNCEASING COMMUNION WITH GOD, and this in the form OF A COMMITMENT NOT ONLY TO TURN THE SELF AND WORLD BUT TO BRING INTO BEING IN THE CONTEXT OF HIS OWN PERSON AS MANY OF THE VIRTUES AS POSSIBLE. He does not act in conformity with virtues of one kind or another. Somehow, FROM WITHIN the boundaries of his own presence, HE EMERGES TO BE HUMILITY, TO BE GENTLENESS, TO BE SIN ABHORRED, TO BE FAITH AND HOPE AND, ABOVE ALL ELSE, TO BE LOVE (AGAPE).
Every Lent in Orthodox Monasteries it is appointed that The Ladder of Divinie Ascent be read aloud in church or IN THE REFECTORY (TRAPEZA OR DINING AREA), so that some monks will have listened to it as much as fifty or sixty times in the course of their life.
The author, Saint John Climacus, of The Ladder lived in the desert of Sinai, at the foot of Moses’ Mount, that rises rocky and precipitous to a height of nearly 7,500 feet. The surroundings would often have called to his mind the scene in Exodus: the lightning and thunder, the mountain shrouded in thick cloud, and Moses climbing up alone into the darkness to speak with God face to face (Exodus 20:18-21). But Saint John Climacus was also reminded constantly of another mountaintop, belonging to the New Testament–Tabor, “the high mountain apart” (St. Matthew 17:1), where our Lord was TRANSFIGURED (METAMORPHOSIS) before the three disciples. For when he prayed in the church built for the monks of Sinai by the Emperor Justinian in 556-557 A.D., each time he looked up Saint John would have seen in the apse at the East-end the great mosaic that still survives to this day, depicting Christ’s Transfiguration.
Visually and spiritually, then, Saint John’s imagination was dominated by these two mountains, Sinai and Tabor, and both alike are reflecting in the book that he wrote. In its severity, its refusal of compromise, and its demand for TOTAL DEDICATION. “The Ladder” calls to mind the arid desert, and the rocks and darkness of Sinai. But those prepared to look deeper will discover that the book speaks not only OF PENETENCE BUT OF JOY, NOT ONLY OF SELF-DENIAL BUT OF MAN’S ENTRY INTO DIVINE GLORY. Together with the gloom of Sinai there is also the fire of the Burning Bush and the Light of Tabor.
Little is known, beyond the bare outlines, about the life of Saint John Climacus. In Greek he is called Ioannis tis Klimakos, “John of the Ladder,” He was born shortly before 579 A.D., and he died around 649 A.D. Saint John was 16 years old when he came to Sinai. Here he would have found a monastic center already well etablished, containing in close proximity all the three forms of the monastic life that he describes in Step 1 of The Ladder. After three years, when Saint John was 19 years or 20 years old, Martyrius took him to the chapel at the top of Moses’ Mount and there, following the tradition of the time, HE TONSURED John AS A MONK. Martyrius, so it seems, died soon after Saint John’s profession. Saint John retired into solitude, settling as a hermit (erimitis) at Tholas. According to Saint John’s biographer Daniel of Raithu, during his years of retreat at Tholas he RECEIVED THE GIFT OF TEARS AND THE GRACE OF CONTINUAL PRAYER. He reduced sleep to a minimum but displayed a prudent moderation in his fasting, for it was his custom to eat everything allowed by the Monastic Rule but in extremely small quantities. Saint John kept TOTAL SILENCE FOR A YEAR only agreeing to speak once more with his visitors when entreated to do so by the very monks who had been his critics.
After 40 years of hermits life at Tholas, against his will Saint John WAS ELECTED EGOUMENOS (ABBOT) of the central monastery at Sinai. On the day of his INSTALLATION AS EGOUMENOS, a party of 600 pilgrims chanced to arrive at the monastery. While they weree all being given a meal, Saint John saw “A MAN WITH SHORT HAIR, DRESSED LIKE A JEW IN A WHITE TUNIC, GOING ROUND WITH AN AIR OF AUTHORITY AND GIVING ORDERS TO THE COOKS, CELLARERS, STEWARDS AN OTHER SERVANTS.” Once the meal had finished, the man was nowhere to be found. “It was our lord Moses,” said Saint John. “He had done nothing strange in serving here in the plae that is his own.” To the monks the sign was significant, for the were soon to feel that, in the person of their new Egoumenos (Abbot) John, they had indeed found another Moses.
How long Saint John continued in office is unknown. It was during this last period of his life, while Egoumenos, that he composed The Ladder of Divine Asent, at the request of another John, the Superior of a nearby monastery at Raithu. “Tell us in our ignorance,” asked John of Raithu, “what like Moses of old you have seen in divine vision upon the mountain; write it down in a book and send it to us as if it were the Tablets of the Law, written by God.” Constrained by the virtue of obedience he has complied with the request. Thre is nothing to indicate that Saint John Climacus was ever ordained a priest.
The Ladder relates to THE CONTEMPLATIVE as well as to the ASCETIC LIFE, while the final step ON LOVE IS CONCERNED WITH BOTH THE ACTIVE AND CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE AT ONCE; in the context of Divine Love there can be no sharp differentiation between the two.
The basic pattern of THE THIRTY STEPS of The Ladder can be presented thus:
I. The Break with the World
II. The Practice of the Virtues (“Active Life”)
III. The Strength Against the Passions
“Glory Be To GOD