28 Fourth Sunday of Great Lent: St John Climacus - March 18, 2007

Hebrews 6:13 – 20

Mark 9:17 - 31

On this the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Church honors the memory of St John Climacus. St John flourished in the sixth and seventh centuries. As a young man, he went into the wilderness of Sinai and for forty years, he lived a monastic life of solitude and stillness. Even so, he became known for his humility and wise teaching. At the end of these forty years, the monks of Sinai asked him to become their abbot, and so he left his solitude and assumed the duties of abbot of the great monastery of St Catherine, built on Mt Sinai beside the Burning Bush of Moses. The Synaxarion recounts that on the very day on which he assumed the office of abbot, a group of about 600 pilgrims came to the monastery. “When they were seated, Fr John saw someone in the crowd with short hair and wearing a Jewish tunic. This person was going about like someone with authority, directing the cooks, the stewards, the storekeepers, and other workers. After the pilgrims left, when the servers all sat down to eat, they sought everywhere for the one who had been going about supervising, but did not find him. Then the servant of God, Fr John, said, ‘Let him go. The lord Moses did nothing strange in this same place where he served before and which belongs to him.’” In other words, Fr John discerned that it had been the holy prophet and lawgiver, Moses himself, who had served the guests.

For my part, I would only say that the longer I am immersed in the ethos of the Orthodox Church, the less inclined I am to dismiss these kinds of stories as so fantastic.

St John Climacus is known primarily for his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which is read out loud at mealtime at Orthodox Christian monasteries during Great Lent. He wrote this book at the request of Abba John who was abbot of Raitho near the shore of the Red Sea. What strikes me about this detail of St John’s life is how he ventured to do nothing on his own initiative, except to pray and fast and live the monastic life of humility and repentance. He became the abbot of St Catherine and he wrote his famous book at the request of others, as an exercise of obedience to Christ.

Of course, St John would have known that in the liturgical worship of the Church both the Theotokos, and the Cross are called “ladders to heaven.” So in structuring his book of spiritual counsels as rungs on a ladder ascending to heaven, St John was explaining how the believer takes up his Cross to follow Christ, and how one flees to the Theotokos or to the Church for refuge not just as a religious idea but in actual deed. Looking to the Theotokos or to the Church as the ladder of divine ascent against the backdrop of the example of St John’s own life as well as his spiritual counsels, we see that to climb the ladder of divine ascent is to strive through constant watchfulness, fasting, vigils and prayer to learn the will of God and to align our will with his will, so that we can say with the Theotokos: “Be it done to me according to thy will;” and so that, we can also say with her Son as he prayed to the Father in Gethsemane: “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done,” so that we can thus be refashioned in our soul and learn truly to pray what Our Lord taught us to pray: “Our Father who art in heaven, …Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Looking to the Cross as the ladder of divine ascent against the backdrop of St John’s life as well as his spiritual counsels, we see that to climb the ladder of divine ascent is to “unite ourselves with Christ” on his Cross through constant watchfulness, fasting, vigils and prayer in order to put to death the old man in us with all its lusts and passions, its pride and conceit, its scorn and contempt, its loneliness and sorrow, that we might be raised in the New Man who is spiritual, who is the Man of Heaven, the Second Adam, Christ our God.

In other words, by reading St John’s book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, in its liturgical setting of the worship of the Church, we receive his spiritual counsel as specific, concrete instructions on how we go about putting to death in us the old man of sin and aligning our will with God’s will that we can be born of God from above.

Not only as divine ladder, but also as our hope and refuge does the Church address the Theotokos and the Cross. Therefore, when we hear St Paul talking to us this morning in his epistle to the Hebrews about fleeing for refuge and laying hold of our hope, we can interpret him to be talking about how we find our refuge in the Theotokos and how we lay hold of the Cross, our hope; it is through the ascetic disciplines of St John’s ladder of divine ascent. They are the concrete ways by which we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, striving to align our will with God’s will and to crucify our old man on the Cross with Christ. With this in mind, listen again to what we heard St Paul teaching us this morning: “God swore to Abraham … in order that we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil” (i.e. into the sanctuary, into the bridal chamber of our heart) “where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us.”

Divine ladder, Theotokos, Cross, ascetic disciplines, hope, refuge: all of these terms are connected in the liturgical setting of the Church’s worship, and their connection opens our eyes to see that the ascetic disciplines of the Church are the concrete way by which we flee to the Theotokos for refuge and lay hold of the Cross as our hope. Moreover, in the womb of the Theotokos and on the Cross we come upon Christ. Thus, when we practice the ascetic disciplines of the ladder as the Church shows us, we make the Theotokos and the Cross real in our life – and we come into the presence of Christ. I see the Church teaching us in her commemoration of St John Climacus that it is through the Church’s ascetic disciplines of constant watchfulness, fasting, vigils and prayer that we bring ourselves, body, mind and soul into the presence of Christ, just as the father in this morning’s Gospel brought his son to Jesus. And just as Jesus cast out the demon from the boy and healed him, so he can heal us – if we come to him in his Mother the Theotokos, and by laying hold of his Cross our hope: if we come to him in the Church’s ascetic disciplines.

In his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St John maps out thirty steps or rungs on the ladder by which we ascend to God. The first step is to renounce the life of the world and turn to God who is the true life of all.

Let me risk presumption by inserting here at his point what I believe is an important comment. The life of the world is life outside the Garden of Paradise. We were exiled from the Garden to this life because we ate from the fruit of good and evil. This life of the world is born from our eating the fruit of good and evil. Like the fruit of good and evil, this life is good and evil, sweet and bitter. Following the teaching of St Maximus, we would say that the good of this life is not the good of the creation when it was originally created by God. For the original goodness of the world as it was created by God was not mixed with evil. God saw all that he had made and behold, it was very good: it was beautiful, full of joy, vibrant, vigorous, bursting with life and bathed in a gladsome light. There was no evil, no death, no suffering in the world when it was originally created by God. All was good, very good.

St Maximus the Confessor sees the good of the tree of good and evil as pleasure, the pleasure pre-eminently of greed and self-love; a pleasure, therefore, that is contrary to the nature of God which abounds in steadfast love and mercy for the other, and so contrary also to human nature, because human nature is made in the image and likeness of God. St Maximus sees the evil of the tree of good and evil as the pain that follows naturally upon indulging in the pleasures of self-love, which are contrary to our nature. One therefore indulges in the good of the fruit of good and evil through love of sensual pleasure, motivated by self-love. And so, when we eat this forbidden fruit of good and evil, we partake not only of its pleasure but also of its pain that inexorably follows from indulging in the pleasure of self-love and greed that are contrary to our nature. Its pain is that of loneliness, shame, emptiness, despair, leading to sickness and finally to death.

My comment leads back now to the teaching of St John Climacus. Renouncing the life of this world for the sake of the Gospel is to renounce this worldly life of good and evil or of self-love in order to acquire the life of God that is good, very good. The life of renunciation, therefore, according to St John, is a life of detachment, living as an exile in this worldly life to which we were exiled because we chose to indulge in self-love, and taking up the life of repentance, of turning the face of one’s soul – through constant watchfulness, fasting, vigils and prayer – towards the East, towards the resurrection and life of Christ and to begin making one’s way spiritually to the Garden of Paradise that has been opened to us by the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ both at his birth and in his holy resurrection.

Through the ascetic disciplines of the ladder of divine ascent, we take up our Cross and put to death the old man in us, whose body is permeated by the venomous toxins of soul-destroying passions. St John divides the soul-destroying passions into those that are non-physical and those that are physical and material. The non-physical passions are anger, malice, slander, talkativeness, falsehood, despondency, insensitivity, fear, vainglory, and pride. The passions that are material and physical are three: gluttony, lust and avarice or greed.

As we crucify ourselves with Christ and put to death in us the old man with its soul-destroying passions, St John assures us that there will rise up in our soul the virtues of the Christian or of the ascetic life. The ascetic life is like the wilderness through which Israel sojourned as she escaped the imprisonment of Egypt and its sensual pleasures and indulgences and prepared herself to enter the Promised Land. The ascetic life is the Christian life by which we escape from the soul-destroying pleasures and indulgences of self-love and prepare ourselves for our entrance with Christ into his Heavenly Kingdom; this is the true Promised Land. The virtues of the ascetic life are simplicity, humility and discernment. As the virtues begin to sprout and grow in us, they grow into a magnificent tree, like the Tree of Life, and bear the fruits of the contemplative life, the life that contemplates God and begins to experience even here and now, in this life, the bliss of partaking of God not only with the body, through Holy Eucharist, but also and pre-eminently with the mind, the soul, the heart and the will in which one’s own desires become one with the desire of God – who desires not the death of a sinner but that he turn from his wickedness and live. The fruits of the contemplative life St John gives are stillness, prayer, dispassion, and finally love. By these fruits, Christ becomes all in all in us; it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us.

Perhaps it would be well to note here what I have noted before: we do not conquer the passion of self-love by hating ourselves, but by loving God and neighbor as ourselves. For, the opposite of self-love is not self-hate – there is, after all, no hate in God’s Kingdom. The opposite of self-love is not self-hate but love for God and neighbor.

These, then, are the thirty steps by which St John of the Ladder instructs us to make our ascent to God. By taking up the ascetic life of St John’s ladder, we are fleeing for refuge to the Theotokos and laying hold of the Cross, our hope in a real and living way. In the bosom of the Theotokos and on the Cross, we come upon Christ our God who has trampled down death by his death. Therefore, in the ascetic life of the Church we come upon Christ who is trampling down our own death by his death. In the Theotokos, all of creation rejoices, for she is the true Mother of Life; she is the Second Eve in whom creation has recovered its original goodness through Christ, the Second Adam. Through the Cross of Christ, joy has come into all the world. In the setting of the Church, we see that the Church’s ascetic disciplines, outlined for us by St John, are spiritually joined to the Cross and to the holy Theotokos. If, then, we are entering into the mystery of the Theotokos and of Christ’s holy Cross through the Church’s ascetic disciplines, then through the Church’s ascetic disciplines we may enter into the joy of all creation that rejoices in the Theotokos and that has come into the world through the Cross of her Son and our God.

In the joy of this vision opened for us by the teaching of St John, we pray in the Church: O Christ our God, through the prayers of our venerable father, John of the Ladder, have mercy on us.