Sunday, April 02, 2006

St. John Climacus

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

On this Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church commemorates St. John Climacus, the author of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” which is a book comprised of a series of short sermons on achieving perfection in the Christian life.

St. John was born in Sinai in the 6th century and was tonsured as a monk at the age of 19 or 20. At the age of 35 he left the cenobitic or communal form of monasticism to become a hermit for 40 years. It was during this time that he received the grace of continual prayer and the gift of tears. Fellow monks began to seek him out in great numbers for guidance in the spiritual life until he became so popular that he was accused of making a mockery of the eremitic lifestyle. He responded to this in humility by renewing his silence and refusing to see any visitors. After about a year of this, those who had harshly accused him repented and pleaded with him to resume his work of guiding others.

Soon after this, he was appointed the Abbot of the monastery at Mt. Sinai, built on the very spot were Moses encountered God in the Burning Bush. It is said that on the day that St. John was installed as the new Abbot, Moses himself appeared, giving commands to those who served at the holy altar!

The Ladder of Divine Ascent was written for those involved in monastic endeavors, but it truly has much to offer all Christians who seek to subdue the sinful passions and purify their love for Christ. If you look at a proper icon of The Ladder you will notice that it has 30 rungs, corresponding to the 30 chapters in the book, each one encouraging the reader to put away the love of earthly things and continue an upward climb, step by step in the acquisition of virtue, progressing toward a state of spiritual perfection in Christ.

Speaking of ladders, I have noticed over the many years that I have worked as a house painter that most people dislike these useful devices. Ascending to dizzying heights holds little appeal for many folks. While this is true enough in the physical realm, it unfortunately seems to spill over into the spiritual realm as well. There are many Christians today who would reject St. John’s Ladder with some prejudice, claiming that it represents man’s attempt to “work” his way into heaven by his own efforts. What is missing from their theology is the concept of synergy which is defined as man working together with God, uniting our will and action to His grace and energies to accomplish what man by his works alone could never do. There are many places in Scripture where we are specifically told to cooperate with God and to labor diligently and daily to eliminate sin from our lives and progress toward Christian perfection.

One such place can be found in II Peter, chapter one, in a passage that sounds remarkably like a ladder of divine ascent itself. Having just reminded his readers of our high calling in Christ and the things given to us by His divine power, the apostle continues: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” [2 Peter 1:4-11]

Notice how St. Peter makes it plain that those who remain barren and unfruitful, though they were purged from their previous sins, are not guaranteed salvation as if by “faith only”. Cooperation with God in the cultivation of the Christian virtues is necessary to make our calling and election sure and for entrance into the kingdom to be granted unto us.

The subduing of our many earthly passions and the uniting of them into one focused passion for God, together with growth in virtue, is the biblical and Orthodox characterization of the true Christian life. As Orthodox Christians, we must be careful not to be “afraid of heights” in the spiritual sense, and stubbornly remain earthly while God is calling us to climb ever upward and become heavenly. We must seek to embrace what the Scriptures teach and our Holy Tradition echoes concerning the Christian life as one of divine ascent from where we are now to where God wants us to be.

In commemorating St. John Climacus and remembering his Ladder of Divine Ascent on this day, the Church is not suggesting that we are all called to live as monks. But it is reminding us that we are all called to live as Christians, and therefore to set our affection on things above, not on things on the earth.

In our heart of hearts we know whether we are learning to love the things of God or whether we still despise them, being slavishly attached to the things of this world. We know whether we are cooperating with the saving grace of God in our lives and are working together with Him, or else are resisting. While progress is often difficult to measure, we at least still know whether we are consistently making a sincere effort in good faith, or are giving in to sloth and are making excuses for a careless attitude toward our holy upward calling in Christ Jesus.

Beloved, we are designed to ascend to the heights of heaven and to share in the holiness of Christ in glory. Let us not regard the exertion that is required on our part with contempt, as if God were asking far too much. Do we shrink back when we are called to labor, as if we feel our lives should be one long vacation from spiritual struggle? If so, then we must shake that off and get back to work with strength, lest ultimately we fall into ruin. This is what this Sunday of St. John Climacus reminds us of, here in the midst of our Lenten pursuits, and I close with the Troparion written to his memory:

“Thou hast set up a holy ladder by thy words and hast shone forth as a teacher of monks; thou dost lead us, O John, from the purification that comes from discipline to the light of the Divine Vision. O righteous father, pray to Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.”

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 4/07/2006 8:05 AM , Anonymous Bruce said...

Father, This icon is simply one amazing icon. It is situated right above my head in the choir!?!

I must say the whole idea of ascending spiritually before I became Orthodox was pretty foreign to me. If I'm saved, then why do I need to fast? If I'm saved, then why struggle period? Oh well, it seemed comfy at the time!

At 4/07/2006 9:55 AM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Yeah, that's because we saw salvation as little more than a legal declaration and not as a theraputic process of restoration to wholeness of humanity in Christ. We simply missed out on the fuller meaning of the Incarnation, thinking that the Son of God became man only to die for our sins and never realizing that He also came to perfect humanity and lead it to glorification. Salvation is much more than just "a penalty paid". It is a continuation of God's original plan for mankind to share in His glory (John 17:22) and become like Him (1 John 3:2). Thus by definition salvation becomes a lifelong process of Divine ascent.

At 5/19/2006 12:11 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Father, you write beautifully. Where can I purchase St. John Climacus's book on the Ladder? I read Russian and Bulgarian as well in addition to English. By the way, where in California is your church? Do you have one??



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