Sunday, March 29, 2009

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 featuring 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 somewhere between the ages of 16 to 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 primarily for those involved in monastic endeavors, but over the years it was found to be a book useful to all serious Christians who sought to subdue the sinful passions and purify their love for Christ. Each of its 30 chapters encourage 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.

Sadly, the things we are speaking of here represent what we must almost describe as the Christianity of a distant, bygone era. Today’s Christians are not generally concerned with the subjugation of their sinful passions or the pursuit of virtue in Christ. Part of this may be due to the fact that many Christians think that their salvation is already a done deal and thus they see no need to overcome sin and gain virtue. But even most Orthodox Christians today seem to struggle with the idea of actually gaining victory over their passions and growing in virtue, as if such things were impossible for us.

We live in an age of great spiritual darkness and faintheartedness that often makes even the smallest spiritual effort seem incredibly difficult to us. Things as simple as keeping our little rule of prayer can often overwhelm us and seem infinitely beyond our meager abilities. We don’t know a great deal about being strict with ourselves or of forcing ourselves to do the things that are hard. We fear spiritual struggle and much too quickly accept the notion that a kind of spiritual mediocrity is the best we can ever hope for in our lives.

But St. John Climacus understood that man was created for much higher and greater things. We are created to work together with God, in synergy, uniting our will and action to His grace and divine energies to accomplish what we by ourselves alone could never do. There are many places in Scripture where we are specifically told to cooperate with God in this way 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 alone”. 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 seek to embrace what the Scriptures teach and our Holy Tradition echoes concerning the Christian life as one of divine ascent from the state we exist in now to the one God desires for us. 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 the things of this world.

In our heart of hearts we know whether we are learning to love the things of God or whether we are still 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. This is what this Sunday of St. John Climacus reminds us of, here in the midst of our Lenten pursuits. I’ll 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.

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