Saint John of the Ladder
Our holy Father among the Saints St John Climacus is the author of a powerful spiritual work that is divided into about thirty chapters, called “steps”, as part of the overall book entitled, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” As the Great Fast is about our ascending to the things of Heaven, it is entirely appropriate that the Church focus on the ascetical enterprise as presented by this work and on the person of its author who is celebrated on the Fourth Sunday of the Fast.
Just as St Andrew of Crete is memorialized through his great penitential Canon, sung twice during the Fast with prostrations, so is the Ladder a constant companion for those climbing up the ladder of virtues toward God. In the West, the book “Imitation of Christ” by Thomas A. Kempis is an oft-read text among both monastics and laity. The Ladder, however, reflects the ancient Orthodox perspective on spirituality as being our personal transformation in Christ our God. We do not “imitate” Christ as if He were little different from ourselves.
As God Incarnate, we seek to have Communion with Him, to participate in His Life in adoration and worship. We seek to become Temples of the Holy Spirit through His Grace. That is, in fact, the “business” of the Great Fast in the first instance. The acquisition of the Holy Spirit is a life-long struggle and it is now that we look at our purposes for being here and our responsibilities as Christians with the eyes of naked faith and trust in God. St John’s Ladder is so valued that it is usually read during mealtimes in monasteries. During the Great Fast, the rubrics prescribe its public reading in Church during the Hours! The premise of the work is the same as that of the liturgical celebration of St John of the Ladder on the Fourth Sunday.
The readings are rooted in the Parable of the Good Samaritan where we are likened to the man who was attacked on the road by robbers, who was beaten and stripped naked to be left for dead in utter hopelessness. St John describes our soul as being in that state as a result of sin and our sinful inclinations. There is no question of asking ourselves WHETHER we have sinned. Perhaps we cannot remember the last time we broke one of the Ten Commandments or the Nine Beatitudes but that is no matter. We know from Scripture and the Fathers that our souls are beaten and stripped naked through Original Sin. We tend toward that which is sinful because of our darkened minds and corrupted wills.
We stand in radical need of the Divine Grace of the Holy Spirit through Christ in order to become one with the Father. It is that Holy Oil that Christ, the Good Samaritan, pours over us to bring us healing.
St John’s Ladder therefore begins by teaching us not to rely on our own strength and will, for that is asking for trouble! We are to become like open lamps in humility and a sense of our sinfulness so as to have Christ pour His unfailing love, His Divine Energies into our being. We advance in the spiritual life slowly, taking it one “step” at a time. What keeps us going upwards is constant prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer and the constant invocation of the Name of our Saviour. Reliance on self and pride are at the source of our sinfulness. The fact that we sin shows that we have a focus which is other than that on Christ Himself.
There is a beautiful Icon printed by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline Massachusetts that depicts St Peter sinking in the waters just at the moment when Christ grabs hold of him. The icon is entitled, “Lord, save me!” The icon captures, quite poignantly, that moment of helplessness Peter felt when he looked down to see his feet and then began to sink into the water. His focus, his spiritual attention was diverted from Christ for that moment and his sinking was the result. And so it is with us! As we climb the ladder of virtues while making our way toward Christ, we must remember that our focus must remain on the Person and power of our Saviour, and not on ourselves, as if we could be of any help to ourselves.
It is easy to become diverted in this spiritual path of inner struggle. We could fall prey to that peculiar form of spiritual pride that is called “prelest.” It is a kind of self-delusion where we are convinced that what we are doing is that which God wants for us. But, at the same time, we refuse to submit to the judgement of our Spiritual Fathers, their teachings or the Church in this regard. It is easy to think of ourselves as being “good” in the religious sense. We attend Church on Sunday, we don’t do bad things to others and we pray once in a while. Isn’t it obvious that we are on our way to Heaven?
St Basil the Great knew about this spiritual “condition” shall we say and this is why he was against the solitary monastic life and preferred monks and nuns to live in community. That way each person could receive the benefit of some “objective” criticism with respect to his or her spiritual attitudes and works.
The Ladder was designed by St John to help us examine ourselves and discover how weak we truly are. The premise is not to see how many sins we have committed and weren’t aware of, but to understand our true state before God so as to begin to ask for His Mercy on our lives. This is why it is always necessary to have our own Spiritual Father who can discern not only the nature of the sins we commit, but also our character so as to point out what it is about us that is leading us into sinfulness to begin with. We cannot do that by ourselves. The long experience of great ascetics has proven that once and for all! What we can do is grow in our spiritual reading of the Bible and books such as The Ladder in order to get a better sense of our inner state of affairs.
Understanding ourselves is what used to be the entire goal of ancient philosophy. The great thinkers knew that one of the most difficult enterprises we may be engaged in is knowing ourselves. We don’t like doing that these days. Perhaps we are afraid of what we may find out. Or maybe we have lulled ourselves into a state of spiritual slumber whereby we think that our sins are too insignificant in the overall scheme of things. We don’t murder, rob or commit the other great sins. We’re not as bad as others, we say. And what is a ‘sin’ anyway? Isn’t feeling guilty bad for you? If I want to feel guilty, I’ll call my mother-in-law etc.
Yet, Christ constantly calls us to self-renewal, to spiritual transformation. His Divine Grace, His Divine Energies empower us to experience a new Life in Him. Our spiritual life is much like the figure of an onion. We need to peel off layers of not skin, but sin. St John assures us that there are aspects to us whereby we have accepted certain sinfulness as “part of nature” and refuse to do spiritual battle with them. We need to peel that off as well.
We should not be overcome by grief in this process, either. As we entrust our life to God in Christ and invoke His unfailing Love and Mercy, we will experience the transforming Oil of His Spirit on our ailing souls. Our commitment to this process is made firm during the Great Fast. Nothing is accomplished without some hard work. But it is God’s healing Grace that makes actual within ourselves the power of the Resurrection of the Crucified Christ that we will celebrate liturgically in the upcoming weeks.
The Church’s liturgy will make time stop still and place us at the entrance to the Empty Tomb filled with the overwhelming brightness and warmth of the Divine Light.
This is the final rung of the Ladder of Divine Ascent.