“You offered us your teachings as fruits of everlasting freshness,
To sweeten the hearts of those who receive them with attention.
O blessed and wise John, they are the rungs of a ladder,
Leading the souls of those who honour you from earth to eternal glory in Heaven!”
(Kontakion of our venerable and God-bearing Father John Climacus)
Lent is a time of repentance and renewal, when our life comes alive again with the power that God can give us by bringing us into contact with His Holy Spirit and making us partakers of His Divine nature in the Holy Mysteries.
It is a time of reconciliation, God's joy and our own rejoicing; it is a new beginning. The Lenten spirit is very much in harmony with the teaching of St. John Sinaites, whose memory the Church celebrates on the 4th Sunday of Great Lent.
The book Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John, hegumen of Mount Sinai is a guide for ascending to spiritual perfection. The author wrote it at the request of his brother in Christ, the Abbot at Raifa Monastery, asking Abba John on behalf of his brethren to compose for them "a true guide to salvation".
Venerable John of the Ladder entered the Sinai Monastery
(now the Monastery of St. Catherine the Great) at the age of 16,
remaining for a long time a disciple of Abba Martyrius.
In his book, the Saint captured the entire spiritual path in a vibrant image of a ladder with thirty rungs. The number of steps in the ladder is symbolic. At the age of thirty, Christ began His redeeming ministry to the people. The thirty rungs of St. John's spiritual ladder consecutively lead a person to spiritual perfection.
The Venerable describes the thirty stages of ascent to God, of which the most important are repentance, struggle with passions, silence, pure and unceasing prayer of the mind and heart, dispassion, contemplation and love.
Venerable John set forth his experience of solitary life both laconically and covertly. At the same time, the book gives detailed instructions in struggling against passions. This can be explained by the fact that neither a silent life nor love for God is possible without repentance and fighting one's passions.
Steps 1 to 7 of the book are dedicated to repentance. Repentance is where a person begins to depart from earthly impurity. St. John goes beyond formally defining repentance as regretting certain actions, and stresses the importance of renouncing the sinful way of life.
Through obedience, the soul learns to follow the will of God and cut off its sinful desires (step 4). Repentance is connected both with the remembrance of death (Step 6), and with joyful weeping, that is, with the manifestation of repentant sorrow for God, leading the repentant person to joy in His mercy (step 7).
“Repentance is the renewal of Baptism. Repentance is a contract with God for a second life... Repentance is the daughter of hope and the renunciation of despair... Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the practice of good deeds contrary to the sins. Repentance is purification of conscience. Repentance is the voluntary endurance of all afflictions” (step 5:1).
Cave of St. John of the Ladder in Wadi Et-Tlah. After the repose of Abba Martyrius,
St. John retired to the valley of Tholas at the foot of Mount Sinai where he lived
for 40 years in silence, fasting, prayer and repentant tears
The most substantial part of the book (steps 8 through 26) is dedicated to struggling against passions. The Ladder describes the eight major passions and the attendant struggles that a person faces in spiritual life.
Here are some of the Saint's thoughts on sinful passions and the virtues that oppose them:
“As with the appearance of light, darkness retreats, so at the fragrance of humility all anger and bitterness vanishes” (step 8:6).
“...Whatever sins we blame our neighbour for, whether bodily or spiritual, we shall fall into them ourselves. That is certain" (step 10:9).
“He who cherishes his stomach and hopes to overcome the spirit of fornication, is like one who tries to put out a fire with oil“ (step 14:21).
“He who has conquered this passion [love of money] has cut out care; but he who is bound by it never attains to pureprayer” (step 16:7).
“Waves never leave the sea, nor do anger and grief leave the avaricious“ (step 17:10).
“He who has become the servant of the Lord will fear his Master alone, but he who does not yet fear Him is often afraid of his own shadow“ (step 21:11).
“A vainglorious person is a believing idolater; he apparently honours God, but he wants to please not God but men“ (step 22:6).
“Where a fall has overtaken us, there pride has already pitched its tent; because a fall is an indication of pride“ (step 23:4).
“It is shameful to be proud of the adornments of others, but utter madness to fancy one deserves God’s gifts“ (step 23:16).
Saint John dwells on the spiritual exercises that help us in the struggle against our corrupt nature (steps 18 through 21). A long struggle leads an ascetic to a humble awareness of his weakness and the need for God's help in fighting with his old self (step 25).
At the same time, "He who has taken humility as his bride is above all gentle, kind, full of compunction, sympathetic, calm, bright, compliant, inoffensive, wide awake, not indolent and (why say more?) free from passion; for the Lord remembered us in our humility, and delivered us from our enemies (Ps. 135:23–24), and our passions and impurities.”
Advancing from the struggle against passions to higher steps, the Venerable John touches upon the gift of discernment of thoughts and passions, as well as holy stillness, blissful prayer, God-inspired impassivity and the revival of the soul prior to the general resurrection.
The Saint understands the step of holy solitude (27) not only as favourable conditions of eremitic life, but also as continuous service to God, concentration of the mind and frequent invocation of the Lord Jesus in prayer.
"Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with each breath, and then you will know the value of solitude" (step 27:61).
“What higher good” says the Venerable, “is there than to cling to the Lord and persevere in unceasing union with Him?” (step 28:29)
Speaking of prayer, the Venerable distinguishes between mental and bodily prayer, and explains the properties of both.
The beginning of prayer requires attentiveness. Although it is not easily achieved, it is attainable by all who repent and resist passions.
"The beginning of prayer consists in banishing the thoughts that come to us by single ejaculations the very moment that they appear; the middle stage consists in confining our minds to what is being said and thought; and its perfection is rapture in the Lord" (step 28:19).
Church of St. John of the Ladder, Sinai
Overcoming passions, silencing sinful thoughts, and praying unceasingly with one mind and heart, an ascetic achieves the state of godlike dispassion (step 29). The Venerable calls this state a "perfect, but still unfinished, perfection of the perfect" and distinguishes certain degrees of it.
St. John of the Ladder calls the virtue of dispassion a state of heavenly life already here on earth.
“The firmament has the stars for its beauty, and dispassion has the virtues for its adornments; for by dispassion I mean no other than the interior heaven of the mind, which regards the tricks of the demons as mere toys” (step 29:2).
The Venerable warns that complete dispassion is achieved only through the presence of all the virtues. All the powers of an impassive soul are directed towards God.
“Blessed dispassion lifts the mind that is poor from earth to heaven, and raises the beggar from the dunghill of the passions. But love whose praise is above all makes him sit with the princes, with the holy angels, and with the princes of the people of God” (step 29:14).
One more step – and the three most excellent virtues, faith, hope and love, will crown the head of the warrior of Christ like a precious diadem (step 30). “And (as far as I can make out) I see the one as a ray, the second as a light, the third as a circle; and in all, one radiance and one splendour” (step 30:2).
The ascension of the ascetic to the last step of the ladder is nothing less than the entry of his purified and renewed soul into the closest communion with God.
The mind of the ascetic is united with God through a living faith, the senses through a steadfast hope, and the will through fervent love, and especially through the latter, because it most of all likens him and brings him closer to God.
This is why the highest measure of Christian perfection has always been the union of faith, hope and love, with a greater priority of the latter. This is why our venerable teacher St. John Climacus gives these three virtues a place at the very top of his ladder, as if crowning the whole ascetic path with them.
“Love, by reason of its nature, is a resemblance to God, as far as that is possible for mortals; in its activity it is inebriation of the soul; and by its distinctive property it is a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility” (step 30:7).
Describing the proper measure of an ascetic's love for God, the Venerable says that love for the infinite God must be infinite.
The Venerable says that love is a filial attitude; it is alien to slave fear and hatred of others, all people are children of the same Heavenly Father.
Love enlightens and deifies a person, making one bright and joyful. “So when the whole man is in a manner commingled with the love of God, then even his outward appearance in the body, as in a kind of mirror, shows the splendour of his soul” (step 30:17).
"Those who have reached such an angelic state often forget about bodily food. I think that often they do not even feel any desire for it. And no wonder, for frequently a contrary desire knocks out the thought of food" (step 30:18).
Here are a few more beautiful quotes of the Holy Hegumen about love, the queen of virtues:
“The growth of fear is the beginning of love, but a complete state of purity is the foundation of divine knowledge“ (step 30:20).
"He who loves the Lord has first loved his brother, because the second is a proof of the first" (step 30:25).
"One who loves his neighbour can never tolerate slanderers, but rather runs from them as from fire" (step 30:26).
“He who says that he loves the Lord but is angry with his brother is like a man who dreams that he is running“ (step 30:27).
According to The Ladder, the entire Christian life is directed towards love. Spiritual exercises should cultivate love for God and neighbour, otherwise there is no point in them. The highest step of the Ladder is associated with love. Saint John reminds us that "God is love" (1 John: 4). An ascetic achieving godlike love is sustained by a celestial fire, learns to contemplate and acquires divine knowledge.
Prayer is important on the path of ascending the spiritual ladder. Please send us your prayer requests for the remaining period of Great Lent.
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