In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be! This Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to the memory of St. John Climacus, abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, and author of the classic spiritual text The Ladder of Divine Ascent.* St. John is mostly remembered today for his writings. The Ladder is assigned to be read during the weekday services of Great Lent. It’s read in its entirety by Orthodox monastics the world over during the Fast. But we have to be careful not to separate what a man produces, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, from the life that he led in Christ. In our modern context we often find ourselves looking only at texts, and then deciding the worth of the text based on how we like what it says. But we forget that the writings of the Saints are not the result of opinion and speculation, but of the experience of the life and grace of God. In the Orthodox Church, unlike what we often say, we have a single infallible source of doctrine and teaching on the spiritual life—and it comes from Christ Himself as revealed to His Holy Saints. The Ladder of Divine Ascent is the fruit of a life filled with longing for Christ. A life directed by the love of God. A life where we could say it was no longer St. John who lived, but Christ lived in him. And it’s for this purpose, to lead others to that same love, that St. John wrote his treatise. So I’d like us to enter, for a moment, the life of this lover of God—to see his activities and then to hear a word from him about cultivating our life in Christ. St. John Climacus entered the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai at the age of 16. He was a dutiful disciple of the Abbot, Fr. Martyrius, until the latter’s death only 3 years later. But in those three short years, St. John learned silence, humility, obedience, and prayer. And so at the death of his superior, he found a place of solitude about a half mile from the monastery Church, where he lived as a hermit for the next 40 years. A life, one of his biographers writes, “burning and being ever consumed with the love and fire of divine love.” (Monk Daniel of Raithu, Ladder, p. xxxv) We aren’t privy to know the efforts and the graces received over the course of these forty years. We know that he left his isolation only for the Divine Services, and to occasionally get provisions. And we know that he took very few provisions, but to avoid falling into pride he ate everything that his monastic vows would allow. He spent his time in prayer; he kept both his body and his soul still in his cave, rapt in the vision of Christ; and he rarely spoke a word to anyone. He cultivated a relationship with Christ on a level that few of us can imagine. By the time he comes out of his isolation to accept his election as the abbot of the holy monastery, he is a spiritual giant among men. Gifted with the ability to heal physical infimities, and most importantly to look into a man’s soul and offer him spiritual healing. Able to discern the thoughts, and the movements of grace. And his reputation for holiness had obviously gone out even from Mt. Sinai, because The Ladder of Divine Ascent was written as a treatise on the spiritual life at the request of the abbot of another monastery. And really the best that we could do this morning would be to hear a word from St. John himself. The fourth step in his treatise is dedicated to obedience. And we’ll hear a short tale about a monk who learn obedience, but in learning obedience he also cultivated several things that we’re all struggling with during Great Lent—humility and the ability to serve Christ selflessly. In other words, to do the things of God without expecting a reward.

Step 4: On blessed and ever-memorable obedience
About Isidore
(pages 28-29)
23. A certain man called Isidore, of magisterial rank, from the city of Alexandria, had recently renounced the world in the above-mentioned monastery, and I found him still there. That most holy Shepard (the abbot), after accepting him, found that he was full of mischief, very cruel, sly, fierce and arrogant. But with human ingenuity, that most wise man contrived to outwit the cunning of the devils, and said to Isidore: ‘If you have decided to take upon yourself the yoke of Christ, then I want you first of all to learn obedience.’ Isidore replied: ’As iron to the smith, so I surrender myself in submission to you, holy father.’ The great father, making use of this comparison, at once gave exercise to the iron Isidore, and said: ‘I truly want you, brother, to stand at the gate of the monastery, and to make a prostration to everyone coming in or going out, and to say: “Pray for me, father; I am an epileptic.”’ And he obeyed as an angel obeys the Lord.
When he had spent seven years there, he attained to deep humility and compunction. Then the glorious father, after the lawful seven years and the man’s incomparable patience, judged him fully worthy to be numbered among the brethren, and wanted to have him ordained. But Isidore, through others and through my feeble intervention, implored the shepherd many times to let him finish his course as he was living before, vaguely hinting that his end and call were drawing near. And that was actually the case. For when his director had allowed him to remain as he was, ten days later in this state he passed gloriously to the Lord. And on the seventh day after his own falling asleep, the porter of the monastery was also taken. For the blessed man had said to him: ‘If I have found favour in the sight of the Lord, in a short time you also will be inseparably joined to me there’ [as they were joined at the gate]. And that is what happened, in witness of his unashamed obedience and divine humility.
24. When he was still living, I asked this great Isidore what occupation his mind had found during his time at the gate. And the renowned ascetic, wishing to help me, did not hide this from me. ‘In the beginning,’ he said, ‘I judged that I had been sold into slavery for my sins; and so it was with bitterness, and a great effort, and as it were with blood that I made the prostration. But after a year had passed, my heart no longer felt sorrow, and I expected a reward for my patience from God Himself. But when another year had gone by, I began to be deeply conscious of my unworthiness even to live in the monastery, and to see and meet the fathers, and partake of the Divine Mysteries. And I did not dare to look anyone in the face, but bending low with my eyes, and still lower with my thought, I sincerely asked for the prayers of those coming in and going out.’

Holy Father John, pray to the merciful God for the salvation of our souls!
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

*All quotes and references are from The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, Massachusetts, 2001.

You can purchase The Ladder of Divine Ascent here (the better translation, but a bit more expensive) or here

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