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!

Today is the Sunday of St. John Climacus, also known as St. John of the Ladder. St. John is remembered in the Church mostly for his one writing, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. There are some facts known about his life, and he certainly was a very holy monk, a true Saint of the Orthodox Church. But we remember him predominately for what he passed on to us in The Ladder.

As far as his life goes, St. John was a monk in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai. He lived as a member of the brotherhood for many years, and eventually he was blessed to go and live as a hermit (in solitude) in a cave above the monastery. After the abbot died, the brotherhood called St. John back from his solitude to be the new abbot of the monastery. St. Catherine’s is the oldest continually existing and inhabited monastery in the world, and even in the time of St. John (6th century) was a very prominent and well-respected monastery in the Christian world. In any monastery, one of the duties of the abbot is to be the spiritual father of the brotherhood—to guide them along the path of perfection in Jesus Christ. This is why St. John was chosen as abbot, he was known to be a very holy man, a man who could properly guide the Fathers and brothers in the spiritual life.

The abbot of another monastery, whose name also happens to be John, contacted St. John Climacus, and asked him to provide guidance so that he could properly guide his own brotherhood. What were the things necessary for the perfection of a monk (and by extension, for the perfection of all Christians)? This abbot was looking for a text to help him as he formed his community after Christ. Although St. John felt very unworthy to do this, [all the Saints have constant remembrance of their own sins, and the notion that perhaps there’s someone better qualified than they to undertake particular tasks…the closer they grow to God, the more they realize the poverty of their own sinful situation], St. John did what his friend had asked. And the resulting text is The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of The Ladder in the life of the Orthodox Church. Next to the Bible, it’s the most read and quoted and translated and printed book in the Orthodox Christian Church. Its influence is enormous. In fact, a Spanish translation of The Ladder is one of the first books ever printed in America (obviously, by the Spanish Catholic Church). Every Orthodox monastic traditionally has had the rule of reading The Ladder from cover to cover over the course of Great Lent each year. There are even places in the Lenten services to read sections of The Ladder (during 3rd, 6th, and 9th Hour). When an idea, or a text, makes it into the public services of the Church, we know that we’re dealing with something that the Orthodox Church wholeheartedly accepts and commends to Her members.

There is a priestly warning that goes with that statement, however. Just because the Church offers these writings to her members to help guide our lives toward Christ, we have to be very discerning in our reading. Not all Orthodox Christians are spiritually mature enough to read all texts. We can’t take on things that are beyond our measure, as Fr. Zacharias says. Many texts of the Fathers, The Ladder included, can be very difficult for us, and so we approach these texts with prayer and careful discernment, and even under the guidance of another. Just because something’s good, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should all jump into it. We can think of all the mis-interpretations of the Scriptures that have floated around since the earliest days of the Church as an example of how a holy text can be mis-understood and actually cause more damage to the reader. But The Ladder can be read very fruitfully by those of us living in the world, and can have a profound impact on our relationship with Christ, and on the way that we view that path which is narrow but leads to everlasting life.

Obviously, we can’t look at everything this morning that St. John has to say in The Ladder of Divine Ascent. But we can look at how the book is arranged, and how St. John approaches his topics, and even this basic overview can give us insight into living the Christian life in the world today. The Ladder is written, and gets its name, from the shape of a ladder. St. John imagines a ladder stretching from earth to heaven (like we see in the icon called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”). And Christians have to climb from the earth, from a life of sin and death, climb to the heavenly life, a life in the image of Christ. And we see in the icon people at various stages of the ladder, and the demons attacking all of them—stopping some from ever beginning, and even pulling off those have approached the top. And so St. John has styled the text as ascending a ladder to heaven. Each of the 30 steps involves some type of change that we have to make in our lives to draw nearer to the life that Christ has created us to live.

It is important to say that this image is really a didactic tool—St. John uses it to teach us about the spiritual life. Many of these things have to go one simultaneously in our lives, its not as if we literally must perfect each step before passing on to the next. But this image provides a way for St. John to teach us about the workings of the spiritual life. What St. John does with this ladder is amazing.

He begins, the first few steps, deal with how to live a life that’s in the world but not of the world. Renunciation of worldly things and thoughts, detachment from possessions and sin, spiritual exile (the separation from the world that must take place in our lives), obedience, mourning for our sins. And by the time we get to the 8th step of the ladder, St. John begins to teach us about the passions. What are the things that attack us and lead us away from Christ? And how do we fight against these attacks from the evil one? St. John builds for us something like a puzzle—and he connects each sin with other sins. In other words, he tells us what the causes of certain sins are, and what those sins will then lead us to do, and even how to fight against them.

As an example we’ll take the last part of St. John’s step 8—On Freedom from Anger and on Meekness. St. John has anger speak—“Many are my origins…my mothers are vainglory, love of money, greed, and sometimes lust. My father is called conceit.” These are sins that lead us into anger. And then anger continues—“My daughters are: remembrance of wrongs, enmity, self-justification, and hatred.” These are the sins that anger leads us into. And then anger finishes—“But my opponents, who are now holding me captive, are the opposite virtues of freedom from anger, and meekness. She who schemes against me is called humility.” And that’s how we fight anger, with meekness and humility.

In each Step, St. John analyzes how these sins approach us, how they become part of us, how we accept sin and then continue to fall to the same temptations. And then he tells us how to fight against these sins—what virtues to concentrate on when tempted by certain passion, how to direct our energy away from sin and toward virtue, which will overcome the temptations. And then toward the end of the book, he instructs us specifically in the virtues. What are the characteristics that we should be struggle to put on? What should we replace our sins with? And how do we go about beginning to do this?

Like I mentioned before, we can’t get really specific in this time because there are too many steps to cover. But the way St. John approaches the spiritual life, we can take something from this approach. The saints, those who are deified and who have acquired the grace of the Holy Spirit, they have insights into how the spiritual life works. They have experiences, and they have divine illumination. This is how St. John can lay out all of these inner workings of how sin attacks us, and how we fight against it. It’s very helpful for us to simply realize that our struggle for Christ doesn’t have to be random. We don’t just have to live in darkness, and try to do the best we can. All of what goes on within us is connected (I’ve even been to confession with a very holy man who could take all of my sins, and then show me how my struggles were all connected to one another, and how certain things let to certain other things). It’s all connected. And there’s something we can do, by the grace of God, to fight against our evil impulses. We don’t just to wait for temptations, and then try to make it through. The spiritual life can, and should be, an active life. We can be pro-active in putting off our passions, and putting on the image of Jesus Christ. And just having this knowledge, and having some idea of where to go to learn about the workings of our passions, and the assaults of the demons, just this knowledge should bring us great consolation. God cares for our salvation, and through His Saints, He has provided us with assistance in dealing with this fallen and dying world.

St. John ends his treatise on the spiritual life with “A Brief Exhortation Summarizing All That Has Been Said At Length In This Book.” He writes:
Ascend, brothers, ascend eagerly, and be resolved in your hearts to ascend and hear him who says: Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of our God, who makes our feet like hind’s feet, and sets us upon high places, that we might be victors with His song.
Run, I beseech you, to him who said: Let us hasten until we attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of God, unto a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, who, when He was baptized in the thirtieth year of His visible age, fulfilled the thirtieth step in the spiritual ladder [Love]; since God is indeed love, to whom be praise, dominion, power, in whom is and was and will be the cause of all goodness throughout endless ages. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

*quotes from The Ladder of Divine Ascent come from the edition printed by Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, MA 2001.