This Sunday March 14, marks the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent celebrating the life and teaching of St. John Climacus and the Divine Ladder. And the Church finds herself just past the halfway point on its pilgrimage to Pascha – the Holy Resurrection of Christ. By now the strict fast of the season is starting to press us a little and begins to become more challenging, with the elimination of alcohol, meats, fats, dairy, and the reduction in quantity of food, it surely is making our bodies healthier, but the wafting smoke from the local steak-house behind our home assaults my olfactory senses and causes me so say like the Psalmist: “How long Oh Lord?” “How long?” 🙂 But the battle goes on! Saying no to my flesh, and my passions, my inordinate desires and filling the void for foods and fats, with Holy things, Spiritual food; thus we live like Christ who said, “man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word of God…”
In the Church everything has meaning and spiritual significance, nothing is done without about three or four layers of biblical or theological significance; that’s what makes our faith so filling and rich. And so the first Sunday of the Lenten journey celebrates the Incarnation, with the Restoration of Holy Icons, called the Sunday of Orthodoxy. The second week remembers the life and teaching of St. Gregory Palamas, the great defender of Orthodox spirituality in the 14th century. The third week, is the half-way point, as we pause to re-set our eyes again upon the precious and life giving Holy Cross giving us strength to finish the race, the fourth week, focuses on St. John of the Ladder and the Ladder of Divine Ascent. The fifth week consists of a deep meditation of repentance as we focus on the life of St. Mary of Egypt, the former harlot turned holy ascetic, and lover of God. And then comes the sixth week: the beginning of Holy Week with the Procession of Palms on Palm Sunday.
Each week builds on, and off of the former, taking the Church ever upward, ever forward, and ever more deep into the mystery of our salvation. Lent is not a season of “giving up” things, but is rather a season reminding us of what we “get”, of what we have been given! We live as we were created to live, fully in harmony with God through prayer, worship, fasting and works of mercy. Lent is life as it should be. As it must be. As it can be.
St. John of the Ladder (Klimakos in Greek) is a man you must meet, and so I want to introduce you to him over the next few posts. Orthodoxy does what the Bible teaches us to do: and although the God of redemption is wholly from God, we work out our salvation, we actively seek to partake of the Divine Nature, called Theosis, through “synergia” – synergy: which translated from Greek means: ‘working together’ with the Holy Spirit who works in and through the Church. We live a life cooperating with the energies of God, so that we might attain union and oneness with the Trinity. St. John gives the Church a beautiful ladder, a path, a way in which not only does our God come down to us through the incarnation, but a ladder by which we can rise and ascend and meet Him through prayer, worship, fasting and mercy… we go up, and as we go, we grow becoming One with Him.
This is the Faith – the faith of the Church – the faith of the Orthodox.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent is an ascetical treatise on avoiding vice and practicing virtue so that at the end, salvation can be obtained. Written by Saint John Climacus initially for monastics, it has become one of the most highly influential and important works used by the Church as far as guiding the faithful to a God-centered life, second only to Holy Scripture. There is also a related icon known by the same title. It depicts many people climbing a ladder; at the top is Jesus Christ, prepared to receive the climbers into Heaven. Also shown are angels helping the climbers, and demons attempting to shoot with arrows or drag down the climbers, no matter how high up the ladder they may be. Most versions of the icon show at least one person falling. John, while a hermit living at the Sinai Peninsula, was recognized for his humility, obedience, wisdom (which was attained through spiritual experience), and discernment. He already had a reputation for being extremely knowledgeable about how to practice a holy life. St. John, igumen of the Raithu Monastery, one day asked St. John Climacus (also known as John of Sinai) to write down his wisdom in a book. At first hesitant to take on such a task, John of Sinai eventually honored the request, and he proceeded to write The Ladder. St. John Climacus received his name “Climacus” (“of the Ladder”) because of this work, and his writing The Ladder (later called The Ladder of Divine Ascent) has been compared to the Holy Prophet and God-seer Moses receiving the Law.
This work was initially used by monastics. In fact it is read by monastics to this day during the Great Fast. It is also suggested as Lenten reading for those who are still “of this world”; yet this should be done with caution and under the guidance of a spiritual father. This work has made its mark on the lives of innumerable saints, including St. Theodore the Studite, St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Joseph of Volokolamsk, St. Peter of Damascus, and St. Theophan the Recluse, amongst many others.
Holy Saint John, pray to God for us, that we finish the Lenten journey with joy, and continue in our pilgrimage upward, within the beauty of the Church, in the footsteps of our mothers and fathers in the faith, and in the steps of the Ladder, leading us always onward and upward toward communion with the Holy Trinity.