Climbing Carefully Toward Sainthood with St. John of the Ladder
When I was a little girl, I remember a scrap book that my mother had kept with holy cards and clippings about the lives of the saints. If we promised that we'd be careful with it, she would allow us to look through it on rainy afternoons. There we read all about the trials and tribulations of these exemplary souls (particularly the beheadings, flayings, being consumed by animals, living in the desert and eating nothing but bugs) and we would promptly decide...um, no. Sainthood looked way too harsh for us little girls thank you very much. Perhaps we'd just be heathens then..and we'd promptly feel guilty. We wondered why it was that we could not be like some of the other saints we read about who said that they couldn't wait for their martyrdom. We were beyond baffled by this and wondered if there was any hope for us at all! Little ones, both little people and little souls, often wonder at the tasks that those who are older and wiser can do and often need to be reminded that they aren't expected to be able to do everything perfectly at their young age, but should strive to go step by step, little by little, and grow slowly into their own particular sainthood and all that it entails.
The fourth Sunday of the Great Fast, is dedicated to St. John Climacus and his most famous book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. St. John felt the Lord call him to monasticism when he was a teen of about 16, in the year 585AD. Not very much is known of his life before entering the novitiate due to the fact that he took the concept of detachment from earthly life very seriously. A pious and humble teen, John placed himself totally under the supervision of an elder named Martyrios, who taught him for four years, after which John received tonsure and became a monk. During his novitiate, John took great care to set himself and his own will aside, and strove to fulfill every command of his elder with humility and fervor, as if obeying Christ, Himself.
As a monk, St. John spent the next nineteen years perfecting his spiritual life. He ate very little, slept very little, and prayed very much. While still under the guidance of his spiritual father, he strove to overcome all the passions of life. After Martyrios died, St. John continued the spiritual journey, moving to a desolate hermitage about five miles from the monastery, which was called Tholas. Here, he lived with other hermits, in cottages not far from each other, but quite solitary so each could be alone with God. John lived there for forty years, striving to overcome all vice and passion and to proceed, step by step, toward spiritual perfection. He avoided gluttony by eating what the other monks were given to eat, but in small quantity. He conquered anger and pride by cultivating obedience. Solitude and silence helped him with humility. Often, John would travel far from the monk’s quarters to even more solitude, to a distant cave where he would pour out his heart to the Lord with tears shed for his sins. It is said that he wept daily. St. John often found himself rapt in the glory of God (remember that “white light” of the Transfiguration?) so that he was among the angels more so than among men. He would find himself wondering whether he was alive or dead, asking God to teach him the mysteries of Himself, and feeling the purification of God’s presence so much so that those who saw him afterward noted that he was bathed in light. His humility prevented him from sharing these experiences and he took great care to keep his spiritual adventures a secret, but when God sent him a spiritual son named Moses, this began to change. Moses saw many wonders that John had performed, and brought them to the attention of others. Moses noted that John kept him from danger. When he heard John’s voice call him from his resting spot, Moses rose to go to him just as a boulder fell from the ledge above him onto the very spot where he was sitting. Moses saw St. John pray for those who were wounded, and they were immediately healed; he prayed for rain and it fell; and he witnessed the conversion of those who heard his words. St. John began to speak more often, and more boldly, due to the fact that he had a novice to teach, and the other monks began to resent his popularity. They spread gossip about him being conceited and boastful, and although St. John was sure of his innocence, he resolved to say nothing at all for an entire year rather than allow them to be scandalized by what he said. After some time, the gossipers repented, and pleaded with St. John to return to teaching them about prayer, having learned their lesson.
After forty years of living in the desert, God called St. John to a new position as head of a brand new monastery. Legend tells that at his enthronement, with 600 pilgrims as witness, an apparition of Moses, the prophet, appeared at the banquet, giving instruction to the cooks, stewards and others. It was here, at this new monastery, where an Abbott had asked St. John to write instructions for those who were serious about a life of prayer. Despite his humility, and not wanting to disappoint his friend, he set out to compile a list of thirty steps a soul should take in order to pursue salvation, modeled after the ladder that Jacob saw in his dream while resting his head upon the rock of Bethel.
Genesis 28:10-13,16 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac… And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
The Ladder of Divine Ascent outlines a step by step progression of the soul as it strives toward spiritual perfection. These are the steps:
On renunciation of the world
On exile or pilgrimage; concerning dreams that beginners have
On blessed and ever-memorable obedience (in addition to episodes involving many individuals)
On painstaking and true repentance which constitutes the life of the holy convicts; and about the Prison
On remembrance of death
On joy-making mourning
On freedom from anger and on meekness
On remembrance of wrongs
On slander or calumny
On talkativeness and silence
On that clamorous mistress, the stomach
On incorruptible purity and chastity, to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
On love of money, or avarice
On non-possessiveness (that hastens one Heavenwards)
On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
On sleep, prayer, and psalmody with the brotherhood
On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil, and how to practise it
On unmanly and puerile cowardice
On the many forms of vainglory
On mad pride and (in the same Step) on unclean blasphemous thoughts; concerning unmentionable blasphemous thoughts
On meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness which come not from nature but from conscious effort, and about guile
On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception
On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues; on expert discernment; brief summary of all aforementioned
On holy stillness of body and soul; different aspects of stillness and how to distinguish them
On holy and blessed prayer, the mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer
Concerning Heaven on earth, or Godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection
Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues; a brief exhortation summarizing all that has said at length in this book
As you can see, the most basic steps of renunciation of the attractions and distractions of the world are the first steps, each building upon the other, slowly and methodically treating every possible vice and bringing it to virtue. The text was first written as an instruction for monks, and is still read widely in monasteries during the Great Fast, but it is noted also that lay people who are serious about the pursuit of contemplative prayer and union with God, can and should benefit from St. John’s wisdom. His teachings are not didactic, but are in the form of anecdotes, wise sayings and stories. Many of his quotes are worthy of noting, but my favorite one deals with the battle we face daily as soldiers for Christ.
"Let us charge into the good fight with joy and love without being afraid of our enemies. Though unseen themselves, they can look at the face of our soul, and if they see it altered by fear, they take up arms against us all the more fiercely. For the cunning creatures have observed that we are scared. So let us take up arms against them courageously. No one will fight with a resolute fighter."
When St. John was nearing the end of his life, he designated his brother, George to take his place. George, who had adopted a life of contemplative prayer as well, reluctantly took charge of the monastery saying, “So, you are abandoning me and leaving! I prayed, however, that you would send me to the Lord first, for without you I cannot shepherd this brotherhood.” Saint John then said to him, “Do not grieve and do not be afraid. If I find grace before God, I shall not let you complete even a year after me.”
Ten months after John had died, his brother George followed.