|Father Demetrios Serfes - Greek Orthodox Spirituality|
The Ladder Of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus
Compiled by Father Demetrios Serfes
|Last updated 10/24/97 12:15:53 PM|
The Holy Orthodox Church calls for example St. John Climacus, the righteous John of the Ladder, and one of the greatest ascetics, who is the author of the LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT. St. John Climacus lived on Mount Sinai, which exist today a monastery dedicated to St. Catherine, one can visit the holy moanstery and feel the spiritual presence of St. John. When the holy monastery was first founded it was dedicated to our Lord's Holy Transfiguration, later onwards it was dedicated to St. Catherine.
Perhaps all of us have to seem to get to know spiritually who are the great and holy ascetics of the holy Orthodox Church, where we can reflect on how we ourselves can live in God. This immortal work, and spiritually rewarding book of the LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT, we see how, by means of thirty steps, the Christian gradually ascends from below the heights of supreme spiritual perfection. Finally, we see how one virtue leads to another, as a man rises higher and higher and finally attains to that height where there abides the crown of the virtues, which is called "Christian love."
It is my most earnest God-loving prayer that all of us gradually ascends, and to be aware spiritually to employ our efforts in correcting ourselves and our lives. At the same however, to be aware we can fall too! Let us ask of our King and our Immortal God for His Great Mercy and Love.
Through the prayers of the Holy Fathers, O' Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us and save us.
Father Demetrios Serfes
Dismissal Hymn. Third Tone:
Having raised up a sacred ladder by thy words, thou wast shown forth unto all as a teacher of monastics; and thou dost lead us, O John, from the purification that cometh through godly discipline unto the light of Divine vision. O righteous father, do thou entreat Christ that we be granted great mercy.
Ladder Of Divine Ascent
"For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet ye have not many fathers" I Cor. 4:15
n these days, beloved Christians, when because of unbelief and the abounding of sin the love of most has waxed cold, it is rare to find
even instructors according to God, let alone fathers who are able to beget us spiritually. How needful, therefore, it is to hearken to the
clear voice of a true instructor in Christ the Saviour. How necessary it is in these times of spiritual drought to find a wellspring of living
water! Such an instructor and such a deep well filled with living water do we we have in our holy father John Climacus-and not only an
instructor in things divine, but a father also who is able to beget. For as such do we address him in the kontakion for his holy feast,
On the height of abstinence did the Lord establish thee as a true and unerring star, guiding the ends of the world by thy light, O John, our instructor and father.
Be not ye called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, even Christ. Neither call ye and man your father upon the earth, for one is your Father, which is in the Heavens. Nor be ye called instructors, for one is your instructor even Christ (Matt. 23:8-10).
Thus, it is not to an ordinary teacher or father of the world here below which lieth in sin that we address ourselves, for that would be contradicting the word of our Saviour, but rather to one who is united to our Father and Teacher Who is in the Heavens, and is anointed and ordained by Him to be both a teacher and a father to us. For our Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, gifts us not only apostles, prophets, healers, etc. (cf. I Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11), but teachers also and fathers in Christ our Saviour.
Our holy father, Saint John Climacus, loving God from his youth, took up the sweet yoke of the apostolic life, and the life of philosophy, that is, the monastic life (as it was called in the early centuries of Christianity), and through it came to divine vision and was deified. Being united, therefore, to the living God, he shares in His uncreated glory and energies, and is shown forth a teacher and father, not for his own time only, but for all centuries until the consummation of time. It is for this same reason that we hope in the prayers and protection of the saints, and by so doing do not contradict the Psalmic verse, "Trust ye not in princes, in the sons of men, in whom there is not salvation" (Ps. 145:2). For these holy ones are no longer sons of men, but rather, in their love for God they were united to the Only-Begotten Son of God and became communicants of the Divine Nature. They no longer live, but rather Christ lives in them and they in Him. Thus they have become sons of God, and by trusting in their intercessions and help, we trust in Heaven itself, in the Living God.
This holy father, Saint John Climacus, lived and struggled for a whole lifetime on the God-trodden Mountain of Sinai, having entered the monastic struggles while but a youth in his teens. For forty years, he lived as a hermit at Thola, about five miles fom the moastery. Later he became the abbot of Sinai. At that time, the monastery erected by the Emperor Justinian, which stands intact to this day, was already in existence. It was built at the site of the Burning Bush and dedicated in those years to the Transfiguration of our Lord. Our holy Father John stood in prayer often below the great mosaic of the Holy Transfiguration which is the apse behind the Holy Table, and which can be seen to this day. He lived to the age of eighty, having reposed in the Lord in the year 603.
It was during the time that he was abbot that he wrote, among other things, the Klimax, theLadder, from which his name is derived. In this God-inspired book, he has written observations and teaching which are taken from his long experience as an ascetic and struggler against the passions. They are observations of a veteran of many wars, of a struggler in God and gictorious hoplite who himself mounted the ladder of Jacob, reached the summit, and entered into the cloud of unknowing, being propelled by the love of God. And for the love of his neighbour, he left behind him this Ladder of Divine Ascent,as Elias of old his mantle. But whereas Elias did not leave us his chariot to mount to the heavens, this holy one left us the means whereby we also migh climb with labours, vigilance, and prayers, and reach the ineffable beauty of that Countenance and the unutterable gladness of those that keep festival in the marvellous tabernacle, the very house of our God (cf.Ps. 41:4).
This holy book inscribed by the Wisdom of God has been brought down to us from the height of Divine experience, as of old Moses brought down from the summit of Sinai the God-inscribed tablets of the Law. But it differs from the tablets in as much as Grace differs fom the Law. The tablets contained rules and relgulations, statutes and prohibitions, but this heavenly book contains rather observations and insights concerning the goal of our calling as Christians and monastics. Each step deals with a certain virtue or passion, informing us from whence it springs and the different paths it takes in our experiences. Deep observations are made concerning our fallen nature and our captivity therein, and concerning the holy ones of God who with His help have fled the contranatural, have surpassed to natural, and have entered the supranatural. It is a book to awaken us, to call us to spiritual action - a book for strugglers in God and sojourners who have fled the Egypt of the passions and are struggling in the desert, in the hope of entering the Promised Land. But if one is looking in this holy book for the "how" this is to be accomplished, he shall not find it. For that is a whole "life hidden in God" (cf. Col. 3:3), as the holy Apostle says, and is accomplished in each believing and struggling Christian in "a sacred hidden manner." (In the Holy Spirit, every soul is quickened And through cleansing is exalted and made rediant By the Triple Unity, in a hidden sacred manner." (First Antiphon of the Hymns of Ascent of Fourth Tone). In short, this is the mystery of salvation which is worked in each of us.
This holy book, then, is a trumpet calling us to the spiritual life at the outset of the campaign and accompanies us on our journey through "arid and desolate places," pointing out to us dangers and pitfalls, refreshing us with cool water from living springs, and setting for us a "table in the desert." It instructs us, it encourages us, it speeds us on our way to God, but it does not offer us a formula or rule by which this is to be accomplished. In the Greek manuscripts, the thirty chapters fround in this book are not entitled steps, but logie - the first logos, the second logos, the third logos, - that is, they are presented as homilies, talks, in a word of instruction.
This is the nature of all the ascetical writings of the Church from the earliest times, for monasticism is seen as a consecration of one's life to God, using all these instructions and words of experience. There are not different monastic "rules" or "orders" in the Church. There is only one rule for all monastics: fasting, vigilance, and prayer, with vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. But in the West, especially after its separation from the Church, different competing orders arose with different rules set on different courses. The scholastic and rationalistic mentality, which wished everthing to be clearly defined, aided in this. And whereas of old, the Fathers expounded to us in what monasticism consisted, now the emphasis was on the how is a mystery accomplished in us by the Holy Spirit - it is a whole life of Grace. But for the scholastic mind, it bcame a systematized rule like a physical exercise, a sort of technique. Yoga and similar disciplines of the Far East are akin to this mentality. According to such an understanding, if one does this, the outcome must necessarily be that. Yet we know from experience that things in the spiritual life do not work thus, that techniques and rules do not make the monk. Only be keeping up pretence can one believe that he has thus become a monk. Externally he may appear to be some sort of monastic, but internally there is a void. And after a time, one abandons even the pretence, and then there is nothing.
Not only for those separated from the Church is this a danger, but for all of us. Thus it is necessary, if we are not to become sterile, to be continually returning to the clear sources of the monastic life, to be studying them and living them. One such great source is the Ladder. So greatly is this God-inspired book esteemed by the Church that its author, Saint John Climacus, is celebrated twice in the liturgical year: once on the day of his repose, which is the 30 of March, and a second time on the Forth Sunday of Great Lent. In all of the Church's monastic communities throughout the world, the Ladder is read during the duration of the Great Lent in the refectory during the common meal. This is a period of strict fasting, of prostrations, of compunctionate prayers, when only one meal is partaken of int he day, and this after the ninth hour (3:00 P.M.). After the twelfth hour (6:00 P.M.), even water is abstained from until the next meal of the next day, which is again after the ninth hour. Being read therefore during the meals in this period of fasting and struggles, it makes a profound impression on its hearers. And this is exactly how such texts should be read if they are to bear any fruit inus - not in spaciousness and comfort, not sitting in arm chairs, eating snacks an sipping soft drinks, but rather with prayers and fasting, with prostration and sighs. Then verily there is fulfilled the verse of our father, David: "Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it" (Ps. 80:9).
It is not enough, therefore, to read the Scriptures and the God-inspired books of the Church, but it is necessary to read them with reverence, fasting and prayer, and especially to put into practice those things which we read. We recall when the first edition of the Ladder in 1959, Thomas Merton, the great exponent of Western monasticism of the Roman communion, wrote a review of the book in Jubilee magazine. We have somehow misplaced it in our library and do not have it here presently before us, but if our memory does not fail us, he wrote somewhat enthusiastically about the book, praising it in many ways. This was the time in the Roman Catholic Church when icons and things Eastern were in vogue. But to one thing he took exception, and this was to the chapter concerning the Prison. What is here narrated is a little too excessive for an intelligent man of the West, it insults his rationality. Meton recognized in the description of the inmates of the Prison every recorded clinical mental disorder found in insane asylums. And truly, for the mind of the world, the wisdom of God and the way of the pious are untter follishness, insane, demented.
Yet, even more so in the wisdom of the world foolishness and madness for the children of the Church. Saint Paul the Apostle and Saint Abba Isaac the Syrian say much concerning this. As for the pious, if there is a chapter in the Ladder which pierces one's heart, if there is any part of the book which really shakes us and brings the message home, it is precisely this chapter concerning those blessed and compunctionate and voluntary inmates of the prison. How many tears are shed and sighs heard when this chapter is read in the refectory. For truly these holy ones, crazed for Christ, described by Saint John, are a mirror for us, the sluggish and indolent, to look into and to behold how wanting we are in the realm of true heartfelt repentance. They were earnest and serious about their repentance; we are light and distracted concerning our salvation. Some are repelled by the Prison of the Ladder, while others are pierced and moved by the love for God and strength of soul of these stouthearted inmates, and mourn the lack of both in themselves.
Thomas Meton read the Ladder and even wrote a review of it. He read other books of the sayings of the Fathers and wrote many books himself. Yet what was the outcome? They did not fill the void within. As a Trappist, he had exterior hesychia to the full, but not having found interior hesychia he left his exterior one and travelled to the Far East, there to seek from the worshippers of demons (For all the gods of the heathen are demons, but the Lord made the heavens" Ps. 95:5) new insights and techniques for finding God. And it is there that this hapless man, instead of finding God, found only his own tragic death.
But why speak of Meton, who belonged to a tradition separated for centures and generations upon geneations from the Church and who, therefore, did not have the key, that is the living Tradition, to be able to experience the words of the Fathers and verify their strength, and not speak of our own Metons? How many are those who, though nurtured in Holy Tradition, and having laboured in translating and printing the texts of the Fathers, yet by not attending to those very admonitions and words of instruction which they have translated, have fallen away from the way of the Fathers and have joined in communion of prayer and the Mysteries with those separated from the Church, thereby disregarding the very warnings and injuctions of the Fathers? Have we not seen Orthodox priestmonks joining Hindu ashrams and pseudo Charismatics? Have we not heard from the lips of a supposed Orthodox bishop living in the very part of the world where the great fathes of the desert shone forth, that the mystical experiences of Islam, and religion of the false prophet and demon-deceived Mahomet, and other pagan religions, are genuine manifestations of the Holy Spirt?
This is the practical application of the contemporary hersy of Ecumenism. Could anyone in the days of Saints Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, Saint Basil and Saint Gregory and the other great fathers and confessors, have conceived of a council in which Arians and Nestorians, Manicheans and Macedonians, Monophysites and Monothelites, and those of the Church would all be organic members, praying together and sponsoring joing statements? Could anyone imagineAbbas Anthony and Pachhomius, Paiusius and Macarius the Great of Egypt, and the holy fathers Euthymius, Sabbas, and Theodoisius of Palestine, leaving their places of struggles and opening dialogue with the idolaters, seeking to learn from their religious experiences new approaches to God? Actually, these fathers would not even have had to travel abroad to do this - they would only have needed to seek out the idolaters in their own regions, since paganism was till flourishing in Egypt and Palestine at that time. Such a thing, of course, would have been absurd in the days of those holy Fathers. Yet, in our days, we hear of Christian Yoga, of Zen Buddhism and other pagan disciplines used as aids by so-called Christians in their spiritual quest. If you do not "walk in the councel of the ungodly" today, or "sit in the seat of the pestilent," you are told that you do not have humility, but rather pride and triumph in your faith. Thus, under the slogans of love and humility, the Cross of the Saviour is trodden underfood and the Nanme of the Lord is blasphemed among the nations. We have seen most asuredly where the love of the Apostles and Fathers has led them - straight into the open bosom of the Father of Lights - and we know well what we have received at the Pentecost in Jerusalem. But where this new love and humility of these new apostles and preachers leads them, and what the outcome of their new pentecost shall be, we shudder even to think. Saint John Climacus writes in Step 2:6 concerning those who practise "spurious and sham asceticism." One wonders how many of these new style abbas (or gurus if you prefer) and Charismatics would survive in the desert of true monasticism? And concerning true humility, Abba John discounts all pagans and heretics writing the very deep observation,
It is impossible for snow to burst into flame; still more difficult is it for humility to dwell in an un-Orthodox person. This is something which the pious and faithful achieve, and then only when they have been purified. (Step 25:32)
How necessary therefore that the Ladder, which has been out of print in English for some years now, should appear in a second, revised edition for the edification of the faithful. Saint John Chrysostom in a homily on the Foremost of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, says, "For who, commanding the word of instruction, has dared to expound anything without citing your teaching?" How true this is also of Saint John Climacus in the spiritual life. For who, wishing to instruct another in the monastic discipline, has ever done so without referring to Saint John? What spiritual father or abbot throughout the centrues has ever attempted to teach his flock without quoting the Ladder? Very quickly, this sacred book became a classic not only with monastics, but with "kings of the earth, and all peoples, princes and all the judges of the earth, young men and virgins, elders with the younger..." (Ps. 148:11-12). The wisdom of Saint John was quoted on fitting occasions from the palace down to the market place and stables.
In looking over the correspondence of Tsar Ivan the IV which has been published in several volumes in English, one observes that, after the Holy Scriptures, the second most quoted book is the Ladder. This renowed Tsar quoted We the Ladder to metropolitans and archbishops, to abbots and monastics, to boyars and minsiters of state, to generals and warriors, to merchants and to the subjects of his kingdom in all walks of life. It is interesting to observe the occasions which give rise to his quoting the Ladder, and how Tsar Ivan quoted the sayings of Saint John with wit and intelligence. A little earlier, another Orthodox ruler, the Serbian Despot George Brankovic commissioned a new translation of the Ladder, copied out by the monk David in 1434. In a colophon found in this manuscript there is written: "I, Despot George, the devout ruler of Serbia, feel a deep concern for this book called the Ladder and read it zealously, for it contains profitable and godly discourses."
Because of their depth and wisdom, some of the observations of Saint John have become proverbs among the Orthodox. And truly, who is not impressed by the altertness and insight of his mind? Upon reading or hearing them once, they make such a deep impression that on many occasions throughout one's life they come to mind, and one smiles remembering them. Behold a few of them:
"A horse when alone often imagines that it is galloping, but when it is with others it finds out how slow it is." (Step 25:21)
The popularity of the Ladder is attested by the many Greek and Slavonic manuscripts in existence ot this day. In a work by Dr. J. R. Martin printed by the Princeton University Press in 155 entitled The Illustration of the Heavenly Ladder of John Climacus, thirty-three illuminated Greek manuscripts alone are dealt with. How man must have been lost because of fires invasions, plunders and the ravages of time.
We have included in this edition, beloved Christians, a sermon of Metropolitan Philaret of blessed memory (+1985), preached on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, in the Cathedral of the Holy Mother of God of the Sign in New York in the year of our salvation, 1975. It demonstrates how the Orthodox are still inspired by the writings of our holy Father, Saint John Climacus some fourteen centures later, in the western hemisphee, which geographically is far removed from the beloved Sinai of the Saint. Yet, in the Holy Spirit, we are separated neither by time nor by place, for Sinai and Jerusalem and all the Holy Mountains of the Lord are where the Christians abide and pray. Where the Church celebrates the Holy Mysteries, there is the Kingdom in power. The sermon of our Metropolitan further demonstrates that which has been a characteristic of the Church from the beginning: asceticism. For the character of the Church has always been heroic, one of struggles and asceticism. "The Kingdom of the Heavens suffereth violence" (Matt. 11:12), it is constrained. Saint John said it most beautifully in the Ladder: "Angels are a light for monks, and the monastic life is a light for all men" (Step 26:31). The whole expression and ethos of the Church, therefore, is monastic, not by chance or circumstance of events, as some modernists would have it - who ae preparing to have a council to shorten the fasts of the Church and to change her ascetical character - but by set purpose and intent, having been set by our Saviour Himself and His holy Apostles and the Fathers and Teachers and Hierarchs that followed, and is safeguarded and perpetuated by their successors that shepherd us till this day.
The foregoing was written in 1979 for the first printing of our revised edition of the Ladder. Though eleven years have passed since that time, now, on the occasion of the second printing of our translation, they still seem appropriate, and in many ways even more necessary.
In 1979 there appeared to be little interest in a new edition of the Ladder. Our translation has been employed in other studies and translations of patristic texts. We have been gratified to see this renewed interest among English readers.
Many have remarked on Saint John's terse and laconic style. As an experienced monastic writing for other monastics, much could be conveyed in few words. The very brevity of his style, however, has occasioned whole volumes of commentary on the Ladder, and many Greek editions and translations into other languages have incorporated a number of these explanations, either included within the text itself or as appendices. While we have given a few of these comments in our footnotes, we have felt that these explanations represent an entire body of literature best entrusted to separate volumes.
A careful review of the Greek has confirmed the accuracy of the many of our renderings. We have, however, taken the opportunity to improve our translation in a number of places.
The present edition was made possible by a gracious gift from the estate of the late Jesse DeWitt Stockton and Mary Ellen Stockton or Bakersfied, California, in their memory.
The icon of Christ the Life Giver, Saint Catherine and the Holy Prophet Elias are painted by John Snogren.
The icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent repoduced as the frontispiece of this volume has been included by kind permission of the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai.
The icons depicting the life of Saint John Climacus that have been added to this printing are details from an icon painted by Father Theodore Jurewicz and treasured at the Holy Nativity Convent, in Brookline Massachusetts.
In reading this book, O pious reader, let us remember the injunction of our holy Father, Saint John, who cries to us, saying:
Let us try to learn Divine truth more by toil and sweat than by mere word, for at the time of our departure its not words but deeds that have to shown. (Step 26:36)
Sunday of Saint John Climacus
Great Lent, 1991
(Source: THE LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT SAINT JOHN CLIMACUS., Revised Edition, Holy Transfiguration Monastery., Boston, Massachusetts, 1991.,xvill-xxvii)
Pray Unto God,
Glory Be To GOD
Content written and/or compiled by Father Demetrios Serfes.
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