Thursday, March 31, 2011

St. John Climacus

St. John Climacus, also known as St. John of the Ladder, is a sixth century monastic best known for his work "The Ladder of Divine Ascent."  He is commemorated the 4th Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church.

Very little is known about St. John's life prior to becoming a monastic.  He was tonsured as a monk at Sinai, and remained so until the death of Abba Martyrius, who tonsured him, after which he lived a solitary life of prayer, fasting and repentance before finally returning as the Abbot of the monastery.

As someone from the Western Christian tradition, who is still encumbered by notions of merit and works and a desire to ensure that God is not "robbed" of His glory in salvation by my own claiming of the same, St. John is an interesting figure, and his work is more interesting still.  It is easy for me to look at a work called "The Ladder of Divine Ascent" and determine that St. John is teaching that I must do this, that or the other in order to work my way to God so that God will find me worthy of saving.  Indeed, an initial careless glance at the icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent would seem to confirm this view.

In the icon, Monks are depicted at various places on the ladder, climbing up to Jesus with the angels praying for them, but with some monks being dragged off by demons, and one falling into the mouth of a dragon.  The dragon symbolizes hell.  Christ is seen at the top of a ladder, blessing the monk at the top of the ladder.  St. John is seen at the lower right, standing in front of a monastery.  The icon is intended to mirror Jacob's ladder.

However, as I have learned, there are several things that should be remembered about this work and particularly the icon which depicts the Ladder.  First, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent" is meant for monastics.  This in no way inhibits its use for those of us who are not monastics, but context is important.  St. John's work is meant first and foremost as a guide for monastics to achieve theosis.  Its ascetical discipline is not to be undertaken lightly.  Second, the Ladder is not intended to depict ultimate salvation or damnation as most Protestants might understand it.  Put another way, the Ladder does not intend to say that those at the top get into heaven, and those at the bottom will go to hell, so you'd better climb higher while you still can.  Rather, monks at all stages of the ladder are being dragged off by demons.  The purpose of this depiction is to demonstrate that no matter how spiritually developed one is, demons will attack and tempt.  Even the most holy are in danger of attack from the accuser.

Third, the Ladder is intended to serve as an image of theosis, the Orthodox idea that we are to grow in Christ, through the Sacramental life, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, to become closer and closer to God.  This is most often expressed among Orthodox as "we become by grace what He is by nature."  Protestants typically separate this out from "justification" and refer to it as "sanctification," and it might help to look at the icon in that light.  In the depiction at left, the ladder goes at a 45 degree angle for the first portion of the ascent, and then nearly straight up for the second portion, indicating the farther along one is in their spiritual journey, the more difficult the ascent becomes (this depiction also has the beautiful imagery of showing the angels helping the monks along the way).  But while the Ladder in either depiction involves human effort, synergia, it is also intended to depict God's effort helping us along the way.  The angels praying and assisting the monks make this clear, as does the depiction of Christ blessing the monks from heaven.  This squares with St. Paul's instruction to the Corinthians that we are Theou synergoi -- "co-workers with God."  Fourth, it is important to remember that while the icon itself depicts a ladder ascending to heaven, the book is often described as an "ascent" which is actually a descent into humility.  Meaning that far from the Western idea of merits earning us heaven, those at the top of the ladder would be best understood according to St. John's writing as being the most humble, self-emptying and lacking in any understanding of their own worth or merit.  As St. John wrote in "The Ladder":
A man who takes pride in natural abilities - I mean cleverness, the ability to learn, skill in reading, good diction, quick grasp, and all such skills as we possess without having to work for them -- this man, I say, will never receive the blessings of heaven, since the man who is unfaithful in little is unfaithful and vainglorious in much. And there are men who wear out their bodies to no purpose in the pursuit of total dispassion, heavenly treasures, miracle working, and prophetic ability, and the poor fools do not realize that humility, not hard work, is the mother of such things. The man who seeks a reward from God in return for his labors builds on uncertainty, whereas the man who considers himself a debtor will receive sudden and unexpected riches.
....and again....
While it is disgraceful to be puffed up over the adornments of others, it is sheer lunacy to imagine that one has deserved the gifts of God. You may be proud only of the achievements you had before the time of your birth. But anything after that, indeed the birth itself, is a gift from God. You may claim only those virtues in you that are there independently of your mind, for your mind was bestowed on you by God. And you may claim only those victories you achieved independently of the body, for the body too is not yours but a work of God.
As we continue our journey through Great Lent, we remember St. John Climacus this Sunday. 

Dweller of the desert and angel in the body,
You were shown to be a wonder-worker, our God-bearing Father John.
You received heavenly gifts through fasting, vigil, and prayer:
Healing the sick and the souls of those drawn to you by faith.
Glory to Him who gave you strength!
Glory to Him who granted you a crown!
Glory to Him who through you grants healing to all!
 -- Troparion for the Sunday of St. John Climacus


Ella said...

Could you please tell me where you found this Icon of the 'The Ladder of Divine Ascent', it is very beautiful.
Many Thanks!

Ella said...

Could you please tell me where you found this Icon of the 'The Ladder of Divine Ascent', it is very beautiful.
Many Thanks!

David Garner said...


My apologies for not answering sooner. I'm sure I pulled it off an internet search, but I don't recall the site.

gospelfororthodox said...

It is a good thing to desire sanctification but what about God's Word? It instructs on precisely how we go about climbing the ladder, not being conformed to this evil world but being transformed by the renewing our mind (Romans 12:2), by continually being filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), by walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5:25), by following law of the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2). These are just some of the Words of God that instruct us in sanctification. We also know that 1 John 5:18 teaches that "whoever is born of God is kept by the Lord Jesus and the evil one cannot touch him." How do you understand these Words of God.

David Garner said...

I'm not following how your question is an either/or as pertains to this post. Put another way, I'm not seeing how those Scriptural passages are in any way inconsistent with what I have written or, more importantly, what St. John wrote.