12 April 2009

'Thou Art in Truth a Lawgiver Like Moses'—St John Climacus

Today, 30 March on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate St John Climacus, ‘of the Ladder’ (525-606), Abbot of St Catherine’s Monastery, Mt Sinai. Very little is known about the details of his life. As Fr Georges Florovsky has remarked, the Life of St John written by Daniel of Raithu (‘A short account of the life of Abba John, abbot of the Holy Mount Sinai, surnamed the Scholastic and truly one of the saints’, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, by St John Climacus, rev. ed., trans. Archim. Lazarus [Moore], rev. Holy Transfiguration Monastery [Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1991], pp. xxxiv-xxxviii) is an ‘encomium’ and not a biography—it illuminates his spiritual life beautifully, but Fr Florovsky himself must satisfy our modern lust for dates and place-names (The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers, trans. Raymond Miller, et al., Vol. 10 in The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky [Vaduz, Europa: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1987], p. 241):

From circumstantial data it is possible to hazard a guess that he died in the mid seventh-century. His life is usually given from about 570 until 649. He came to Sinai in his early youth and spent his whole life there. However, it seems that he spent some time in Egypt, in Scete, and in Tabennesis. For many years he contended in obedience to a certain elder. After the latter’s death, St John withdrew into seclusion and lived as a hermit in a cave, which was not far off but was secluded.

St John was already an extremely old man when he was chosen the abbot of Mt Sinai. He was not abbot for long, and again went into seclusion. In seclusion he compossed his famous and extraordinarily influential work entitled Heavenly Ladder—κλῖμαξ τοῦ παραδείσου—‘a book called the Spiritual Tablets’, ‘for the edification of the new Israelites, the people who have just come out of a mental Egypt and from the sea of life’.

In a Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, when we also celebrated St John, Metropolitan Philaret of blessed memory writes (Ladder, p. xxxi):

He was surnamed ‘of the Ladder’ (Climacus) because he wrote an immortal work, the Ladder of Divine Ascent. In this work, we see how, by means of thirty steps, the Christian gradually ascends from below to the heights of supreme spiritual perfection. 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’.

St John wrote his immortal work especially for the monastics, but in the past his Ladder was always favorite reading in Russia for anyone zealous to live piously, though he were not a monk. Therein the Saint clearly demonstrates how a man passes from one step to the next.

The introduction to the HTM edition illustrates Met. Philaret’s comments by pointing out the fondness for the Ladder of such Orthodox rulers as Tsar Ivan IV and the Serbian Despot George Branković (Ladder, pp. xxv-xxvi).

It is interesting to note Fr Florovsky’s comment that St John ‘was writing from his own personal experience’ (p. 241). In his letter to St John requesting that he write a book, Abbot John of Raithu actually compares the Abbot of Sinai to the Prophet Moses, since he has ‘seen the vision of God’, and asks him ‘to send us a book like the divinely written tablets’ that the Prophet brought down from Sinai (Ladder, xli). The monk Daniel of Raithu makes the same comparison (Ladder, p. xxxviii):

He approached the mountain, he entered the innermost darkness [cf. Exodus 20:21] and, mounting by spiritual steps, he received the divinely written law and divine vision; he opened his mouth for the word of God, and drew in the Spirit; then he poured forth a good word from the good treasure of his heart.

The account in the Great Synaxaristes, enlarging on Daniel’s Life, really makes the point explicit (The Lives of the Saints of the Holy Land and the Sinai Desert, trans. Holy Apostles Convent [Buena Vista, CO: HAC, 1988], p. 200):

. . . [St John] crossed over the heavenly degrees with his mind, drawing nigh to God through ineffable contemplation. For, after purifying his soul and constantly cleansing its eye, he perceived the vision of God. In the future, like Moses of old, he would come down to his fellows [‘those new Israelites, the monks of Sinai’], bearing the tablets of God’s law, his Ladder (which we will speak about further down).

Finally, it is a theme taken up as well by the hymnography for St John. In the 4th Ode of the second canon for the 4th Sunday of Lent, we read (The Lenten Triodion, trans. Mother Mary and Archim. Kallistos [Ware] [South Canaan, PA: STS, 1994], p. 360):

For all who follow the ascetic and monastic way, thou art in truth a lawgiver like Moses, a meek and gentle ruler like David; and we bless thee, father.

One of my own favourite passages from the Ladder has long been the opening of Step 3, Περὶ ξενιτείας, ‘On Exile or Pilgrimage’ in the HTM edition (Ladder, p. 14):

1. Exile means that we leave forever everything in our own country that prevents us from reaching the goal of piety. Exile means modest manners, wisdom which remains unknown, prudence not recognized as such by most, a hidden life, an invisible intention, unseen meditation, desire for humiliation, longing for hardship, constant determination to love God, abundance of love, renunciation of vainglory, depth of silence.

There is a helpful footnote on the title of this Step (Ladder, p. 14, n. 2), which reads:

This is a double translation for a single Greek word ξενιτεία which means ‘living as a stranger’ (not necessarily as a vagrant) and might be translated ‘unworldliness’. But several considerations, notably paragraphs 6 and 22 of this chapter, have led me to think that, in our author’s time, the word contained a notion of movement also, and might be rendered ‘pilgrimage’. However, in the text we have kept to the word ‘exile’.

I might also add the observation that the phrase here rendered ‘modest manners’ is an interesting one: ἀπαρρησίαστον ἦθος. I can’t recall where, but I’ve seen παρρησία used to refer to the relationship of the Saints with God, that is, in the sense of ‘familiarity’, or ‘closeness of contact’ (and it seems like Peter Brown has discussed this notion). It is thus interesting to see the antonym used in reference to our relationship with the world. Certainly, ‘absence of familiarity in conduct’ seems like an extremely ‘counter-cultural’ (in the good sense) ethical prescription, at odds, perhaps, with our modern obsession with all that is casual and informal.

Interestingly, the Ladder has not been without influence in the West. Its most illustrious reader there is perhaps the Abbot de Rancé (1626-1700), who founded the Trappist reform of the Cistercian Order. Thomas Merton observes, ‘The reformer of La Trappe, Abbot de Rancé, knew it [the Ladder] well and imbibed its spirit, probably from a Greek edition published in France in 1633 [it would seem this is the edition of the Jesuit, Matthew Rader, later printed in Migne’s Patrologia Graeca]. A Trappist monk of Mount Saint Bernard, England, was the author of the only English translation in existence before the present text [the original edition of Archimandrite Lazarus’s translation]’ (‘The Spirituality of Sinai’, Disputed Questions [NY: New American Library, 1960], p. 74). Fr Placide (Deseille) tells us, ‘Somewhat later [in his novitiate as a Trappist] I was obliged to read the writings of Saint Dorotheos of Gaza and Saint John of the Ladder, both of whom had been, for the Abbot de Rancé, the great reformer of the (monastery of) Trappe in the seventeenth century, the principle sources of inspiration at the time of his conversion’ (‘Stages of a Pilgrimage’, The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain: Contemporary Voices from Mt Athos, trans. Hieromonk Alexander [Golitzin] [South Canaan, PA: STS, 1999], p. 65).

Of course, Merton himself is much better known today than the Abbot de Rancé. But unfortunately, he does not seem to have ‘imbibed’ the spirit of the Ladder so well as his predecessor. The author of the introduction to the HTM edition points out that they have ‘misplaced’ Merton’s book in their library, ‘and so do not have it here presently before us’ (Ladder, p. xxii), but I know right where mine is! It’s true that, as they say, ‘he wrote somewhat enthusiastically about the book, praising it in many ways’ (ibid.). Merton also makes some amusing comments—contrasting the Ladder with the famous Imitation of Christ, he writes, ‘First of all, the Ladder is seldom, if ever, tender. It is a tough, hard-hitting, merciless book. Climacus was a kind of sixth-century desert Hemingway’ (Merton, p. 72). Even when the HTM intro suggests that he gets it wrong—his belief that the ‘Prison’ (in Step 5), the repentant inhabitants of which St John praises so highly, is essentially a collection of mentally ill persons—he’s not as bad as they remember. Despite the clearly modern thrust to his comments, he admits that this section ‘has in it a deep spiritual truth’ (p. 78).

But, as the HTM intro acknowledges, it is mainly in his life rather than in his obscure review of Fr Lazarus’s translation that Merton shows his departure from St John’s spirit (not to mention that of the Abbot de Rancé):

Thomas Merton 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 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. (Ladder, p. xxiii)

A sermon on St John by the renowned 102 year-old Metropolitan Augoustinos (Kantiotes) of Florina can be found here (scroll down for the English!). Fr Deacon Matthew Steenberg has a nice article on the Ladder here. Here is the account of St John’s life in the Prologue (along with one of St Nicholas's wonderful 'Hymns of Praise'), and here is Bulgakov’s. One can find Butler’s Life here. About 13 days ago the blogger at a . . . sinner posted a good account of St John here (I don’t think he wrote it himself, but I can’t figure out the source!), and the blogger at Grace and Peace did one for the 4th Sunday here. There are some nice quotes from the Ladder here at Milk & Honey, and here, at Glory to God for All Things. But the most extensive blog post on St John was written 13 days ago here, at OrthodoxWord, and features a full list of the steps on the Ladder and at least two lengthy excerpts.

Finally, I’d like to brag about my cool Greek edition of the Ladder: that published by the Holy Monastery of the Paraclete in Oropos, Greece, and featuring an introduction, edition of the original text, Modern Greek translation, notes, and [!] charts (apparently this refers to the brief glossary, Scriptural index, and index of names and subjects) by Archimandrite Ignatius. It’s a beautiful book, inside and out!


Sophocles said...


You're right, I didn't write it myself but the source is the OCA website. They don't provide an individual address for their Saints and Feasts so I've just let the readers know where I got the information.

You have a wonderful blog. I wish you many years and the blessing of our Lord.

In Christ,


a.k.a., a..sinner

aaronandbrighid said...


Thank you for your kind comments. I'm sorry I didn't notice your link to the OCA page (I may have seen 'Source', but not realised it was a link!). I didn't mean to imply that you'd plagiarised. Keep up the good work!

in Christ,

Sophocles said...


No worries, dear brother. I didn't in any way infer that you were saying any such thing so forgive me as well if I came across as saying that you were saying...[whew!.. this is getting complex! :)]

In Christ,