Love of God in the Ladder - A Sermon for the Sunday of St. John Climacus (2023)
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.
“What is this mystery in me? What is the meaning of this blending of body and soul? How am I constituted a friend and foe to myself? Tell, me, tell me, my yoke-fellow, my nature, for I shall not ask anyone else in order to learn about you. How am I to remain unwounded by you? How can I avoid the danger of my nature? For I have already made a vow to Christ to wage war against you. How am I to overcome your tyranny? For I am resolved to be your master.” (Step 15.89) writes the seventh-century author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus, which illustrates his penetrating psychological insight into human nature.
A History of Reading
The Ladder of Divine Ascent was written in the seventh century, in the eighth century it was translated into Syriac; by the eleventh century into Georgian, Armenian, and Slavonic; by the fourteenth century into Latin, Romanian, Spanish and Portuguese.[i]
The eleventh-century Evergetis Typikon, as well as the twelfth century Messina Typikon, prescribed that the Ladder be read in all monasteries during Lent.[ii] After the Scriptures and service books, St. John’s work was the most read volume in all of Christendom.[iii]
In the 11th century, when St. Symeon the New Theologian was a young man, living in Constantinople with his uncle, he returned to visit his family in Galatia. While there he found St. John Climacus’ book in the family library and began to study it.[iv]
In the early 13th century, counsels from Bishop Simon of Vladimir and Suzdal to a monk of the Kiev Caves are recorded in the Kiev Caves Patericon where he cites St. John’s work directly and indirectly.[v]
In the early 18th century, the young Petro Velyckovs’kyj, after having determined to become a monk, set off to the monastery in Liubeck, two hundred kilometers north of Kiev. While there, the abbot Nykyfor, gave him this book of St. John’s, saying, “Take this book brother; read it with diligent attention and be instructed in holy obedience and in every good deed, for it is a book of great benefit to the soul.”[vi] While staying at this monastery, the future St. Paisius Velichkovsky managed to copy almost the whole of this book. Later, when he would become an abbot, his biographer writes, “Every evening except on Sundays and feast days the brethren assembled in the refectory, candles were lighted, and our blessed father would come sit in his accustomed place and would read a book of the fathers: either that of St. Basil the Great on fasting, or of St. John Climacus or of St. Dorotheus, or of St. Theodore the Stoudite.”[vii]
However, The Ladder of Divine Ascent was not only read by monastics, or those seeking the monastic life. Muriel Heppel, in an introduction to an earlier translation of the work, notes how the Serbian despot George Branković (1377-1456) frequently read this work and wrote about it saying, “I… feel a deep concern for this book called the Ladder, and read it zealously, for it contains profitable and godly discourses.”[viii]
After the Scriptures, St. John’s work is the most frequently quoted text in the surviving correspondence of Tsar Ivan IV (1530-1580).[ix]
To navigate through the work of St. John is no small feat and takes a certain stoutness of soul, however, as St. Philaret of Moscow (1782-1867) notes that although St. John wrote this “immortal work” especially for monastics, yet “his Ladder,” he writes, “was always favorite reading in Russia for anyone zealous to live piously, though he were not a monk.”[x]
In Romanian households it was handed down like a family Bible.[xi]
Interestingly, St John’s work was the first to be published in the New World, in what is now Mexico City, in the year 1537 under the auspices of Don Juan Pablos and entitled, La Escala de San Juan Climaco.[xii]
Why did St. John write this work?
The reason St. John wrote this work, as he explains in a letter, was due to the request of Abbot John of Raithu Monastery in Sinai, to offer guidance and instruction for his monks.[xiii]
St. John aligns himself with a particular literary tradition.[xiv] Similar works had been written before such as those by Evagrius and also the compilation of the Apophthegmata Patrum, but truly St. John was original in his explanation and how his work unfolds, progressing from one rung to the next.[xv]
The Content of The Ladder
The work is divided into thirty chapters (logoi) (or rungs) which denote the thirty years of Christ’s life before His public ministry. These rungs are the means by which one ascends, from one virtue to the next, in order to reach the top of the ladder – the Kingdom of Heaven. Many of these rungs relate to a particular passion which St. John defines explaining it from many perspectives which offers the clearest understanding of each term. He then explains the “mother” of this passion, that is, what has given birth to or caused this passion, and also what is the “daughter” of this passion, that is, the other passions which grow out of this one. He then offers a particular “treatment” for the passion indicating how one can overcome it, and introduces its corresponding virtue.
As an example, we can look to Step 11 which relates to talkativeness, noting that “Talkativeness,” he writes, “is the throne of vainglory, on which it loves to show itself and make a display.” Talkativeness is a sign of ignorance. Its mother (that is, its cause) is from a bad and lax way of life and habit. Its daughter (that is, it leads to) slander, is an inducement to jesting, and a servant of falsehood. The treatment - he who has become aware of his own talkativeness learns to control his tongue, “cuts down words” and becomes a friend of silence (the corresponding virtue of talkativeness), having come to love stillness.
Such is St. John’s approach which each of the passions.
The Place of “Love for God” in The Ladder
Throughout this work, particular themes are woven, such as the role of the spiritual father, the memory of death,[xvi] or how experience corresponds to knowledge, but the theme we will focus on today is the role of love for God, because it is present on the first rung and on the last and contributes in various ways to many of the steps along the way. Love for God is the motivating force of the Christian life, the ascetic life, the monastic life (and these are not exclusive).
I. From love of the flesh to love for God
One’s love for God is the reason for ascesis and various forms of self-sacrifice. However, desiring greater ascesis and self-sacrifice attests to desires for greater love for Him. Often, many motivations can be initiated through ignorance or fear, yet they blossom and grow by love for God. We may learn a form of love through our mother or father, spouse or friend, son or daughter, a love of nature, of beauty, of art, and this love can become the first steps of a properly directed love which ends in love for God and not the flesh which harms us and damages the soul.
15.2 - He is pure, writes St. John, who expels fleshly love with divine love, and who has extinguished the fire of passion by the fire of heaven (i.e. the Holy Spirit)
5.26 - I have seen impure souls raving madly about physical love; but making their experience of carnal love a reason for repentance, they transferred the same love to the Lord; and, overcoming all fear, they spurned themselves insatiably onto the love of God. That is why the Lord does not say of that chaste harlot: “Because she feared”, but: “Because she loved much,” and [she] could easily get rid of love by love.’
II. Overcoming passions through love
There are ways to combat the passions and means to instill the virtues and the greatest of these is love, because God is love (30.1). Early on along the spiritual path, the love for God is not strongly rooted yet it is desired, and those who are further along have come to know this love through experience. The fear of God emboldens many to struggle, however the love of God is equally, if not more, effective because it is the means and it is the goal
1.5 - All who have willingly left the things of the world have certainly done so either for the sake of the future Kingdom, or because of the multitude of their sins, or for love of God, says St. John. And again
7.45 - My friends, God does not ask or desire that man should mourn from sorrow of heart, but rather that out of love for Him he should rejoice…
1.22 - Let us charge into the good fight with joy and love without being afraid of our enemies.
1.13 - He who withdraws from the world out of love for God has obtained fire at the very outset; and, like fire set to fuel, it soon kindles a larger fire.
III. Kindling divine love
Of course, our love is only a spark at first, looking to be fanned, and yearning to become a consuming fire. Therefore, how is this spark kindled? How can I make this love grow? St. John writes,
26B.65 - The keeping of the commandments is a sign of love; and the beginning of love is an abundance of humility; and an abundance of humility is the daughter of dispassion; and the acquisition of [dispassion] is the fullness of love…
28.33 - War proves the soldier’s love for his king; but the time and discipline of prayer show the monk’s love for God.
30.25 - He who loves the Lord has first loved his brother, because the second is a proof of the first.
1.4 - The lover of God is he who lives in communion with all that is natural and sinless, and as far as he is able neglects nothing good.
IV. The transformative aspect of love
It is love for the Lord which moves mountains and it is love for the Lord which will make the wretched of the earth into the children of Heaven, because “the law of love is an incentive to attempt things that are beyond our capacity.” (3.25).
2.1 - The man who really loves the Lord, who has made a real effort to find the coming Kingdom, who has really begun to be troubled by his sins, who is really mindful of eternal torment and judgment, who really lives in fear of his own departure, will not love, care or worry about money, or possessions, or parents, or worldly glory, or friends, or brothers, or anything at all on earth.
V. The activity of love
Love for the Lord motivates one to say, “forgive me for what I said,” “forgive me for what I did.”
Love for the Lord inspires one to struggle to be attentive in prayer, to add to one’s prayers and one’s ascesis.
Love for the Lord arouses us to help our brother, to sacrifice ourselves and our time, especially when we do not want to.
1.27 - So who is a faithful and wise monk? He who has kept his fervour unabated, and to the end of his life has not ceased daily to add fire to fire, fervour to fervour, zeal to zeal, love to love.
But perhaps we fall so short, I fall so short. I do not love God as I should, nor my brother. I am my own friend but also my own foe. My nature wounds me; my stomach consumes me; my vainglory turns me into an iron tower and it seems as though I cannot win.
"Tell us, fairest of virtues, where thou feedest thy flock, where thou restest at noon," writes St. John. "Enlighten us, quench our thirst, guide us, take us by the hand; for we wish at last to soar to thee…"
But I long to know how Jacob saw thee fixed above the ladder. Satisfy my desire, tell me, What are the means of such an ascent? What the manner, what the law that joins together the steps which thy lover sets as an ascent in his heart? I thirst to know the number of those steps, and the time needed for the ascent. He who knows the struggle and the vision has told us of the guides. But he would not, or rather, he could not, enlighten us any further.
And this queen (or I think I might more properly say king), as if appearing to me from heaven and as if speaking in the ear of my soul, said: Unless, beloved, you renounce your gross flesh, you cannot know my beauty.
“Ascend, brothers, ascend eagerly, and be resolved in your hearts to ascend…”(30.36)
THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF OUR HOLY FATHERS, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN.
[i] Zecher, Jonathan L. The Role of Death in the ‘Ladder of Divine Ascent’ and the Greek Ascetic Tradition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 7.
[ii] Cf. Nancy P. Ševčenko. “Monastic Challenges: Some Manuscripts of the ‘Heavenly Ladder’” in Byzantine Art: Recent Studies, Colum Hourihane, ed. (TEMPE: ACMRS, 2009), 39-62.
[iii] Ware, Archim. Kallistos. “Introduction,” in Ladder of Divine Ascent. (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1982), 1.
[iv] The Life of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, trans. Richard P. H. Greenfield. (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2013), 17.
[v] The Paterik of the Kievan Caves Monastery, trans. Muriel Heppell. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989) 114, 116, 118, 136; cf. 181.
[vi] The Life of Paisij Velyckovs’kyj. Trans. J. M. E. Featherstone (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 31.
[vii] The Life of Paisij Velyckovs’kyj, 111.
[viii][viii] St. John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent, trans. Archimandrite Lazarus Moore. (Willits: Eastern Orthodox Books, 1959), 28.
[ix] Zecher, Jonathan L. The Role of Death in the ‘Ladder of Divine Ascent’ and the Greek Ascetic Tradition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 8.
[x] Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. (Boston, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2012), 29.
[xi] Zecher, Jonathan L. The Role of Death in the ‘Ladder of Divine Ascent’ and the Greek Ascetic Tradition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 8.
[xii] Cf. https://www.htmp.org/ladder-first-book-new-world.html#:~:text=The%20Ladder%20of%20Divine%20Ascent,de%20Mendoza%20in%20the%201530's., last accessed on 3/23/2023.
[xiii] Abbot John of Raithu, who asked for instruction from St. John not due to his great erudition and genius, though he acknowledged that this is so: “our superior in both asceticism and intelligence”(42). Instead, he says, “describe for stupid people like us what you have seen in divine vision like Moses of old on that same mountain, and send us a book like the divinely written tablets” (42). [This is not flattery because “flattery is foreign to us.”(42)]
[xiv] Johnsén, Henrik Rydell, “Rhetoric and Ascetic Ascent in The Ladder of John Climacus” in
[xv] Cf. Johnsén, Henrik Rydell, “Training for Solitude: John Climacus and the Art of Making a Ladder,” in Studia Patristica XLVIII, 2010.
[xvi] Cf. Zecher, Jonathan L. The Role of Death in the ‘Ladder of Divine Ascent’ and the Greek Ascetic Tradition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
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