Saint for now: St. John Climacus

Things are busy with writing my own papers and marking other people’s papers right now, so no saint went up last week. So today, since I have time on Sundays, last week’s saint will come up this week; whether this week will have its own saint remains to be seen. And on to our saint, a mystic, John Climacus (who is commemorated in the Eastern Orthodox Church today).

St. John Climacus (c. 579-649 and thus a contemporary of St. Maximus the Confessor) was a monk of the monastery of Sinai, at the foot of the Mount of God, the mountain which Moses ascended and where the Lawgiver entered the Cloud, saw the back of YHWH, and received the Law of God, from which Moses descended with shining face from his encounter with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The spot is pregnant with meaning.

At this monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, John, aged sixteen, took preference for the semi-eremitic life — a life halfway between the ‘total’ seclusion of the hermit/anchorite and the total community of the ‘coenobite’ (most Western monastics — e.g. Cistercians and Benedictines are ‘coenobites’ living in a coenobium). All three forms of monasticism were practised within the walls of this monastery, founded by Justinian (556-57).

In this middle way, one pursues the monastic life of prayer and stillness under the supervision of an elder; John’s was one Abba Martyrius. Abba Martyrius, after John had demonstrated his worthiness over a few years of pursuing the monastic vocation, took John up the Mountain of God and had him tonsured, admitting him into the fullness of the monastic life.

Shortly thereafter, Abba Martyrius died, and John pursued the life of the hermit, entering into seclusion to enter hesychia and the stillness of God’s presence. He retired to Tholas and spent 40 years there, admitting the occasional visitor who came for spiritual guidance.

At the end of his 40-year stint he was elected to be abbot of the coenobitic community. In good monastic form, he resisted (one also typically resists being ordained priest or consecrated bishop if a monk), but was overcome by the brethren. He lived out the rest of his life as abbot of the monastery at Sinai. Whilst abbot, he wrote down his famous work Scala Paradisi, The Ladder of Paradise.

As with our last mystic (Bonaventure here), it is not the exterior as found in these details but the interior that matters; it is the mystic’s encounter with God and the things of God that really matters.

From John’s Ladder we learn of the ascent of the soul to God. As with many mystics, this ascent is gained through askesis, or asceticism, through the training and labours undertaken by the one seeking God in order to purify the soul/mind/heart so that union with God and the vision of God are possible, so that the contemplative can see Him clearly (though never in His fullness or essence, as God is ultimately incomprehensible).

The thirty steps of the ladder’s ascent unto God are divided into three sections (this is also common, as we saw Bonaventure’s six levels divided by two into three; it is at least as old as Origen — cf. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition 58-59).

The first seven steps are about acquiring general virtues that are necessary for the ascetic life (cf. Origen’s ethike or ethics). These days, I think few Christians are inspired to climb any higher than these seven. I believe that we need to reclaim holiness and see a life beyond simple virtue. John Climacus can help.

The second series of steps runs from 8 through 26. These nineteen steps are about even greater ascent in virtue as the ascetic learns to overcome the vices and acquire virtues in their place. Indeed, cultivation of virtue is the only way to fully extirpate vice and cleanse the soul so that we can draw near to God and theosis, deification.

The final steps are the higher virtues. How many in our day even draw nigh to these virtues? I know not. I think they tend to be those imperturbable people who seem to radiate peace, calm, and a certain gentleness of spirit. They are also often wise. If you haven’t met such a person, it is your great loss.

At the top of the ladder, we go beyond everything we do, everything we know. We encounter the living God. He is far beyond anything we could ask or imagine. And he alone is all we want and all we need.

NB: I haven’t yet read John Climacus (I wanted to, but the copy in the library is missing), so if there are any inaccuracies, I gladly welcome critique in the comments! ūüôā

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Saint of the Week: Amma Syncletica

In light of the fact that I have yet to officially make a woman “Saint of the Week” and the Egyptian saints’ feasts this week (as noted in yesterday’s post), I feel that it is only appropriate to look at Amma Syncletica (feast: 5 January).

The first question you may be asking is, “What kind of a name is that?” It is, I reply, the sort of name one gives an Egyptian monachos, or, I suppose in this case, monacha?

The group of early monks/hermits/anchorites we call the “Desert Fathers and Mothers” had a number of notables amongst it. These people were treated with respect by the other monastics and were often consulted for nuggets of wisdom by these younger or less experienced desert dwellers. They were mostly male, and in Greek are referred to as geron, old man. They also received, however, the Egyptian/Coptic title Abba or Amma, Father or Mother. So we hear of Abba Antony, Abba Poemen, Abba Macarius, and Amma Syncletica.

The details of Syncletica’s life are obscure. Syncletica was born to Greek/Macedonian parents in Alexandria. All of her life she was drawn to God. Like St. Antony before her (my post here), she inherited a large estate and the care for her sister. Like St. Antony before her, she sold off her inheritance and gave to the poor. She retired with her sister to a crypt.

She now began the principle exercise of the desert life: prayer. Prayer is the scopos (goal) of all the Desert Fathers and Mothers, with the telos (end) of prayer being holiness and the vision of divine glory. [1] As Syncletica says, “Bodily poison is cured by still stronger antidotes; so fasting and prayer drive sordid temptation from us.” (DF 27) [2]

Syncletica emphasises fasting in other sayings attributed to her, for prayer in the desert is always coupled with ascetic discipline and sobriety of spirit.¬† The goal of this sobriety which is reflected by a lack of immoderate laughter and much silence, is a true, lasting joy, as Syncletica says, “In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing towards God and afterwards, ineffable joy.¬† It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and by this means obtain what they seek (as it is said: ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ [Heb. 12:24]): so we also must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.” (SDF 231)

As Syncletica lived the ascetic life of prayer, fasting, silence, and mortification in solitude from the world, her fame (inevitably) spread.¬† Like St. Antony before her, she went from being an anchorite (like Lady Julian) to being an abbess.¬† Unlike Antony, she seems not to have minded (St. Antony kept running away from his monks).¬† She is thus, like Poemen, one of the earliest examples of coenobitic monasticism — seeking the disciplined life of prayer and fasting in community.

Her ascetic labour also attracted the attention of the devil and his minions.  This is the inevitable result of holiness, for the devil has a grip on this world, and the holiness of the saints does war against it.  However, she was able to withstand their assaults and temptations, teaching the virtue of moderation (DF 106) as well as the importance of fortitude in the face of temptation (DF 63-64).

Some more of her teachings are as follows:

Blessed Syncletica was asked if poverty is a perfect good.¬† She said, “For those who are capable of it, it is a perfect good.¬† Those who can sustain it receive suffering in the body but rest in the soul, for just as one washes coarse clothes by trampling them underfoot and turning them about in all directions, even so the strong soul becomes much more stable thanks to voluntary poverty.” (SDF 231)

She also said, “Imitate the publican, and you will not be condemned with the Pharisee.¬† Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock changed into a spring of water.” (SDF 233)

She also said, “Those who are great athletes must contend against stronger enemies.” (SDF 233)

She also said, “Just as one cannot build a ship unless one has some nails, so it is impossible to be saved without humility.” (SDF 235)

[1] See John Cassian, Conference 1.

[2] Quotations marked DF are from Benedicta Ward’s translation of the Latin Systematic Collection of sayings, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks for Penguin Classics. Quotations marked SDF are from her translation of the Greek Alphabetical Collection of sayings, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers for Cistercian Publications.

An Alternative “Toast tae the Lassies”

My more traditional option here.

Robert Burns, the Scots Bard, is well-known for his love of women, a love that got him into trouble at Ayr’s local kirk and produced at least one bastard child.¬† As a result, it is a tradition common to the dinners held in his honour at the commemoration of his birthday across the world to provide a toast to the “fairer” sex.

Yet might I take a moment to toast not just lassies in general, who are certainly a species of creature worth toasting, but to those lassies most worthy of a toast?  Might I turn our attention from the more carnal taste of Burns to the more spiritual taste of the saints?

Indeed, throughout the history of Christianity, strong women have been a force to be reckoned with.¬† They have been on the front lines of evangelisation, of work amongst the poor, of medicine and hospitals, of hospitality, of generosity, of pilgrimage, of mysticism.¬† Yet too often they are forgotten — indeed, even I have failed in over a year of “Weekly Saints” to make a female saint the topic for the week.¬† Nevertheless, the power of women in Christianity is something not to be forgotten, from the Blessed Virgin our “Champion Leader” to Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Let us toast first, then, the Mother of Our Lord, St. Mary of Nazareth.¬† She stands out not only as the only person to carry God in her womb, but also as the first person in a series of biblical calls to avoid making excuses and say in response to God’s call, “Let it be unto me according to your will.”¬† Faith and obedience to God’s call are our lessons from the Supersaint Godbearer.¬† To Mary!

A toast is also in order to Perpetua, the second-century martyress who stood firm in her faith and faced execution at the hands of Rome boldly, even wrestling with demons while she awaited her death.  Endurance and fortitude in the face of extreme unpleasantness are our lessons from St. Perpetua.  To Perpetua!

Third, I propose a toast to Amma Syncletica the fourth-century Desert Mother of Egypt, if for no other reason than this quotation: “Just as the most bitter medicine drives out poisonous creatures so prayer joined to fasting drives evil thoughts away.”¬† For encouraging us to pray and to fast in the bitter struggle against our own evil desires, a toast to Syncletica!

Slàinte mhath to St. Hilda of Whitby (my post here), who founded an abbey and used discernment to seek out the talents the Lord hid away in people like Caedmon.  May we all have true insight into the world around us.  To Hilda!

A toast to St. Clare of Assisi (my post here).¬† This intrepid mystic followed the call of God against the pressures of family and hearth — a difficult task for anyone whose family is Christian (to reject pagans is one thing, but to turn your back on your Christian parents another).¬† Would that more Christians had the boldness to follow the call of God to difficult places and a life of prayer regardless of what others think of them.¬† To Clare!

I propose a toast to Lady Julian of Norwich (my page here), the mystic anchorite who has shown so many of us something of the depths of the riches of the love of God Almighty for us.¬† May we, too, seek God’s face in prayer and spread his message of love to the world around us.¬† To Julian!

A toast is definitely in order to Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, who, in a household full of loud children, sought the Lord at all times — even if it was just under the kitchen table.¬† She also has the distinction of having raised two of the eighteenth centuries great men of faith.¬† To Susannah!

Given the limits of time, let us remember Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who demonstrated heroic virtue in seeking Christ in the lowest of the low and the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, who moved beyond the confines of her nunnery to bring Christ where he was needed.  May we all be willing to go out of our comfort zones as we live for Christ.  To Teresa!

These few women and the many more who have populated Christianity from its earliest days as (allegedly) a faith of women and slaves are worthy of a toast.¬† May we live up to their examples of obedience to God, of faithfulness, of perseverance in prayer, of discernment, of willingness to go beyond the usual, of visions of God’s love, of the pursuit of God in everyday life, of heroic virtue seeking Christ in all places!

To the lassies of Christ!  Lang may their lum reek!

Tomorrow Night: Lady Julian of Norwich

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at Lady Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century anchorite who had an anchorhold attached to the church of St. Julian in Norwich.¬† An anchorhold is where an anchorite would live.¬† Anchorites are like hermits, except they tend to have windows to the outside world so they can chat with Marjory Kempe and other people who come for spiritual direction, as well as a window to the church so they can participate in the liturgy with the community and receive the Blessed Sacrament.¬† They also had cats and sometimes housekeepers who lived in the anchorhold with them.

The life of the anchorhold was to hold fast to the original focus of the monastic calling, which is prayer and study of Scripture.  Through these two foci, an anchorite would draw nearer and nearer to Christ.  Thus would people come to them for spiritual direction through their little windows.

When Lady Julian fell ill, she had visions of Christ and received words from him.  These were written in her book Showings, from which we shall read.  Our readings will be from the longer version which she wrote years after the shorter version.  They are available in the sidebar.

She has a little page on this website, which you can read here.  That page contains a few links to websites related to Lady Julian and her spiritual theology.