Thoughts on Climacus’ Ladder, Step 4

I am partway through Step 4 of John Climacus’ (Saint of the Week here) Ladder. Not being a monk, I find a lot of his wisdom wasted on me. Still …

A lot of people these days are really stoked about “narrative” and “narrative theology” and suchlike things. I remember once at a party a guy who worked for the Canadian Bible Society remarking that the Gospel could never be put into propositional statements because Jesus taught in parables. Given that that was a propositional statement, I was amused. Given also that the content of the Gospel is not Jesus’ parables but his life, I was a bit irked.

A lot of people try to pit narrative against proposition, though. This is wrongheaded, as Edith M. Humphrey (once Anglican, now Orthodox [yes, I’ll mention that every time I mention her]) notes in her book Ecstasy and Intimacy. We need both. We need balance. In Step 4, about obedience, St. John Climacus, Father of the Church, demonstrates the usefulness of both ways of presenting truth.

Approximately half of this Step on the ladder to paradise is occupied with stories about a monastery John once visited in Alexandria. He was filled with wonder at what he saw there. The monks lived in obedience to their abbot to a very high degree. To test them, he would make them lie on the ground for undetermined lengths of time just to see if they would do it. Once, to see if a postulant was worthy of admission, he made this man, a former fornicator (with both humans and animals), thief, and liar confess in detail his deeds before all the brothers at Divine Liturgy. Brothers who were disobedient enough were cast out or sent into the Prison where they only got bread and raw vegetables for food.

The monks were also obedient to one another and sought to outdo each other in virtue and in bearing one another’s burdens, claiming the sins of others for themselves to help brothers avoid punishment.

The result of this radical obedience was great virtue. John writes, “If they had to speak, what they talked about all the time was the remembrance of death and the thought of everlasting judgment.” (95, Classics of Western Spirituality translation) The advanced brothers were so humble that, when asked about hesychia by John, they claimed to be merely corporeal men with no knowledge of such things.

These men were calm of heart, humble, meek, pure. The longer they lived in the monastery, they less they were involved in backbiting and prideful actions.

Now, I’m not sure if I can handle such radical obedience. But imagine if we tried to do things for people without grumbling or complaining (cf. Philippians!). Imagine if we tried to be the servant of all (cf. Mark!). Imagine if, when asked to do something that is largely indifferent, we did it, seeing it as a way of learning humility. Imagine if we saw everyone around us as Kings and Queens. Or, to take another image, imagine if we saw them as Christs (cf. Matthew! Also, John of Ephesus, Lives of Eastern Saints, Chapter 5 about Simeon & Sergius, Patrologia Orientalis 17, pp. 84-89) rather than as nuisances.

Anyway, Climacus pairs this narrative teaching technique with propositional statements such as this:

Obedience is a total renunciation of our own life, and it shows up clearly in the way we act. Or, again, obedience is the mortification of the members while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioned movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry, and unprepared defense before God, fearlessness before death, a safe voyage, a sleeper’s journey. Obedience is the burial place of the will and the resurrection of lowliness. (91-92)

I like this technique, this balance between narrative and proposition. Western preaching has swung too far to the propositional, but I do not think it should be lost. We should find, however, a place for deep and meaningful storytelling in our teaching, as we see St. John Climacus doing in Step 4.

In the words of my friend Fr. Ioannis, “How clever the ancients were!”

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! 🙂