St John of The Ladder

Like that lofty ladder which Jacob saw reaching to the heavens, even so, by thy godly words, thou hast raised a ladder that bringeth all the faithful unto the heights of virtue, O blessed Father John
Megalynarion for St John Climacus

On March 30th and on the Fourth Sunday of Lent the Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates St John of Sinai, Author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. He reposed in 603, at eighty years of age. There is also this story about recognizing a predecessor:

And actually on the day that John become our abbot, about six hundred pilgrims came to us. When all were sitting and taking food, John saw a man with short hair, dressed like a Jew in a white tunic, going round and authoritatively giving orders to the cooks, cellarers, stewards and other servants. And when the people had dispersed and the servants were sitting at the table, they looked everywhere for that man who had been going round and giving orders, but they did not find him. Then the servant of God, our holy Father John, said to us: ‘Leave him be! Our lord Moses has done nothing strange by serving in this place which belongs to him.’
Saint John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Revised Edition. (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1991) Pages xxxix-xl.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a work of thirty parts, and was written specifically for a monastic audience, particularly those of Sinai, whose monastery was only a very few decades old when the Ladder was written. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is read to the monks at their common refectory meals throughout the course of Lent. The rungs of this Ladder are various subjects, the mastery of which are part of the monastic life. From the first step, “On renunciation of the world,” to the last, “Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues,” the reader/listener is confronted with much intense practical and spiritual advice coming from experience as well as inspiration, all for the sake of the monastic’s soul. It’s an intense work, not really geared for reading, and certainly not for application wholesale, by a layperson. However, with that in mind, and one’s own limitations as a layperson, held to a different standard than a monastic, it is certainly possible to derive great benefit from this remarkable book.

The particular Holy Transfiguration Monastery edition (see the price list and order form for ordering) I quote from above is a beautiful example of bookmaking. The printing is two colored, black text, with some red page headings, titling, and such. The paper is fine and thick. There are several small drawings in traditional Byzantine style, one full color reproduction of a Ladder of Divine Ascent icon (this one), and one of a truly remarkable pen and ink icon of Saint John by the late Photi Kontoglu, a modern master of iconography. It’s a beautiful hardback edition, most fitting for such a work.

On the Fathers

Each person beholds in the Fathers, as in a clear mirror, his or herself; each discerns their own weakness, is judged and saved with their revelation of the real image of humanity and divinity. This is because the Fathers of the Church, through their strict discipline and intense struggle, shedding their dispassion, were transferred by divine grace and transformed by divine energy to the supernatural freedom of the future age. Undergoing divinisation in experience and not just in concept, they are borne by the Holy Spirit where it wills and not where they so wish. They no longer belong to themselves, but to him who died and was risen for us all, as well as to their brothers and sisters, for whom their merciful heart constantly burns.

They are not simply Greek Fathers, but universal teachers. They bring comfort to people of every race, language and culture, offering them the possibility of passing through death to life, the opportunity of growth in love, of enrichment through strength that is perfected in weakness, of quenching through the inexhaustible living water, and of fulfilment through the bread that is broken yet never divided, communed yet never consumed.

This initiates the potential of human divinisation, of increase of the small, of revelation of greatness through humility, the reconciliation of the divided and the constitution of familiarity, the divine indwelling among us, which has an ecumenical dimension and a homely warmth.

So in the end, the great Fathers are not intellectual giants of human theories, but inspirational mystagogues of us all into the Kingdom of God which is at hand and remains with us to the ages.

+Archimandrite Vasileios, Abbot, Iviron Monastery, Mount Athos, in the Foreword to Father John Chryssavgis, The Way of the Fathers (Thessaloniki: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1998)