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)

The Trial of Job

I’ve just finished reading The Trial of Job by they very busy Father Patrick Reardon, pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, author of Touchstone’s online Daily Reflections with Patrick Henry Reardon, contributor to the Touchstone blog Mere Comments, and author of Christ in the Psalms and Christ in His Saints. After all my reading of the book of Job, and especially all the reading about the book of Job, I can honestly say that this is the best book that I have ever read on Job.

This is not a detailed commentary, as the subtitle clarifies: Orthodox Christian Reflections on The Book of Job. This is a small book. Nine pages of introduction open onto the body of the text, giving roughly a page and a half to each chapter of Job, ending with page 104. Father Reardon does refer to both the Hebrew and Greek trextual traditions of Job on occasion, but not in an overly simplified or incorrect manner, as is the case of so many short works such as this. Regardless, these parsimoniously proferred pages pack a punch. Father Reardon has managed for me what numerous other scrupulously, eruditidically detailed academic commentators have all and always failed at: a clearer picture of the book of Job itself, its structure, its characters, and the overall message(s) of the book.

I don’t wish to give it all away in going into details, but will share perhaps the most strikingly useful suggestion that Father Reardon makes regarding the characters of Job’s three would-be comforters. Each presents a form of ancient Near Eastern wisdom in his responses to Job, and each is of lesser value than its predecessor. First, Eliphaz the Temanite, (re)presents a wisdom born in personal spiritual experience. Second, Bildad the Shuhite (re)presents a wisdom with its basis in tradition, passed down through the ages. Third, Zophar the Naamathite (re)presents a wisdom which is simply unmeditated bias. “That is the line of declination: real vision, accepted teaching, blind prejudice” (p. 26).

I recommend this little book for anyone who is puzzled or daunted by the Book of Job. My copy was sent to me gratis upon subscribing to Touchstone, which is, of course, a very fine magazine.

The Face of the Deep (1.4-6)

4. John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from Him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before His throne;
5. And from Jesus Christ, Who is the faithful Witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the Prince of the kings of the earth. Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood.
6. And hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father; to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

“John to the seven Churches.”—Gracious the speaker, because his mouth was filled with a grace not his own. Whoso speaketh for God must take heed to speak like God. If St. Paul made himself all things to all men, that he might by all means save some, how much more Christ! St. John saluteth, but not with his own salutation: “What hast thou that thou hast not received?”

Continue reading “The Face of the Deep (1.4-6)”

Popular Patristics

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press has been publishing a Popular Patristics series for some time now, comprised of various translations of individual Patristic works, selections thereof, or themed editions of excerpts. The translations are fresh, contemporary, and pleasant to read. The books are also of a perfect size for popping into a pocket: 5x7x1/2″ (12.5×18.5×1.3 cm for you metric heretics). I’ve just picked up a short stack of these, rather like Lenten pancakes, and thought I’d recommend them to any readers who are interested in patristic reading, as I am. Each little volume includes a helpful (and surprisingly, for such little volumes, high quality) introduction, and most (all?) include selective but very useful and most importantly thoughtful footnotes. The surface of these translations is perfectly popular, with the depths entirely scholarly. And they’re inexpensive. How delightful!

Sunday of the Cross

Come, ye faithful, and let us venerate the life-giving Wood, on which Christ, the King of Glory, stretched out His hands of His own will. To the ancient blessedness He raised us up, whom the enemy despoiled of old through pleasure, making us exiles far from God. Come, ye faithful, and let us venerate the Wood whereby we have been counted worthy to crush the heads of our invisible enemies. Come, all ye kindred of the nations, and let us honor in hymns the Cross of the Lord. Rejoice, O Cross, perfect redemption of fallen Adam. Glorying in thee, our faithful kings laid low by thy might the people of Ishmael. We Christians kiss thee now with awe, and glorifying God who was nailed on thee, we cry aloud: O Lord, who on the Cross was crucified, have mercy upon us, for Thou art good and lovest mankind.

The above hymn was written by Roman/Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912), and is sung during Matins/Orthros on the third Sunday in Lent, the Adoration of the Precious and Life-giving Cross (see Mother Mary and Archimandrite [now Bishop] Kallistos Ware.The Lenten Triodion. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2001, pp 348-9). His reference to defeating the Arabs is probably to the capture of the city of Tarsus in 900 and 904, which for several years had been an Arab base for invasion of Asia Minor, and earlier, if similarly temporary, successes further west in Italy and elsewhere.

Continue reading “Sunday of the Cross”

The Hound of Heaven

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
     I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
     Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
          Up vistaed hopes I sped;
          And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
     From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
          But with unhurrying chase,
          And unperturbèd pace,
     Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
          They beat—and a Voice beat
          More instant than the Feet—
     “All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

Continue reading “The Hound of Heaven”