By Fr. Vasilios Kalliakmanis
A) On the Fourth Sunday of the Fast the Church honors and highlights Saint John of Sinai, author of the Ladder. Saint John was an important ascetic and wise mystagogue of the ascending path of the spiritual life. When the reader reads the letter of the Abbot John of Raithu to Saint John, it is understood that the Ladder was written as a fruit of obedience for the "edification of the brethren".
B) The pages of this book reveal the humble mindset and Christocentric teaching of the author, the escalation of the spiritual life by thirty levels, and an excellent knowledge of the movements of the human soul. The Abbot writes to Saint John of Sinai: "We ask that you do not refuse to set down willingly and with clarity, as a truly great teacher, what is appropriate for the monastic life for the salvation of those who chose the angelic state."
C) Saint John of Sinai humbly responded to him: "I dare write this book, because otherwise there is the danger of rejecting from myself the yoke of blessed obedience...not for your own guidance. Furthermore, you supported us in divine morals and teachings. I am sending it for the brotherhood...and if someone encounters something beneficial, ascribe it to our good Abbot." Despite his high spiritual knowledge, Saint John considered himself a learner, imperfect and full of ignorance.
D) However, the subtle highlights and the anatomy of human passions together with suggestions for treatment and their transmutation into virtues reveals the empirical character of his theology. The divinely wise content of the Ladder refers to divine ascents that begin with "praxis" (action), which is the observance of the evangelical commandments, asceticism and obedience, and reach to "theoria" (vision).
E) A difficult question arises in the 15th Discourse, about which the Saint is surprised but does not answer. A certain learned man asked the Sinaite Saint: "What is the gravest sin, apart from murder and denial of God?" He responded: "To fall into heresy." The learned man then asked: "Then why does the Catholic Church receive heretics who have sincerely anathematized their heresy, and consider them worthy to partake in the Mysteries; while on the other hand when a man who has committed fornication is received, even though he confesses and forsakes his sin, the Apostolic Constitutions order him to be excluded from the immaculate Mysteries for a number of years?" Saint John then writes: "I was struck with bewilderment, and what perplexed me then has remained unsolved."
F) Many years later this question was answered by a certain neptic, scholar and interpreter of the Ladder, Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos (1250-1330). Nikephoros writes: "The heretic is impious only with his words, which is why he is treated with words. The fornicator, however, because they sin with their soul and body, needs plenty of time and strenuous asceticism to be purified of the illness of the sin. The heretic considered heresy good, which is why he chose it. While the fornicator, although knowing the act is wicked, overlooked this because of their sensuality."
G) The divine ascents that occur in the Ladder are associated with or rather have as their center the person of Christ. Our actions, words, thoughts, trends and movements need to comply with the will of the Lord. Otherwise if the struggler is "robbed, he is not yet living by the rules of virtue" (Step 27). He recommends that the struggler not be carried away and enchanted by the narratives for the hesychasts and the anchorites, since they also are walking the path of the Protomartyr: "Do not be over-eager and do not be carried away when you hear tales of the hesychasts and hermit fathers. For you are marching in the army of the Protomartyr" (Step 4). And they who journey along this path do not despise the lower ranks, but recognize the great value of those who have the Lord Jesus as the beginning and end.
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.