By Fr. George Florovsky
The Paucity of Facts of his Life.
The biography of St. John — ό της κλίμακος — must rather be called an encomium. This is a description of him as one who prays and contemplates: "For John approached the mystical mountain where the uninitiated do not enter, and, elevated along the spiritual steps, he received the statute inscribed by God and a vision." He was some newly-appeared Moses.
Few facts are given in the biography. He was also called “Scholasticus” — σχολαστικός — but he is not to be confused with John Scholasticus, the patriarch of Constantinople (d. 577). It even remains unclear when St. John lived and where he was from. From circumstantial data it is possible to hazard a guess that he died in the mid seventh-century. His life is usually given from about 570 until 649. He came to Sinai in his early youth and spent his whole life there. However, it seems that he spent some time in Egypt, in Scete, and in Tabennesis. For many years he contended in obedience to a certain elder. After the letter's death, St. John withdrew into seclusion and lived as a hermit in a cave, which was not far off but was secluded.
St. John was already an extremely old man when he was chosen the abbot of Mt. Sinai. He was not abbot for long, and again went into seclusion. In seclusion he composed his famous and extraordinarily influential work entitled Heavenly Ladder — κλίμαξ του παραδείσου — “a book called the Spiritual Tablets," "for the edification of the new Israelites, the people who have just come out of a mental Egypt and from the sea of life."
This work is a systematic description of the normal monastic path, by the stages of spiritual perfection. The basic thing here is precisely the system, the idea of a regular sequence in the "ordeal," the idea of stages. The Heavenly Ladder is written in a simple, almost folk language — the author loves the similes, proverbs, and "sayings" of everyday life. He was writing from his own personal experience.
In addition to his personal experience, however, he always relies upon tradition, upon the teachings of the "divinely inspired fathers." Directly or indirectly, he refers to the Cappadocians, Nilus, Evagrius, and to the Apophthegmata Patrum. Among the westerners he refers to St. John Cassian and Gregory the Great.
The Heavenly Ladder concludes with a special "word to the pastor," in which St. John speaks of the duties of the abbot.
The Heavenly Ladder and its Historical Influence.
The Heavenly Ladder was a favorite book for reading not only in monasteries. Testifying to this fact first of all is the multitude of manuscript copies — frequently with miniatures. Scholia testify to the same thing — even John of Raitha, a young contemporary of Climacus, composed scholia to this work, a work which had been dedicated to him. Later, the famous Elias of Crete interpreted the Heavenly Ladder, and later still St. Photius. The Heavenly Ladder was translated into Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Church Slavonic, and many modern languages. The work had a profound influence on the life and thought of St. Simeon the New Theologian, was very influential with the Hesychasts, and very popular in Slavic monasteries. It exerted a powerful influence in the West right up to the end of the Middle Ages — one example is the commentary by Dionysius the Carthusian (1402-1471), also referred to as Denys van Leeuwen and Denys Ryckel, whose mystical experiences gained him the title in the West of "doctor ecstaticus" Its influence on the Hesychasts is not difficult to explain. "Hesychia is a continuous prayer to and service of God. Let the remembrance of Jesus be one with your breathing and then you will understand the useful importance of hesychia," writes St. John Climacus.
The plan of the Heavenly Ladder is very simple. It is defined more by the logic of the heart than the logic of the mind. Practical advice is fortified by psychological analysis. Every demand has to be explained — that is, for one contending in the spiritual struggle, in the "ordeal," it must be clear why this or that demand is made of him, and why they are developed in precisely such an order and sequence. One has to remember that St. John is writing only for monks, and always has in mind the conditions of monastic life and its environment.
The Ascetical Theology Of The Heavenly Ladder.
The first demand of monasticism is rejecting all that is worldly. Rejection is possible only through freedom, through "absolute power" — this is the basic merit of man. Sin is the free defection or estrangement from God, and a defection from life — a willful death, a kind of suicide through self-will.
The "ordeal" is a free and volitional turning to God, a following and imitating of Christ — in other words, the customary exertion of the will and a turning to God. The apex of the "ordeal" is monasticism. "The monk's calling and "ordeal" is the compelling of nature and the unremitting keeping of feelings."
The rejection of the world must be total and decisive — a repudiation of nature in order to receive those blessings which are higher than nature. This is a very important contrast — the "natural" is abolished for the sake of the supernatural, and is not replaced by the anti-natural. The task of the "ordeal" lies in sublimating natural freedom, not in a struggle with its original laws. Therefore only correct motives and a true goal justify renunciation and the "ordeal."
The "ordeal" is the means, not the end. And the "ordeal" is completed only when Jesus himself comes and rolls the stone of bitterness away from the doors of the heart. Otherwise the "ordeal" is fruitless and useless. The task is not renunciation itself, but that union with God which is realized through genuine renunciation — that is, liberation from the world, liberation from passions and weaknesses, from attachments and worldly inclinations for the sake of courting and finding apatheia.
In the "ordeal" itself the most important thing is its driving motive — love for God and conscious choice. However, even an involuntary ordeal, renunciation due to circumstances and even out of necessity, can prove to be beneficial, for the soul can suddenly awaken. "And who is a monk, faithful and wise? Who kept his zeal inextinguishable, and who even to the end of his life does not cease one day to apply fire to fire, zeal to zeal, diligence to diligence, desire to desire." In other words, indifference to the world is not so important as an ardent aspiration for God.
Renunciation is completed through spiritual wandering. The world has to seem and become alien. "Wandering is an irrevocable abandoning of everything which in our native land opposes us in our striving for piety." This is the way to Divine longing. And the only way for this estrangement to be justified is to "make one's thought inseparable from God." Otherwise, wandering will prove to be idle.
Wandering must not feed on hatred for the world and those left in it, but only on direct love for God. True, this love is exclusive, and extinguishes even love for one's own parents. Renunciation must also be unconditional. "Go from your country, and your kindred, and your father's house" (Genesis 12:1). However, this "hatred" for what is left in the world is "impassive hatred." Monasticism is a way out of the "fatherland" — that is, those social conditions and systems in which every person finds himself necessarily by birth. This is also a withdrawal from temptation and dissipation. One has to create a new milieu and a new circumstance for one's "ordeal." "Let him be your father who can and wants to labor with you to overthrow the burden of your sins."
This new life order is created freely. However, one must renounce one more time — this time one's own will — not freedom. This is the stage of obedience. Obedience is not a cancellation of freedom, but a transformation of the will, an overcoming of passion in the will itself. "Obedience is the coffin of one's own will and the resurrection of humility." It is "life devoid of curiosity," or "activity without trial."
The monastic "ordeal" begins through the selection of a mentor or spiritual father — it is necessary to entrust one's salvation to someone else. However, a mentor must be chosen with reason and circumspection "lest we come upon a simple oarsman instead of a helmsman, a patient instead of a physician, a man possessed of passions instead of an impassive man, lest we end up in an abyss instead of a haven, and thus find certain perdition for ourselves." Once made, however, the choice is binding, and one is not allowed to judge or test the words and actions of the mentor he has chosen. The mentor's counsel must be heard out with humility and without any doubt — "as if it came from the lips of God, even if it be contrary to your own opinion." "For God is not unjust, and he will not tolerate those souls being tempted who have submitted to the judgment and counsel of their neighbors with faith and forgiveness. Even if those being questioned do not have spiritual reason in them, the Immaterial and the Invisible speaks through them." In other words, obedience is justified by faith in and hope for God's help. "Unshakeable hope is the door to apatheia" or even to the "lack of cares."
It is very important that obedience itself be an act of freedom, of free reasoning and choice. Further, renunciation of one's own will is accomplished for the sake of liberation. Through obedience the will is liberated from the chance of personal opinion, and escapes from under the power of passions. In this sense obedience is the anticipation of genuine apatheia. "The obedient one, like a dead person, does not contradict and does not judge, either for good or pseudo-ill."
This is the path to true freedom, through voluntary slavery — as always, resurrection through death, rebirth through dying. The inner struggle begins with repentance. Rather, repentance or distress over one's sins is the very element of the struggle. With repentance is connected mortal memory, mortal remembrance. This is the spiritual anticipation of death, and even a kind of "daily death." Genuine "mortal remembrance" is possible only through total apatheia and complete severance of the will. There is no fear in it. It is a gift from God.
The next step is crying, joy-producing weeping. "Repentance is a renewal of baptism but weeping is greater than baptism." "The source of tears after baptism is greater than baptism," however paradoxical that may seem. For weeping is a continual cleansing away of the sins one has committed. There is crying from fear, crying from mercy, and crying from love. It certifies that one's prayer has been received. "We will not be indicted, brothers, because we have not performed miracles, because we have not theologized, because we have not achieved vision, but without a doubt we will have to answer to God for not continually weeping over our sins."
The goal of the inner struggle, the interior "ordeal," is the courting of apatheia. The task of inner organization comes down to constantly extinguishing the passions. One has to try to stop, and indeed to stop entirely, the movement and excitation of the passions within one's self.
First of all one must overcome rage — the "stirring up of the heart." One must court angerlessness and meekness, peace and quiet. As St. John Climacus understands it, rage is connected with pride. Therefore he defines anger as the "insatiable desire for dishonor," and meekness as the "immovable organization of the soul which abides alone both in honor and dishonor."
Even higher is the total absence of vindictiveness, which imitates Jesus' forgiving nature. One must refrain from any kind of censure. Pray for sinners in secret — "this image of love is pleasing to God." To judge and condemn is not something which befits the penitent. "To judge means to impertinently try to appropriate God's office for one's self." After all, the omniscience without which judgment will always prove hasty is unavailable to man. "Even if you see somebody sinning with your own eyes, do not condemn. For often your eyes are deceived."
St. John Climacus has much to say about the carnal temptations and about attaining purity. The source of purity is in the heart. It is beyond man's powers but is a gift from God, if only through "ordeal."
Avarice is extinguished in the total "putting aside of concern for the terrestrial." This is a kind of quality in life which is freedom from care, through faith and hope.
Even more dangerous is the temptation of pride — he who is proud is tempted without demonic seduction. He has become a demon and an adversary to himself. Pride is overcome in humility. Humility does not give way to literary definition — it is a land of "unnameable grace of the soul," which is comprehensible only in one's own experience.
One can learn humility only from Christ himself — "learn not from an angel, not from man, not from a book, but from Me', that is, from My settling in you, and my shining and working in you because I am meek and lowly in heart” — ότι πραύς ειμι και ταπινος τη καρδία (Matthew 11:29). In a certain sense humility in ascetics is a kind of blindness to their own virtues — a "Divine cover which does not allow us to see our improvements."
St. John Climacus discerns the followings motifs in the development of passion. First of all comes the addition, the "strike" or attack — προσβολή — a certain image or thought, a “foray of thoughts.” There is still no sin here, for the will is not yet participating in this. The will proclaims itself in the combination — συνδυασμός. This is a kind of “conversation with the image that appeared,” and in this interestedness or attention is the beginning of sin — “not entirely without sin.” However, more important is the attraction of the will, “co-composition” — συγκατάθεσις the “soul's agreement with the represented intent, combined with delight."
Further, the intent — the tempting idea or image — takes root in the soul. This is the captivity — αίχμαλωσία, a stage in the ordeal which is a land of possession of die heart. Finally, skill in vice is established — this is passion in the proper sense — το πάθος.
It is evident from this that the root of the passions is first the will's permissiveness. Secondly, temptation strikes through thought. Therefore the ascetical task bifurcates under an image of thought or intention — λογισμός. On the one hand, one must fortify the will through obedience and by severing arbitrariness. On the other hand, one must cleanse one's thoughts.
Temptation comes from without. “By nature — κατά φύσιν — there is no evil and no passions in man, for God did not create the passions." This does not mean that man is pure now. But he is pure by virtue of baptism, falls again through the will, and is cleansed by repentance and "ordeal." In nature itself there is a certain power — a possibility — of virtue, and sin is opposed to nature, and is a perversion of natural qualities.
However, for all that, man's task is not only to fulfill natural measures but also to exceed it, to become higher than nature. Such is purity, humility, vigilance, and the constant emotion of the heart. Therefore, one needs the synergism of free "ordeal" and Divine gifts which raise man over die limitedness of nature. The struggle with evil and temptation must begin as early as possible, before temptation has hardened into passion. But it is the rare person who is not late. That is why the "ordeal" is so long and difficult, and why there are no shortcuts in it. Moreover, the path is endless. There are no limits to God's love. Rather, this limit is itself endless. "Love does not cease. And we will never cease to be successful in it — not at the present time, not in the future — always receiving in the light the new reasoning light. I say that even the angels, these incorporeal beings, do not exist without success, but always receive glory for glory, and reason for reason."
The goal of the “ordeal” is holy silence — ησυχία, fas, silence of body and soul. “Silence of the body is decency and being well-equipped with morals and corporeal feelings. Silence of the soul is the decency of intentions and thought that cannot be robbed." In other words, peace and harmony, the composedness and proportion of life — internal life, and therefore external life as well.
Silence is the vigilance of the soul. "I slept but my heart was awake" (Song of Songs 5:2). This internal silence is more important than external silence alone. This strict watchfulness of the heart is important. True silence is the “unworried mind.” In other words, the “keeping of the heart” and “the keeping of the mind” — φυλακή καρδίας και νοός τήρησις.
The power of silence lies in continuous and undistractible prayer. "Silence is uninterrupted service to God and appearing before him." Otherwise, silence is beyond one's strength, for prayer is appearing before God and then uniting with him. Or, conversely, genuinely appearing before God is prayer.
In the variety of prayer thanks must come first, then confession with repentance, and finally petition. A prayer must always be simple and terse. The highest of all is the "monosyllabic" invocation of Jesus. Prayer must be more like the inexpert prattle of a child than a wise and intricate speech. Verbosity in prayer distracts. It introduces reverie into the mind, and the most dangerous thing in prayer is "sensual day-dreaming." Thought must always be held and confined in the words of the prayer. One must vigilantly cut off all "intentions" and "images" — all "fantasies." One has to control one's mind. "If it is freely wandering everywhere, then it will never abide with you."
Prayer is a direct striving for God — "alienation from the visible and invisible world." In its perfection prayer becomes a spiritual gift, a kind of inspiration of the Spirit who works in the heart — then the Spirit is praying in the one who sought prayer.
In a certain sense silence and prayer coincide. The same spiritual condition could also be defined as apatheia, for apatheia is precisely a striving, a devotion of self to God. "Some people still say that apatheia is the resurrection of the soul before the resurrection of the body." However, by courting apatheia the body itself becomes imperishable, or rather, incorruptible.
This is seeking the mind of the Lord (see I Corinthians 2:16). The ineffable voice of God himself sounds in the soul, proclaiming his will, and this is already "higher than any human doctrine." That is why the thirst for immortal beauty flares up. "He who comprehends silence has recognized the depth of the mysteries."
St. John Climacus contemplates and feels the intense dynamism of the spiritual world. In the angelic world, too, there is striving for the heights of the seraphim. In the human "ordeal" there is an attraction for the angelic heights, for the "image of the life of intelligent forces."
Apatheia is both the goal and the task. Not everyone reaches this limit, but even those who do not can be saved, for the striving is the most important thing. The moving force of the "ordeal" is love. But the fullness of the "ordeal" is the courting of love. Love has stages, and love cannot be known. After all, this is the very name of God. Therefore, in its fullness it is ineffable. "The word of love is known to the angels but only to the extent of their enlightenment" Apatheia and love are different names for a single perfection. Love is the path and the goal. "You wounded my soul, and my heart will not endure your flame. I go, singing of you."
In St. John Climacus' fragmentary and restrained aphorisms about love, one senses a closeness to the mysticism of the Areopagite, especially in the closing of the angelic and human planes. Characteristically, St. John says less about the higher stages or degrees, and here becomes stingy with words. He is writing for beginners and for people with an average level of experience. Those who are successful no longer need human edification and leadership. They already have inner attestation and testimony. Besides, at the higher stages words themselves become powerless and insufficient. They are hardly describable.
This is an earthly heaven which opens wide in the soul. It is God's residing in the soul. "The prayer of a man praying sincerely is the bench, the court of law, and the Judge's chair before the final judgment." In other words, a forewarning of the future. "And this blessed soul carries the Everlasting Logos within itself, and it is its secret guide, its mentor, and its enlightenment." This is the top of the ladder which disappears in the celestial heights.
Anders Nygren's Negative Evaluation of the Heavenly Ladder.
From the theological perspective of Anders Nygren in his Agape and Eros, St. John Climacus' Heavenly Ladder is an excellent target. Hence, one is not at all surprised by his comments on this work. But even if one casts the question in the manner of Nygren, Nygren is still only partly correct — even when granted his premise, which cannot be granted. He is theologically incapable of understanding the two sides of synergy, incapable of understanding that when the monks speak about the side of man — if one takes these statements without qualification, which one cannot do — then they do often speak in language which may sound Pelagian, may sound as though it is seeking the favor of God, may sound as though it neglects totally the Divine initiative of everything, including Agape. But that is simply not the case. Even within this language from the side of man, there is constant reference to the Divine Gift, constant reference to everything coming from and returning to Agape. But the inner spirit of the "ordeal" is missed by Nygren. He reduces the entire "ordeal" to nothing more than self-assertive Eros." There can be no doubt as to the motif under which this 'Ladder of Paradise' must be placed. The gist of it all is the elevation of the human to the Divine; it is the usual Eros ladder of Hellenistic piety, the ladder of virtue and the mystical ascent. The goal reached by this ladder is the usual goal of Eros piety, ησυχία and απάθεια, the soul's rest and exaltation above all passions. In apathy the hesychast has taken the ‘leap over the wall1 and landed in the heavenly world, 'in the bride-chamber of the royal palace.’
Nygren's complete inability to understand the Christianity of the Gospels, the Christianity of the Epistles of the New Testament, the Christianity of the Christian writers from the beginning, becomes explicit when he fails to understand the entire meaning of Agape for early Christianity and monastic spirituality. "But there is still one stage left. Above the 29th rung with its apathy stands the 30th, where all centers round Agape. One cannot help asking: what is the reason for the addition of this last step? The goal was already reached; the hesychast had come to the point on the heavenly ladder where he could make the transition to the heavenly existence. Why then this new stage? The answer is simple enough. At the top of Jacob's Ladder stands God Himself, of whom primitive Christian tradition says 'God is Agape' (I Jn. 4: 8-16). If a man is to come to full fellowship and ενωσις with Him, he too must become Agape, and this happens at the topmost step. The hesychast is said to be an angel on earth, but 'the status of angels is Agape' — αγάπη αγγέλων στάσις. The result of this is the peculiar idea that at the top of the Eros ladder Agape is enthroned. But naturally this is not primitive Christian Agape, as John Climacus' own definition of it shows. Agape is by nature 'godlikeness', and its chief effect on the soul is to produce a certain 'inebriation of the soul'. Now this already points in the direction of Eros, and shows that John Climacus does not know Agape in the primitive Christian sense, but has simply taken over the word from Christian tradition. And he himself is aware that the 30th Agape stage really adds nothing new to what is already given at the 29th. 'Agape' and 'apathy' are merely different names for the same thing. When the hesychast has reached the stage of apathy he has really reached his destination. It should be added that even at the top step John Climacus uses the words Agape and Eros indifferently as if synonymous. But it is interesting that Agape is the chief name for the highest stage and the formal conclusion of the ladder. It is clear that Pseudo-Dionysius' efforts to extirpate the word 'Agape' had entirely failed" (pp. 597-598).
It is not as if Nygren does not "understand" the content of what St. John Climacus has written. From an external perspective, Nygren "understands" it well. It is that inner spiritual perspective which he cannot accept, which he is incapable of understanding in its wholeness, in its totality, in its completeness, and — what is more, in all the shades and nuances of its implementation of a wholly evangelical, a totally Christian life of spirituality which has been with the Church since our Lord. Dom Germain Morin has correctly remarked in his L'ideal monastique et la vie chretienne des premiers jours that it is not so much the monastic life which was a novelty at the end of the third century. It was rather the accommodation to the life of the world by the mass of Christians which was new. "The monks actually did nothing but preserve intact, in the midst of altered circumstances, the ideal of the Christian life of early days." Louis Bouyer correctly observes that "there is another continuous chain from the apostles to the solitaries and then to the cenobites, whose ideal, less novel than it seems, spread so quickly from the Egyptian deserts at the end of the third century. This chain is constituted by the men and women who lived in continence, ascetics and virgins, who never ceased to be held in honor in the ancient Church... It was the Gospel alone, heard and taken literally by simple souls in Egypt and in quite different places as well, that caused anchoritism to arise." Louis Bouyer describes St. Antony's vocation as of a "purely evangelical character."
Nygren approaches the origin and history of early Christian thought, spirituality, and life from the principles of the sixteenth-century Reformation. Hence, his very presuppositions are foreign to the soil of original Christianity. That he "understands" externally is clear. Nygren writes that the "particular interest" of the Heavenly Ladder "for our purpose is the remarkable clarity with which it shows how the way to salvation and fellowship with God was conceived in these circles [of eremitic and monastic piety] about the year 600." He quotes very representative texts from the work. "We are not, says John Climacus, called by God to a wedding-feast, but to grieve over ourselves. There is no rejoicing for the condemned in prison; nor is there for true monks any festival on earth'. Only mourning can really root out all love of the world from the heart and set man free from earthly things. The 'gift of tears' is therefore a glorious blessing. Truly, he is free from the eternal perdition, who always thinks upon his death and upon his sins, and who ceaselessly wets his cheeks with living tears'. " Nygren even confronts the text in which St. John states "that such tears" are prompted by "all-holy Agape." And he acknowledges St. John's belief that "it is faith that gives wings to prayer; without faith no one can fly up to heaven." But it is clear from the very presuppositions that Nygren brings into the text that he cannot interpret it other than in a negative way, and this is thoroughly consistent with his theological perspective — moreover, with the entire theological perspective of the theology of the Reformation. And herein lies a tragedy in the ecumenical dialogue – the understanding of our Christian heritage, and the authentic form of monastic spirituality within Christianity.
From The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers.