April 4, 2014

The "Ladder" of Saint John of Sinai

1. In my sermon today, Christian brethren, I will say a few words about a great ascetic father, who is known in particular for the only book he wrote which he called by the odd title Ladder. I will speak to you today about Saint John of the Ladder. He is a great father and teacher. And this is shown by our Holy Church in that his memory, so it would not be glossed over on March 30th, which falls mid-week during Great Lent when a Divine Liturgy cannot be celebrated, took his commemoration from that day and put it on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, so that it can be commemorated and celebrated with a Divine Liturgy.

I repeat that this is a very great father and teacher of the spiritual life, of our journey towards God. Just as the Israelites had need of a Moses to enter the Promised Land, so also for us to enter into sweet Paradise, Saint John of the Ladder with his sacred teachings becomes for us another Moses, our wise guide. In order for Saint John to become a good and great teacher, he himself passed through a good and perennial apprenticeship. He was a novice to a wise and experienced spiritual father, Elder Martyrios. Indeed this Elder, because he saw his heart was good land, brought him to other Elders and spiritual teachers, that he may learn from them the entire tradition of the fathers. One of those clairvoyant Elders, seeing the virtues and gifts of the young novice John, prophesied of him saying: "He will become a great star!" Another great Abba, Anastasios of Sinai, told Elder Martyrios, who had tonsured John a monk, another prophecy: "You made him a monk, but he will become Abbot of the great Monastery of Sinai!"

2. Indeed, the monk John, because of his virtue and wisdom, was raised to the throne of being Abbot of Sinai. I do not have the time, my Christians, to tell you of his wise pastoring, even the miracles of this holy father as Abbot. I desire more so to speak to you of his work which showed him to be a great teacher of Monks, and even other Christians. And this work is his Ladder, or "spiritual tablets" as it was initially called. Indeed Saint John, as is testified by the venerable Abbot of Raithu Monastery who also was named John, would pray a lot at night and afterwards he would write in a notebook what is appropriate for the monastic state. This nightly writing of Saint John of Sinai was a beautiful and powerful exercise to conquer acedia.

3. I would like, my Christians, to speak to you generally of this work of Saint John. It is called, as we said, Ladder of divine ascent, being a ladder that takes us high into heaven. It is like the ladder seen by the Patriarch Jacob, on which angels of heaven ascended and descended (Gen. 28:10). The steps of the ladder of John the Sinaite are his thirty discourses, which speak of thirty virtues, placed in order. The spiritual life therefore escalates! Some may be on a lower step and others may be higher. But we must pass through all the steps of the Ladder to get to the last, that is, we must acquire the thirty virtues that Saint John writes about in his book, that we may achieve our salvation and enter the Kingdom of Christ in the heavens.

4. As I said, the virtues in the book the Ladder are arranged in order. For example: Saint John of Sinai has his discourse on prayer as the 28th step. Two discourses later his book ends. His discourse on prayer should have been first or one of the first and not 28th. The reason Saint John speaks of prayer in the 28th homily of his Ladder, secretly means that we must learn well the previous lessons of the discourses of the Ladder and then we will be able to taste of the sweetness of prayer.

Truly, my Christians, prayer is the enjoyment of the perfection of virtue! Though our spiritual life begins with prayer and it accompanies us on our journey, and prayer should never be absent from us, but as for what prayer is we will taste wholeheartedly if our hearts are purified of the passions with the medicine given by those who came before us, from the discourse on prayer in the Ladder of Saint John of Sinai. Prayer then, according to Saint John of the Ladder, is everything, it is union with God. This is why he places prayer towards the end of his homilies. He writes: "Prayer by reason of its nature is the converse and union of man with God" (28:1). Therefore, because prayer is union with God, the holy writer of the Ladder gives it the characteristics spoken about God. God is the living water. Prayer is the same. It is the water that quenches the desire of man that wants to savor God. Whoever desires, whoever thirsts for God, resorts to prayer to Him who is able to truly quench their soul. God is a "consuming fire", a fire that illuminates and clears the fields, burning the thorns and brushwood in it. Prayer is the same: it is a fire that illuminates and warms the soul that prays in the presence of God and makes it feel relief from the pollution and burden of sin (28:42, 51). 

But I like the other thing Saint John of Sinai says about prayer, which is nice and peculiar. He says that prayer is the "tyranny of God", but a pious tyranny (28:60). Yes! Whoever prays, my Christians, wrestles with God! Do not be surprised by what you hear. This is the way it is! Do you want me to tell you something else? Even more peculiar and amazing is that God is not victorious in His wrestling match with man, but man conquers God! This is because God bends to the fervent prayers of His children and fulfills their demands. In other words, God is obedient to us. This is awesome! This is why we call the Panagia "Gorgoepikoos" (Quick to Obey)! Because obedience, according to the Ladder of the venerable John, is the main virtue of the monk (see Step 4). This is why our Panagia, as the Abbess of Monks that she is, gives her example of obedience and becomes obedient or "Epikoos" to the prayers of her children; she becomes Panagia Gorgoepikoos!

5. There are many things I wanted to tell you, my brethren, from the teachings of Saint John of Sinai, the author of the Ladder. I especially wanted to tell you about the virtue of discernment, because all of us make many many serious mistakes, which is why we must become disciples of the venerable John of Sinai by continuously studying his book the Ladder.

Read such books, my Christian brethren. You women (and men) who love beauty, go and read a book series called "Love of the Beautiful" (Philokalia). The books of the Philokalia will give you a beautiful goodnight, to make your soul beautiful. Within this book series is the Ladder of Saint John of Sinai, of which I spoke to you in a few words today.

With many prayers,

† Metropolitan Jeremiah of Gortynos and Megalopolis

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.