October 29, 2015

The Ladder of Heavenly Unity

St. Catherine’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, located in the shadow of Mt. Sinai and the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the world, needs assistance to sustain its sacred legacy.

In the following article, a monastic supporter shares personal experience of St. Catherine’s patristic spirit, alive with the fragrance of early Christianity.

Information on the financial crisis and how to help is located at the end of the article.

The Ladder of Heavenly Unity

Moses approached the divine fire of the Burning Bush with the footsteps of his mind bare, completely free from any human train of thought, wrote Saint Maximos the Confessor.

Continuing Orthodox monasticism’s oldest unbroken tradition, Sinai monks still liturgize, shoeless, over the roots of the Burning Bush. On the holy ground where Moses was commanded to remove his sandals – together with all earthly logic – monks turn diversity’s polarizing forces to unity – some of the ways St. Catherine’s Monastery brings Byzantium’s patristic spirit into the modern era as living tradition.

One need look no further than the Monastery’s name for evidence of its universal relevance: no one really knows how or when the “Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-trodden Mountain of Sinai” became popularly known as St. Catherine’s – just that the change took hold as the Saint’s renown escalated throughout Europe and Russia. This transpired after her miracle-working relics were brought to Rouen by monks in the 11th century.

As magnet to pilgrims from every corner of the globe, the Greek Orthodox monastery embodies a past steeped not in its own reflection, but in the purity of Christ’s message. In the words of Sinai elder Father Pavlos, “Authentic love is to preserve the truth as we received it, so we may hand it on, unblemished, to those who come after us.”

At the heart of this discipline beats the Sinaite love for simplicity of soul. With freedom from sin as its object, simplicity accepts nothing man-made in place of the freedom granted humankind in Genesis – freedom not to choose between right and wrong, but from the constant necessity of doing so. Before shedding the divine likeness by failing to return God’s love, the simplicity of human nature was afflicted by none of subsequent humanity’s drift toward sin.

And the heart of simplicity of soul? The elder’s answer again betrays the clarity of an ascetic lifetime devoted to prayer: “Love God first, above all else.”

The altar of the “Holy of Holies” of St. Catherine’s Monastery
is placed directly over the roots of the Burning Bush,
which still thrives outside the chapel.
(Bruce M. White Photography)

Monks at the Burning Bush devoted their first chapel to the Annunciation, the announcement to the Theotokos that she was selected by God to bestow human nature upon His Son. He who was begotten before all ages without a mother, would now be born without a father – if the Virgin agreed. Without her free consent the Incarnation could not take place – but what human logic could process such tidings? The Holy Virgin did not stop even to contemplate the censure, and worse, that greeted unwedded motherhood in her society. Loving God before herself, she loves others not for the return of their good opinion, but with the boundless love of God for their soul. With her heartfelt “yes,” the living “ark of the covenant” is overlaid with gold, not by human hands to contain the words of the Law given to Moses on Sinai – but by the Holy Spirit, to contain the uncontainable Word Himself. It is due to the purity of her love for God that a simple Maiden becomes the inexhaustible Treasury of life for mankind, and in the shadow of Mount Sinai, the First commandment does not just precede the Second, it renders it possible. Only by loving God above all else can we hope to love others, according to Father Pavlos:

“Love begins in God. First we love God above everything and everybody. Then ourselves, for Christ said to love your neighbor as yourself. Love then goes out from us to other people, and finally, to all of Creation. (Saints have exceeded this by loving others more than themselves, but Christ does not ask this.)”

Rays from the Holy Summit engulf all ages in the limitless love of the Crucified Christ during services preceding Holy Pascha (Bruce M. White Photography)

Saint Paul notes that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Lacking the simplicity of the divine likeness, our own love does not so generously tolerate our neighbor’s foibles.. But in loving God first, beyond all else, we surpass our limits through union with the Source of love. When God comes to abide, to energize within us according to His perfect will, empowering our human energies with His divine ones, the inexhaustible stores of that love become our own. In the nuanced idiom of Saint Isaac the Syrian:

Love incited by something external is like a small lamp whose flame is fed with oil, or like a stream fed by rains where flow stops when the rains cease. But love whose object is God, is like a fountain gushing forth from the earth. Its flow never ceases, for He Himself is the source of this love and also its food which never grows scarce.

Consistent with the imagery of the Burning Bush, whose flaming branches are illumined, but never consumed, by the divine fire set alight in the soul by the Word of God, the ascetic theology of the Sinai school burns with a fire that unifies in an incorruptible way, for it neither supports the characterization of peoples, nor their homogenization. Both monks and their Bedouin neighbors attest to bonds of cooperation that go back 15 centuries. Unhindered by different faiths, each group reaches out to the need of the other. And when the Sinai was administered by the Israeli government from 1967-79, things were very much the same. It is through our brother after all, that Christ wishes to reach us. As a result, without condescension to the sin of “people-pleasing” (cultivating others’ good opinion), a Sinai monastic soon learns to protect the inner peace of others, in order to enjoy his own.

The earliest literature attests to the operation of an infirmary by the Monastery for the benefit of its desert neighbors, a custom modernized by today’s monks with donated, state of the art equipment, and assistance with medicines and basic provisions. But the currents of mutual peace in this environment run much deeper than the superficialities of economic philanthropy: The Sinai tradition is rooted in profound respect for the freedom of others – the philanthropy of the Holy Trinity.

The granite wilderness is a soft and beautiful one, of many hues. But the lack of greenery starves the soul for the consolation of foliage. One turns inward for shade, to the only refuge available, the shelter of the will of God, for as the mountains suspended all about gently confide, there is no other.

The two-headed eagle of the Byzantine empire symbolizes
unity in diversity, the continuity of empire from West to East, union of past and future in fidelity to the Word of God.
(Peter G. Angelides)

Accepting and accepted by all, without sensing any need to blur the distinctions that characterize its own confession of faith, it is a question how the Sinai community retained its Greek identity under the successive political pressures of so extended a timeline, in a far flung outpost of the empire, indeed, so many centuries after its fall. Or, more to the point, how did the community’s Greek identity absorb successive influences into a “unity of diversity,” rather than the opposite – the diverse “unity” that eats away from within at the civilizations of the so-called “Enlightenment?” Having never bowed to demands that replaced the glorification of God with that of man, the eternal present of Mount Sinai spans untold ages as night yet hands its glory to day, and day to night, in the incandescent liturgies of the Burning Bush chapel. Illumined only by the flicker of candlelight on golden mosaic, enigmatic mysteries locked within early antiquity’s sacred masterworks emerge into relief with each approaching dawn, only to recede once more into the shadows of midnight vigils, as subdued tones of ancient Byzantine chant suggest that the sixth century simply never ended in Sinai.

Of course, the Byzantine identity that yet typifies the community has always extended beyond the Greek one, in the modern sense at least, if it reflected the collective consciousness of what was then considered the civilized world. Does it suffice then, to note that Byzantium’s culture always transcended provincial limits, in that, following Roman precedent, the empire united the plethora of cultures surrounding the Mediterranean under a commonality of shared values?

Shared values however are not moribund ones. The momentum of classical philosophy’s relentless search for truth fueled the tension between Greek Christianity and Platonist schools that innervated the intellectual life of late antiquity well into the Byzantine era.1 Tracing the influence of Hellenistic and Judaic thought upon one another through the evolution of classical concepts like divine energeia, as the first monastics sought union with God in the Uncreated Light of the Burning Bush, it quickly emerges how dynamic were the prevailing forces that preserved the Sinaite worldview from the idiosyncrasies of self-absorption. The visions that shaped it were too disparate; their sources too deep in the ancient world.

Despite the Monastery’s location on the remote frontier of the empire, the literature proves Sinai’s early monks to have been surprisingly tuned in to the currents of their times. Anastasios of Sinai for one, is noted for his prolific writings on the monothelite controversies of the seventh century; before him, John Klimakos demonstrates fluency with theological concerns throughout his Ladder of Divine Ascent, remarking at the outset that following Christ is contingent upon accurate belief in the Holy Trinity. Reading Monastery history by the light of its own legacy, Sinai Librarian Father Justin cites the complexity of Sinai’s vast manuscript collections as evidence of a world “more interconnected than scholars have often been willing to grant.”

It is said that a society disgorges both its least and most innovative personalities to distant shores. If so, those who landed on the Sinai’s presumably populated the creative end of the spectrum; unable to assimilate and adapt, who could have survived such a harsh environment? More to the point, who could have met the challenge of its granite silence? “Unless a man’s heart has first been filled with the presence of God,” says Father Pavlos, “he cannot endure stillness.” Anyone who has tried it knows that solitude is not for the faint-hearted, for as manifested by the immaterial fire of the Burning Bush, God is beyond everything we know. In order to find Him, one must be willing to eclipse the limits of his own understanding, for God is describable only by what He is not – unlimited, inconceivable, ineffable, boundless. Orthodox theology thus looks beyond intellectual contemplation to experiential knowledge of God, the personal experience of His divine energies. Outside human logic, this is the essence of the life of the monk – indeed of all Christian life – and where unity exists, it can only start here.

Christ Himself gives the example when, demonstrating love for His Father’s will above His own, he joins His human will to His Father’s divine one. Noting that Christ “recoils from death, but does not tremble at it,” John Klimakos points out, likely before the monothelite, or “one-will” controversies took hold, that Christ has not only a divine will but a human one; not only divine energies, but human as well (Step 6, PG 88: 793 B-C). Praying "let not my will, but yours be done," He teaches His followers “with the sermon of His own life,” as Father Pavlos says, how "they may be one, as we are one." Pursuing peace without embracing such realities would be tantamount to treading water in order to cross the English Channel.

As Philip Sherrard wrote in Constantinople: Iconography of a Sacred City:

The very notion of ‘civilization’ itself implies the recognition of something that lies beyond the satisfaction of values of a purely material or even of a purely human nature. Ultimately it is inseparable from the recognition of spiritual values, of values that are superhuman. ‘To be civilized’ is to have a sense of such values. It is to have a sense of what is sacred. This in its turn means more than that a people, to be civilized, should ‘have a religion’ relating to the personal conduct of individual life and to the salvation of individual souls, but leaving untouched or relatively untouched the affairs of state — administration, justice, economy, military power, and so on. It also means more than that it should be subject to a government imposed by a religious institution. For a people to be civilized in the fullest sense of the word the ensemble of the life of that people must be dominated by spiritual realities, shot through with the sense of things sacred.

Loving God first means not judging others

Monasteries of course are devoted not to ideas but to their practical application. Continuing a timeline reaching back nearly into the Apostolic age, the Sinai Monastery’s focus on the First Commandment brings it into the modern era as a globally recognized paradigm of tolerance – tolerance based not on enduring one’s neighbor, but on not judging him. As a long-ago treasurer of the Sinai monastery shared one day from the riches of his private treasury, “Criticize someone, and you’ve lost him…”

Loving God does not take place in the emotions, but by knowing Him from within; one cannot love what he does not know. As God reserves judgment to Himself, the one who usurps this prerogative makes of himself a false god, say the Fathers. And what has ever been more destructive to this planet than the worship of its false gods?

On a background of burnished gold and surrounded by a gem-like border, Christ Pantocrator is rendered in translucent colors with great subtlety in Sinai Codex Theodosianus.

Refraining from judging, one is free to love. A little known spiritual law says that such love inspires our neighbor’s repentance, "for while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." But the opposite holds equally true: our judgment obstructs another’s repentance. Thus, having uttered nothing more than a spontaneous “Ouph!” over a brother’s failing, Sinai’s John the Sabaite suddenly found himself transported in a vision to Golgotha, cast out from the presence of the crucified Lord as an antichrist. Not one, but seven years of repentance ensued before the Saint understood himself once again admitted to the monastic ranks...

Citing the accounts of John Klimakos and other Sinai saints, Father Pavlos insists upon the refusal to judge others as the quintessential Sinaite virtue, and who is to say whether this above all does not explain why visitors from every corner of the globe are so hard-pressed to feel like strangers at the venerable Monastery…

Commenting on the Gospel for the Transfiguration of Christ, inscribed in gold in Codex Theodosianus, Saint Gregory of Sinai noted that only the “elite” of Christ’s disciples could be given to experience His glory, due to the individual efforts and love of each.

“God has a gift for each one of us,” says Father Pavlos, “but when we condemn others, the grace of God abandons us.” The elder is unequivocal, lack of peace with our neighbor is the symptom of something much more egregious: our own lack of love – for God, first.

On the practical level, for example, one who becomes part of the living Body of Christ in today’s Monastery will speak Greek, because a body must communicate with its members. Yet linguistic issues remain a perennial non-concern. Parts of the service may be read in other languages, but their rhythmic intensity never decimated by the punctilious repetition of prayers well known to all in each of their languages, as though God wouldn’t get it otherwise …

Beginners in spiritual life seek the mind’s understanding; those further advanced, only the Grace. Father Pavlos says Christ does not employ the discourse of philosophy to explain Truth, because He seeks to engage not the mind, but the heart. And the heart, says the elder, knows nothing of books or learning…

The smitten flies unassisted to his love, and filled with contrition, the soul flies unassisted to God. Monastics need nothing but the Jesus Prayer to embrace Christ with their heart in any language. If the liturgical prayers are understandable, they follow them simultaneously. If not, undistracted by the lyrical metaphor of Byzantium’s intricate poetry, one enters the heart that much sooner.

A true philosopher … knows created things through knowing their Cause, having attained a union with God that transcends the intellect and a direct, unmediated faith. He does not simply learn about divine things, but actually experiences them.2

The Mother of God is gilt by the radiance of the Holy Spirit as the Word of God takes flesh with her consent to God’s plan. (Bruce M. White Photography)

With little to rely on in this harsh desert, one instinctively understands that the great equalizer is not death or taxes, but fidelity to the word of God. Truth, as the ancients had already discerned centuries before the Incarnation of Christ, is not a matter of what one knows, but what he does. From the moment the Sun of Righteousness shone forth upon all Creation from the Burning “Bush of the Holy Virgin,”3 there are no shadows on the path to divine ascent:

As the spiritual ladder by which God descended in order to transport those on earth to heaven, the simplicity of the Holy Theotokos is humanity’s bridge from the idea of God, to the reality. If the Son of Man had not come to dwell amongst us as the ineffable union of his divine and human natures, who could undertake to worship the one God in three Persons? Much less to participate in the unity of the triune God through union with the divine energies?

In the “Amolyntos” icon in the private chapel of the Archbishop of Sinai, Christ presses His mother’s hand, as though probing to understand the human nature He has just assumed.

Archbishop Damianos observes that the Holy Trinity was revealed in a mystical way to Moses on Sinai through his encounter with the pre-Incarnate Word of God. As Saint Gregory of Sinai wrote, Moses realized on the Holy Mountain “that the one God ‘who is’ was a triune God; that is, he saw the Father giving the law, through the Son, in the Spirit, even though most … thought there was only the Father.” It is only after the Incarnation of Christ however, that the mystery of the Trinity can be contemplated by a society wary of the menace of polytheism. “Only after the Word becomes flesh,” says Archbishop Damianos, “do we have the full revelation of the Triune divinity, to which Christ Himself bears witness, when He instructs His disciples to baptize those of all nations in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Moses had to remove his sandals before approaching God, and Christ places himself lower than all Creation by washing the dirt of this sinful world from the feet of His disciples – restoring the purity of His own hand’s creation at the sacrifice of His own pure body and precious blood, that all may be one, even as He and His Father are one.

Consequently, on the holy ground of Exodus where all were called to become members of the royal priesthood,4 equality remains very much the rule of the Sinai community. “The fathers” suffices as generic designation for all, with honorary titles such as “archimandrite” or “great schema monk” – and the spiritual toils that won them – casually muted. And when the monks join forces with the Monastery’s Bedouin workers to prepare the common supply of bread for the week, as they have throughout the ages, not even the Archbishop and Abbot of Sinai, who travels on a diplomatic passport and routinely hosts heads of Church and state, is traditionally absent from their number.

“When you become head of a monastery,” His Eminence forewarned one of his monastics, “make no mistake, you will be the servant of all!”

Like the Sinaite antipathy for condemnation of others, concealment of one’s gifts is aimed not at a fabricated, cosmetic unity, but at the simplicity inherent in loving God first – the virtue which incites the grace of the Holy Trinity to dwell within those who undertake to worship Christ in spirit and truth - "that they may be one."

“A recent Greek politician pointed out that all political problems are solvable within democracy,” noted Archbishop Damianos, “and it is equally true that all spiritual problems are solvable within Orthodoxy.”

One goes to a monastery for a living example, a guide who has trodden the path of divine ascent and therefore knows its pitfalls and how they are avoided. Consequently, upon arrival in the monastery “of one’s repentance,” it is somewhat disconcerting to realize that one’s training hinges upon his own powers of observation. There are no classes in spiritual comportment or monastic practice. Byzantine music lessons, perhaps, but even here, the time honored way one learns is by listening to the experienced chanters. Example, not theory, is everything to spiritual life, “the art of arts,” for the heart knows nothing of books or learning…

As though sensing the monks’ regard for simplicity as the link between human freedom and divine grace, the global community is drawn to the sublime sunrises and sunsets of the Sinai wilderness as to a luminous force for stability in a world gone awry … If Orthodox Christianity preserves the solutions to all spiritual problems, St. Catherine’s living paradigm of a peace that links late antiquity with the 21st century sheds light on the reason why:

Viewing the sunrise from the Holy Summit of Sinai has been likened to seeing the creation of the world.

Reverencing the free choice granted mankind by the Holy Trinity, the Sinai tradition values the inner peace of one’s neighbor as one’s own. Just as God Himself is “simple and uncompounded,” so does He wish the souls who approach Him to be simple and guileless, wrote Saint John Klimakos in his Ladder (Step 24, PG 88: 984B). But struggling to love God first, the soul falters, for lacking the simplicity of the Mother of Life, it lacks the courage that emboldens struggle. The disposition to apply one’s narrow logic to the judgment of others is not so easily replaced by the disposition to apply the power of Christ’s logic to their salvation! And yet, as members of the royal priesthood, we are called to become vehicles of grace toward the peace of our neighbor.

Fortunately however, grace is contingent not upon success, but effort, the effort to return the soul from a synthetic state to one uncompounded by the passions; to the likeness of God, according to the prototype of simplicity offered humanity at the Annunciation to the Holy Theotokos – to which not only the Burning Bush Chapel, but the Sinai monastery itself is dedicated.

Loving God’s will above its own, simplicity supports the freedom, thus the peace, of others. According to the image of the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity who are not three gods, but three Persons in one essence, simplicity thus renders the diversity of human nature the means of its essential unity, for peace returns upon itself. All things are possible in union with God’s divine logic, including unity in diversity, for the Son of Man is true to His promise:

I have said these things to you,
that in me you may have peace.
In the world you will have tribulation.
But take courage, I have overcome the world.

“Like a vision of heaven in the wilderness of Moses,” the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery enjoy the peace of mutual respect with the Bedouin tribes with whom they have lived and worked since before the dawn of Islam, in the shadow of the Holy Summit of Sinai where Moses received the tablets inscribed by the finger of God with the Judaic Law.

In recent years however, due to the humanitarian crises of the Middle East and the crippled Greek economy, the Greek Orthodox Monastery has lost the financial support elemental to sustaining its role as guardian of this sacred legacy. True to an ethic that says it is better to give than receive, however, the monks maintain their desert tradition of not seeking charity.

Given this situation, Friends of Mount Sinai Monastery (FMSM) was launched in January, 2015 to assist the monks’ efforts to keep the holy tradition of the ancient Monastery alive and accessible to the world. An independent 501(c)(3) charity, FMSM is the only IRS-approved nonprofit dedicated to the general support of St. Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai.

His Eminence Archbishop Damianos of Sinai, Pharan, and Raitho has said:

“The great and difficult journey into the desert is something desired by all who value inner peace. Hence, the monks consider the continued operation of the monastery a duty not just to themselves, but to the visitors who reach this wilderness from all corners of the world, hoping to experience the stillness that exists between the soul and God amidst such beauty sanctified by the divine Presence – where the voice of God may still be heard. 
“While the Sinai monks have no wish to burden others, even very modest contributions go far in Egypt. Together with the prayers of the faithful, these will sustain the Monastery in the spiritual goals which have rendered it a global symbol of multiculturalism.”

Single or recurring donations can be set up through PayPal on:

Donations are transferred to St. Catherine’s intact, without diminution except for the small fees charged by financial institutions. For a virtual pilgrimage to St. Catherine’s, visit

1. Propelled by the teachings of such prominent figures as Philo of Alexandria and Plotinus.

2. Saint Gregory of Sinai, Philokalia, Volume IV, p. 245. (PG 150: 1289D)

3. Andrew Louth, tr., Maximus the Confessor, Difficulty 10 (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 121. (PG 91: 1148D).

4. Exodus 19.6

* Unattributed photos are by Priestmonk Justin of Sinai