March 30, 2022

The Spiritual Legacy of Saint John Climacus

 By Jonathan L. Zecher

John the man is interesting, but it was his work rather than his personality that would exercise monastic imaginations across the globe. From its textual dissemination, it is clear just how important this work was and is, although it has yet to receive the scholarly attention it deserves. The Ladder itself, however, has long been a unique locus of reverent study in the Christian East. Peter Brown, though dedicating to it only a few brief pages in his massive work, The Body and Society, there called the Ladder the "undisputed masterpiece of Byzantine spiritual direction." His comment concerns its content, but also touches on the Ladder's popularity. Scripture excepted, almost no other work has exercised such a profound and lasting influence on Greek Christian ascetic spirituality.

Climacus' Spiritual Sons

The Ladder's readership spread from Sinai across the Byzantine Empire and, thence in Eastern Christian spirituality. In Sinai, Climacus' work was followed, expanded and interpreted by Hesychius (seventh-eighth century?) and Philotheus (eighth-ninth century?) of Sinai. These two authors, whose biographical details have not survived, but whose short works are memorialized by their inclusion in the Philokalia, together form what some scholars refer to as the "Sinaite School" of ascetic spirituality. The language of "school" unduly pigeonholes them, but it remains true that the the Ladder so exercised their imagination that their works more or less amount to elaborations of the Ladder. Further afield, the great Constantinopolitan monk and monastic organizer Theodore the Studite (759-826) liked and recommended the Ladder. Later, it graced the courtly library of Basil Galaton, whose son George - better known as Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) - discovered it. It inspired and in no small part formed Symeon's own ideas about ascetic practice and ideals. Continuing the trend, Symeon's disciple and biographer, Nicetus Stethatus (eleventh century), like his mentor drew heavily on the Ladder.

Later, the Hesychast movement - an important strand of acetic spirituality in Byzantium that dominated following its conciliar vindication in the mid-fourteenth century - turned to the Ladder for instruction. Briefly summarized, hesychasm is the practice of "inner stillness" (hesychia) through certain techniques such as short, repetitive prayers, the most famous being the "Jesus Prayer": "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Monk, particularly in Athonite monasteries beginning in the twelfth century (or earlier), undertook this practice assiduously, seeing in it the apotheosis of ascetic Christian spirituality. They even claimed that such practices allowed them to reach such a state of blessedness and union with God that they could physically see what they referred to as the "uncreated light of Christ." As the movement spread, its proponents, particularly Gregory of Sinai (1265-1346) and Gregory Palamas (1296-1359, would turn to the Ladder to find references to both the "Jesus Prayer" and experience of "uncreated light." The Ladder was even the subject of two commentaries by Byzantine hesychasts: Elias, Metropolitan of Crete's (fl. c. 1120) massive and esoteric commentary, and Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopoulos' (c.1256-1335) "Brief Exegesis." Both commentators enlist Climacus as a fellow hesychast, an enthusiast of the Jesus Prayer, and, proleptically, a palamite mystic. While it would be very hard indeed to claim that hesychast readings of the Ladder reflect the concerns of the text or the mind of its author, it is probable the hesychasts found not only inspiration but, more especially, legitimacy and the unquestionable stamp of tradition, from imaginative readings of the Ladder.

While the Ladder alone hardly imparted to later Byzantine spirituality its unique character, it does appear in later writings as a beloved and authoritative document, recommended reading for monks and hesychasts, as well as lay people common and royal. Climacus was not the only author so memorialized, nor the Ladder the only work, and yet it more than any other is cited, used, and recommended by name. Understanding later Byzantine theological and spiritual thought demands that we pay sustained attention to this formative moment in its tradition.

Source: The Role of Death in the Ladder of Divine Ascent and the Greek Ascetic Tradition, pp. 5-7.