The Fourth Sunday of Great Lent—St. John Climacus
Photo: fotoload.ru In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit!
Today the holy Church gives us an image of a great ascetic, desiring that we confirm ourselves on the path that we have walked from the beginning of the fast, and which we dedicated during this past week to the Cross of Christ.
“Behold the image,” says the holy Church, “of one who took up his cross and followed after Christ, and the image of one who left us his work—the work of one who reveals all Christian activity through his own experience.”
Sunday of St. John Climacus
“>St. John Climacus (of the Ladder) lived in the fourth century. He entered the monastery at age sixteen, and a while later departed from the coenobium, became a solitary, and lived at the foot of Mt. Sinai for forty years. He left his solitude as a seventy-five-year-old elder, called by the brethren of the Sinai monastery who chose him as their abbot. The neighboring monastery, Raithu, heard about this great ascetic, and its abbot, also named John, asked the saint to write him a guide to Christian life. It is our great fortune that the Church preserved for us this guidance, which contains the experience of this great ascetic, and which is often confirmed by citations from other holy fathers.
St. John Climacus not only made use other people’s experience from books, but also proved and confirmed that experience in his own life, becoming enriched by his own personal observations and achievements.
The holy Church presents this ascetic laborer to us, saying that if we truly desire to follow after Christ, then we must emulate one who already walked this path to the end.
I spoke to you about St. John Climacus and will talk to you about him again tomorrow evening, but now I want to dwell upon one very sensitive question of ours.
St. John Climacus considers, as do all ascetics, that we appeared on this earth in order to prepare ourselves for another life, and here we must come closer to God.
How can we do this?
There is only one path, the path of experience; a path that is first the direct revelation of God in the soul of man, and then the path of ascent—the ascent of our soul.
And so for us who to a greater or lesser extent are already following after Christ, it is clear that we are now experientially walking this path; the Lord first revealed to us a sign of His love, our first joy, the joy of prayer without effort, the joy of love for all. This was all given to us freely, and seemed easy.
But further on there are two paths, as St. John Climacus says: The first path is the struggle with the passions and lusts, life in God; or the second path—the path of speaking many words, the path of talking about God, the path of listening to one or another person who talks about God.
St. John Climacus says that no experience is needed for this [second] path, but it leads to nothing; and if it does lead to anything, then most likely to destruction.
“The word of God, given by the Lord, is pure and abides throughout the ages; he who has not come to know God talks about Him by conjecture” (The Ladder, 38:23 [apparently, in the Slavonic text]). We do not know God except during those moments when the Lord reveals Himself to us, and ерут we take the path of talking about Him.
What does God reveal to us?
God reveals to us purity of soul, as it says in His Word: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Only this purity of heart allows us to come closer to the Lord, and the very Word of God is revealed to us according to the measure of our purification.
“He who has perfectly united his senses to God is mystically led by Him to an understanding of His words. But without this union it is difficult to speak about God (The Ladder, 30:21).
But it’s easy for us to babble about God—in fact there is nothing easier than to go on about God. We should begin to bring about the Kingdom of God, but we think that it’s already inside us, forgetting the Lord’s words when He said that “the Kingdom of God suffereth violence”. This struggle and violence [force] is what the holy Church tells us about today with its remembrance of this ascetic laborer.
He tells especially us, who are learning this path, and today for the first time can venerate his icon, sanctified and brought out for our veneration.
It seems that for us who live in the world, there can be nothing in common with this Sinai anchorite. But many of us have probably found themselves in his work—in reading the first twenty-three chapters of his “Ladder”, many have thought, “Hey, that was written about me.” Let’s not make this treasure a subject of much talk, but let’s instead try to make use of it by experience.
What does it reveal to us?
“The indwelling Word [of one essence with the Father (in the Slavonic text)], perfects purity, and slays death by His presence; and after the slaying of death, the disciple of Divine knowledge is illumined” (The Ladder 30:22); and having slain our impurity, through the like we come to know the Most Pure One. Then what St. John Climacus says about theology becomes clear: “Purity makes its disciple a theologian, who of himself graps the dogmas of the Holy Trinity” [The Ladder 30:24]. There is only one teacher of theology—purity. Go to it, if you wish to learn. Not from without, but from within, through the purification of yourself from sin and passions you will receive what will teach you the dogma of the Holy Trinity.
But could St. John Climacus be wrong?
This was said by an ascetic, an anchorite. Perhaps someone who spent his whole life studying theology might say it differently?
Here as a test are the words of St. Gregory the Theologian: “By far not everyone can speak wisely about God—no, not everyone. This is not acquired cheaply, and not by those who crawl upon the earth” (Hom. 3:27). And further, “Not everyone can speak wisely about God; because only those who have tested themselves are capable of this, those who have lived their lives in contemplation; and first of all have cleansed, or at least are cleansing their souls and bodies. It can only be dangerous for the impure to touch what is pure, like weak vision to a ray of sun” (ibid.). “But for us, if we have obtained even a little glory, often those who haven’t even that, if we have learned two or three happenstance sayings from Scripture, moreover unrelated and without the proper understanding (such is our spurious wisdom), we must think ourselves higher than Moses and become Dathan and Abiram—godless mockers. Let us rather flee their audacity and not become emulators of their audacity, that we may not meet their same end” (ibid., hom. 32).
This relates also to our times, because we think that we can be high-minded, like Dathan and Abiram.
We receive from the Lord the joy of prayer. All of us have prayed at some time, and perhaps, certain of us pray even now with joy and tears. Many of us also know the joy of love, the joy of carrying our cross, the joy of life in God. But many of us then continue on the path of much talk about God, forgetting that our passions are not yet mortified, that the Lord gave us this joy as a mercy—and we’ve decided that it all belongs to us. But only he who purifies his soul knows God, for like is known by like.
Today we have gathered to celebrate the memory of St. John Climacus in connection with Great Lent, in connection with the path that we have been walking for several weeks now.
The holy Church says that there is only one path, the path of struggle with the passions and lusts—and it does not begin with love. St. John Climacus talks about love in the thirtieth chapter, but we babble on about love—Love is God, but we do not know God.
Let’s return to the path to which St. John Climacus calls us, which the great ascetics walked through their own experience and which they left for us in their works. We modern people have departed from them, and yet babble on about God. Perhaps now, when some of us feel that this can’t go on, perhaps now that we are celebrating the memory of St. John Climacus who purified his soul for decades, will we appreciate the experience he has left to us.
The Ladder was not given to us to make long speeches about it, but so that we would walk the path, and ascend it.
Let’s remember how St. John ends his Ladder:
“Ascend, brothers, ascend zealously, placing the ascent in your hearts and heeding the prophet who says, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of our God (cf. Is. 2:3). Who makes our feet like that of a hart, and sets us up on high (cf. Ps. 17:34), in order to make us victors on His path. So do I also beg you together with the Apostle, who said, Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (Eph. 4:13). Christ, Who was baptized in the thirtieth year of His visible age, received the thirtieth step in this spiritual ladder—for love is God. To Him be praise, to Him power, and to Him be glory; in Him is the beginning of all good things, and were, and will be unto the endless ages.”
From: Bear one another’s burdens: the life and pastoral labors of Holy Hieromartyr Sergei Mechev in two volumes. Compiled by A. Grushina (Moscow: Orthodox St. Tikhon Humanitarian Institute, 2017), v. 2:137–145.