The Ladder of Divine Ascent ... an icon from Mount Sinai based on the work of Saint John Klimakos
Today [14 March] is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and is known as Laetare Sunday. Laetare Sunday is also known as Rose Sunday and as Mothering Sunday. There was an old practice of visiting the cathedral, or “mother church” of the diocese on this day. A custom associated with this day is making simnel cake to markis Sunday.
Like the Third Sunday of Advent (“Gaudete Sunday”), this Sunday in Lent provides a break in an otherwise penitential season. The vestments for this day are rose-coloured, as they are on Gaudete Sunday in Advent, and flowers may adorn the altar.
This Sunday is called Laetare Sunday because of the opening words of the Introit, “Laetare, Jerusalem”:
Laetare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae. (Psalm) Laetatus sum in his, quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Domini ibimus. Gloria Patri.
Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. (Psalm) I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: we shall go into the house of the Lord. Glory be to the Father ...
The rose vestments on Laetare Sunday originated as a custom when – as a symbol of joy and hope in the middle of this sombre season – popes carried a golden rose in their right hand when returning from the celebration of Mass on this day. As far back as 1051, Pope Leo IX called this custom an “ancient institution.”
Originally it was a natural rose, then a single golden rose of natural size. But since the 15th century it has consisted of a cluster or branch of roses wrought of pure gold in brilliant work by famous artists. The popes bless one every year, and often confer it upon churches, shrines, cities or distinguished persons as a token of esteem and paternal affection. When a rose is bestowed in this manner, a new rose is made during the following year.
The golden rose represents Christ in the shining splendour of his majesty, the “flower sprung from the root of Jesse.”
This Sunday was also once known as “the Sunday of the Five Loaves,” from the traditional Gospel reading for the day. Prior to the adoption of the modern lectionaries, the Gospel reading for this Sunday in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Western-rite Orthodox, and Old Catholic churches was the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes in John 6.
In the Roman Catholic, Anglican and some Protestant traditions, there may be flowers on the high altar, and priests are given the option to wear rose-coloured vestments or robes instead of the violet vestments normally worn during Lent.
The Orthodox calendar
This year, Lent and Easter fall on the same dates in the calendars of both the Western Church and the Orthodox Church. On this Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Holy Lent, the Orthodox Church commemorates Saint John Klimakos (Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος, 525-606), the author of the great spiritual work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent.
The Church designated his commemoration on this Sunday in Lent because his life and writings affirm him as an important bearer and proponent of Christian asceticism. The ascetic example of this great saint of the Church can inspire us on our Lenten journey, and his commemoration fits well with the Lenten themes of the moral and spiritual disciplines required of a Christian.
Saint John Klimakos, also known as John of the Ladder, John Scholasticus and John Sinaites, was a sixth century monk at the monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai. He was probably born ca 525 in Syria – although other sources say he was born in Constantinople.
At an early age, he renounced all worldly pleasures and he came to Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai when he was about 16. There he was taught about the spiritual life by the Igumen (Abbot) Martyrius. After the death of Martyrius, John decided to practice greater asceticism. He withdrew to a hermitage at the foot of the mountain, and lived there in isolation for 20 years, studying the lives of the saints and becoming one of the most learned of the Church Fathers.
In 600, when he was about 75, the monks of Mount Sinai persuaded him to become their abbot. His reputation as an abbot spread so far that Pope Gregory the Great wrote to him asking him for his prayers, and sent money for the hospital on Mount Sinai, which provided hospitality for pilgrims. Four years later he resigned and returned to his hermitage to prepare to die. He died on 30 March 606.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Saint John’s best known book is The Climax or The Ladder of Divine Ascent, written at the request of John, the Abbot of Raithu, a monastery on the shores of the Red Sea. He also wrote a shorter work, To the Pastor, and the two are often published together.
The Ladder describes how to raise one’s soul and body to God, as if on a ladder, the goal of which is theosis, or mystical union with God. This book is one of the most widely-read among Orthodox Christians, especially during this season of Great Lent. It is often read in the trapeza or monastic refectory during Lent, and in some places it is read in church as part of the Daily Office during the weekdays of Lent.
Saint John Klimakos uses the analogy of Jacob’s Ladder to provide the framework for his spiritual teaching. Each chapter is referred to as a “step,” and deals with a separate spiritual subject. There are 30 steps on the ladder, which correspond with the age of Christ at his baptism and the beginning of his earthly ministry.
The first 23 steps give instruction on overcoming the vices, and the remainder speak of building the virtues.
The Ladder holds dispassionateness (apatheia) as the ultimate contemplative and mystical good in a Christian.
I should advise that reading this book is usually reserved for monastics or lay people who have progressed spiritually, and Orthodox Christians say that this book should only be read with the permission and guidance of a Spiritual Father.
The 30 steps or rungs on the Ladder:
1–4: Renouncement of the world and obedience to a spiritual father
1, Περί αποταγής (on renunciation of the world, or ascetism)
2, Περί απροσπαθείας (on detachment)
3, Περί ξενιτείας (on exile or pilgrimage; concerning dreams that beginners have)
4, Περί υπακοής (on blessed and ever-memorable obedience (in addition to episodes involving many individuals))
5–7: Penitence and affliction (πένθος) as paths to true joy
5, Περί μετανοίας (on painstaking and true repentance, which constitute the life of the holy convicts, and about the Prison)
6, Περί μνήμης θανάτου (on remembrance of death)
7, Περί του χαροποιού πένθους (on joy-making mourning)
8–17: Defeat of vices and acquisition of virtue
8, Περί αοργησίας (on freedom from anger and on meekness)
9, Περί μνησικακίας (on remembrance of wrongs)
10, Περί καταλαλιάς (on slander or calumny)
11, Περί πολυλογίας και σιωπής (on talkativeness and silence)
12, Περί ψεύδους (on lying)
13, Περί ακηδίας (on despondency)
14, Περί γαστριμαργίας (on that clamorous mistress, the stomach)
15, Περί αγνείας (on incorruptible purity and chastity, to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat)
16, Περί φιλαργυρίας (on love of money, or avarice)
17, Περί αναισθησίας (on non-possessiveness (that hastens one towards heaven)
18–26: Avoidance of the traps of asceticism (laziness, pride, mental stagnation)
18, Περί ύπνου και προσευχής (on insensibility or the deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body)
19, Περί αγρυπνίας (on sleep, prayer, and psalmody with the brotherhood)
20, Περί δειλίας (on bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil, and how to practice it)
21, Περί κενοδοξίας (on unmanly and puerile cowardice)
22, Περί υπερηφανείας (on the many forms of vainglory)
23, Περί λογισμών βλασφημίας (on mad pride and, in the same step, on unclean blasphemous thoughts; concerning unmentionable blasphemous thoughts)
24, Περί πραότητος και απλότητος (on meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness, which come not from nature but from conscious effort, and on guile)
25, Περί ταπεινοφροσύνης (on the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception)
26, Περί διακρίσεως (on discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues; on expert discernment; brief summary of all aforementioned)
27–29: Acquisition of hesychia, or peace of the soul, of prayer, and of apatheia (dispassion or equanimity with respect to afflictions or suffering)
27, Περί ησυχίας (on holy stillness of body and soul; different aspects of stillness and how to distinguish them)
28, Περί προσευχής (on holy and blessed prayer, the mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer)
29, Περί απαθείας (on heaven on earth, or God-like dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection)
30, Περί αγάπης, ελπίδος και πίστεως (on linking together the supreme trinity among the virtues; a brief exhortation summarising all that has said at length in this book).
The feast day of Saint John Klimakos is 30 March. However, because of the saint’s popularity, the Orthodox Church also commemorates him on this day, the Fourth Sunday in Lent.
As a Sunday of Great Lent, the commemoration is celebrated with the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, which is preceded by Matins (Orthros). Great Vespers is conducted on Saturday evening.
The Scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent are as follows: At Orthros (Matins): The prescribed weekly Gospel reading. At the Divine Liturgy: Hebrews 6: 13-20; Mark 9: 17-31.
Hymns of the Feast:
Apolytikion: Plagal of the Fourth Tone
With the rivers of your tears,
you have made the barren desert fertile.
Through sighs of sorrow from deep within you,
your labours have borne fruit a hundredfold.
By your miracles you have become a light,
shining upon the world.
O John, our Holy Father,
pray to Christ our God, to save our souls.
Kontakion: First Tone
As ever-blooming fruits,
you offer the teachings of your God-given book,
O wise John, most blessed,
while sweetening the hearts of all them that heed it with vigilance;
for it is a ladder from the earth unto Heaven
that confers glory on the souls
that ascend it and honour you faithfully.
Great Vespers: Tone Plagal of the First
O righteous Father,
you heard the voice of the Gospel
and forsook the world, riches, and glory,
counting them as naught.
And so, you cried to all:
love God, and you will find eternal favour.
Put nothing above his love,
that when he comes in his glory
you may find rest with all the saints.
And so, by their intercessions,
O Christ God,
preserve and save our souls.
Icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent
The Ladder of Divine Ascent ... a modern icon by Athanasios Clark
An icon of the same title, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, depicts a ladder extending from earth to heaven (see Genesis 28: 12). Several monks are seen climbing a ladder. At the top is Christ, prepared to receive them into Heaven. Angels are helping the climbers, and demons are trying to shoot them with arrows or to drag the climbers down, no matter how high up the ladder they may be.
The best-known version of this icon, a small 12th century work, is one of the best-known icons in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. It was one of the principle exhibits at the Byzantium exhibition in the Royal Academy of Arts in London last year.
Most versions of the icon show at least one person falling off the ladder and down into hell. Often, in a lower corner, Saint John Klimakos is shown gesturing towards the ladder, with rows of monks behind him.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.