The Ladder of Divine Ascent ... an icon from Mount Sinai based on the work of Saint John Klimakos
I am in Lichfield this Easter weekend, concluding my Lent and anticipating the joys of the Resurrection with my own retreat, following the daily cycle of prayer and Liturgy from Good Friday to Easter Day at Lichfield Cathedral.
Today [30 March], the calendars of the Church commemorate Saint John Klimakos (Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος), the author of the great spiritual work The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Although Holy Saturday precludes any commemoration of a saint, the ascetic example of Saint John Klimakos is inspiring as we come to the end of our Lenten journey.
The Ladder is one of the most widely read and much-loved books of Orthodox spirituality, and is read especially during Great Lent. It is often read in the refectory in monasteries, and in some churches it is read as part of the Daily Office on Lenten weekdays.
Saint John Klimakos was a seventh century monk in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. Although his lifespan is often given as 525-606, we have little information about the life of this saint apart from a hagiography by a monk named Daniel of Raithu monastery, who admits he knows nothing about Saint John’s origins.
In various accounts, the date of his birth is given between 505 and 579 in Syria – although other sources say he was born in Constantinople. Any speculation about his birth comes from a much later period. But it is said Saint John came to the monastery on Mount Sinai and became a novice when he was aged about 16.
On Mount Sinai, he was taught about the spiritual life by the elder monk Martyrius. After the death of Martyrius, John withdrew to a hermitage at Tola at the foot of the mountain, about 8 km from Saint Catherine’s.
He lived in his hermitage in Tola for 20 years, constantly studying the lives of the saints, and became one of the most learned of the Church Fathers. There too, he was sought out for spiritual direction, and he also visited several monasteries near Alexandria. Far from being an escape from the world and human life, his retreat led to ardent love for others and for God.
At about the age of 75, the monks of Mount Sinai persuaded him to become their igumen or abbot. As their abbot, he showed great wisdom. Just before his death, he resigned as abbot to return to his solitary life. Once again, various dates are given for his death on Mount Sinai, between 605 and 649.
His Κλίμαξ or The Ladder of Divine Ascent was written in the early seventh century at the request of Abbot John of Raithu, a monastery in Sinai on the shores of the Red Sea.
He also wrote To the Pastor, which may have been an appendix to The Ladder.
In The Ladder, Saint John describes how to raise one’s soul and body to God through the acquisition of ascetic virtues. He uses the analogy of Jacob’s Ladder as 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 of the ladder, corresponding to the age of Christ at his baptism and the beginning of his earthly ministry.
Within the general framework of a ladder, The Ladder is divided into three sections.
The first seven Steps concern general virtues necessary for the ascetic life, while the next 19 (Steps 8-26) give instruction on overcoming vices and building their corresponding virtues. The final four steps (27-30) concern the higher virtues toward which the ascetic life aims. The final rung of the ladder – beyond prayer (προσευχή), stillness (ἡσυχία), and even dispassion (ἀπαθεία) – is love (ἀγάπη).
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 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: 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.
Icons 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 four years ago, which I reviewed for the Athens News.
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.