Blessings from the Desert: St. John of the Ladder (Climacus)
My dear Fathers and Mothers, and brothers and sisters, in the Faith,
Greetings to you from the God-trodden Mount of Sinai!
May the blessings of the desert find you well and abundantly blessed today, the Sunday of St. John of the Ladder (Climacus)! This weekend was special here at the monastery for it is the commemoration of it’s most well known, famous abbot and saint, and his paramount treatise on the spiritual life and struggle, The Ladder of Divine Ascent! It is well worth taking the time to read The Ladder, those who have been interested but have yet to start or make much progress, and even for those who have never heard of it but are interested in the spiritual life.
I have a very special blessing excerpted below, an introduction to this renowned work by Priest-monk Justin of Sinai, the librarian of the monastery. This was originally delivered as the keynote address at the exhibition “Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai,” at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA, in 2007. He has been very kind and generous to share his own thoughts and impressions of a forefather of his own monastery, which is what I believe makes this all the more illuminating and moving. I quote the introduction to his talk in its entirety:
Of all the monks who have lived at the God-trodden Mount of Sinai, the most celebrated is Saint John, abbot of Sinai, and author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. He lived in the latter half of the sixth century, and took up the monastic life when he was only sixteen. In those days, the great basilica and surrounding fortress walls built at the command of the emperor Justinian would only recently have been completed. But although this newly established coenobium augmented the monastic life at Sinai, providing it with a strong center, it did not supplant the earlier traditions of monks living in small communities at scattered settlements, or anchorites living in solitude, and it is to this tradition that Saint John turned, becoming a disciple of one abba Martyrius.
Four years later, he was tonsured a monk at the peak of Mount Sinai, and on his descent, he was taken to receive a blessing from Anastasius, the abbot of Sinai. Meeting him for the first time, the abbot looked upon him with the eyes of the Spirit and asked, “Tell me, abba Martyrius, where does this boy come from, and who professed him?” To which abba Martyrius answered, “He is your servant, father, and I professed him.” And the abbot replied, “Who would have thought that you had professed the abbot of Sinai?” The account concludes, “And the holy man was not mistaken, for forty years later John became our abbot.”
When he was thirty-five years old, his abba Martyrius passed from this world, and Saint John began to live as an anchorite in a cave, the location of which has been preserved to this day. He was to pass forty years in this cave. But the prophecy of Saint Anastasius came true in time, and he was elected abbot of Sinai. On that day, six hundred pilgrims came to the monastery. We read,
‘When all were sitting and taking food, John saw a man with short white hair, dressed like a Jew in a white tunic, going round and authoritatively giving orders to the cooks, cellarers, stewards, and other servants. And when the people had dispersed and the servants were sitting at the table, they looked everywhere for that man who had been going round and giving orders, but they did not find him. Then the servant of God, our holy Father John, said to us, “Leave him be! Our lord Moses has done nothing strange by serving in this place which belongs to him.’
This account is related almost in passing in the life of Saint John. But it reveals the commingling of this world and the next, and the solicitude of the saints for those who are still present here below.
He must have returned to his cave even as abbot of Sinai for times of seclusion and prayer in silence. And when he knew that his time had come, he appointed his brother George as abbot in his place, and returned again to his solitude, where he passed from this world at the age of seventy-five, forty years from the time he first became an anchorite.
It was when he was abbot of Sinai that John received a letter from another John, abbot of the monastery of Raithou, on the coast of the Red Sea to the west of Sinai, imploring him to write a spiritual guide that should be for the inspiration of all. ‘Tell us in our ignorance what like Moses of old you have seen in divine vision upon the mountain; write it down in a book and send it to us as if it were the tablets of the Law, written by God. For if Jacob, who was a shepherd of sheep, saw by means of a ladder such a dread vision, surely can we not expect the director of rational sheep to show to all not only in vision, but in truth, the unerring ascent to God?’ Saint John consented to his request and composed his immortal guide, The Ladder of Divine Ascent.
Taking as his motif the ladder that Jacob beheld, extending from earth to heaven, Saint John envisioned a ladder with thirty steps, corresponding to thirty virtues. This is not an easy book to read. There are no flights of oratory or extended theological expositions. His words are the distilled wisdom of one who passed his life in the severe deserts of Sinai. Saint John loves short, sharp sentences. He can be intentionally enigmatic. He is well aware of the paradoxes of life. But he unerringly points out the way, guiding the disciple’s steps from one rung of the ladder to the next as he makes the difficult ascent.
The Ladder is a work of personal experience, but it is also one of synthesis. The desert fathers of Egypt and Sinai, at the very dawn of the monastic movement, had mapped out the contours of the spiritual life. Saint John’s writings draw on these experiences and systematize them. His book is a summary of ascetic theology. The Ladder is an ascent from human effort to divine gift. What begins as painful warfare ends as spontaneous joy.
Saint John lived at the time of the Monothelite controversy, and touches on this in his writings. Christ had both a human and a divine will, in tension, yet in ultimate reconciliation: a human will like ours, yet freely obedient to the will of the Father. It is a working together of Divine grace and human freedom that is the paradigm for our own life. Spirituality cannot be separated from dogma.
There is a dualism in this book, but it is not a dualism of soul and body, of God and matter. Rather, it is a dualism of the unfallen and the fallen state of human nature, between life and death, immortality and corruption. The disciple is summoned to return to the unfallen state through the integration of body and soul. He is summoned to sanctification and transfiguration, an entering in to divine glory.” ~Priestmonk Justin Sinaitis, “Spiritual Ascents through Art”
So as not to burden you, I’ll just share a few reflections from today’s blessings. The cave of St. John Climacus is about a one hour hike from the village of St. Katherine and probably 1.5-2 hours hike from the monastery. The trail is adventuresome amongst large boulders the size of small houses.
We started out about 5:30am from the monastery to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the small chapel next to the cave built by the monks in the 1970s. It is adjacent to St. John’s cave. In the photo below, the chapel is on the right and St. John’s Cave is in the collection of large boulders on the opposite left-hand side of the photo.
Below is a close-up of the cave as it has been preserved today. There are not really any natural caves in the granite mountains of Sinai, rather overhanging boulders that create shelters that would have added walls to close off the interior from the elements.
The celebration of the Divine Liturgy (below) was very peaceful, quiet and focused, with only a small handful of us making the trek into the desert. Even though most of us just met that morning and we represented many countries (Greece, Russia, Cyprus, Sweden, Mount Athos, Holy Land, and the Republic of Texas), there was a feeling of oneness of mind as one Body in Christ that is hard to explain but understood by those who have likewise experienced it. (1 Corinthians 10:17, 12:13-4) I also was able to serve and assist the celebrating priest impromptu. That’s part of the beauty of those intimate and quiet Liturgies; as needs arise, the people serve.
The chanting was simple yet beautiful, the people prayerful, and the only disturbance to the solemnity was dramatic wind gusts whistling through and rattling the broken windows. Afterwards we hiked to the cave to venerate, chant a hymn, and light a few candles. It is a small cave, with an oval like interior space roughly 10 feet deep by 15 feet wide (below).
Below is the view from the cave entrance towards the chapel and valley below.
Hospitality is customary after Festal Liturgies, so we went to the neighboring hermitage for traditional Greek Lenten sweets (baklava and semolina halva), nuts, rusks and coffee.
The company and converse were as the sweet as the treats, as we all sat huddled together on chairs and low stools, in true desert fashion on the narrow porch.
Many often wonder, after visiting the monastery and the cave of St. John Climacus, where is “The Prison” mentioned in his book? According to the tradition of the monastery, it was established in between the two on this same trail not far from the cave, and it’s foundations are still visible today (below).
As tradition relates, it was something he had observed in the monastic enclaves of Scetis outside of Alexandria and tried to implement at St. Catherine’s as well, for the spiritual benefit of the ascetic strivers.
Once we returned to the monastery, one of the monks emphatically told us not to shower right away and lose the “Blessing of the Desert,” saying that we should let it soak in like one does the Holy Waters of Baptism and Holy Oil of Chrism. So may this message convey the blessings of the desert and its celebrated ascetic strugglers and luminaries in the spiritual life. St. John Climacus pray to God for us!
Thank you for letting me share. I humbly request your prayers for health and safety. The monks also humbly request your prayers during these difficult times and trials due to instability in Egypt. Please feel free to share with others whom you think would be edified.
God bless your spiritual struggle and journey to the Heavenly Kingdom!
Justin “Hadji” Daniel