Whenever I think of Great Lent, I make it a point to remember a meaningful conversation I had just a few years ago. I was on a pilgrimage in Greece, visiting a centuries-old church, when an old priest sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. At one point he observed that the Christians in America make Christianity look easy.
I sat in silence for a moment because I was surprised by his bold statement. “Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because you have forgotten about John,” he replied as he let out a grin.
“John who?” I responded, knowing full well that Orthodoxy has a lot of special people named John. “Are you talking about St. John the Baptist or St. John Chrysostom?” I asked.
“Neither,” the old priest replied. “I’m speaking of Saint John, the one with the ladder.”
St. John Climacus is one of the great saints of our Church. He so special that the Church remembers St. John, not once, as we do with most saints, but twice a year. His feast day is always celebrated on March 30th, but the Church also devotes the fourth Sunday of Great Lent to this majestic church father.
The early life of St. John is shrouded in mystery. While we know that he was born in Palestine in the year 579 A.D., not much is known of his parents or of the days of his youth. All we know is that St. John received a general education and that he entered into the monastic ranks at the age of sixteen. From that early age, St. John embraced the life of solitude and ascesis, as he progressed greatly in the spiritual life.
To really understand what St. John represents, one has to be familiar with the Book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible. Understanding Exodus is important, because the people of his day revered St. John so much that they saw in him another Moses. Like Moses, St. John spent forty years in the desert. Not only that, but St. John even ascended the same mountain as Moses, Mt. Sinai. He was likened to Moses because, like the great prophet of old who brought down the tablets of the Law, he too brought down a gift to share with the people. That gift, a book called The Ladder of Divine Ascent, is still being read by Orthodox Christians today. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a book that describes how man can ascend to God, like the Ten Commandments tells the faithful how they will find order and harmony in their lives.
The comparisons to Moses don’t stop there. Orthodox tradition states that on the very day St. John became the Abbot of the monastery on Mt. Sinai, a miracle took place: while six hundred people were sitting and eating, St. John noticed a man dressed like a Hebrew, wearing a white tunic. He observed this man walking around like a manager, giving instructions to the cooks, servers, and volunteers. When all the pilgrims departed, the servants were sitting by a table wondering where the stranger went. St. John addressed the group and, being full of the Holy Spirit, he informed them that the man in the white tunic was none other than Moses himself.
Moses and St. John had a shared interest: they both sought to deliver their people out of slavery. What Moses did in the past, St. John does eternally by his theology. To this day, people are still being freed by his wisdom.
The writing of The Ladder of Divine Ascent took place at the end of St. John’s life. Our tradition says that a certain monk begged St. John to write a book that would help Christians progress in the spiritual life. That monk asked St. John to write such an authoritative book because he, like others, observed that the people of the day were losing touch with the tradition that was handed down to them.
Thankfully, a wonderful tradition developed with respect to St. John’s book. Generation after generation, The Ladder of Divine Ascent has been passed down in many Orthodox families. In fact, over the course of many centuries The Ladder of Divine Ascent maintained its popularity among the people. To this day, St. John’s work is a best-seller among Orthodox people. A few decades ago an anthropologist in the Orthodoxy country of Romania was astonished when he observed that almost every household of Romania – over 95 percent – contained both the Holy Bible and The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Many years ago, St. John’s majestic work even migrated to this country with the Orthodox faithful who moved here. As a matter of fact, when the printing press was developed, The Ladder of Divine Ascent was one of the first books ever published in America. This is how revered his work was.
St. John’s was without question the most loved and read Christian book on spirituality. Times have changed, however. For some reason, American culture has not embraced this wonderful work. There is something about the way we think and live that makes The Ladder of Divine Ascent controversial, or perhaps insignificant. This neglect can be observed on many different levels. In academia, for example, Western theologians often remark on how little research has been done with St. John, considering the great impact of his work on the Christian faith. The number of scholars who have written about St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom are many, but the number of Climacan scholars is few for some reason. Even in the Church itself we can see this type of neglect. How many Churches across America are named after St. John? How many icons of St. John are visible in our Churches?
Moreover, it is not a stretch to state that there is a movement in our Church to assume that what St. John writes is only for the monks of Mt. Athos. In Orthodox circles, many people have been turned away from The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The common response to The Ladder of Divine Ascent today is, “That’s a book that’s too spiritual for you. It’s only to be read by monks.” We say these things and we wonder why our youth leave the Church in search of the spirituality St. John represents.
Indeed, for many modern people what St. John says is too demanding or perhaps too radical for the American way of life. St. John speaks of finding silence; he speaks of fasting and nding deep moments of prayer; he speaks of withdrawing from the world we live in, and even of dying to its wisdom. St. John speaks about turning our back on pleasure and comfort. He speaks against gluttony and self-indulgence. In short he speaks of so many things the world is promoting in our days.
While he may be found to be too radical for today’s Orthodox faithful, the tradition of the Church tells a different story. Clearly, the Orthodox tradition has always been for monk and layperson alike: to spend Great Lent reading St. John’s majestic work and applying his ideas, according to our situation in life, and then to pass this tradition on to those who follow. Our neglect of St. John has created a great paradox in Christian circles today. Protestant scholars who have focused on studying early Christianity have noticed that the early Christians lived radically. That is to say, they prayed radically, fasted radically and lived out radically simplistic lives. And this astute observation has led many denominations to reevaluate how they do their theology. In short, these Protestants in many respects are thankfully starting to think like Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Christians of past centuries, that is!
This raises an important question: Can the paradox of our time be that these Protestants are becoming more Orthodox by embracing what St. John teaches, while the Orthodox are becoming more Protestant in their comfortable way of life, by neglecting this important father and relegating him to the monasteries?
Without question the greatest contribution to the Orthodox faith that St. John has made is that his theology takes one from slavery, to the desert, to the Promised Land. He is like Moses in this respect, as he leads one from bondage to freedom.
As we live in a society that promotes comfort and minimizes the Christian faith, we have to recognize the modern heresies would convince good Orthodox Christians that they can progress from slavery to the Promised Land without venturing into the metaphorical desert by embracing the radical lifestyle St. John speaks of and lived by. The hard interior work that St. John speaks of in the Ladder of Divine Ascent is meant for every single Orthodox Christian. It’s meant directly for the monk, but indirectly for the layperson in a modied form.
As we continue to struggle to live the Christian life in America, let us take seriously what that old priest once said about the state of Christianity in America. Maybe we are making living the Christian life look easy. More importantly, let us remember the life of St. John Climacus and cling to the old Orthodox tradition of reading his majestic work.
For, as St. John himself teaches, no one can ascend to the Kingdom without first using a ladder.
Fr. Papagiannis is a Greek Orthodox priest serving at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago. He is a former teacher and licensed social worker who lives in the Chicago suburbs with his presbytera Katerina.