The following information was taken from an introduction by Kallistos Ware to a contemporary edition of The Ladder of Divine Ascent.
St. John Climacus is also known as John Scholasticus, John of the Ladder and John of Sinai. He lived during the latter half of the sixth century and the beginning of the seventh, possibly from 579-649 AD. According to his biographer, Daniel of Raithu, Climacus came to the monastic community at Sinai when he was sixteen years old. He was tonsured as a monk at age nineteen or twenty. After his profession, he chose to live as a hermit in Tholas, five miles from the main monastery. While living in retreat, he is reported to have received the gift of tears and the grace of continual prayer. Fellow monks in large numbers began to seek him out for spiritual guidance. When criticized for making a mockery of his hermitage by entertaining so many people there, he decided to keep total silence. After a year or so of this, the very monks who had criticized him begged him to resume guiding others.
At some point in his life, he traveled to a monastery in Egypt where several hundred monks lived communally. He was very favorably impressed by the insight, sternness and affection of the abbot who presided there, and by the sense of unity and mutual love that existed among the monks, as well as by the monks’ unceasing inward prayer.
Back in Sinai, after some 40 years of life as a hermit and against his will, the monks at the central monastery elected Climacus to be their abbot. While abbot at Sinai, the abbot of a nearby monastery off the Gulf of Suez asked him to write a book about the spiritual life, or as he put it:
“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 tables of the Law, written by God.”
In reply Climacus stated that the task was beyond his strength and that he himself was still among the learners. However his sense of obedience led him to agree to compose a book “in my stammering way”, which would serve as something of a sketch. This book became known as The Ladder of Divine Ascent.
Within Eastern Christendom, The Ladder of Divine Ascent has been one of the most well-read books on spiritual life. Its popularity in the East rivals that of The Imitation of Christ in the West. To this day Orthodox monastic communities read it every Lent because it addresses a belief they share with those who preceded them that, given the right conditions and preparation, a man may even in this life work his passage upward into the actual presence of God, and there, if God so chooses, he can receive a direct and intimate knowledge of the Divine Being.
Such knowledge is not the automatic or the guaranteed conclusion of a process. It is not like the logical outcome of a faultlessly constructed argument. There is no assurance that a man will come to it at the end of a long journey. But to many it was a prize and a prospect so glittering that all else looked puny by comparison; and, besides, there were tales told of some who, so it seemed, had actually been granted that supreme gift of a rendezvous.
Although most of The Ladder of Divine Ascent concerns itself with the attainment of virtues, this should not be understood as a literary work which proposes some sort of self-justification through works. Climacus regards all virtues as belonging to God, not man. So when Climacus is talking about virtue, he isn’t talking about forcing one’s behavior to comply with some sort of external ideal. Instead the virtuous man is the man who allows God’s life to emerge through his own life by cooperating with God’s grace, chiefly through self-denial and devotion to God. Consequently the true monk isn’t the man who behaves humbly, gently, lovingly, but the man who has come to be humility, gentleness, love. Such a man makes it newly clear that each of us has been created after the image of God, and that with God’s grace it’s possible for that image to shine though.
One explanatory note regarding an often-used term, The Gift of Tears:
In The Ladder of Divine Ascent, John Climacus discussed three levels of tears:
Contranatural tears which arise when our will is thwarted, for example tears of anger, jealousy, or frustration.
Natural tears which arise in response to emotional and physical suffering, whether such suffering is experienced by ourselves or by others with whom we feel sympathy. Examples are tears of grief, pain, or compassion. These tears seem to contribute to our healing.
Supranatural tears are what mystics are referring to when they speak of the gift of tears. In the passage which follows, St. Isaac of Nineveh likens these tears to the tears wept at birth. The mystic who experiences such tears is being reborn into the age to come, and as such is experiencing a foretaste of heaven:
“The fruits of the inner man begin only with the shedding of tears. When you reach the place of tears, then know that your spirit has come out from the prison of this world and has set its foot upon the path that leads towards the new age. Your spirit begins at this moment to breathe the wonderful air which is there, and it starts to shed tears. The moment for the birth of the spiritual child is now at hand, and the travail of childbirth becomes intense. Grace, the common mother of us all, makes haste to give birth mystically to the soul, God’s image, bringing it forth into the light of the age to come. And when the time for the birth has arrived, the intellect begins to sense something of the things of that other world — as a faint perfume, or as the breath of life which a newborn child receives into its bodily frame. But we are not accustomed to such an experience and, finding it hard to endure, our body is suddenly overcome by a weeping mingled with joy.”
Further excerpts from his writing:
“Do you imagine that plain words can precisely or truly or appropriately or clearly or sincerely describe the love of the Lord, humility, blessed purity, divine enlightenment, fear of God, and assurance of the heart? Do you imagine that talk of such matters will mean anything to someone who has never experienced them? If you think so, then you will be like a man who with words and examples tries to convey the sweetness of honey to people who have never tasted it. He talks uselessly. Indeed I would say he is simply prattling. The same applies in the first instance. A man stands revealed as either having had no experience of what he is talking about or as having fallen into the grip of vainglory.”
“Fight to escape from your own cleverness. If you do, then you will find salvation and uprightness through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“By what rule or manner can I bind this body of mine? By what precedent can I judge him? Before I can bind him he is let loose, before I can condemn him I am reconciled to him, before I can punish him I bow down to him and feel sorry for him. How can I hate him when my nature disposes me to love him? How can I break away from him when I am bound to him forever? How can I escape from him when he is going to rise with me? How can I make him incorrupt when he has received a corruptible nature? How can I argue with him when all the arguments of nature are on his side?
If I try to bind him through fasting, then I am passing judgment on my neighbor who does not fast — with the result that I am handed over to him again. If I defeat him by not passing judgment I turn proud — and I am in thrall to him once more. He is my helper and my enemy, my assistant and my opponent, a protector and a traitor. I am kind to him and he assaults me. If I wear him out he gets weak. If he has a rest he becomes unruly. If I upset him he cannot stand it. If I mortify him I endanger myself. If I strike him down I have nothing left by which to acquire virtues. I embrace him. And I turn away from him.
What is this mystery in me? What is the principle of this mixture of body and soul? How can I be my own friend and my own enemy? Speak to me! Speak to me, my yoke-fellow, my nature! I cannot ask anyone else about you. How can I remain uninjured by you? How can I escape the danger of my own nature? I have made a promise to Christ that I will fight you, yet how can I defeat your tyranny? But this I have resolved, namely, that I am going to master you.
And this is what the flesh might say in reply:
I will never tell you what you do not already know. I will speak the knowledge we both have. Within me is my begetter, the love of self. The fire that comes to me from outside is too much pampering and care. The fire within me is past ease and things long done. I conceived and give birth to sins, and they when born beget death by despair in their turn. And yet if you have learned the sure and rooted weakness within both you and me, you have manacled my hands. If you starve your longings, you have bound my feet, and they can travel no further. If you have taken up the yoke of obedience, you have cast my yoke aside. If you have taken possession of humility, you have cut off my head.
He who has earned this victory while still alive has died and been resurrected. From now on he has a taste of the immortality to come.”
“If someone has hated the world, he has run away from its misery; but if he has an attachment to visible things, then he is not yet cleansed of grief. For how can he avoid grief when he is deprived of something he loves? We need great vigilance in all things, but especially in regard to what we have left behind.”
“The man who thinks nothing of goods has freed himself from quarrels and disputes. But the lover of possessions will fight to the death for a needle.”
“A man who has embraced poverty offers up prayer that is pure, while a man who loves possessions prays to material images.”
“The man who pets a lion may tame it, but the man who coddles the body makes it ravenous. Control your appetites before they control you.”
“Detachment begins with repentance and renunciation. Unswerving hope is the gateway to detachment. Love of God is the foundation of exile. Exile is an irrevocable renunciation of everything in one’s familiar surroundings that hinders one from attaining the ideal of holiness. Those with a mind for the religious life will turn away from everything, will despise everything, will ridicule everything, will shake off everything.
No one can enter crowned into the heavenly bridechamber without first making the three renunciations. He has to turn away from worldly concerns, from men, from family; he must cut selfishness away; and thirdly, he must rebuff the vanity that follows obedience. “Go out from among them,” says the Lord. “Go apart from them. Do not touch the uncleanness of the age” (2 Cor. 6:17).
Repentance is a cheerful renunciation of every creature comfort. The poverty of a monk is resignation from care. In his poverty he turns into a son of detachment and he sets no value on what he has. Having withdrawn from the world, he comes to regard everything as refuse. Indeed he is not genuinely poor if he starts to worry about something.”
“Detachment grows from an experience and taste of the knowledge of God and from a meditation on the account to be rendered at death. Detachment from the things perceived by the senses means the vision of things spiritual. Detachment ends in the blissful contemplation of God. Joy and consolation descend on the perfect when they reach the state of complete detachment.
By dispassion I mean a heaven of the mind within the heart. Its effect is to sanctify the mind and to detach it from material things, and it does so in such a way that, after entering this heavenly harbor, a man, for most of his earthly life, is enraptured, like someone already in heaven, and he is lifted up to the contemplation of God.”
“A chaste man is completely oblivious to the difference between bodies. The rule and limit of absolute chastity is to have the same feelings regarding animate and inanimate beings, rational and irrational.”
“I must tell you about the astonishing achievement of the monastery’s baker. Noticing that during his work he preserved a totally recollected state and a capacity for tears, I asked him how he had managed to be granted such a grace. He answered me when I became insistent: “It always seems to me that I serve God and not men.”
“All the acts, thoughts, and words of such a man are directed to the will of God and he never trusts himself. Indeed, to a humble man, self-confidence is as much a thorn and a burden as the orders of someone else are to a proud man.”
“When a man has found the Lord, he no longer has to use words when he is praying, for the Spirit Himself will intercede for him with groans that cannot be uttered. The hour of prayer is no time for thinking over necessities, nor even spiritual tasks, because you may lose the better part.
A small hair disturbs the eye. A minor concern interferes with stillness, for, after all, stillness means the expulsion of thoughts and the rejection of even reasonable cares. The man who wishes to offer a pure mind to God but who is troubled by cares is like a man who expects to walk quickly even though his legs are tied together.”
“Rise from love of the world and love of pleasure. Put care aside, strip your mind, refuse your body. Prayer after all, is a turning away from the world, visible and invisible. What have I in heaven? Nothing. What have I longed for on earth besides You? Nothing except simply to cling always to You in undistracted prayer. Wealth pleases some, glory others, possessions others, but what I want is to cling to God and to put the hopes of my dispassion in Him.”
“Striving for recollection during your set time of prayer Until we have acquired true prayer, we are like those who introduce children to walking. Make the effort to raise up, or rather, to enclose your mind within the words of your prayer; and if, like a child, it gets tired and falters, raise it up again. The mind, after all, is naturally unstable, but the God Who can do everything can also give it firm endurance. Persevere in this, therefore, and do not grow wear. Fight always with your thoughts and call them back when they wander away. God does not demand of those under obedience that their thoughts be totally undistracted when they pray. And do not lose heart when your thoughts are stolen away. Just remain calm, and constantly call your mind back.
If you are careful to train your mind never to wander, it will stay by you even at mealtimes. But if you allow it to stray freely, then you will never have it beside you.
Get ready for your set time of prayer by unceasing prayer in your soul. In this way, you will soon make progress. I have observed that those who were outstanding in obedience and who tried as far as possible to keep in mind the thought of God were in full control of their minds and wept copiously as soon as they stood in prayer, for holy obedience had prepared them for this.
Our good Redeemer, by speedily granting what is asked, draws to His love those who are grateful. But He keeps ungrateful souls praying a long time before Him, hungering and thirsting for what they want, since a badly trained dog rushes off as soon as it is given bread and leaves the giver behind.
A servant of the Lord stands bodily before men, but mentally he is knocking at the gates of heaven with prayer.
The soul endlessly preoccupied by day with the word of God will love to be preoccupied by it in sleep too. This second grace of being recollected in sleep is properly a reward for the first (i.e. being recollected while awake) and will help us to avoid falls and fantasies.”
“The beginning of prayer is the expulsion of distractions from the very start by a single thought; the middle stage is the concentration on what is being said or thought; its conclusion is rapture in the Lord.”
“A man is truly dispassionate — and is known to be such — when he has cleansed his flesh of all corruption; when he has lifted his mind above everything created, and has made it master of all the senses; when he keeps his soul continually in the presence of the Lord and reaches out beyond the borderline of strength to Him. Its effect is to sanctify the mind and to detach it from material things, and it does so in such a way that, after entering this heavenly harbor, a man, for most of his earthly life, is enraptured, like someone already in heaven, and he is lifted up to the contemplation of God.”
“Love, by its nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as this is humanly possible. In its activity it is inebriation of the soul. Its distinctive character is to be a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility.”
“Physical love can be a paradigm of the longing for God.”
“A chaste man is someone who has driven out bodily love (eros) by means of divine love (agape), who has used heavenly fire to quench the fires of the flesh.”
“Lucky the man who loves and longs for God as a smitten lover does for his beloved. Someone truly in love keeps before his mind’s eye the face of the beloved and embraces it there tenderly. Even during sleep the longing continues unappeased, and he murmurs to his beloved. That is how it is for the body. And that is how it is for the spirit. A man wounded by love had this to say about himself — and it really amazes me — “I sleep (because nature commands this) but my heart is awake (because of the abundance of my love)” (Song of Songs 5:2).
“Pride is utter poverty of soul disguised as riches, imaginary light where in fact there is darkness. A proud monk needs no demon. He has turned into one, an enemy to himself. It happens, I do not know how, that most of the proud never really discover their true selves. They think they have conquered their passions and they find out how poor they really are only after they die.
Like the sun which shines on all alike, vainglory beams on every occupation. What I mean is this. I fast, and turn vainglorious. I stop fasting so that I will draw no attention to myself, and I become vainglorious over my prudence. I dress well or badly, and am vainglorious in either case. I talk or I hold my peace, and each time I am defeated. No matter how I shed this prickly thing, a spike remains to stand up against me.
If pride turned some of the angels into demons, then humility can doubtless make angels out of demons. So take heart, all you sinners. There is such a thing as exile, an irrevocable renunciation of everything in one’s familiar surroundings that hinders one from attaining the ideal of holiness. Exile is a disciplined heart, unheralded wisdom, an unpublicized understanding, a hidden life, masked ideals. It is unseen meditation, the striving to be humble, a wish for poverty, the longing for what is divine. It is an outpouring of love, a denial of vainglory, a depth of silence.
I once asked a very experienced father how humility is achieved through obedience. This was his answer: “A wisely obedient man, even if he is able to raise the dead, to have the gift of tears, to be free from conflict, will nevertheless judge that this happened through the prayer of his spiritual director; and so he remains a stranger and an alien to empty presumption. For how could he take pride in something that, by his reckoning, is due to the effort not of himself but of his director?”
“He who refuses to accept a criticism, just or not, renounces his own salvation, while he who accepts it, hard or not though it may be, will soon have his sins forgiven.”
“The Lord often humbles the vainglorious by causing some dishonor to befall them. And indeed the first step in overcoming vainglory is to remain silent and to accept dishonor gladly. The middle stage is to check every act of vainglory while it is still in thought. The end — insofar as one may talk of an end to an abyss — is to be able to accept humiliation before others without actually feeling it.”
“We will show ourselves true lovers of wisdom and of God if we stubbornly run away from all possibility of aggrandizement. It is sheer lunacy to imagine that one has deserved the gifts of God. You may be proud only of the achievements you had before the time of your birth. But anything after that, indeed the birth itself, is a gift from God. You may claim only those virtues in you that are there independently of your mind, for your mind was bestowed on you by God. And you may claim only those victories you achieved independently of the body, for the body too is not yours but a work of God.
We must be ever on guard against yielding to the mere thought that we have achieved any sort of good. We have to be really careful about this, in case it should be a trait within us, for if it is, then we have certainly failed.
Those of us who wish to gain understanding must never stop examining ourselves and if in the perception of your soul you realize that your neighbor is superior to you in all respects, then the mercy of God is surely near at hand.
Holy humility had this to say: “The one who loves me will not condemn someone, or pass judgment on anyone, or lord it over someone else, or show off his wisdom until he has been united with me.”
The man who has come to know himself with the full awareness of his soul has sown in good ground. However, anyone who has not sown in this way cannot expect humility to flower within him. And anyone who has acquired knowledge of self . . .has arrived at the doorway of love. For humility is the door to the kingdom, opening up to those who come near.”
“You will know that you have this holy gift of humility within you and not be led astray when you experience an abundance of unspeakable light together with an indescribable love of prayer. Even before reaching this stage, you may have it, if in your heart you pass no judgment on the faults of others. And a precursor of what we have described is hatred of all vainglory.
And there are men who wear out their bodies to no purpose in the pursuit of total dispassion, heavenly treasures, miracle working, and prophetic ability, and the poor fools do not realize that humility, not hard work, is the mother of such things. The man who seeks a quid pro quo from God builds on uncertainty, whereas the man who considers himself a debtor will receive sudden and unexpected riches. Humility is a grace in the soul. It is indescribable wealth, a name and a gift from God. Learn from Me, He said; that is, not from an angel, not from a man, not from a book, but from Me, that is from My dwelling within you, from My illumination and action within you, for I am gentle and meek of heart (Mt. 11:29) in thought and in spirit, and your souls will find rest . . .”
“When fire comes to dwell in the heart it resurrects prayer; and after prayer has been revived and taken up into heaven, a descent of fire takes place into the upper chamber of the soul.”
“The lover of silence draws close to God. He talks to Him in secret and God enlightens him.”
“Love has no boundary, and both in the present and in the future age we will never cease to progress in it, as we add light to light. Perhaps this may seem strange to many. Nevertheless it has to be said, and the evidence we have, blessed Father, would lead me to say that even the angels make progress and indeed that they add glory to glory and knowledge to knowledge.”
“Come to union with the most blessed stillness and I will teach you the workings and the behavior of the spiritual powers (Angels). They never grow tired of their everlasting praise of the Maker, nor does he who has entered into the heaven of stillness cease to praise his Creator. Spirits have no thought for what is material, and those who have become immaterial in a material body will pay no attention to food, for the former know nothing of it and the latter need no promise of it; the former are unconcerned about money and chattels and the latter are heedless of the malice of evil spirits. In those dwelling above, there is no yearning for the visible creation, while those on earth below have no longing for what can be sensed, because the former never cease to make progress in love and the latter will never cease to imitate them. The former know well the value of their progress; the latter understand their own love and longing for the ascent to heaven. The former will desist only when they rise to the realm of the Seraphim; the latter will grow tired only when they come at last to be angels. Blessed is he who hopes; thrice blessed is he who lives to see the promise of being an angel.”
The starting point of love is an abundance of humility, which in turn is the daughter of dispassion. To have dispassion is to have the fullness of love, by which I mean the complete indwelling of God in those who, through dispassion, are pure of heart for they shall see God . To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
“Those nearing perfection in spirit and body experience the following: perfect love, a well of humility, a detached mind, an indwelling of Christ, an assurance of light and of prayer, an outpouring of divine illumination.
The following are the signs, the stages, and the proofs of practicing stillness in the right way — a calm mind, a purified disposition, rapture in the Lord, the remembrance of everlasting torments, the imminence of death, an insatiable urge for prayer, constant watchfulness, the death of lust, no sense of attachment, death of worldliness, and end to gluttony, a foundation for theology, a well of discernment, a truce accompanied by tears, an end to talkativeness, and many other such things alien to most men.
I saw others among these wonderful fathers who had the white hair of angels, the deepest innocence, and a wise simplicity that was spontaneous and yet directed by God Himself. The fact is that just as an evil person is two-faced, one thing in public and another in private, so a simple person is not twofold, but something whole. Such simple people are openly gentle, kindly, radiant, genuine, without hypocrisy, affectation, or falsity of either speech or disposition — something not found in many. Spiritually, they are like children.”