Creeping Up the Ladder  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

St John Climacus (ca 579-649) was the abbot of St Catherine's monastery, situated at the foot of Jebel Musa, traditionally the site of Mt Sinai where Moses had his direct encounters with God. He is the author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Colm Luibheid & Norman Russell, Paulist Press 1982). This is perhaps the single most popular ascetical work in the Eastern Church and is customarily read by all Orthodox monks every Lent. It inspired the creation of the accompanying icon showing monks making their perilous way up the 30-step ladder to eventual salvation; some of course fall off to become prey for demons. I was fortunate to be able to see the original when it was part of an exhibit at the Getty Museum several years ago. As we enter the home stretch of Lent, the Ladder is worth a look.

For this western Christian, at least, Climacus is definitely an acquired taste. There is lots of stereotypically negative material that has to be worked through to get to what I would consider useable spiritual insights. "Treat your body always as an enemy, for the flesh is an ungrateful and treacherous friend. The more you look after it, the more it hurts you" (153).

Or this: "Mortification of the appetite, nightlong toil, a ration of water, a short measure of bread, the bitter cup of dishonor--these will show you the narrow way. Derided, mocked, jeered, you must accept the denial of your will. You must patiently endure opposition, suffer neglect without complaint, put up with violent arrogance. You must be ready for injustice and not grieve when you are slandered; you must not be angered by contempt and you must show humility when you have been condemned [all of this abuse comes from other monks, needless to say!]".

I am in distinguished company, for Thomas Merton says "Climacus was a kind of sixth-century desert Hemingway...he sees through the weaknesses of men and monks, and cannot resist the temptation to caricature them without mercy. He never stops. Even when one gets to the last, supposedly serene rungs of the Ladder, on which all is sweet repose and hesychia, he restlessly yields to the same wild reflex and keeps lashing out on all sides. You cannot keep the man quiet...[the Ladder] was read within the last decade at the Abbey of Gethsemani, in the refectory. In the main, the monks seem to have found it either funny or unpleasant, and some unfledged ascetics openly complained to the present writer that Climacus was nuts." (in Disputed Questions 1960).

However, I firmly believe that one of our most important tasks as 21st-century theologians is to salvage what is of lasting validity from the theologies of the past. Accordingly, I will continue to give Climacus a second reading and then some. Some flecks of gold found amidst the gravel:

[How married people can be holy]: Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourselves from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven (78).

Some labor and struggle hard to earn forgiveness, but better than these is the man who forgets the wrongs done to him. Foregive quickly and you will be abundantly forgiven. To forget wrongs is to prove oneself truly repentant, but to brood on them and at the same time to imagine one is practicing repentance is to act like the man who is convince he is running when in fact he is fast asleep (154).

I have seen people delivered from passion by the very fact that they had flared up and then poured out their long-stored grievance and, in addition, they got from their offender either some reparation or some explanation for what had caused the long-standing grievance. On the other hand, I have seen men who appeared to be displaying stolid patience, but who, in reality, were silently harboring resentment within themselves. These, it seems to me, were much more to be pitied than the men prone to explosions of temper, because what they were doing was to keep away the holy white dove with that black gall of theirs (147-148).

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at Tuesday, April 07, 2009 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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