A Word from the Holy Fathers:
What is this mystery in me? What is the meaning of this blending of body and soul? How am I constituted a friend and a foe to myself? Tell me, tell me, my yoke-fellow, my nature, for I shall not ask anyone else in order to learn about you. How am I to remain unwounded by you? How can I avoid the danger of my nature for I have already made a vow to Christ to wage war against you? How am I to overcome your tyranny for I am resolved to be your master?
This, from the 15th step of St. John’s Ladder. On the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Church commemorates our Holy Father John of Sinai, most often know as St. John Climacus or John of the Ladder after his famous text from which we’ve just read: “The Ladder to Paradise” which, for many people, as in monasteries, is annual reading during the Great Fast.
St. John came to the monastery at St. Catherine at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the sixth century taking monastic tonsure when he was only in his mid-teens. For a time, the disciple of the monastery’s abbot, St. John later retreated into the desert regions at the base of Sinai itself, living in a small hermitage. He became abbot himself much later, in the year 600, then in his mid-70s, and remained in this role some four or five years before retreating back to his hermitage to repose in the Lord in the year 606. St. John’s reputation as a great ascetic and spiritual father was known throughout the empire in his own lifetime with pilgrims, as well as bishops, seeking his guidance and his illumined prayers. But his most lasting teaching comes in the form of this “Ladder to Paradise” often found printed together with his smaller work, “To the Pastor.”
The Ladder is a vivid description of a life of heyschias that leads to broad communion with the living God: the only true paradise of man. It is a book that takes the Christian life and Christian struggle seriously, not mincing words or pretending softness. Indeed of the thirty steps of the ladder, the very first is the complete renunciation of the world. That is the first step. But perhaps, precisely because St. John does not mince his words, does not attempt to soften what a caricature genuine Christian struggle, his text remains vivid and compelling as much today as when it was first penned in the sixth century. And our passage, which I read just a few moments ago, is a good example of just why.
What is this mystery in me? What is the meaning of this blending of body and soul? How am I constituted a friend and a foe to myself? St. John is intimately aware of the mystery of the human person and the dimensions of our lives that are exposed in the Christian struggle. We find the paradox of our both aiding and hindering ourselves in the Christian life, of being our own friend as well as our enemy. At times, our soul seeks heavenly things, but our body clings to what earthly. At other times, heyschias conditions our body into true repentance, yet our souls cling to worldly thoughts. So in one case, our body is our enemy. In the other, it is our friend. In one case: the soul our enemy, in the other, our friend. As St. John asks, how is it that I am constituted friend and foe to myself?
His words here are important reminders of our genuine struggle. We are remarkably good at playing our own foe to our spiritual growth, frighteningly so. Yet, we must remember that we are too, at times, friends in this struggle. This person, this soul and body, is God’s handiwork, bearing his image. As much as my sin may distort its aim, the human creature longs for its God. So our goal in the Christian life is not to obliterate the body, but as St. John puts it: to learn to tame its fallen aspects so that it does not wound us. The Christian life is not intended to destroy the body, but to prevent an unnatural mastery by its sinful condition. In St. John’s own words, “how am I to overcome your tyranny for I am resolved to be your master?”
This is a hard struggle, and the Ladder makes no attempt to have it seem like anything less. Christ demands of us our whole life, but we are called to give it with joy, to engage in the hard struggle with radiant hope for we struggle after a cause. From the very first step of the Ladder, we have the following guidance.
All who enter upon the good fight which is hard and close, but also easy, must realize that they must leap into the fire if they really expect the celestial fire to dwell in them.
The good fight is hard and close, and yet, as St. John says, it is also easy, just as Christ promised who said that He gave a yoke, but a yoke that was light to bear. Again, we see the mystery of our life in Him. But St. John is here, very precise, never letting the severity of our work rend us from its true aim. We must leap into the fire, as he says, but we do so because we expect the celestial fire to dwell in us. Heyschias always points towards something, or more specifically, it points towards someone. Our work is in vain if it is not in Christ. The whole Christian life is bound up in this strange mystery of seeming opposites: of being in our hearts our own friends as well as our own foes, of the yoke being heavy yet light, of a struggle that is hard, yet easy.
And at the very center of this mystery of paradoxes is repentance itself, which brings together the seemingly incompatible sorrow and joy. As St. John writes in the seventh step of his Ladder,
When I consider the actual nature of compunction, I am amazed at how that which is called mourning and grief should contain joy and gladness interwoven with it, like honey in the comb.
If there is a single lasting image of St. John’s vision which remains with me and comes first into my mind every time I hear his name, it is this image of mourning and grief that contained within them joy and gladness. In St. John, we are taught to recognize a sorrow that creates joy, tears that bring gladness. We are given a vision of repentance that is the very pulse and heartbeat of love itself. When we are working ourselves to learn a prayer, to learn repentance, St. John’s guidance is invaluable. Here is a pastor for our struggle who teaches us not to put sorrow and joy as foes in our Christian life. When we do so, we set ourselves up for continual frustration either becoming despondent when we cannot escape our sorrow, or emotionally elated without any real substance when we believe joy has, within it, no dimension of suffering. These are real temptations in our day-to-day lives of prayer.
And so, St. John teaches us to embrace a joy that emulates Christ’s joy, a joy born in sorrow, in sacrifice, and he teaches us to embrace a right grief, a grief of heart that emulates the Church’s grief at Christ’s tomb. We lament there. We weep, but we know already the secret that the angels shall reveal. We weep tears already united to joy and this gives both the tears and the joy their real substance, their real perspective, their real meaning.
In our holy fathers, we encounter theology in its highest form: the theology of vision, of divine illumination, and this true theology is always as is so clearly the case here with St. John of the Ladder, theology to be practiced, theology that pastors and shepherds us in our growth. May we receive this precious shepherding which the fathers give to us so that we, like St. John in the final step of his ladder, might be able to say:
Enlighten us O Lord. Quench our thirst. Guide us, take us by the hand. For we wish at last to soar to Thee. Thou rulest over all and now Thou hast ravished my soul and I cannot contain Thy Flame.
Through the prayers of our holy father, St. John of Sinai, and of all the saints, have mercy on us O Lord and save us. Amen.