Hello, I’m Sr. Vassa, and I’m having my coffee here in Vienna in Austria. It is the fifth week of Lent, and we’ve received some very good news this week. Our previous costume designer, a very nice young Greek man named Emilios, is going to be released from prison in several weeks. In fact, right on Easter. Yes, poor Emilios. Only 23 years old, and he’s been in jail for almost a year. He’s getting out now, I believe, because of good behavior, a little bit early. He did not get in trouble with the law, mind you, by any fault of his own; I think he was really just naïve.
He was hired by what he thought was a wealthy Saudi family to make some clothing for the women, something actually quite similar to what I’m wearing right now, but that’s beside the point, and somehow he ended up in the middle of an elaborate money-laundering ring. Anyway, he surprised all of us this week when he called Anka—yes, our new set designer, Anka, who gave birth to baby Francis recently—and he told her that he’s going to be released soon from jail. Now, I had no idea that these two even knew each other, Emilios and Anka. In any event, I’m very happy he’s coming back because he’s very nice, and even if he did get in trouble with the law he really does have a heart of gold. [Music: Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”]
This fifth week of Lent is also very eventful for us liturgically. On Thursday at matins, the Great Canon is read, and on Saturday the akathistos hymn is sung in praise of the mother of God. And the whole week begins with [the 4th Sunday of Lent,] the Sunday of St. John of the Ladder, or St. John Climacos, a seventh-century monk of Mt. Sinai in Egypt and author of a well-known ascetic text or book called The Ladder of Divine Ascent [early 7th c.]. Today we will talk about St. John of the Ladder and several other things that will be a surprise at the end. [Dramatic music]
No information has come down to us about the origins or birthplace of St. John, who came to Mt. Sinai to be a monk when he was just 16 years old. He entered the Vatos Monastery [of the Burning Bush], which later became St. Catherine’s [at the foot of Mt. Sinai in Egypt]. He was taught the monastic life by an elder named Martyrius, and after the death of Martyrius, 19 years later, John withdrew to a hermitage outside the monastery where he spent 40 years in the contemplative life. At age 75, John became the abbot of the monastery by request of the monks, and as abbot he became very well known for his wisdom and exemplary life. Today he is best-known for his book, as I already mentioned, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which he wrote in the early seventh century, upon request of the Abbot John of Raithu Monastery, located on the Red Sea. So note that this book was written on request of a monastic and by a monastic, and it is written for the guidance of other monks and presumes the context of a monastic community.
This book describes to the monastic how to raise one’s soul and body to God through the gradual acquisition of ascetic virtues and through the battle against specific vices. This ascetic ascent is described in 30 steps or chapters, and the number 30 corresponds to the age of Jesus at his baptism [in the Jordan]. John uses the analogy of Jacob’s ladder, which is described in the Bible in the book of Genesis, as the framework of his topic [Gen. 28:12]. The first seven steps reflect on general virtues that form the basis of monastic life. Step one, for example, considers renunciation of the world, meaning of everything the monastic leaves behind when the monastic enters the monastery. Step four discusses complete obedience to a spiritual father.
The next 19 steps offer guidance in overcoming specific vices, like slander, gluttony, insensibility, despondency, cowardice, vainglory, and so on. The final four steps consider the higher virtues, or the very aim of the ascetic life: step 27, prayer, prosevchē; step 28, stillness, hesychia; step 29, dispassion, apatheia; and finally, in step 30, the crown of all the virtues: love, faith, and hope. This is one of the most widely-read books in Byzantine spirituality. In other words, it’s also considered spiritual reading. You could also call it prayerful reading. Let’s talk a little bit more about this idea of prayerful reading.
[Chime: “Thought for Today”]
There are different types of prayerful reading. There is the reading of Scripture and the reading of other books, sometimes called spiritual books, which motivate us in our journey [in our salvation, i.e., our recovery]. One important thing to remember in this business of prayerful reading is that we should read that which is appropriate to our life, literature that can actually help us lead holy lives and encourage us in our concrete challenges. As St. Isaac the Syrian says:
Every undertaking has its own order, and every way of life has its proper time. They who prematurely take up that which is beyond their measure will gain nothing and only hurt themselves.
So let’s choose our reading wisely, because if we are, for example, laypeople, but we spend our time reading ascetic literature about renunciation of the world or complete obedience to a monastic elder, we might find ourselves in awkward and frustrating situations like trying to turn our parish priest into that monastic elder or, I don’t know, just feeling generally desperate, because we’re not reading that which is realistic for us, or just appropriate to us. There is one thing that we are all called to read, that’s appropriate for all of us, and that is holy Scripture: the Bible. We as Orthodox—let’s face it—we don’t read the Bible that much, and that’s too bad.
In the Latin monastic tradition from which we can learn, more specifically the Benedictine tradition, of the ancient Father St. Benedict [of Nursia, +543/7, Father of Western Monasticism], the prayerful reading specifically of holy Scripture, not other spiritual literature, is called lectio divina. This means the slow and thoughtful reading of a passage or verse in Scripture and the ensuing pondering of its meaning. This type of meaning does not seek information as, for example, when one is studying for an exam, but communion with God. It requires prayerful preparation in stillness, according to the psalm verse: “Be still, and know that I am God” [Ps. 46:10]. It emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit in revealing the word of God, and seeks to place us in the presence of God by not just reading but also praying.
Now, obviously, this is a practice that is accessible not only to monastics but laypeople as well, and it is practiced by laypeople all the time. Note that the goal of this practice, to place ourselves in the presence of God, is also a goal of another practice we discussed two weeks ago, of repeating the Jesus prayer. [The Jesus Prayer also places us in the presence of God.] Of course, prayer and reading are a bit different, because, as St. Ambrose of Milan [+397] notes, “We address him when we pray; we hear him when we read,” but the result is the same: that we are in the presence of God.
As I already mentioned, prayerful reading is also applicable to what we call spiritual reading, like reading the lives of the saints or other books about spiritual life, which motivate us to keep our connection to God in perspective. This is what the Apostle Paul is talking about when he writes to Timothy, “Attend to reading” [1 Tim. 4:13]. This is also what this Sunday of Lent is actually exhorting us to do by celebrating not only St. John of the Ladder but, perhaps even more so, his famous book, because doing just a bit of prayerful reading, for example, in the morning, builds up a store of fuel, so to say, to keep God in the picture of our daily life.
After all, most of us find time to catch up on the news in the morning, either by catching up on an online news source, or maybe some of you still read newspapers. We find time for that, so maybe we could find a little bit of time to read just a bit of Scripture—we don’t have to overdo it—and perhaps a paragraph of some spiritual reading appropriate to our walk of life. As we do so, let’s try to remember three things: (1) to ask God for help beforehand; (2) to read slowly and attentively; and (3) to select a part that impresses us most, and carry it with us the rest of the day. So let’s try to “attend to reading” [1 Tim. 4:13]. Try it, you’ll like it! [Music: P!ink’s “Try”]
That’s it for today, ladies and gentlemen: St. John of the Ladder. [Applause] Thank you. [In cooperation with Ancient Faith Radio. With special thanks to the Austrian Science Fund. And to viewers, awaiting a surprise at the end of this video: The whole crew and baby Francis wish you a happy April Fool’s Day!]