Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On the Spiritual Ladder of John Climacus
"A Great Symbol of the Life of the Baptized"
H.H. Benedict XVI
February 11, 2009
Dear brothers and sisters,
After 20 catecheses dedicated to the Apostle Paul, I would like to take
up again today the presentation of the great writers of the Church of
East and West in the Middle Ages. And I propose the figure of John
called Climacus, a Latin transliteration of the Greek term klímakos,
which means ladder (klímax).
This is the title of his principal work [rendered in English "Climax,"
or "Ladder to Perfection"], in which he describes the ascent of human
life toward God.
He was born around 575. His life unfolded in the years in which
Byzantium, capital of the Roman Empire of the East, experienced the
greatest crisis of its history. Suddenly the geographical layout of the
empire changed and the torrent of barbarian invasions brought all of its
structures to crumble. Only the structure of the Church remained, which
in these difficult times continued with its missionary, humanistic and
socio-cultural activities, especially through the network of
monasteries, in which operated great religious personalities, as was
precisely John Climacus.
Among the mountain of Sinai, where Moses encountered God and Elias heard
his voice, John lived and narrated his spiritual experiences. An account
of him has been conserved in a brief biography (PG 88, 596-608), written
by the monk Daniel of Raithu: At age 16, John, monk at Mt. Sinai, became
a disciple of the abbot Martyrius, an "elder," that is to say, "a wise
one." Toward age 20, he chose to live as a hermit in a cave at the foot
of a mountain, in the region of Tola, eight kilometers from the feet of
the current monastery of St. Catherine.
But solitude did not keep him from meeting people who desired a
spiritual guide, or from visiting certain monasteries close to
Alexandria. His hermitic withdrawal, in fact, far from being flight from
the world and human reality, led him to an ardent love for others (Life,
5) and for God (Life, 7). After 40 years of hermitic life lived in the
love of God and for others, years in which he cried, prayed and fought
against the demons, he was named abbot of the great monastery of Mt.
Sinai and thus returned to the cenobitic life in the monastery.
But a few years before his death, nostalgic for the hermitic life, he
transferred to a brother, a monk of the same monastery, the guidance of
the community. He died after the year 650. The life of John developed
between two mountains, Sinai and Tabor, and truly it can be said of him
that he radiated the light that Moses saw on Sinai and the apostles
contemplated on Tabor.
He became famous, as I already mentioned, with his work "The Ladder" (klímax),
called in the West the "Ladder of Paradise" (PG 88, 632-1164). Composed
because of the insistent petitions of the abbot of the nearby monastery
of Raithu, close to Sinai, "The Ladder" is a complete treatise of the
spiritual life, in which John describes the path of a monk, from the
renunciation of the world till the perfection of love. It is a path that
-- according to this book -- takes place through 30 steps, each one of
which is united to the one that comes after.
The path can be summarized in three successive phases: the first shows
the rupture with the world with the aim of returning to the state of
Gospel childlikeness. The essential, therefore, is not the rupture, but
the union with which Jesus has called, the return to the true
childlikeness in the spiritual sense, the coming to be like children.
John comments: "A good foundation is that formed by three bases and
three columns -- innocence, fasting and chastity. All the newborns in
Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1) should begin with these three things,
following the example of physical newborns" (1,20; 636).
The voluntary separation from dear people and places permits the soul to
enter into deeper communion with God. This renunciation leads to
obedience, which is the path of humility through humiliations -- which
are never lacking -- on the part of humans. Juan comments: "Blessed is
he who has mortified his own will to the end and has entrusted the care
of his person to his master in the Lord: He will be placed at the right
of the Crucified One" (4,37; 704).
The second phase of the path is made up of spiritual combat against the
passions. Each step of the ladder is united with a principal passion,
which is defined and diagnosed, indicating as well the therapy and
proposing the corresponding virtue. The whole of these steps undoubtedly
constitutes the most important treatise of the spiritual strategy that
we possess. The fight against the passions is seen in a positive light
-- it's not viewed as a negative thing -- thanks to the image of the
"fire" of the Holy Spirit:
"All those who undertake this beautiful fight (cf. 1 Timothy 6:12),
difficult and arduous […] should know that they have come to throw
themselves in a fire, if they truly desire that the immaterial fire
dwells in them" (1,18; 636). The fire of the Holy Spirit, which is the
fire of love and truth. Only the strength of the Holy Spirit assures
victory. But, according to John Climacus, it is important to be aware
that the passions are not evil in themselves; they become so because of
the poor use that human freedom makes of them. If they are purified, the
passions open to man the path toward God with energies unified by
asceticism and grace and "if they have received from the Creator an
order and principle … the limit of virtue is endless" (26/2,37; 1068).
The last phase of the path of Christian perfection is developed in the
last seven rungs of the ladder. These are the highest phases of the
spiritual life, able to be experienced by the "esicasti," the solitary
ones, who have arrived to tranquility and interior peace. But they are
phases accessible as well to the most fervent cenobites. Of the three
first ones -- simplicity, humility and discernment -- John, in line with
the desert fathers, considers the latter the most important, that is,
the capacity to discern.
Every action should be submitted to discernment, everything depends in
fact on deep motives, which it is necessary to explore. Here one enters
into the depths of the person and tries to awaken in the hermit, in the
Christian, the spiritual sensitivity and the "sense of the heart," gifts
of God: "As guide and rule of all things, after God, we should follow
our conscience" (26/1,5, 1013). In this way, one arrives to the
tranquility of the soul, the "esichía," thanks to which the soul can
peer into the abyss of divine mysteries.
The state of tranquility, of interior peace, prepares the "esicasta" for
prayer, which in John is double: "corporal prayer" and "prayer of the
heart." The first is proper to one who must avail of postures of the
body: extend the hands, express groans, strike the chest, etc. (15,26;
900); the second is spontaneous, because it is an effect of awakening
the spiritual sensitivity, gift of God to whom is dedicated the corporal
prayer. In John, this takes the name of "Jesus prayer" (Iesoû euché) and
it is made up of the invocation of the name of Jesus, a continuous
invocation like breathing: "The memory of Jesus becomes one with your
respiration, and then you will discover the truth of the esichía," of
interior peace (27/2,26; 1112). In the end, prayer becomes something
very simple, simply the word "Jesus" becomes one with our breathing.
The last rung of the scale (30), full of the "sober intoxication of the
Spirit" is dedicated to the supreme "trinity of virtues": faith, hope
and above all, charity. Regarding charity, John speaks also of eros
(human love), figure of the matrimonial union of the soul with God. And
he chooses yet again the image of fire to express the ardor, light and
purification of love by God. The strength of human love can be
reoriented toward God, as the good olive tree can be grafted onto the
wild olive (cf. Romans 11:24) (15,66; 893).
John is convinced that an intense experience of this eros makes the soul
advance more than the hard fight against the passions, because its power
is great. Thus the positiveness of our path prevails. But charity is
seen as well in direct relation with hope: "The strength of charity is
hope: Thanks to it we hope for the recompense of charity … hope is the
gate of charity … the absence of hope destroys charity: our troubles are
linked to it, with it we sustain ourselves in our problems and thanks to
it we are surrounded by the mercy of God" (30,16; 1157). The end of "The
Ladder" contains the synthesis of the work with the words the authors
puts in the mouth of God himself. "May this ladder teach you the
spiritual disposition of the virtues. I am at the top of this ladder, as
that great mystic of mine said (St. Paul): Now therefore three things
remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love (1
Corinthians 13:13)" (30,18; 1160).
At this point, a last question arises: "The Ladder," a work written by a
hermit monk who lived 1,400 years ago: Can it say something to us today?
The existential itinerary of a man who always lived on the mountain of
Sinai in a time so long ago: Can it be current for us? At first glance,
it seems the answer should be "no" because John Climacus is very far
from us. But if we look a little closer, we see that such a monastic
life is only a great symbol of the life of the baptized, of Christian
life. It shows, to say it one way, in large letters what we write every
day with little letters. It is a prophetic symbol that reveals what is
the life of the baptized, in communion with Christ, with his death and
resurrection. For me, it is of particularly importance the fact that the
culmination of the scale, the last rungs are at the same time the
fundamental, initial, simplest virtues: faith, hope and charity.
These are not virtues accessible only to moral heroes, but are the gift
of God for all the baptized. In them our life too grows. The beginning
is also the end; the starting point is also the arriving point: The
whole path goes toward an ever more radical fulfillment of faith, hope
and charity. In these virtues, the ladder is present. Fundamentally is
faith, because this virtue implies that I renounce arrogance, my
thoughts, the pretension to judge for myself, without entrusting myself
This path toward humility, toward spiritual childlikeness is necessary:
It is necessary to overcome the attitude of arrogance that makes one
say: I am better, in this age of mine of the 21st century, than what
those who lived then knew. It is necessary, instead, to entrust oneself
only to sacred Scripture, the Word of the Lord, approach with humility
the horizon of faith, to thus enter into the enormous vastness of the
universal world, of the world of God.
In this way, our soul grows, the sensitivity of the heart toward God
grows. Precisely John Climacus says that only hope makes us capable of
living charity. Hope in which we transcend the things of each day; we do
not hope for the success of our earthly days but we hope finally for the
revelation of God himself. Only in this extension of our soul, in this
self-transcendence, our life is made great and we can bear the tiredness
and disillusionment of each day, we can be good to others without
expecting a reward.
Only if God exists, this great hope to which I tend, can I take the
little steps of my life each day and thus learn charity. In charity, the
mystery of prayers is hidden, of the personal knowledge of Jesus: a
simple prayer that alone tends to touch the heart of the divine Teacher.
And thus one's heart opens, learns from him his own goodness, his love.
Let us use, therefore, this ladder of faith, of hope and of charity, and
we will thus arrive to true life.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In
English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today we recommence our catechesis on the great Christian writers of
both East and West. John Climacus, whose name means "ladder", was born
around 575, and wrote an outstanding tract near Mount Sinai on the
spiritual journey leading from renunciation of the world to perfection
in love. The journey takes place in three stages. The first involves
detachment from worldly goods in order to return to a state of Gospel
innocence and enter into a deeper communion with God. In the second
phase, the soul engages in a spiritual battle with the passions by
cultivating virtues corresponding to each. When purified, these passions
can show us the way to God through self-denial and grace. In the third
phase, John emphasizes the importance of discernment: we must examine
every aspect of our behaviour in order to ascertain our deepest
motivations and reawaken a "sense of the heart".
This leads to tranquillity of soul – esichía – which prepares us to
probe the depths of the divine mysteries. The last "rung" of the ladder
consists in faith, hope and charity. John’s account of charity includes
eros, or human love, which points towards the nuptial union of the soul
with God. May John’s spiritual "ladder" remind all of us who share in
the death and resurrection of Christ through Baptism that we are called
to continual conversion and purification with the help of the Holy
I am pleased to greet all the English-speaking visitors present at
today’s Audience, especially pilgrims from Japan, Taiwan, Denmark,
England, Ireland and the United States. God bless you all!
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