Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences

General Audience
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 to others.

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 Spirit.

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!

© Copyright 2009 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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