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The abbot who believed that guilt and fear were essential for spiritual growth

An icon depicting the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John Climacus

John Climacus (c 579-c 649) takes his surname from his book The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which became one of the most important devotional texts of the Middle Ages, especially in the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Ladder (Klimakos in Greek) is composed of 30 steps, each representing a particular vice or virtue encountered in the ascent towards spiritual fulfilment. 

Little is known of its author, beyond the fact that he spent most of his life practising extreme asceticism as a monk and hermit on Mount Sinai. At some stage, though, he visited a large monastery outside Alexandria, where he was impressed by the combination of sternness and affection which the abbot dispensed. Errant monks were sent to the nearby “Prison”, where they suffered every privation that a fertile imagination could supply. 

John himself stayed a month there, concluding that “those who are fallen and are penitent are more blessed than those who have never fallen and do not have to mourn over themselves.”
A modern writer, by contrast, has likened the Prison to a badly run psychiatric institution.

Around 600 John became abbot and superior to all the religious on Mount Sinai. It was then that he wrote The Ladder, which anatomises the eternal conflict between the lure of temptation and the pursuit of holiness.

It is a battle which cannot be won, the book emphasises, without liberating oneself entirely from the world. For this reason the Christian must at all costs abhor flatterers. “Defeat and shame,” John held, “should fall on all who say: ‘Well done’.”

Notwithstanding the years which John spent in his hermitage, he came to believe that it is easier to attain virtue in a community. “As galloping horses race one another,” he wrote, “so a good community excites mutual fervour.” 

Devotion, however, must be essentially private. “Those who have learned true prayer,” John reflected, “converse with the Lord face to face, as if speaking into the ear of an emperor.”

In direct contrast to modern psychiatrists, John held that guilt and the fear of damnation were essential starting points for spiritual progress. The soul proceeds from the dread of Hell into the grace of hope.

This journey must of necessity be a harsh experience. Prayer, John Climacus believed, “is the mother and daughter of tears, the expiation of sin, a bridge across temptation, a bulwark against affliction”.

Yet those who persevere to the topmost rung will be rewarded by the experience of a divine love which utterly transcends all earthly delight.

Such love, The Ladder assures us, “grants prophecy and miracles. It is an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul. It is the condition of angels and the progress of eternity.”