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Saint of the week

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

St John Climacus (March 30) wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent, one of the most important devotional texts of the Middle Ages

By on Friday, 25 March 2011

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

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.”

  • Anonymous

    “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.”

    I completely agree with him. It is precisely the loss of a sense of sin, the loss of a fear of Hell, which has led to such a slackening of the faith even amongst churchgoing Catholics – indeed, these losses allow liberal Catholicism to exist, for if these fears were alive in them those people who scoff at mortal sin, do not go to confession, and feel that all manner of sexual sin is acceptable to God could not possibly do so.

  • Joseph D’Hippolito

    I cannot disagree with John Climacus more. Christ not only bore all human sin on the cross but also the consequences of that sin, one of which is guilt. Those who embrace His atoning sacrifice for their own redemption not only receive forgiveness from their sin (aka ‘justification”) but also status as His adopted sons and daughters. As St. Paul said, “there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” No amount of human effort can atone for human sin because once “the deed is done,” as it were, it can’t be undone. Those who have been hurt can’t be unhurt. Resulting circumstances cannot be reversed.

    We should feel the need for a savior and the frustration of our own sinfulness. But after embracing Christ, the believer no longer is viewed by God as guilty.

    The problem with contemporary Catholicism isn’t just the loss of sin and the fear of damnation. It’s the failure to communicate the Gospel by those who should no better. It’s also the result of the Church using guilt as a tool to manipulate people into submission. That’s not just a “traditionalist” problem, either; the liberal “peace and justice” crowd do quite a good job of it, these days.

  • DBMcGinnity

    Mr Nytor, you sure have this right!
    “Sure a little bit of torture never hurt anyone”
    Here is a great religious and financial enterprise in the correction and punishment business The Vatican could find a large island in some inhospitable place like Devils island, only worse. Then all the countries in the world could sub-contract their penal system to “Catholic Corrections Inc.” Imagine the advantages there would be for all countries, like the US, UK and others. The prisoners could be saved from hell fire by having their punishment on earth from experts in pain suffering and cruelty: The Roman Catholic Church.

    A more severe form of humiliation and degradation could be employed, similar to the Irish Industrial Schools and Magdalene Laundries. The Irish Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy techniques of discipline could be reinstated. The Bernardo Gui: Inquisitorial Technique could be revived and all inmates would have to witness torture and punishment, for the good of their immortal souls. Mind you, the church would take no pleasure in this.

    All countries participating would give their “prison and corrective institution” budgets of billions of dollars to the Vatican for safe keeping and for the care of the transgressors and those most in need of correction. There could be a “Torture by Proxy” facility and “Extraordinary Rendition” agreement where abduction and extra-judicial transfers from other countries would operate on a pro-rata fee system. This is a money spinner !!

  • James H

    “Mind you, the church would take no pleasure in this.”
    No, but there would be those who did. And like the various Irish schools, the perverts would overrun the place very quickly.

  • Johnny G.

    I’m a 64 year-old practicing Catholic (“practicing” by the grace of God) who was raised on this sort of fear/guilt nonsense! I know many good, devout, life-long Protestants and when we talk about our up-bringing, not a one of them can understand what being a “1950s Catholic was like.” They all were raised with a HEALTHY reverence for God and were constantly presented with the Mercy of God found in Jesus Christ. In short: “the Bible says….” and not “the Church says……” Frankly, I tossed off my “fear & trembling” 30 years ago and put my trust in The WORD…..Jesus Christ and Scripture first…….”church/man-made stuff” second. Frankly, I think a great number of priests & religious decades ago were a brain-washed bunch of frustrated people, who either enjoyed or felt it was their “calling” to make others “miserable in the name of God.”

  • RJ

    “The Bible says”….according to whom?

  • Johnny G.

    To RJ: John 17:13 speaks clearly for itself.
    “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. ” No unhealthy guilt/fear/scrupulosity here!

    It speaks about a full measure of “joy within” the believer that our Lord wanted people to have. I would also point to the Samaritan woman (the one with 5 previous husbands!) and the woman caught in adultery (John 8). Jesus did not launch into a fire & brimstone correction, and He well could have! So, I emphasize what the Biblical text clearly SAYS and what it TEACHES without falling into the fundamentalist/sola scriptura trap.

  • Chjklnps

    Johnny G, you will recall that the adulterous woman already had all the fear and guilt anybody would want – she was moments away from being publicly stoned to death after being caught in the act. The samaritan woman’s faults were less public. They were known to Jesus. Maybe less frightening for her, but how guilty would she feel in the company of someone who she herself said knew everything she ever did? Tears of joy fell at the feet of Jesus – from the one who had been forgiven much – implying that knowledge of our guilt helps us to appreciate Jesus’ gift of forgiveness.