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St John Climacus in 2020

The Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, 2020

Remembering St. John Climacus (of “the Ladder)

We know few details about St. John’s life, except that he was a monk and abbot at Mt. Sinai in the sixth-seventh century (ca 579-649 AD). His book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, (Climacus is derived from the Greek word for ladder, klimax) written in the early seventh century, was written as a guide for the monks at another monastery. But it became a spiritual classic of Christianity, widely read by monastics and non-monastics alike.

A hymn for the saint

We and all who follow the monastic life honor you as a teacher John our father; for we have learned through you to journey on the straight path. Blessed are you, for you have served Christ and triumphed over the power of the enemy. O fellow of the angels, companion of the righteous and the saints, pray with us to the Lord, that mercy may be granted to our souls. (From K. Ware, The Lenten Triodion, p. 354)

I suppose we have all become monastics these days.

Monastic life is associated with asceticism. Olivier Clement says this about asceticism:

“Ascesis is not obedience to some abstract categorical imperative. It frees human nature to follow its deep instinct to ascend toward God. It enables a person to pass from a state ‘contrary to nature’ to a state ‘in harmony with nature’, in harmony, that is, with that human (and cosmic) material united in Christ with the godhead, without separation or confusion….

Amma Synclectica said, ‘Great endeavors and hard struggles away those who are converted but afterwards inexpressible joy. If you want to light a fire, you are troubled at first by smoke, and your eyes water. But in the end you achieve your aim. Now it is written: “Our God is a consuming fire”. So we must light the divine fire in us with tears and struggle.’  (From O. Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 132).”

Monastic life is a focused life.

Jesse Itzler, one of the owners of the Atlantic Hawks basketball team, spent sixteen days living, working, and praying with the Monks of New Skete, an OCA monastery in Cambridge, NY. Itzler’s book, Living with the Monks (2018), is a memoir of sorts of that experience. It’s the perspective of a complete outsider to Orthodox Christianity. His language is coarse at times.

He writes about an experience of having to wash dishes at the monastery for an event that had well over one hundred in attendance:

“I was doing it wrong. I wasn’t doing it like a monk. During my stay I wondered how the monks have such great ENERGY and EFFORT (caps his). They’re so EFFICIENT in EVERYTHING they do. The answer is they monotask, that’s how they do it. And they do it with perfection. The monks do their job(s) with zest, but only one disk at a time. Each dish is done like the world depends on it. Maybe it does? They’re completely, singularly focused. There are no distractions. They don’t increase their effort, they increase their concentration.” (J. Itzler, Living with the Monks, p. 258)

Question for reflection and discussion:

How have these days of staying-in-place turned you into a “monastic way of life”?

How do you understand ascesis? Who taught you this understanding and how have you applied those principles in your life?

We’ve been told to value “multi-tasking.” Monotasking might be a challenge, right now. How might you apply monotasking in your life once we emerge from our days of physical isolation?

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