(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. John of the Ladder, whose account is found in Volume 1 of the series.)
St. John of the Ladder
The symbolic ascent to heaven is customarily portrayed by the flight skyward with angelic wings; one of our saints, however, depicts the ascension by the more practical use of a ladder. This symbolic ladder is to be scaled in a series of spiritual rungs where increasingly more exertion is required in order to see the kingdom of God. The author of this approach was St. John of the Ladder, who was one of the greatest writers in Christianity. “The Ladder of Perfection” is a treatise on spiritual exercises and actions which present in a brilliant and scholarly fashion an approach to the throne of heaven.
Born in the sixth century, John spent the first sixteen years of his life in Palestine, the ancient Holy Land of his birth, whose traditions he respected and whose Christian heritage he cherished. His early ambitions were realized when he went to the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai, the oldest Christian monastery in the world. There he became one of the most scholarly monks in Christendom. The site of St. Catherine’s was conducive to prayer and meditation, for there the scene of the burning bush took place and there Moses received the word from God himself. Moreover, to this place the grieving St. Helen, mother of St. Constantine the Great, came on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land some two hundred years before.
Mt. Sinai is unique in that it has been for centuries a holy magnet for Jewish, Muslim and Christian pilgrims. While not as large or as imposing as Mt. Athos, Mt. Sinai still boasts of its antiquity and its prominence in the Old Testament. For that reason, John felt at home in this desert retreat and was inspired by this proximity to God to advance the cause of Christianity in writings that have illumined the Church with their brilliance and clarity of thought.
John is remembered not only as the author of the masterful “Ladder of Perfection,” but also as the originator of hesychasm, the divine quietness that leads one to God through constant prayer, the prayer which has come to be known as the pure or intellectual “Jesus Prayer.” Regarding this, John wrote: “Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with each breath, and then you will know that value of hesychia.” He continued to champion this doctrine, which found eager support among Christian thinkers, chief among whom was St. Gregory Palamas, whose sponsorship brought about offi cial Church recognition of hesychasm in the fourteenth century.
For more than seventy years, John of the Ladder practiced what he preached in the confines of his desert monastery. He achieved such a reputation for piety and wisdom that men from all walks of life were drawn to his side and came from all over the East to make a pilgrimage to his retreat. From John’s strong faith and fervent prayer came the power of healing through the divine intervention of Jesus. If nothing else, St. John’s visitors would leave him with a serenity which they had never before experienced and with a sense of fulfillment that would last a lifetime.
At a time when Christianity was being tested to the fullest, St. John of the Ladder conveyed the divine grace that can only be achieved through Jesus Christ. He was able to advance the cause of Christianity without traversing the land, because the shining light which he received through his isolation with the Lord was carried out into the spiritual darkness by the grateful pilgrims who received his blessing.
From the name which identifies this St. John one would conclude he was a carpenter, but this man of peace spent a lifetime contemplating the love of the carpenter of Nazareth. The intensity of his devotion to the Savior is one of the sustaining factors which, transcended through everyone who calls himself a Christian, makes the faith in Jesus Christ indestructible. He witnessed no burning bush, but he walked with God nonetheless. One of Christendom’s finest figures, he died on March 30 at the age of eighty-six. His feast day is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.