Metropolitan Moses - Sunday of Saint John Climacus
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the memory of Saint John Climacus. The theme of this feast witnesses to the ascetical nature of Christian spiritual life. As Saint Paul wrote, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood…” (Eph 6:12), but ours is a spiritual struggle against demons and “the law of sin” which wars against us. (Romans 7:23)
At the beginning of His public ministry our Savior was baptized by Saint John and immediately sought out solitude in the wilderness for the sake of spiritual struggle for forty days.
He the Sinless One, did this, in order to instruct us and to offer a pattern to the men He would later call to serve Him. The great Apostle of the Nations, Saint Paul, was converted and, in like manner, engaged in the spiritual struggles of solitude and prayer. As he wrote: But when it pleased God, Who from my mother's womb set me apart and called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the nations, immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood; neither did I go up to Jerusalem to them who were Apostles before me, but I departed for Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. (Gal 1:15-18)
Thus, Saint Paul spent three years of ascetic endeavor to prepare for his Apostolic ministry. Not all are called to be Apostles, but we are all required to put forth effort in the ascetical virtues, i.e., to fast, pray, and read the scriptures and other spiritual books.
Saint John Climacus, who we celebrate today, is known for his famous book on the ascetic life called, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” This book has served the Church well over the centuries. Not only has it been a help to those at the various stages of the monastic life, but it has been helpful to the laity as well. Throughout the Orthodox Christian world this book is read in monasteries and even in some homes during Great Lent. The sections describing the various passions that we all struggle against are especially useful to all Christians.
The Orthodox Church has always looked to monastic strugglers and leaders for spiritual guidance. If the Church is the Body of Christ and ye are “members in particular” (1Cor 12:27), and “God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues” (1Cor 12:28), where do monks and monastic leaders fit in?
The only reliable sources we have to understand this are the lives of the founders of monasticism and the canons of the Church. We can get a glimpse of the state of the monastic life during the early years of the Church in the “Life of Saint Anthony,” by Saint Athanasius, who wrote: “…there were not yet so many monasteries in Egypt, and no monk at all knew of the distant desert; but all who wished to give heed to themselves practiced the discipline in solitude near their own village. Now there was then in the next village an old man who had lived the life of a hermit from his youth up. Anthony, after he had seen this man, imitated him in piety. And at first he began to abide in places outside the village…”
Thus, we see that the early monks lived on the fringe of society, seeking solitude in order to devote themselves to the struggle of virtue. This life apart is signified by the very word, “monk” which is from the Greek word “monos” which means alone. The monastic life begins with a desire for this separateness and, in monastic parlance, when one becomes a monk, he “leaves the world.” In his chapter on “Exile,” Saint John Climacus explains, “Those who have come to love the Lord are at first unceasingly and greatly disturbed by this thought, as if burning with divine fire. I speak of separation from their own, undertaken by the lovers of perfection so that they may live a life of hardship and simplicity…” Later he cautions the prospective monk with the words, “If every prophet goes unhonored in his own country, as the Lord says, then let us beware lest our exile should be for us an occasion of vainglory. For exile is separation from everything in order to keep the mind inseparable from God.” In other words, it is essential that those who wish to practice monasticism today pay careful heed to these words and remember the examples of the first monks and know that authentic monasticism is free from vainglory and seeks to live on the periphery of the Church, in order to seek the face of God through prayer.
Of course, not every monk in every era has lived up to this principle. For this reason the Holy Fathers at the Fourth Ecumenical Council clarified the position of monastics in the Church and decreed the following: “…and that the monks in every city and district shall be subject to the bishop, and embrace a quiet course of life, and give themselves only to fasting and prayer, remaining permanently in the places in which they were set apart; and they shall meddle neither in ecclesiastical nor in secular affairs, nor leave their own monasteries to take part in such; unless, indeed, they should at any time through urgent necessity be appointed thereto by the bishop of the city…”
–Canon Four of the Fourth Ecumenical Council
The founders of monasticism first lived and then taught the following generations of monks exactly how they should interact with the leaders of the Church. There is a very illuminating passage in the “Life of Saint Pachomius,” one of the founders of the coenobitic monasticism.(1) After the death of Saint Pachomius, Saint Athanasius the Great visited the brethren and was greeted by Saint Theodore the Sanctified: And he [Saint Athansius the Great] said, “Theodore you have done a great work procuring rest to souls. I have heard especially about your monastic rules. Everything is very good.”(2) Theodore said to him, “The grace of God is in us through our father, but to see you is like seeing Christ.” After he had spent a few days there, he said to Abba Theodore, “Since the Passover is near, assemble the brothers according to your rule; and I shall do as the Lord will arrange for me.” Then he embraced him and dismissed him, after writing through him to Abba Horsiesios and the brothers a letter as follows: “I have seen your assistant and the father of the brothers, Theodore, and [I have perceived] in him the Lord of your father Pachomius. I rejoiced at seeing the children of the Church;(3) and they delighted us with
their presence. The Lord is the one who will reward them. As he was about to come to you, Theodore told me,'Remember me.' And I told him, 'If I forget thee O Jerusalem, may
my right hand be forgotten! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you.'”(4) And so Theodore left the boat with the brothers to the pope, and he said to them, “Go with him wherever he wants; for he has authority even over our bodies.”
–Pachomian Koinonia Vol. I, translated by Armand Veilleux,
Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan 1980, P. 402
And we see many centuries later in Russia a practical application of the Fourth Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council: Then God put it into the hearts of the brethren to go to the blessed Sergius, and to say to him, “Father, we cannot continue without an abbot. We desire you to be our abbot, and the guide of our souls and bodies.”
The saint sighed from the bottom of his heart, and replied, “I have had no thought of becoming abbot, for my soul longs to finish its course here as an ordinary monk.” The brethren urged him again and again to be their abbot; finally, overcome by his compassionate love, but groaning inwardly, he said, “Fathers and brethren, I will say no more against it, and will submit to the will of God; He sees into our hearts and souls. We will go into the town, to the bishop.”
…Our blessed Sergius went, therefore, to the bishop [Athanasius Volynski], taking with him two elders; and entering into his presence made a low obeisance. Athanasius rejoiced exceedingly at seeing him and kissed him in the name of Christ. He had heard tell of the saint and of his beginning of good deeds, and he spoke to him of the workings of the Spirit. Our blessed father Sergius begged the bishop to give them an abbot, and a guide of their souls.
The venerable Athanasius replied, “Thyself, son and brother, God called in thy mother’s womb. It is thou who wilt be father and abbot of thy brethren.” Blessed Sergius refused,
insisting on his unworthiness, but Athanasius said to him, “Beloved, thou hast acquired all virtue save obedience.”
Blessed Sergius, bowing low, replied, “May God’s will be done. Praise be the Lord forever and forever.” They all answered, “Amen.”
…Later, taking him apart, the bishop spoke to him of the teachings of the apostles and of the holy fathers, for the edification and guidance of souls.
–From the Life of Saint Sergius, p 63-64,
“A Treasury of Russian Spirituality” by George P. Fedotov
Thus, the monastic ministry in the Orthodox Church can only be interpreted in relation to the hierarchical order of the Church established by the Apostles themselves. The idea of
a so-called monastic elder operating outside of Episcopal authority is a Hindu concept and not consistent with Apostolic Tradition in the Orthodox Church. But, of course, Satan desires to upset this order and we have witness of how Saint Pachomius reacted against those who would seek to undermine Orthodox bishops: The Holy Man gave to the Orthodox bishops and successors of the apostles and of Christ Himself the heed of one who sees the Lord ever presiding on the Episcopal throne in the Church and teaching through it. (Luke 6:45) If he heard anyone speaking against them in any way at all, they would not allow it, estranging himself from such people as from a snake even if they were men of repute. He would say, ‘No good man utters an evil word, especially against the holy fathers.’ He remembered Mariam, (Numbers 12:1-16) the sister of Moses, and her murmuring against him. So exceedingly forthright was he and profitable to those who met with him!
–Pachomian Koinonia Vol. I, translated by Armand Veilleux,
Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan 1980, P. 318
The lives of saints witness to the fact that the one and only cause for monastics to intrude into the affairs of a local Church is the betrayal of the Apostolic Faith, that is, when heresy threatens that Church. Otherwise, genuinely Orthodox monastic elders seek to “…embrace a quiet course of life, and give themselves only to fasting and prayer, remaining permanently in the places in which they were set apart; and they shall meddle neither in ecclesiastical nor in secular affairs, nor leave their own monasteries to take part in such; unless, indeed, they should at any time through urgent necessity be appointed thereto by the bishop of the city…” (Canon Four of the Fourth Ecumenical Council).
It has been said that the angels are a light to the monks and the monks are a light unto the laity. Blessed is the monk who looks to the celestial hierarchies, i.e., the angels, and remembers the fate of the “angel of light” (Lucifer) who received the name “Satan” and the “Evil One” because he sought to raise his throne above that which was appointed to him by God.
The first “obedience” that is required of all Orthodox Christians – bishops, clergy, monastics and laity – is obedience to Apostolic Tradition and the Holy Canons. No one is a law unto themselves. I am distressed to say I once heard someone in a position of spiritual authority who was demanding obedience of another say, “you cannot say to the king, ‘you broke the law.’” May God preserve us all from such spiritual darkness. It is written in the Life of Saint Pachomius that the saint “feared more than the eternal torments to be separated from the humility which is in Christ.” Obedience is required of all Christians, as Saint Silouan of Mount Athos wrote: The spirit of obedience is necessary not only in monks, but everyone else, too. Even the Lord was obedient. The proud and those who are a law unto themselves prevent the indwelling of grace and therefore never know peace of soul; whereas the grace of the Holy Spirit enters with ease into the soul of the obedient, bringing joy and quiet.
–From “Saint Silouan, the Athonite” by Archimandrite Sofroni
To participate in the grace of our Christ, we must imitate His example, as Saint Paul wrote: Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of
God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a Man, He humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross. (Phil 2:5-8)
Let us be vigilant. We live in the last times. Our Savior predicted that there would be false christs who would deceive many. During this age of confusion it is a matter of spiritual life or death to be well versed in Apostolic Tradition. On this Sunday of Saint John Climacus, let us celebrate the authentic monastic traditions of our Orthodox Church, which begin with obedience to Apostolic Tradition and the hierarchy of the Church. He that has ears to hear, let him hear. Amen.
(1) The word Coenobitic is from the Greek Koinos (communal) and bios (life).
(2) Gen 1:31
(3) Heb 11:6
(4) Psalm 136Go to Orthodoxyinfo.org for a wide variety of articles on the Faith
- A Sermon on the Sunday of Saint John ClimacusBy Metropolitan MosesIn the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.On this Sunday we celebrate the memory of Saint John of the Ladder or Climacus, who was the abbot of the monastery at Mount Sinai. We keep his memory during Great Lent for many reasons. One reason is that during Great Lent his book, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” is read in all of the Orthodox Christian monasteries throughout the world. But, another reason is that Saint John represents for us all of the monks and nuns who strove in asceticism and there is a saying that, “Angels are a light to the monastics and the monastics are a light to the laity.”This saying expresses the spiritual reality of the fact that the life in Christ is ascetical. All Christians are called upon to fast and pray. All Christians are required to deny themselves and take up their Cross and follow our Savior. If the monastic life is lived well, then it is a life in imitation of the angelic orders and it becomes a source of inspiration to the laity. The danger that sometimes occurs in the Church is when monastics are held in high esteem and then they are found to be not living up to their calling and guilty of sin or heresy. During such times the laity can become demoralized and spiritually stumble.Saint John warned the monks of their responsibility before God regarding this when he said, “Angels are a light for monks, and the monastic life is a light for all men. Therefore let monks strive to become a good example in everything, giving no occasion for stumbling in anything in all their works and words. For if the light becomes darkness, how much darker will be that darkness, that is, those living in the world.” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent 26:31)We should not be surprised when Satan tempts the monastics. To cause a monastic to fall into heresy or a wayward life is a bigger prize for the evil one. We should respect monasticism, but not become dependent on personalities. Orthodoxy is sanctified common sense and we need to balance our support of monastics with sobriety. We need to attach our faith unreservedly to the Person of our Savior Christ and then we can also praise and rely totally on those saints, many of whom were monastics, who have finished their course and kept a good confession of faith and received their crown. As for those who are still struggling, we should sympathize with them and do our best to struggle along with them in our own way and according to our own strength.It is helpful to hear about the origins of monasticism as it was told by Abba Piamun of the Egyptian desert to Saint John Cassian and recorded in “The Conferences of Saint John Cassian.” Saint Piamun explained,“…And so the system of coenobites took its rise in the days of the preaching of the Apostles. For such was all that multitude of believers in Jerusalem, which is thus described in the Acts of the Apostles: "But the multitude of believers was of one heart and one soul, neither said any of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common. They sold their possessions and property and divided them to all, as any man had need." And again: "For neither was there any among them that lacked; for as many as possessed fields or houses, sold them and brought the price of the things that they sold and laid them before the feet of the Apostles: and distribution was made to every man as he had need."In his discourse with Saint John Cassian, Abba Piamun observed that the life of the Christians of the early Church in Jerusalem just after the time of our Savior was lived with such fervor that there were few who could be found during his days living as monastics in cenobitic monasteries who could match their way of life. Yet, as time went on, after the death of the Apostles, and after many more people converted to the Church throughout the Mediterranean world, that original fervor was impossible to match. But there were those who desired to maintain the fervor of the apostles and mindful of the earlier perfection in the Christian way of life, they left the cities and lived in rural and more remote areas in order to apply themselves more earnestly in the spiritual life.And to quote Saint Piamun further, “…And these, as by degrees time went on, were separated from the great mass of believers and because they abstained from marriage and cut themselves off from intercourse with their kinsmen and the life of this world, were termed monks or solitaries from the strictness of their lonely and solitary life. Whence it followed that from their common life they were called coenobites and their cells and lodgings coenobia. That then alone was the earliest kind of monks, which is first not only in time but also in grace, and which continued unbroken for a very long period up to the time of Abbot Paul and Antony; and even to this day we see its traces remaining in strict coenobia.” (From: The Conferences of Saint John Cassian Book 18, Conference of Abba Piamun, chpt 5)Thus, we should be aware of this origin of monasticism and the fact that the Christian life is all one, in that we are all called upon to exercise ourselves in self-denial and to fast and pray, but the difference is in the degree of effort and the choice to remain celibate in order to care exclusively for the things that belong to the Lord. (1Cor 7:32-33) All Christians, both monastics and laity have to see themselves as spiritual athletes who struggle against the vain passions and sins that can enslave us. As it is written in Proverbs 5:22 “Iniquities ensnare a man, and every one is bound in the chains of his own sins.” We exercise ourselves in spiritual labors in order to be free in Christ Jesus.In today’s gospel a man came before our Savior and said, “Teacher, I have brought unto Thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit; and wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth his teeth, and doth wax stiff: and I spake to Thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not.” (Mark 9:17-18) After our Savior healed the boy the Apostles asked, “Why could not we cast him out?” And our Savior explained to them, “This kind can come forth by nothing, save by prayer and fasting.”(Mark 9:28-29)Our Christ came as a Physician of souls and He has given us a prescription of exercising ourselves in fasting and prayer so that we might have spiritual health and freedom from sin. We should embrace this period of the fast of Great Lent as a time to strive for spiritual health and to sanctify our life.All Christians are called upon to fast according to their strength. We all recognize that small child cannot fast according to the rules of the Church because of their age and physical condition. Yet, parents should teach their child even from an early age to deny themselves some non essential food that the child likes during the fasting period in order to train the child in self-denial. Tell you child that we give things up to show our love for Christouli Who created us and died on the Cross for us in order to save us. Tell your child that you want him or her to grow up to be a strong Christian. When they are older tell them that we strive to in order to be able to restrain our appetites and exercise ourselves in the ability to say no to things in life.During the remainder of the Great Lent I ask you all to keep the fast and pray for our Christian community. We live in a day wherein society is completely breaking down and pagan darkness and demonic influences are overtaking the culture in North America. We all need to exercise ourselves in prayer and fasting to cast this demonic error out of our lives. Every family must consciously strive to find a balance in Christian family life all while living life as spiritual athletes in Christ exercising their choices so that both parents and children can maintain their bond and communion with Christ.Times have changed and we cannot assume that we can do as we did before and everything will work out for the present generation of our children. We have to do more to make parish life a major focus of the children’s life so that they identify with Christ and not the pagan culture that surrounds us.I wish to repeat something about Christian education that I said elsewhere. It has been observed that early education provides a world-view, that is, a mental framework within which any piece of information acquired in later life may find its proper and significant place. Presently there are change agents within the government school system who have as their primary task to break down the traditional Christian world-view of our children and replace it. This is a culture war and your children are the disputed territory. The reason for some of the curriculum changes in Ontario is that there are certain members of the education establishment who understand that the battle for the hearts and minds of your children will be won by the side that first trains them to see reality from its point of view. The change agents of our society desire to completely confuse our youngest and most vulnerable children. The curriculum change is a wake up call and by it we are being forewarned of an ongoing and progressing attack against Christianity in the culture war. Whether or not the curriculum is kept or removed, there are an ever increasing number of change agents who are infiltrating the government school system and they are out to change your children. It is the youngest children who are the most vulnerable. It is my belief that, if we are to serve the best interest of the youngest children we will need to find an alternate way to educate them. There are many alternative methods and approaches that have been used successfully, but that topic is too much to go into in this sermon.For now, I suggest to you all to be ready to rethink some things in your life regarding where you live, your career and how you arrange your life. No one is constraining you to do this, it is only the love you have for your children and your desire for their salvation that can motivate you. The early monks chose to leave the cities in order to apply themselves in the spiritual life. We can choose to live in such a way that we give and receive support from one another in order to protect our children.Let us have as our guide the life of the early Christians who were so filled with the joy of the reality our Savior’s incarnation and resurrection that they were of “one mind and one heart” and they counted their communion with Christ and with one another as the most important thing in their lives. May God guide you all and preserve you in His love. Amen.