|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
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
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
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
–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 136