A time to read and a time to embody (Part IΙ)

26 March 2017

Not unlike Evagrius and other Fathers, John also uses the antirheticos genre, e.g. in 23.46. [i] In 22.35, [ii] a monk and a demon are even portrayed in their struggle, both using passages of Scripture.

I would like finally to present another striking figure of style used most often by John. Scripture has totally become his, and he feels confident to adapt it as it comes to his mind, to fit his point. Very often, and perhaps with a stronger occurrence as one climbs up the Ladder, if I may say so, he glosses a quotation, by adding a detail which gives it a sudden change of meaning or again adapts it to a particular context, mostly an ascetic one. He sometimes adds this element by means of an introductory phrase, such as, that is. John is aware that the monks he is addressing are as familiar with Scripture as he is. They do not need maps and directions to travel through Scripture. These allegorical paraphrases are present as early as in Step 1.6:

The man who has withdrawn from the world in order to shake off his own burden of sins should imitate those who sit outside the city among the tombs, and should not cease from his hot and fiery streams of tears and voiceless heartfelt groaning until he, too, sees that Jesus has come to him and rolled away the stone of hardness from his heart, and loosed Lazarus, that is to say, our mind, from the bands of sin, and ordered His attendant angels: Loose him from passions, and let him go to blessed dispassion. Otherwise he will have gained nothing.[iii]

Most of the times actually, John altogether omits the transition phrase. Let me read a few examples of his glosses:

Our treatise now appropriately touches upon warriors and athletes of Christ. As the flower precedes the fruit, so exile, either of body or will, always precedes obedience. For with the help of these two virtues, the holy soul steadily ascends to Heaven as upon golden wings. And perhaps it was about this that he who had received the Holy Spirit sang: Who will give me wings like a dove? And I will fly by activity, and be at rest by divine vision and humility.[iv]

I saw two men travelling to the Lord by the same way and at the same time. One of them was old and more advanced in labors; but the other was his disciple, and soon outran the elder and came first to the sepulcher of humility.[v]

Attend and you will hear Him who says: ‘Spacious and broad is the way of the belly that leads to the perdition of fornication, and many there are who go in by it; because narrow is the gate and straight is the way of fasting that leads to the life of purity, and few there be that find it’.[vi]

I daily extol those who make themselves eunuchs by castrating their bad thoughts as with a knife.[vii]

Unless the Lord destroys the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the person who wants to destroy it watches and fasts in vain.[viii]

This last quotation is particularly striking; John imitates the structure of the biblical sentence, so that the listener or reader can easily recognize the source, but at the same time he boldly uses opposite terms: it is no longer a matter of building a house, but of destroying it altogether.

By this shall all men know that we are God’s disciples, not because the devils are subject to us, but because our names are written in the Heaven of humility.[ix]

If the Lord will guard the coming in of your fear and the going out of your love, then the end of love will be truly endless.[x]

No one intending to build a tower and cell of stillness will approach this work without first sitting down and counting the cost.[xi]

My wish is to cling to God, and to put the hope of my dispassion in Him.[xii]

Ask with tears, seek with obedience, knock with patience.[xiii]

Be still and know that I am God and am Dispassion.[xiv]


These passages reveal John’s total assimilation of Scripture. The ascetic way of life of this monk has become one with his knowledge of Scripture. I see it as a typical illustration of Orthodox ethos, where daily life and theology, praxis and theoria are called to be one. There is no separation between the realm of knowledge and wisdom of life.

John’s assimilation of Scripture is led by the Holy Spirit. This shows in the boldness we have witnessed, and also in his own flexible and varied usage of a same passage. This is particularly clear if one turns to the passage he quotes most often: the parable of the tenacious widow in Lk18:1-8. I have found five references to this passage in the Ladder:

During prayer and supplication, stand with trembling like a convict standing before a judge, so that, both by your outward appearance as well as by your inner disposition, you may extinguish the wrath of the just Judge; for He will not despise a widow soul standing before Him burdened with sorrow and wearying the Unwearying One.[xv]

Jesus spoke this parable “that men always ought to pray and not lose heart” (Lk 18:1). Here John is explicitly in the same context of “prayer and supplication”. However, the unjust judge of the city has become “the just Judge”, and the widow is the “widow soul’ of each monk. So the biblical passage has been adapted to the local monastic audience and moved to a soteriological level.

In the next passage, the monk at prayer is exhorted to more inner activity, modeled on the persistent widow:

Banish the enemy when he hinders you from prayer, worship, or vigil after you have committed sin. Remember Him who said: yet because the soul, tyrannized by predispositions gives me trouble, I will avenge her upon her enemies.[xvi]

This is more explicitly in the context of spiritual warfare, the “adversary” of the parable being here the Adversary, the enemy trying to prevent the soul from uniting with God.

In the chapter on stillness, John states clearly: “The model for your prayer should be the widow who was wronged by your adversary”[xvii]; and further on: “Prayer is a devout coercion of God,”[xviii] which I also take for an implicit reference to the parable of the tenacious widow.

As Step 28 is dedicated to prayer, it is not surprising to find in it as well the usage of the same lukanian parable:

Though the judge did not fear God, yet because a soul, widowed from Him through sin and a fall, troubles Him, He will avenge her of her adversary, the body, and of the spirits who make war upon her.[xix]

As already seen above, John takes the freedom to paraphrase the biblical text. The widow is actually “widowed” from Him [God]”, “through sin and a fall”, specifies John. The adversary is identified this time with the body. John goes so far as to qualify the widow quite negatively, as he goes on:

Our good redeemer attracts to His love those who are grateful by the quick satisfaction of their petitions. But He makes ungrateful souls remain in prayer before Him for a long time, in hunger and thirst for their petition; for an ill-conditioned cur, when once it gets its bread, makes off with it and leaves the giver.[xx]

This survey of the usage of a same parable shows how flexible John can be in his own use of Scripture: with implicit or explicit reference, with paraphrase and added details, and even with varied and opposed identification.

The Homily to the Pastor provides the reason for this flexibility.

The Homily is set apart from the 30 degrees of the work. However, it always accompanies them in all editions of The Ladder; it cannot be divorced indeed from the rest of the work. In his response to the request from John of Raithu, John Climacus addresses 30 degrees of the Ladder to the monks, and this Homily to the hegoumenos himself. In #32, he gives the following advice:

The guide ought not to tell all those who come to him that the way is straight and narrow, nor should he say to each that the yoke is easy and the burden is light. Rather, he should examine the case of each man and prescribe medicines which are suitable. To those who are weighed down by grievous sins and are prone to despair, he should administer the second as an appropriate remedy, but to those who are inclined to haughtiness and conceit, the first.[xxi]

He insists on the same principle in several other passages of the Homily, for instance in #94 on the necessity of having different rules of fasting, adapted to each case. Monks are travelling on a spiritual journey, they are at different stages. The Holy Spirit works in each in varied ways, and Scripture is a holy medicine. It would be foolish and artificial to try to cast all in the same mould or to prescribe the same medicine to all. With his long experience as hegoumenos, John is aware of this spiritual reality. This is reflected in his varied interpretation offered for a same biblical passage. Proposing different readings of a same parable will allow several monks to receive it as a personal message inviting each to conversion and to receive it as the healing each needs. His different interpretations may even fit a same monk at different stages of his prayer life. The Lord’s ekonomia varies for “beginners” and “courageous souls”, as John highlights in Step 1.[xxii]

This may as well explain a phenomenon alluded to briefly at the beginning of this paper. As one reads The Ladder, one discovers that more biblical quotations are used in the last third of the work, and it seems with greater liberty. This section corresponds to the degrees dedicated to the struggle against the non-physical passions and to union with God, that is, the realities of spiritual life open indeed to a greater range of variations. Hence the necessity of a wider spectrum of advice and counsels.

[i] P.144.

[ii] P.136.

[iii] 1.6 p.5, on the episode in Jn 11:44.

[iv] 4.1 p.20, quoting Ps 54:6.

[v] 5.40 p.65, again on Jn 20:4

[vi] 14.29 p.101, alluding to Mt 7:13-14.

[vii] 15.21 p.106, on Mt 19:12.

[viii] 15.25 p.106, referring to Ps 126:1.

[ix] 25.47 p.157, quoting Lk 10:20.

[x] 26.153 p.186, alluding to Ps 120:7.

[xi] 27.75 p.210, quoting Lk 14:28-30.

[xii] 28.25 p.216, with a reference to Ps 72:26-28.

[xiii] 28.56 p.219, quoting Mt 7:8.

[xiv] 29.14 p.224, quoting Ps 45:10.

[xv] 7.11 p.71.

[xvi] 15.84 p.119.

[xvii] 27.64 p.207.

[xviii] 28.60 p.220.

[xix] 28.28 p.216.

[xx] Ibidem.

[xxi] #32 p.235-6.

[xxii] 1.23 p.9.