Sunday of St John of the Ladder (Climacus), 2020

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!

The fourth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to St John Climacus, which means, St John of the Ladder, after the treatise on the thirty steps of the monastic life that he wrote, probably when he was abbot of the Monastery of the Burning Bush, as it was called then: the monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, now called the Monastery of St Catherine. The Burning Bush (or the Unburnt Bush, in some languages) was the bush in which God revealed himself to Moses: Moses hears God calling him from the bush, that was ‘burning, but not consumed’; he approaches and is told to take of his shoes from his feet, ‘for the place where you are standing is holy ground’. God reveals himself as the ‘God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob’, and then later, in response to Moses’s question as to his name, says (according to the Greek Bible): ‘I am the one who is (ὁ ὤν)’ (Exod. 3: 2, 6, 14). Icons of Christ often have in the halo these letters— ὁ – ὤ – ν —since Christ is God, the One who Is. The place of the Burning Bush, a holy place to the Jews, became equally a holy place for Christians and from the sixth century, at least, there was a monastery there. St John of the Ladder was abbot there sometime between the late sixth and late seventh century. The monastery itself is a standing witness to the truth that if we are to approach God, we approach him with awe and wonder. Remember the words at the end of the creed: ‘Let us stand with fear, let us stand with awe, let us attend, that we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace’, and equally the word as the priest brings the Holy Gifts to the people: ‘With fear of God, in faith and love, draw near!’ With fear/awe, with attention: it is in this way that we are to approach God, approach Christ, who comes among us in love. We remember St John of the Ladder today, because he is a pre-eminently a monk: the suggestion being, I suppose, that entering Lent, knocking determinedly on the gate of repentance, deepening our prayer as we embark on the way of repentance, we are seeking, so far as we can, to share in the very heart of the monastic life: a single-minded, whole-hearted attempt to live out the Gospel of love and repentance. Single-minded: this emphasis on single-mindedness, simplicity is the very heart of what Lent means. Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, wrote a work called Purity of Heart, or in full: Purity of Heart is to will one thing. That is not something easy: we are so easily distracted, our minds and intentions are so easily divided—this kind of purity of heart is difficult to attain. And Lent is a time when we put this to the test, and find how far we are from simplicity, from willing one thing. The Lord, in the Sermon on the Mount, says, ‘the lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is simple (ἁπλοῦς), then your whole body will be full of light’ (Matt. 6: 22). If the eye is divided, not knowing where to look, confused, then the body is full of darkness: we are lost, we do not know where we are. Simplicity: in the early Syriac Church there was a group called the ‘single ones’ (iḥidhayeh), Christians living a single life and serving the Christian community. The most famous of these iḥidhayeh was St Ephrem the Syrian. Later Christians thought of him as a monk, but he belonged to an earlier age, and was one of these Syriac ‘single ones’: not really monastic at all, he seems to have served his church as a choirmaster, leading a choir of single women. He was a poet, one of the greatest of early Christian poets. Among the works ascribed to him is a prayer, which we use during Lent—at virtually every weekday service during Lent—the prayer of St Ephrem. It is hardly likely to be by Ephrem, but it was chosen by the Church as another way of underlining the monastic element in the observance of Lent. It is short and goes thus:

Lord and Master of my life, do not give me a spirit of sloth, despondency, love of power, and useless chatter;

Rather accord to your servant a spirit of chastity, patience, humility and love;

Yes, Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to condemn my brother or sister, for you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen

It is said with prostrations. (I have quoted fromthe Slavonic version, which is the one that I use; the Greek original is slightly different: instead of ‘despondency’ it has ‘idle curiosity’, and the word translated ‘chastity’ corresponds to a Greek word, σωφροσύνη, which Fr Ephrem translates as ‘sobriety’, which is its classical meaning, though monastic use it has a sharper connotation, better rendered, I think, by ‘chastity’, which is certainly how the Slavonic translator took it).

It is very simple, and hardly needs commentary. Sloth, despondency/idle curiosity, love of power, useless chatter: all so easy to be caught up in, but attitudes that deaden our awareness, confuse our hearts, and make simplicity seem an unattainable ideal. Chastity/sobriety, patience, humility, love: attitudes that bring that ideal of simplicity within our reach—and note, especially, patience, such a simple and unglamorous virtue, but so necessary: patience with ourselves, patience with others. Think where we would be if God were not patient with us.

We pray this prayer of St Ephrem repeatedly during Lent, trying to free ourselves from sloth, etc., and embrace chastity and the rest, not least patience. And then in the last line: we beg God to show us our faults, and to prevent us from judging, condemning, as we do so easily, our brothers and sisters. To judge on one, save oneself: that is very hard to do, which is why the Lord so frequently warns us not to judge.

And it is a prayer: we shall neither free ourselves from our failings by our own efforts, nor shall we achieve any of the virtues we pray for by our own efforts—all we can do is seek God’s mercy. ‘Lord, have mercy.’ Or in the words of the father in today’s Gospel: ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!’ Amen.

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