on faith, hope and charity in the teaching of St John Climacus
Towards Union with God
On Wednesday, 11
February , at the General Audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall,
resuming his Catecheses on the great Christian writers of both East and
West, the Holy Father commented on St John Climacus. The following is a
translation of the Holy Father's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
After 20 Catecheses dedicated to the Apostle Paul, today
I would like to return to presenting the great writers of the Church of
the East and of the West in the Middle Ages. And I am proposing the
figure of John known as Climacus, a Latin transliteration of the Greek
term klimakos, which means of the ladder (klimax). This is
the title of his most important work in which he describes the ladder of
human life ascending towards God.
He was born in about 575 A.D. He lived, therefore,
during the years in which Byzantium, the capital of the Roman Empire of
the East, experienced the greatest crisis in its history. The
geographical situation of the Empire suddenly changed and the torrent of
barbarian invasions swept away all its structures.
Only the structure of the Church withstood them,
continuing in these difficult times to carry out her missionary, human,
social and cultural action, especially through the network of
monasteries in which great religious figures such as, precisely, John
Climacus were active.
John lived and told of his spiritual experiences in the
Mountains of Sinai, where Moses encountered God and Elijah heard his
voice. Information on him has been preserved in a brief Life (PG
88, 596-608), written by a monk, Daniel of Raithu. At the age of 16,
John, who had become a monk on Mount Sinai, made himself a disciple of
Abba Martyr, an "elder", that is, a "wise man".
At about 20 years of age, he chose to live as a hermit
in a grotto at the foot of the mountain in the locality of Tola, eight
kilometres from the present-day St Catherine's Monastery. Solitude,
however, did not prevent him from meeting people eager for spiritual
direction, or from paying visits to several monasteries near Alexandria.
In fact, far from being an escape from the world and
human reality, his eremitical retreat led to ardent love for others
(Life, 5) and for God (ibid., 7).
After 40 years of life as a hermit, lived in love for
God and for neighbour
years in which he wept, prayed and fought with demons
he was appointed hegumen of the large monastery on Mount Sinai and thus
returned to cenobitic life in a monastery. However, several years before
his death, nostalgic for the eremitical life, he handed over the
government of the community to his brother, a monk in the same
John died after the year 650. He lived his life between
two mountains, Sinai and Tabor and one can truly say that he radiated
the light which Moses saw on Sinai and which was contemplated by the
three Apostles on Mount Tabor!
He became famous, as I have already said, through his
work, entitled The Climax, in the West known as the Ladder of
Divine Ascent (PG 88, 632-1164). Composed at the insistent request
of the hegumen of the neighbouring Monastery of Raithu in Sinai, the
Ladder is a complete treatise of spiritual life in which John
describes the monk's journey from renunciation of the world to the
perfection of love. This journey
according to his book
covers 30 steps, each one of which is linked to the next. The journey
may be summarized in three consecutive stages: the first is expressed in
renunciation of the world in order to return to a state of evangelical
Thus, the essential is not the renunciation but rather
the connection with what Jesus said, that is, the return to true
childhood in the spiritual sense, becoming like children.
John comments: "A good foundation of three layers and
three pillars is: innocence, fasting and temperance. Let all babes in
Christ (cf. 1 Cor 3:1) begin with these virtues, taking as their model
the natural babes" (1, 20; 636).
Voluntary detachment from beloved people and places
permits the soul to enter into deeper communion with God. This
renunciation leads to obedience which is the way to humility through
which will never be absent
on the part of the brethren.
John comments: "Blessed is he who has mortified his will
to the very end and has entrusted the care of himself to his teacher in
the Lord: indeed he will be placed on the right hand of the Crucified
One!" (4, 37; 704).
The second stage of the journey consists in spiritual
combat against the passions. Every step of the ladder is linked to a
principal passion that is defined and diagnosed, with an indication of
the treatment and a proposal of the corresponding virtue.
All together, these steps of the ladder undoubtedly
constitute the most important treatise of spiritual strategy that we
possess. The struggle against the passions, however, is steeped in the
it does not remain as something negative
thanks to the image of the "fire" of the Holy Spirit: that "all those
who enter upon the good fight (cf. 1 Tm 6:12), which is hard and
narrow,... may realize that they must leap into the fire, if they really
expect the celestial fire to dwell in them" (1,18; 636). The fire of the
Holy Spirit is the fire of love and truth.
The power of the Holy Spirit alone guarantees victory.
However, according to John Climacus it is important to be aware that the
passions are not evil in themselves; they become so through human
freedom's wrong use of them. If they are purified, the passions reveal
to man the path towards God with energy unified by ascesis and grace
and, "if they have received from the Creator an order and a
beginning..., the limit of virtue is boundless" (26/2, 37; 1068).
The last stage of the
journey is Christian perfection that is developed in the last seven
steps of the Ladder. These are the highest stages of spiritual
life, which can be experienced by the "Hesychasts": the solitaries,
those who have attained quiet and inner peace; but these stages are also
accessible to the more fervent cenobites.
Of the first three
simplicity, humility and discernment
John, in line with the Desert Fathers, considered the ability to
discern, the most important. Every type of behaviour must be subject to
discernment; everything, in fact, depends on one's deepest motivations,
which need to be closely examined. Here one enters into the soul of the
person and it is a question of reawakening in the hermit, in the
Christian, spiritual sensitivity and a "feeling heart", which are gifts
from God: "After God, we ought to follow our conscience as a rule and
guide in everything," (26/1,5; 1013). In this way one reaches
tranquillity of soul, hesychia, by means of which the soul may
gaze upon the abyss of the divine mysteries.
The state of quiet, of
inner peace, prepares the Hesychast for prayer which in John is twofold:
"corporeal prayer" and "prayer of the heart". The former is proper to
those who need the help of bodily movement: stretching out the hands,
uttering groans, beating the breast, etc. (15, 26; 900). The latter is
spontaneous, because it is an effect of the reawakening of spiritual
sensitivity, a gift of God to those who devote themselves to corporeal
prayer. In John this takes the name "Jesus prayer" (Iesou euche),
and is constituted in the invocation of solely Jesus' name, an
invocation that is continuous like breathing: "May your remembrance of
Jesus become one with your breathing, and you will then know the
usefulness of hesychia", inner peace (27/2, 26; 1112). At the end
the prayer becomes very simple: the word "Jesus" simply becomes one with
The last step of the ladder
(30), suffused with "the sober inebriation of the spirit", is dedicated
to the supreme "trinity of virtues": faith, hope and above all charity.
John also speaks of charity
as eros (human love), a symbol of the matrimonial union of the
soul with God, and once again chooses the image of fire to express the
fervour, light and purification of love for God. The power of human love
can be reoriented to God, just as a cultivated olive may be grafted on
to a wild olive tree (cf. Rm 11:24) (cf. 15, 66; 893).
John is convinced that an
intense experience of this eros will help the soul to advance far
more than the harsh struggle against the passions, because of its great
power. Thus, in our journey, the positive aspect prevails.
Yet charity is also seen in
close relation to hope: "Hope is the power that drives love. Thanks to
hope, we can look forward to the reward of charity.... Hope is the
doorway of love.... The absence of hope destroys charity: our efforts
are bound to it, our labours are sustained by it, and through it we are
enveloped by the mercy of God" (30, 16; 1157).
The conclusion of the
Ladder contains the synthesis of the work in words that the author
has God himself utter: "May this ladder teach you the spiritual
disposition of the virtues. I am at the summit of the ladder, and as my
great initiate (St Paul) said: 'So faith, hope, love abide, these
three; but the greatest of these is love' (1 Cor 13:13)!" (30, 18;
At this point, a last
question must be asked: can the Ladder, a work written by a
hermit monk who lived 1,400 years ago, say something to us today? Can
the existential journey of a man who lived his entire life on Mount
Sinai in such a distant time be relevant to us? At first glance it would
seem that the answer must be "no", because John Climacus is too remote
But if we look a little
closer, we see that the monastic life is only a great symbol of
baptismal life, of Christian life. It shows, so to speak, in capital
letters what we write day after day in small letters. It is a prophetic
symbol that reveals what the life of the baptized person is, in
communion with Christ, with his death and Resurrection.
The fact that the top of
the "ladder", the final steps, are at the same time the fundamental,
initial and most simple virtues is particularly important to me: faith,
hope and charity. These are not virtues accessible only to moral heroes;
rather they are gifts of God to all the baptized: in them our life
The beginning is also the
end, the starting point is also the point of arrival: the whole journey
towards an ever more radical realization of faith, hope and charity. The
whole ascent is present in these virtues.
Faith is fundamental,
because this virtue implies that I renounce my arrogance, my thought,
and the claim to judge by myself without entrusting myself to others.
This journey towards humility, towards spiritual childhood is essential.
It is necessary to overcome the attitude of arrogance that makes one
say: I know better, in this my time of the 21st century, than what
people could have known then.
Instead, it is necessary to
entrust oneself to Sacred Scripture alone, to the word of the Lord, to
look out on the horizon of faith with humility, in order to enter into
the enormous immensity of the universal world, of the world of God. In
this way our soul grows, the sensitivity of the heart grows toward God.
Rightly, John Climacus says
that hope alone renders us capable of living charity; hope in which we
transcend the things of every day, we do not expect success in our
earthly days but we look forward to the revelation of God himself
It is only in this extension of our soul, in this
self-transcendence, that our life becomes great and that we are able to
bear the effort and disappointments of every day, that we can be kind to
others without expecting any reward.
Only if there is God, this great hope to which I aspire,
can I take the small steps of my life and thus learn charity. The
mystery of prayer, of the personal knowledge of Jesus, is concealed in
charity: simple prayer that strives only to move the divine Teacher's
So it is that one's own heart opens, one learns
from him his own kindness, his love. Let us therefore use this "ascent"
of faith, hope and charity. In this way we will arrive at true life.