Many pray for show, and John Climacus knows this. How a brother in the monastery treats those around him as a window into the true state of his soul. He who truly Loves God treats his brothers with respect and kindness and humility. He who truly Loves God repents of his failings when he treats his brothers poorly.
Indeed, when John Climacus advises those who live in the world on how to live the solitary life, he doesn’t emphasize prayer and fasting, but rather he cares more how they treat their neighbors:
- “Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me:
‘We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?’
I replied to them: ‘Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant to anyone; do not hate anyone; do not be absent from the Divine Services; be compassionate to the needy; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness, and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.’”
The advice John Climacus gives mirrors the advice Jesus gives to the young man in Matthew 19 when he asks:
“Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”
So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good by One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into eternal life, keep the commandments.”
He said to Him: “Which ones?”
Jesus said, “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother; and, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But the young man thinks there is something else he can do, something he has not been told, maybe something more spiritual he can do. So,
The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?”
Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
This story is in all three synoptic Gospels. The version in Mark has Jesus bidding the young man to come, take up your cross, and follow Me. The most common interpretation of this story is how difficult it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and indeed true monasticism bids us to lead a life of poverty.
There is another lesson to be drawn from this story. Only in the Matthew version does Jesus telling the young man what he needs to do if he wants to be perfect. The reason is Matthew is written to those young Christians who are either Jewish or are inquirers of Judaism. The trap for those following this path is the Decalogue is too simple, what they want is to learn the prayers of the elders of Optima or some other obscure spiritual practices that they think will lead them to the perfect life. What John Climacus and Jesus Christ are telling us is the Decalogue is that narrow path to follow, and that all the prayers and devotions and spiritual practices only help us along that narrow path, that they are not the path to themselves.
What is also common in all the synoptic Gospels is they are preceded by the story of the little children. Here we will recite the version from Mark:
Then they brought the little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them.
But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them,
“Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the Kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter there.”
What Jesus is telling us is we should approach and absorb Scripture and the teachings of the church fathers, the Philokalia, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, which many devout regard as the source of the Philokalia, and all spiritual writings as if we were children sitting in the lap of Jesus, so that Jesus can touch our heart. The purpose of the spiritual discipline in the Ladder of Divine Ascent is simply so we can approach God as little children, big eyes full of awe and wonder at the majesty and loving kindness of God Almighty, ever ready to obey and imitate the Love of God, our hearts free of malice, overflowing with kindness. Scripture is clear, we have no options, if we do not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, we are eternally outside the gates.
How can we tell that we are truly living our lives Loving God and loving our neighbor? St John Climacus gives us some practical yardsticks:
15. “Let us fear the Lord not less than we fear beasts.” Thieves may think God does not see them steal, but when large dogs bark and snarl they run away in fear.
- “Let us Love God as much as we respect our friends. For I have often seen people who had offended God and were not the least bit perturbed. But when these same men provoke their friends in some trifling matter,” they eagerly try to make things right, no words, no gesture, no apology is too much to regain their reputation, they offer their apologies “both personally and through friends and relatives, not sparing gifts, in order to regain their former love.”0
We need to try to see the world through the eyes of a child. Time and time again, a persistent urging in the Ladder of Divine Ascent is we should follow the advice of St. Ephrem, that our Lord should grant me to see my failings and not condemn my neighbor. Not seven times, but seven times seventy times should we forgive. It is easy for children to see the world in fresh colors, to see the good in their parents and all those around them, it is easy for children for they are naïve and innocent and ignorant of the evil in the world around them. To be like children we need to lead a life of purposeful naivety, to view the world fresh, to give those around us encouragement and another chance to lead a godly life, no matter how many times they have hurt us or disappointed us or stepped on us. Never should we judge our neighbor.
An interesting verse that hearkens to our is the command Jesus gives us after the Beatitudes. “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus does not say go to your brother if you remember you have sinned against him. No, Jesus says to reconcile with your brother if he has something against you. What Jesus is saying is your brother is a better judge as to whether you have sinned against him. This is truly loving your neighbor. Without ardent love of your neighbor, there can be no true Love for God.
I remember a letter to Ann Landers I read in the paper many years ago. Someone was shopping and a cashier was acting very rude to the customers. This lady was preparing to lash out at her total lack of courtesy, when the lady in front of her when the lady in front of her asked her, my dear, what has happened to you to make you so upset? The cashier nearly burst into tears, her husband had just walked out on her, her children had very little to eat, she didn’t know how she was going to get by with her small pitiful paycheck. After reading that I never thought it right to stiff a waitress no matter how poor the service. After all, she is being punished quite enough; she is a waitress, isn’t she?
Why do we cringe when John Climacus says we should tolerate and even welcome the abuse others heap on us as being salves for our souls? Maybe monks can be excused for feeling this way, but when someone is nasty or even abusive in our world we might be more tolerant if we knew their life story, what made them that way. If we return kindness for meanness, if we extend some friendliness to those who have few friends, be generous to those who are needy, maybe we can make their day a little brighter, their life a little better. When we view our lives on the big IMAX screen in the sky, will be able to say that those who knew us were slightly better people because we entered their lives?
In the latter part of acts, when Paul sums up the Christian life, he says we should repent, be baptized, then lead a life worthy of repentance. Leading a life worthy of repentance is an Orthodox life, a monastic life, the life that John Climacus bids us to live in the Ladder of Divine Ascent. Leading a godly life is our daily struggle. In this battle John Climacus offers us much good advice, if we will but heed his counsel and not insist on going down our own path. Will we climb to the top of the ladder, or will the demons pull us off?
 St John Climacus, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” first translated by Archimandrite Lazarus Moore, (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1959, 1991), pp. 3-10.