At this season of Lent as we focus on spiritual renewal with repentance, prayer, fasting, and works of mercy, the teachings of St John Climacus (c.579-649), commonly known as “John of the Ladder”, are very appropriate. He was the seventh century Abbott of St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. His famous work “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” is read aloud every Lent in Orthodox monasteries. He depicts the spiritual path to union with God as a ladder with thirty steps.
Step Five of the Ladder entitled “On Penitence”. St John Climacus begins his discussion in this chapter as follows:
“Repentance is the renewal of baptism and is a contract with God for a fresh start in life. Repentance goes shopping for humility and is ever distrustful of bodily comfort. Repentance is critical awareness and a sure watch over oneself. Repentance is the daughter of hope and refusal to despair. (The penitent stands guilty –but undisgraced.) Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the performance of good deeds which are the opposites of the sins. It is the purification of conscience and the voluntary endurance of affliction. The penitent deals out his own punishment, for repentance is the fierce persecution of the stomach and the flogging of the soul into intense awareness.
Come, gather round, listen here and I will speak to all of you who have angered the Lord. Crowd around me and see what he has revealed to my soul for your edification.” 1
St John of the Ladder goes on to describe a monastery he had visited where the monks practised fearsome and extreme feats of penance. He commented: “I saw their humble and contrite souls who were saddened by the weight of their burden. The stones themselves have been moved to pity by their voices and by their cries to God.”
After witnessing such great examples of repentance, he commented:“It seems to me that those who have fallen and are penitent are more blessed than those who have never fallen and who do not have to mourn over themselves, because through having fallen, they have pulled themselves up by a sure resurrection.”
He offered reassurance when he wrote: “Nothing equals the mercy of God or surpasses it. To despair is therefore to inflict death on oneself.”
As we renew our spiritual efforts and turn to God during the season of Lent the words of St John Climacus remind us of the power of repentance with reliance on God’s mercy. It reassures us that when we have fallen away from God and return to him through repentance all is not lost but, on the contrary, God’s mercy comes to us with even greater power. Practising repentance through our Lenten journey offers us the prospect of a joyful Pascha.
1 John Climacus, TheLadder of Divine Ascent. Translated by Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell, Mahwah,NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), 121.