St. John Climacus
You know that old joke? The one that ends with, “I don’t know who he is, but the Pope is driving him around!”? I have a feeling it was in reference to today’s saint, John Climacus. I’ll explain.
We don’t really know that much about St. John, other than that he wrote was was at the time and continues to be to this day one of the greatest works of Eastern Catholic spirituality ever written. Knowing this, you’d think someone would have asked him when and where he was born, but, alas, no one did, so all we have is conjecture. What we think is that he was born in either the late sixth or early seventh century somewhere in either Syria or Palestine and, at the age of just 16, went to the Abbey of Sinai (now St. Catherine’s Abbey) and joined the monks there for several years, learning about God and the saints. After the death of his spiritual mentor, Martyrius, he moved out to an hermitage at the foot of Mt. Sinai to further practice his asceticism (monk speak for extreme physical deprivation used to attain spiritual perfection) and there he stayed for the next 20 odd years. While alone, he prayed and read the Scriptures and the lives of the saints, making himself one of the most learned men in Christendom.
When the abbot at the monastery died, John was pressed into service, much as he protested, and it was at this time that he was ordained. He spent the next four years leading his fellow monks as they moved closer to God, executing his duties with great faith and great wisdom. He was so well known for his holiness in fact that Pope St. Gregory the Great himself wrote to him, asking for his prayers. Seriously?! The pope. Asked him. For prayers. Awesome factor of 15 (out of 10). Finally, he resigned his post, and died not long after.
During his life, St. John wrote the Ladder of Perfection, also known as The Climax, hence his name, Climacus. A work on spiritual growth and struggle, it is broken into 30 chapters or steps (following the ladder theme), each of which covers one very specific aspect of growing closer to God and climbing the ladder to heaven. The highest rung on the ladder, interestingly, above all the others, is love. The work, originally written as a favor for a fellow abbot of a nearby abbey, was greatly received and has remained a staple of Eastern Christianity to this day. They frequently read it in the days of the Great Lent, leading up to Easter. It is read in their daily Lenten office and often during meal times in Byzantine monasteries. It’s importance is on a level with the Summa Theologica or the Interior Castle for Roman Catholics. Suffice it to say, his book’s important.
So, what can we learn from this man? Despite our best efforts to follow the plan we have decided upon for how best to follow what we believe is God’s will, we need to be open to understanding that sometimes, we aren’t quite right when it comes to interpreting it. While John would have been quite content to live out his days in solitude, God had other plans for him, and John was humble enough to see that his own desires were not the most important and his own ideas were not necessarily the best for him. He followed God’s call, even when it called him away from the quiet solitude of his hermitage where he spent his time in quiet prayer and out into the place where his voice could be shared with many. We need to be open to God’s will, even if it calls us away from what we think is best.