Although John Climacus is one of the most widely read of all Egyptian authors, he is little known to most Egyptians. This is because he lived before the Islamic era, wrote in Greek, and was a Christian – Egyptian nevertheless, and part of an extraordinary movement which originated in Egypt and spread round the Middle East and Europe: monastic asceticism.
His book, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”, is assigned to be read in every Orthodox monastery throughout the days of Lent. It’s the most widely read pious text amongst Eastern Christians. Even Ivan the Terrible read John during his more remorseful moments and often quoted him in his letters.
Sanctified by the Church, John invites the kind of reverence that humbles criticism – but in the consequential hush of piety we risk losing touch with the singular strangeness of his story and the rich complexity of his motives and aspirations. His book is as worthy of vigorous analysis as any other great writing of antiquity and is as meaningful today for secular readers seeking an understanding of human nature as for religious readers seeking more than nature has given them.
He came to the monastery of St Catherine in his teens to take up the austerities of a hermit’s life – already an exceptional obsession for one so young. That he won discernment, one of the goals of a hermit’s quest, is clear from the depth of his psychological and spiritual insight. That he acquired charisma is clear from his appointment as Abbot to the Monastery of St Catherine. That he remained committed to his search for holiness is seen from his return to his cave at the end of his life to finish it where he had passed most of it, struggling to purify himself before God. But the dark side of his reaching for God was a violent rupture with society, friends and family, a loathing for his own physical nature and a profound mistrust of beauty. It was the renunciation of the world through considerable distaste for it.
For John, a person’s physical being was the locus of gross appetites, gluttony and avarice, while lust brought marriage and conscription into the social demands of families and child rearing.
In seeking a spiritual life, John believed the monk needed to subdue the body and escape the nexus that ties us to society. The wilderness was his refuge.
Not only was John appalled by the tyranny of our appetites, he was also shocked by the behaviour of a mind that exploded in anger, bore grudges, slandered, deceived and jabbered. And he despised the preposterous vainglory and pride of men.
Looking askance at the wreckage of God’s creation, he could only explain it as a result of the fall of Adam, sustained by the attacks of demons.
But in his struggle to free himself from his demons, John gives us a penetrating analysis of what it is to be human, beset by stirrings of the body, mental conceits, aspirations and fantasies.
In all of us, we may recognize a longing for fulfillment, greater understanding, renewed intensity, stillness. For John, this was a search for God, a task so serious that it could not be compromised by worldly concerns.
The monk, however, was drawn not only by the peace of God but driven also by fear of His judgment, a horror for what might await him at his death, a horror that John counseled his novices to retain and cultivate to prevent backsliding.
But fear for John was fused with love in a single impulse of the soul, compunction: a fear of God’s wrath while consumed by love for Him, our only source of salvation. And in contrition, the monk might be touched by the grace of God which manifested itself in the “gift of tears”, a paradoxical flood of grief and gratitude which washed the soul clean again, a second baptism, a new harmony of body and soul.
John’s book cannot be found for sale in Monastery of St Catherine nor in the AUC bookshop. Hermits are definitely out of fashion. But the landscape of his struggles remains in the wilderness of Sinai. And the simple cell where he spent most of his life can still be seen a short distance from the monastery.