April 15, 2024

The "New Moses" and the "Secret Tablets" - A Reference to Saint John Climacus

The "New Moses" and the "Secret Tablets"

A Reference to Saint John Climacus

(A Vesperal Homily)

By Hierodeacon Paisios Paraskevas


Saint John of Sinai, the author of "The Ladder", the most famous of the ascetic writers of the Church, is a brilliant ascetic as a "composer", and a great mystagogue of the pastoral art as a "teacher". His book "The Ladder" is perhaps the only patristic book that became an illustration in the iconographic tradition of Orthodoxy, which shows the enormous appeal it had and still has, not only to monastics but also to every faithful Christian.

Hieromonk Dionysios of Fourna describes beautifully in his "Interpretation of the Art of Painting" the scene of the "soul-saving and heaven-directed Ladder":

"There is a monastery and outside its gate, is a multitude of monks, young and old, before whom is a high and great ladder reaching to the sky, and on it are monks. Some are ascending, others begin to ascend, and above them are flying angels as if helping them. Up in the sky is Christ and in front of him on the top step of the ladder is a very old clothed and priestly monk with outstretched hands, who looks towards Him; the Lord in one hand receives him with joy, in the other He holds a crown of various flowers on top of it, saying to him: 'Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' And under the ladder there are a multitude of flying demons, seizing the monks by their cassocks; some are pulled and they cannot push them off, others are being slightly dragged from the ladder; others are almost knocked down (yet they are holding onto the ladder, some with one hand, others with both); others have been completely knocked down, being carried from their waist; and below them is the omnivorous Hades as a great and terrible dragon. He has a single monk face-down in his mouth, only his feet are visible."

The great Father of the 10th century, Saint Symeon the New Theologian, "searched through his family library and took out the Ladder of the divinely-sweet John," and reading the 17th chapter "On Insensitivity" he received an impetuous spirit of repentance. The Venerable Hierotheos of Iveron (+ 1745) accidentally reading "The Ladder", hated so much the vain glory that the worldly education he possessed so richly offered him that "instead of sailing to Italy, he went to the Holy Mountain and settled in a quiet place."

a) A Short Biography of the Saint

We will offer very quickly a small outline of the life of the Saint. Saint John was born at the beginning of the 6th century and was brought up, it seems, in a wealthy family, and the well-rounded education he received was particularly important for his time, to such an extent that he was given the nickname "scholastic", the origin of which is from his schooling. At the age of 16, he renounced the flesh, the world and the prince of this world and took the monastic schema under the guidance of Abba Martyrios of Sinai. After the Abba reposed, he retreated to the quietness of the cave of Tholas, where he lived an ascetic life for forty consecutive years. Towards the end of his life, he was elected abbot of the Sinai monastery. This ministry of his was likely short-lived, as he spent the last period of his life again in his beloved quietness. There he composed the famous "Ladder", this masterpiece of ecclesiastical ascetic writing. He reposed on the 30th of March, probably in the year 600, and "beautified with virtues" he ascended the entire ladder of earthly perfection, entering solemnly into the heavenly Divine Liturgy, as the sacred iconographers also vividly depict in the depiction of the heaven-directed Ladder.

b) Characteristics - Nicknames

Saint John had and has a huge influence on the formulation of the spiritual and ascetic teaching of the Church through his work "The Ladder". So great is the recognition that this book has within the Church, that, while initially the book took value from the recognizability of the author, "The Ladder of John of Sinai", over time the author began to be defined by his work: "John of the Ladder" (John Climacus). In the years of the Turkish occupation, John now became simply "Climacus"; "Readings from Climacus" is how the rubrics of the "Triodion" typically describe them.

There are many Fathers who refer to the personality and writings of Saint John Climacus, who "like a luminary shone in the ascetic state", is the "great professor" according to John of Raithu, "the greatest" and "thrice-venerable" and "angel among men" according to Saint Neophytos the Recluse, who is "divinely-sweet" according to Niketas Stethatos, the one who built with words "the ladder which carries us to heaven" according to Saint Gregory Palamas, "the great father" according to Nikephoros the monastic, "the common teacher of all things and full of divine wisdom" according to Mark the Monk.

However, apart from all these characteristics - and many others -, Saint John has already been called by his contemporaries and fellow ascetics with one more nickname, which later described his spiritual height and depth. This characterization is "New Moses".

c) The "New Moses" - The First References

It is known who Moses is. He is the great Prophet, the one who "passed through the waters as if it were dry ground", the Guide to the Promised Land, the Lawgiver and God-seer, the model of the perfect life according to Saint Gregory of Nyssa.

The weighty and very meaningful name "New Moses" was attributed to Saint John while he was still alive and it seems that it prevailed even after he reposed in the Sinai desert.

First of all, the first person who describes Saint John Climacus as a "New Moses" is his friend and fellow ascetic John of Raithu, who asks him to teach him everything "as Moses of old saw in divine vision" on Mount Sinai. He will keep his advice "as divinely-written tablets", as, that is, Israel received the tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.

The second person in history to call Saint John "the New Moses" is his biographer, Daniel of Raithu, who describes him "as a newly-appeared Moses."

A little later, the monk Anastasios of Sinai, the so-called short story writer, in his turn describes the Saint as a "New Moses": "As our new Moses, the most-venerable John the abbot, was about to go to the Lord," etc.

As one of the epigrams on "The Ladder" says:  

"You were seen as another divine Moses,
Receiving from heaven which is greater than from the mountains
The secret all-revered tablets
From the hand of the God and Master Himself."

d) Parallels Between the Prophet Moses and Saint John Climacus

We will now try to identify some parallels from the lives of the Prophet Moses and Saint John Climacus, with a reductive character, relying on the work of Saint Gregory of Nyssa "On the Life of Moses the Lawgiver". These biographical parallels make Saint John truly a "New Moses".

1. Parallels Before the Exodus

The newborn Prophet Moses was thrown by his natural parents into the waters of the Nile River in the hope that he would avoid the death that the Pharaoh had legislated for all the male infants of the Jews. There, in the waters of the river, the childless daughter of the Pharaoh found him in a basket and seeing the beauty of the infant, she decided to keep him and place him in the pharaonic palaces, raising him as her own, naturally offering him all the worldly wisdom and knowledge of the time. Saint Gregory of Nyssa, in his work, identifies the childless daughter of the Pharaoh with worldly wisdom, "which is always in labor but never gives birth." As Moses grows up, he refuses to be called "son of the daughter of Pharaoh", according to the Apostle Paul, as he considers "the reproach of Christ" to be greater wealth than all the Egyptian treasures. He retired to the mountains, to a life of quietness, tending the flock of the foreigner Jethro, whose daughter he married. There in the quiet, in the barren life of the shepherd, he sees the awesome sight of the burning yet unburnt bush, that is, he becomes a partaker of the glory of God. Strengthened by this vision, he returns to Egypt to free Israel from bondage to the Pharaoh. On the way back, Jethro's foreign daughter also follows him. In the person of the foreign wife again, Saint Gregory of Nyssa sees foreign education, and he writes: "The foreign wife will follow him, for there are certain things derived from worldly education which should not be rejected when we propose to give birth to virtue."

Saint John Climacus had a similar path. Until the age of 16, he received a rich secular education, to such an extent that he was called, as we said above, "scholastic". This is his "adoption" by Pharaoh's daughter. Then he embraced the quiet life on the mountain, that is, he embraced the monastic life in the quiet of contemplation. There he also grazed his sheep, that is, he managed to shepherd his senses - "the movements of the soul" - and make them calm and gentle, like the sheep. In the hesychast life of the Sinaitic desert and after his heart was purified and his nous was illumined, the unburnt bush of the vision of God appears to him. Strengthened by this vision, he decided to return to noetic Egypt and to liberate the new Israel, i.e. us faithful Christians, from the slavery of the noetic Pharaoh, the devil. On his return, however, he will be followed by the "foreigner", that is, the worldly wisdom that he possessed, and now he will use it to compose the oracles of the heavenly-destined Ladder, since "worldly education should not be rejected when we propose to give birth to virtue."

2. Parallels After the Exodus

The Prophet Moses gathered the people of Israel and began the escape from Egypt. With his rod, he split the Red Sea in two and crossed it "without getting his feet wet." He lived for 40 years in the desert, where he was fed by the manna and was covered and guided by the cloud. He reached Mount Sinai where he climbed to the top. However, before climbing to the top, he ordered his assistants not to allow any horse or animal to touch the mountain. There on the Mount of the Theophany he spoke with God and for the sake of the salvation of the people he brought down the purifying Tablets of the Covenant.

Similarly, Saint John began with the flight from the noetic Egypt, that is, the world and the secular mind, and reached the sea of purifying obedience to Abba Martyrios, which he made passable with the rod of patience and humility. Then he settled himself in the desert of the hesychastic life - for 40 years too - where he was nourished by the heavenly manna of prayer and was covered by the cloud of God's Grace. At the right time he ascended, like Moses, to the mountain of Vision, after first forbidding all irrational animals to touch it, that is, according to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, he transcended the knowledge that comes from the irrational senses including reason, since the vision of God is beyond and above them. On this mountain he "heard unspeakable words, not spoken by man" and returning, he recorded them with created words, meanings and images for the salvation of the new Israel, engraving them on his illuminating Spiritual Tablets, the salvific and heaven-destined Ladder.

e) The Spiritual Tablets and the Method

Just as Moses cannot be understood without the God-written tablets, without the reception and delivery of the spiritual law, so, too, the "New Moses" could not rightly be called this, if he did not also cut out his own secret spiritual tablets.

It should be noted that the title "The Ladder" was not the first title that Saint John's writing received. Its original name was "Ascetic Discourse Which Has Been Called Spiritual Tablets". However, with the passage of time and due to the great practical value of the methodical development of the work which starts "from the lowest" and ends "high in the air" and higher, the book received the descriptive name "The Ladder".

"The Ladder" is divided into 30 discourses. Each discourse speaks of a virtue or a passion and is symbolized in the heaven-directed Ladder with a step, a rung. This ladder begins with the renunciation of the vain life, passes through the practical virtues and ends in the three great theoretical virtues, Faith, Hope and Love and from there to the union with God.

The analogy of the book with a ladder is very important for the whole spiritual life of believers. No one can climb a ladder without danger, but from one step he climbs successively with safety to the next; "for no ladder that one climbs up can fail," as the Saint writes.

Therefore, a basic condition of the work is that, in order to rise to the next level, one must, as much as possible, have firmly stepped on the previous one. With this, Saint John warns us not to "be deceived by proud zeal" for the greatest virtues before the right time: "Let us not be deceived by proud zeal and seek prematurely what will come in its own good time; that is, we should not seek in winter what comes in summer, or at seed time what comes at harvest; because there is a time to sow labors, and a time to reap the unspeakable gifts of grace."

This spiritual method is not an invention of Saint John, but the tradition of the Church. Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite in his "Handbook of Counsels" gives a panoramic presentation of the patristic teaching, and also contains a chapter titled "That the Virtues Must Be Acquired in Order", where he notes:

"Saint Basil has written in his letter to Chilon that we must seek to acquire the virtues in order, that is, one by one, and not all of them together. Saint John Chrysostom also has taught this principle. We must distribute to ourselves the various virtues as the farmers their plantings. During this month, we will control reviling, insult, and unjust rage. During another month, we will train ourselves to avoid malice. During still another month, we will work on another virtue. When we acquire the habit of each virtue, then we proceed to another one. The virtues must be acquired one by one in order, and not all of them together, so that they do not become burdensome and difficult, but easy and light, as Saint Isaac said. The virtues must be acquired one by one, for the sake of being helpful and harmless. Saint Isaac said, 'Each virtue is the mother of the next one. But if you leave the mother who gives birth to each virtue and you seek after the daughters before you acquire their mother, those virtues will prove to be vipers in your soul. And if you do not put them away from yourself, you will surely die.'”

This spiritual method, as taught by our Metropolitan in his book "Empirical Dogmatics", is a basic element of the Prophetic, Apostolic and Patristic Tradition of the Church. He writes, preserving also the oral teaching of Father John Romanides: "Orthodox tradition is the transmission of all the revealed truth of the Prophets, Apostles and Fathers, but at the same time - in addition to the transmission of the revelation - it is also the transmission of the methodology in order for one to reach theoptia." In other words, it is about the how.

The most basic manual of this methodology is also the "Ladder of John" which, when the believer "lawfully" follows it, becomes able to taste the Grace of God, which initially is purifying and then illuminating and perfecting.

There is a method, but the method does not work on its own. Saint John knows and teaches us too that the pursuit of virtues can easily derail from its real purpose. Virtues as a means of preparation for our union with God can easily become an end in themselves. The basis of the life in Christ is our participation in the Mysteries of the Church with the always appropriate ascetic conditions, that is, the observance of the commandments of Christ, while the canvas on which this is painted is humility, because, as Saint John characteristically writes, what is required is not our struggle for these virtues per se, but humility. He writes, paraphrasing the Gospel: "By this everyone knows that we are God's disciples, not because the demons obey us, but because our names are written in the heaven of humility." And elsewhere he notes about the reward of labor that: "Some have tasted the spiritual rewards before the labors, some during the labors, some after the labors, while some others at the time of death. It is a question which of them was rendered more humble?"


The lesson, therefore, is that with a humble mindset in the Prophetic, Apostolic and Patristic tradition of the Church, through the "Ladder of John", the spiritual tablets of the New Moses, with the intercessions and prayers and the teaching of our Fathers, may we also go forth, the new Israel, from the noetic Egypt of the worldly mind, to escape from slavery to the noetic Pharaoh and the passions and to taste the grace of God, one at a measure of thirty, another at sixty and another at one hundred. Amen.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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