On the Sunday of St John of the Ladder

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

This Sunday, the fourth in Great Lent, the Church commemorates St John of the Ladder. Who was he?

St John lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. Becoming a novice at the age of sixteen at St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai, he later became a hermit and then the Abbot of the Monastery. There he lived in monasticism for 64 years, before he reposed at the age of eighty in the year 649. Mt Sinai was the mountain where for our sakes Moses received the Ten Commandments, where God spoke to man. In some way we can say that God also spoke to St John on Mt Sinai and gave him commandments for our sakes. For St John was a man of grace who lived in unceasing prayer and he also wrote down what he had learnt from his life in God in his book called ‘The Ladder’. It is this work which has given St John his title ‘of the Ladder’.

In this book the Saint describes in thirty chapters, or rungs, how we can raise ourselves up from our fallen, earthly states, overcoming our sinful inclinations. Thus the soul rises up to God as if on a ladder. Although the last five chapters of this book in particular are quite difficult for such people as ourselves who live in the world, the earlier chapters can be read by all, giving us great profit. However, we can say that the first rungs of this ladder are those which are most suitable for us. Like the man in today’s Gospel, they are for those who cry out to God: ‘Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief’. But the later chapters are for those who are able to cast out demons, as Christ did also in today’s Gospel. This book, The Ladder, is in print today and can be bought by any who wish to read it with care and attention over time, taking in its precious words a little at a time.

On this Sunday in previous years I have chosen to read extracts from some of the early chapters of St John’s Ladder. Today I would simply like to relate to you just one saying of St John, a simple saying which I know has changed lives and saved people from their sins. Here is his saying:

St John related that monastic life was similar to a number of stones being shaken together in a jar. At first the stones were sharp and hard, with rough, cutting edges. However as the jar was shaken, so the stones became smoother and rounder, like the pebbles one can find on the seashore.

Although St John spoke of monastic life in this saying, it can be applied to any sort of community, in a family, at home, at work, at school, at the docks, in the office and also in our parish churches. By this saying St John was indicating that our salvation comes through others. In whatever position God places us, we can find salvation through the difficulties or even friction that we encounter with others. This does not mean that we should go looking for, still less creating, difficulties. God will only allow us the difficulties which we are capable of coping with through His Grace and which we encounter naturally in the course of our everyday lives.

The next time that we encounter difficulties in any aspect of our lives where we are with others, let us consider this saying of St John, let us think of the rough, sharp stones in the jar, wearing each other into rounded, smooth and even beautiful pebbles. For those rough, angular stones which are worked into smooth and well-rounded pebbles are ourselves, providing only that we persevere in patience in the life in Christ.

Holy Father John, pray to God for us!