March 30 – The Uncondemning Monk; John Climacus

The Uncondemning Monk is a sort of everymonk with no name or date. He was not a very good monk, however. He was shiftless, sloppy, undisciplined, discinclined to pray, and so on; but in his entire life he never once judged another person. The other monks at the monastery say that as he lay dying, his face beamed and he was full of joy. “Whoa,” one of them said, “aren’t you afraid to die, being a lousy monk and all?” Our saint said, “I just saw the angels, and they had a paper/papyrus/vellum/clay tablet [delete as required] with all my sins on it. But I said to them, ‘It is written, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” I have never judged anyone. I hope that God in his mercy will not judge me.’” “What happened then?” the other monks asked. “Well, they tore up the piece of paper. See you guys on the other side.” And with that he died. The other monks were full of amazement and wonder and stuffs.

John Climacus (between 505 and 579–between 605 and 649) (or “John of the Ladder”), was abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, and author of a towering spiritual classic that he named after himself (The Ladder), which is still read today and not just in seminary. Hailing from Palestine or Syria, and educated, John may or may not have been married and widowed. He came to the monastery at Sinai (then called Vatos) at age 16, and was apprenticed to Martyrius, who taught him the importance of silence (one source says he was something of a chatterbox), humility, and obedience. After Martyrius died, John headed out into the desert to live as a hermit, with the usual result that people came from far and wide to see and hear him. He was especially good at giving comfort to the distressed, and the distressed knew it. He moved into a cave, but it was no use; the distressed found him. Perhaps out of jealousy, some of his fellow monks accused him of liking the sound of his own voice a little too much. When John heard this, he kept silent for a year. Finally the busybodies apologized and begged him to resume counseling people (perhaps they had to take up the slack). At about 70, he was abbotified, if involuntarily.

John is most famous, however, for the aforementioned Ladder, written in response to a request by a fellow abbot who sought wisdom on the monastic life for use in other monasteries and bookstores. It consists of thirty chapters called “rungs,” one for each of the years of Jesus’ life, and each of which discusses a virtue or discipline for monks to aspire to. So for example Rung 1 is “Renunciation,” Rung 11 is “On talkativeness and silence,” and Rung 30 is “The Supreme Trinity among the virtues.” Eminently quotable and chock-full of good advice, it was a best-seller for many centuries.

We finish with a miracle. John had a disciple named Moses, who went out one day to haul manure in the garden. When the day got hot, Moses laid down in the shade of a big rock and fell asleep. John was doing the same in his office. Suddenly a strange-looking man appeared and said, “Wake up! Moses is in danger!” Although understandably confused, John immediately began praying for his disciple. When Moses finally came in that evening, John asked him nonchalantly how his day went, and if anything interesting or, you know, dangerous happened. Moses said, “It was the strangest thing. I was sleeping under this rock, and thought I heard you calling me, so I got up, and the rock collapsed onto where I had just been.” John kept his vision to himself, but thanked God for saving his beloved disciple.