Frederick Schmidt: Burning Snow: St. John Climacus


Saint John Climacus, a seventh century monk at the monastery on Mt. Sinai was admired for his spiritual depth. As a result, a neighboring monastery asked him to serve as their spiritual director.  We don't know much about Climacus, but it is reasonably certain that the one book he wrote, The Ladder of Divine Ascent was written in response to that request.

Consisting of thirty chapters that allude to the life of Jesus and the Old Testament story of Jacob's ladder, the book consists of three sections. The first seven chapters outline the virtues required for monastic life.  The next nineteen chapters describe the vices that subvert the spiritual life and the means of cultivating virtues that militate against the influence of those vices.  And the final four chapters describe the virtues that the whole of the spiritual life is meant to nurture.

The purpose of the spiritual life is not the layering on of another set of obligations.  Its purpose is not to impose burdens on already busy lives.  Its purpose is transformation.  Climacus writes:

Just as certain winged creatures are too fat to fly, so are people who over-feed their bodies.

Just as pigs do not feel attracted to dry mud, so do the devils find no pleasure in a body desiccated by penance.

Just as oil calms the rage of the sea even it seems to resist the pacifying effect, so is the heat of the body's passions cooled by fasting even if they object.

Just as water when it is squeezed on all sides shoots up above, so does the soul when it is pressed hard by dangers often rise to God and be saved.

Just as fire is not born from snow, so is the seeker after worldy honours not seeking heavenly ones.*

Snow won't burn.  Those without a deep commitment to the things of God cannot expect to know or appreciate them, let alone change the way that they live.

Don't look for secret knowledge.  Don't take pride or shelter in being busy with spiritual activity.  Pray for transformation - let it grow in you.  Only then will the fire begin to burn.


*Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, A Patristic Breviary, Ancient Wisdom for Today's World, trans., Paul Drake  (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1994): 167.

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