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Why we don't fast during the week of the Publican and Pharisee

by Hieromonk Job (Gumerov) 


The parable of the publican and the Pharisee gives an image of the spiritual truth that God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble (Js. 4:6). The Pharisees were representatives of the social-religious trend in Judea during the second century B.C. Their distinguishing characteristic was an intense zeal for observing the Law of Moses. Religious life requires that a person be attentive to himself, that he have moral sensitivity, humility, and pure intentions. If he doesn’t have these, a hardness of heart gradually creeps in on him. Then a pseudo-spirituality inevitably comes. The result is spiritual death. If instead of humility there is self-opinion and pride, instead of sacrificial love there is spiritual egoism, then it is not hard for the devil to take over such a person and make him an accomplice in his evil deeds. People who are unbelieving or spiritually inattentive do not even know or guess how often they do just what the enemy of our salvation wants them to do.

Phariseeism is not a vocation or a membership in some kind of religious organization. Phariseeism is a state of the soul. It begins with self-opinion and self-aggrandizement. Just as soon as a person’s attention to himself and strictness with himself relaxes, the first shoots of a dangerous plant appear, the fruits of which can kill the soul. Death comes as a result of poisoning with the poison of pride.

The main moral characteristic of a Pharisee is self-love and egoism, which directs all the movements of his soul. We rarely think about how much egoism and therefore, phariseeism we have in ourselves. Our insensitivity to our surroundings, our constant coldness, the lack of a constant readiness to sacrifice our time, energy, and convenience for the sake of others shows how far we are from the repentant publican, who with a contrite heart pronounced only five words, but departed justified.

By cancelling the Wednesday and Friday fast during the week of the Publican and the Pharisee, the holy Church desires to keep us from pharisaical self-complacency, when the formal observation of Church rules (fasting, prayer rule, and church attendance) becomes the goal of spiritual life. The holy fathers teach that all this must be fulfilled, but it must be seen as a means for acquiring spiritual fruits.

The Pharisees considered themselves to be wise and knowing. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace (Js. 3:17-18).


RETURN FROM EXILE - The Sunday of the Prodigal Son


On the third Sunday of preparation for Lent, we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son (LK. 15:11-32). Together with the hymns on this day, the parable reveals to us the time of repentance as man's return from exile. The prodigal son, we are told, went to a far country and there spent all that he had. A far country! It is this unique definition of our human condition that we must assume and make ours as we begin our approach to God. A man who has never had that experience, be it only very briefly, who has never felt that he is exiled from God and from real life, will never understand what Christianity is about. And the one who is perfectly "at home" in this world and its life, who has never been wounded by the nostalgic desire for another Reality, will not understand what is repentance.

Repentance is often simply identified as a cool and "objective" enumeration of sins and transgressions, as the act of "pleading guilty" to a legal indictment. Confession and absolution are seen as being of a juridical nature. But something very essential is overlooked-- without which neither confession nor absolution have any real meaning or power. This "something" is precisely the feeling of alienation from God, from the joy of communion with Him, from the real life as created and given by God. It is easy indeed to confess that I have not fasted on prescribed days, or missed my prayers, or become angry. It is quite a different thing, however, to realize suddenly that I have defiled and lost my spiritual beauty, that I am far away from my real home, my real life, and that something precious and pure and beautiful has been hopelessly broken in the very texture of my existence. Yet this, and only this, is repentance, and therefore it is also a deep desire to return, to go back, to recover that lost home....

One liturgical peculiarity of this "Sunday of the Prodigal Son" must be especially mentioned here. At Sunday Matins, following the solemn and joyful Psalms of the Polyeleion, we sing the sad and nostalgic Psalm 137:

'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion... How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy...'

It is the Psalm of exile. It was sung by the Jews in their Babylonian captivity as they thought of their holy city of Jerusalem. It has become forever the song of man as he realizes his exile form God, and realizing it, becomes man again: the one who can never be fully satisfied by anything in this fallen world, for by nature and vocation he is a pilgrim of the Absolute. This Psalm will be sung twice more: on the last two Sundays before Lent. It reveals Lent itself as pilgrimage and repentance-- as return.


For teaching on the approach to the Sunday of the Last Judgement and Cheesefare Week, you are invited to coffee with Sr. Vassa:


Forgiveness Sunday

Sr. Vassa and Fr. Thomas Hopko teach us about this:


Thoughts on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy

1. By Gabe Martini

The first Sunday of Great Lent is celebrated as the Triumph of Orthodoxy. This is connected with the victory of the iconodules (those who supported the veneration of sacred images) over the iconoclasts (those who opposed their veneration).
The heart of the victory of Orthodoxy in the restoration of iconography—as well as our veneration of the same—is found in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Christology is the beginning and end of all true theology, and whenever we get Christ wrong, we get everything else wrong.
The decrees of the Ecumenical Councils were not as much positive pronouncements of ideas (as if God is a collection of our best notions), but rather opposition to wrongideas about both the holy Trinity and the person of Jesus Christ. These wrong ideas (heresies) ultimately lead to other errors when taken to their logical conclusions. Erroneous forms of worship, piety, ecclesiology, and so forth.
During the second period of iconoclasm, led by Emperor Leo V (ca. A.D. 813–820), the Church was blessed by the courage of Theodore, a priest-monk at the Studious monastery in Constantinople. Like John of Damascus a century before him (during the first period of iconoclasm), Theodore opposed iconoclasm with writings and homilies, directly opposing the will of the emperor. However, I think Theodore’s courage is best displayed by something he did, rather than something he said or wrote.
On Palm Sunday in the year 815, Theodore led his fellow monks in a procession through their monastery garden. The garden was surrounded by a high wall, and they processed, singing hymns, with icons held high above their heads, so that only the icons were visible past the top of the wall. This peaceful protest was condemned by Leo, and they all risked punishment or even death by their actions.
When iconoclasm was defeated by the Empress Theodora (A.D. 843), a procession was made to the Great Church in Constantinople on the first Sunday of Lent. This procession marked the victory of Orthodoxy in the victory of icons, and the people held icons high above their heads as they marched into the church for liturgy. Imitating Theodore and his companions, this procession marked a new festival for the Church—one that is still celebrated centuries later.
But again, the celebration is about more than just the restoration and veneration of holy icons; it is a celebration of the victory of the Orthodox Faith itself. That is to say, it is a victory of both right belief in (and right worship of) our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.


2. By Archpriest Alexander Schmemann

Rejoicing today in the triumph of Orthodoxy on this first Sunday of Lent, we joyfully commemorate three events: one event belonging to the past; one event to the present; and one event which still belongs to the future.
Whenever we have any feast or joy in the Church, we Orthodox first of all look back — for in our present life we depend on what happened in the past. We depend first of all, of course, on the first and the ultimate triumph—that of Christ Himself. Our faith is rooted in that strange defeat which became the most glorious victory — the defeat of a man nailed to the cross, who rose again from the dead, who is the Lord and the Master of the world. This is the first triumph of Orthodoxy. This is the content of all our commemorations and of all our joy. This man selected and chose twelve men, gave them power to preach about that defeat and that victory, and sent them to the whole world saying preach and baptize, build up the Church, announce the Kingdom of God. And you know, my brothers and sisters, how those twelve men — very simple men indeed, simple fishermen — went out and preached. The world hated them, the Roman Empire persecuted them, and they were covered with blood. But that blood was another victory. The Church grew, the Church covered the universe with the true faith. After 300 years of the most unequal conflict between the powerful Roman Empire and the powerless Christian Church, the Roman Empire accepted Christ as Lord and Master. That was the second triumph of Orthodoxy. The Roman Empire recognized the one whom it crucified and those whom it persecuted as the bearers of truth, and their teaching as the teaching of life eternal. The Church triumphed. But then the second period of troubles began.
The following centuries saw many attempts to distort the faith, to adjust it to human needs, to fill it with human content. In each generation there were those who could not accept that message of the cross and resurrection and life eternal. They tried to change it, and those changes we call heresies. Again there were persecutions. Again, Orthodox bishops, monks and laymen defended their faith and were condemned and went into exile and were covered with blood. And after five centuries of those conflicts and persecutions and discussions, the day came which we commemorate today, the day of the final victory of Orthodoxy as the true faith over all the heresies. It happened on the first Sunday of Lent in the year 843 in Constantinople. After almost 100 years of persecution directed against the worship of the holy icons, the Church finally proclaimed that the truth had been defined, that the truth was fully in the possession of the Church. And since then all Orthodox people, wherever they live, have gathered on this Sunday to proclaim before the world their faith in that truth, their belief that their Church is truly apostolic, truly Orthodox, truly universal. This is the event of the past that we commemorate today.
But let us ask ourselves one question: Do all the triumphs of Orthodoxy, all the victories, belong to the past? Looking at the present today, we sometimes feel that our only consolation is to remember the past. Then Orthodoxy was glorious, then the Orthodox Church was powerful, then it dominated. But what about the present? My dear friends, if the triumph of Orthodoxy belongs to the past only, if there is nothing else for us to do but commemorate, to repeat to ourselves how glorious was the past, then Orthodoxy is dead. But we are here tonight to witness to the fact that Orthodoxy not only is not dead but also that it is once more and forever celebrating its own triumph — the triumph of Orthodoxy. We don’t have to fight heresies among ourselves, but we have other things that once more challenge our Orthodox faith.
Today, gathered here together, Orthodox of various national backgrounds, we proclaim and we glorify first of all our unity in Orthodoxy. This is the triumph of Orthodoxy in the present. This is a most wonderful event: that all of us, with all our differences, with all our limitations, with all our weaknesses, can come together and say we belong to that Orthodox faith, that we are one in Christ and in Orthodoxy. We are living very far from the traditional centers of Orthodoxy. We call ourselves Eastern Orthodox, and yet we are here in the West, so far from those glorious cities which were centers of the Orthodox faith for centuries — Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow. How far are those cities. And yet, don’t we have the feeling that something of a miracle has happened, that God has sent us here, far into the West, not just in order to settle here, to increase our income, to build up a community. He also has sent us as apostles of Orthodoxy, so that this faith, which historically was limited to the East, now is becoming a faith which is truly and completely universal.


3. By Priest Nicholai Bulgakov

Outwardly it may seem that evil triumphs in the world more often than not. Falsehood, violence, money, sectarianism, and atheism triumph. Some say that Orthodoxy was not victorious in history, that it did not justify itself. They cite facts and figures…
Yes, there truly is much evil in life. But the essence of life is not in that, but in that evil, not limited by any morality, for which there are no holds barred, for all its treachery, malice, and cynicism, is still unable to defeat the seemingly helpless, naïve, and meekly kind. We constantly see that there is good in life: selflessness, mutual help, friendship, mercy, love…
Because God exists, and He is always stronger than all evil put together. Orthodoxy bears witness to this.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy is a day that marks the main truth of what happens in life: The truth of God always triumphs, no matter how much evil rages.
Life tells us that it rarely happens that the majority are for truth. But it’s better to be with truth.
The Lord Himself tells us, Fear not little flock… I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee (Lk. 12:32, Acts 18:10).
He did not promise that His flock would be large. He did not command us to dream of that which will not be in reality, sighing despondently about it. He told us “Rejoice.” Rejoice that the gates of salvation exist. They, although narrow, are open for all who desire to enter in by them.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy is the Resurrection of Christ, for which we prepare ourselves by Great Lent and which we celebrate on the first Sunday of the Holy Quadragesima.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy is in that the Lord sent His disciples as lambs among wolves, and the wolves did not vanquish them, and they enlightened the entire universe.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy is in that the gates of Hell, as the Lord foretold, have not overcome the Church He created, although the powers of evil have sought for these past 2,000 years to destroy it. They still have not given up their insane hope for it. But the Church of Christ lives, and is even growing before our eyes. People pray, confess, commune, baptize their children, venerate its sacred objects, and are saved. It’s a great Triumph!


Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas

Why is the second Sunday of Lent dedicated to a fourteenth century saint? Let's find out!

First of all, the Biblical basis for St. Gregory's teaching, by
Archbishop Andrei (Rymarenko): 
Secondly, an excellent article about St. Gregory, also including Biblical sources, by
Fr. Bassam A. Nassif:


Finally, how can we still gain such a profound and fundamental understanding of our Orthodox faith through St. Gregory's teaching?

Here are some excerpts from an article by

Jesse Dominick on

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity Who became incarnate for us, that we might share in His very Life, becoming heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17), and partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). As the great Cappadocian Fathers and St. John Chrysostom ably defended against the Eunomian heresy, the essence of God is incommunicable and is known only by the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and so our own partaking in the divine “nature” is accomplished through the energies of God, which are by nature divine and communicate to us the divine Life. This distinction between the unknowable essence of God and the knowable energies is absolutely essential for maintaining a proper understanding of the Person of Christ and the spiritual life. If in God there is only essence, and His energies are merely created, then there can be no true unmediated union and communion with God, for creation cannot impart to us the Uncreated. 

But the true Orthodox vision is incomparably greater than this, for the Church has always refused to reduce the perfection of and in Christ. St. Maximus the Confessor writes: “the person who has been deified by grace will be in every respect as God is, except for His very essence.” Commenting on this, Dr. Christopher Veniamin writes: “This means that we have been created to contain the very Life of the Holy Trinity.”

In his 150 Chapters St. Gregory demonstrates that the failure to distinguish between the essence and energies in God leads either to atheism or polytheism. He argues that if the energies of God are created then they of necessity belong to a created nature, for as St. John Damascene writes, the energy distinct from the divine substance is a natural one. St. Cyril writes that creation belongs to the divine energy, and so if the energy in God is itself created, then we must seek out an uncreated energy behind it which gave rise to it.

In the second phase of his attack Barlaam also claimed that the repetitive use of the Jesus Prayer and the bodily and breathing techniques that sometimes accompanied hesychastic prayer relegated the experience of God to the material realm which is unbecoming of the Church’s spiritual teachings. St. Gregory had no patience for any degradation of the body and argued that humans possess the image of God to a greater degree than the angels precisely because they have a body. With a body, humans are able to imitate the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so the participation of the body in prayer is natural, for the height of noetic* prayer is nothing less than the vision of Christ in glory, which is the Mystery of the Cross. Bodily techniques, such as uniting in-breathing with the Jesus prayer and confining one’s gaze, support the retention of the mind within the body, which, following St. John Climacus, St. Gregory argues is the mark of true hesychasm. 

But as we have seen, those who begin with rational philosophical speculation, from the time of Barlaam until today, end in denying the crucial distinction between the essence and uncreated energies of God, which preserves both the transcendence and unknowability of God, and the Christian’s possibility at experiencing direct and unmediated participation in the very Life of God. It is from this point that St. Gregory began, and it is this point which he ardently defended against a multitude of attacks. The Christian is not called simply to know about God or to behave in a moral way, but is called to be literally filled with the Life-giving energies of God and to thus take on the Life of the Godhead, in all respects save for nature. Speaking of the Most Holy Theotokos, whom he identifies as the first hesychast who combines and multiplies every virtue within herself, and in whom is no deficiency at all, St. Gregory writes:

Through Him who provides for the angels you have fed us on the true heavenly and incorruptible food. You have made men live the same life as angels, or rather, you have made them worthy of greater privileges, in that you conceived, of the Holy Spirit, the theandric** Form, and mysteriously gave Him birth, linking man’s nature to the divine nature and rendering it, as it were, equally divine, in inexpressible fashion.

To such may we all attain by the indwelling grace of God.

*The adjective from Nous: in Orthodox Christianity this is the eye of the soul.

**Relating to, or existing by, the union of divine and human operation in Christ, or the joint agency of the divine and human nature.


The Week of St. Gregory Palamas

Learn about the Jesus Prayer at this link:


The Third Sunday of Great Lent: The Veneration of the Holy Cross


For the preaching of the cross is … unto us which are saved… the power of God.

1 Cor. 1:18

On the third Sunday in Great Lent, at the All Night Vigil (on Saturday evening), the Life-Giving Cross is carried out from the altar to the center of the church for the veneration of the faithful throughout the week.
As a traveller weary from a long journey rests under a broad, leafy tree, so do Orthodox Christians making their spiritual journey to the Heavenly Jerusalem—to the Pascha of the Lord—find at the halfway point of their path the “Tree of the Cross”, that they might gather strength under its canopy for their onward journey. Or, as before the arrival of the king returning from victory is preceded by his standards and scepters, so also does the Cross of the Lord precede Christ’s victory over death—His Bright Resurrection.
At this veneration we sing:
“Before Thy Cross, we bow down, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify.”
The Church presents the Cross to the faithful in the middle of the Forty Days in order by this recollection of the sufferings of the Lord’s death to encourage and fortify those who fast to continue their labour of fasting.



Excerpts from a piece by Fr. Vasile Tudora


The Church is revealed as a second Paradise, having a tree of life, as the first Paradise of old: by touching Thy Cross, O Lord, we share in immortality! (From the Canon of the Third Sunday of Lent)

Dear beloved, the third Sunday of Lent, the midpoint of this great annual exercise, is dedicated by the Holy Fathers to the celebration of the Holy Cross. The explanation rests in the Synaxarion of the day: "Since the Holy Cross is also called the tree of life, and this tree has been planted in the center of Paradise, in the same way the Holy Fathers have planted the tree of the Cross in the center of the Great Lent so we can eat from it and live forever."
The Holy Cross has a central place not only during Lent, but also has a central role in our daily life. We make upon ourselves the sign of the Cross in the name of the Holy Trinity every time we pray, enter the Church, venerate an icon or participate in the Holy Liturgy. In everything we do we take the Cross with us for protection and salvation.
Paradoxically the Cross, an ancient instrument of torture and death, radiates life into the world. This may seem odd to the uninitiated observer, but for us, as Christians, we know that at the intersection of its two arms rests the Giver of Life, the maker of the Universe, accepting death so we can receive life.
The tradition says that when the holy Empress Helen went to find the Holy Cross in Jerusalem she unearthed three crosses from the pagan temple of Venus. Trying to decide which one is the true cross of our Savior they brought a sick woman and touched it with the three crosses. When she touched the true Cross, she immediately recovered and the True Cross was therefore revealed. This is the power of the Cross, transformed from an object of death into a fountain of immortality through the one that sacrificed Himself on it.
The Cross has the power to transfigure our lives, because accepting the cross we also accept Christ; the cross becomes therefore the main symbol of our Christian faith. For this reason we receive one at baptism and we carry it around our necks for the rest of our lives.
Christ is the pivotal stone that gives meaning to the Cross, because through Him, nailed with His stretched hands on the wood, man is linked again with God on the vertical axis and the same man is reunited with his brothers on the horizontal.
Jesus died on the cross embracing the world, reuniting at His fatherly breast all those that through sin have grown apart from God and from each other. Thus says St. Athanasius. Through Christ love flows in all directions: from God down to us and from man to man all around.
The cross is the true compass that points toward the only essential cardinal point in our lives: Upwards! Sailing on the sea of life in the motherly ship of the Church, the Cross is the lighthouse that shows us the way home, to the Kingdom of heaven.
Dear beloved, today the Cross of salvation is taken into precession around the Church on a bed of daffodils. The daffodils are chosen because as the first flowers of spring, the time when nature is reborn, they remind us of Resurrection. We do this because we cannot think of the Cross without remembering of Resurrection. We cannot imagine the death and the passions of Christ without having in mind the empty tomb radiating hope. Christ’s death has no meaning without His Resurrection.
In any Orthodox Crucifixion Christ is shown as standing on the cross, almost supporting it, not hanging on it. Even though Christ suffered on the Cross, the image does not lose its peace and pondered sadness, because our Lord willingly took the Cross for us, knowing that the Resurrection follows. The Orthodox icon of Crucifixion radiates peace and hope.
We know that Christ suffered on the cross, but we rejoice at the sight of the Cross, because we know what follows. Therefore we adorn our Cross with daffodils and continue our journey toward Resurrection.
Let us therefore rejoice once again at the sight of the elevated Holy Cross and sing in unison, “Come, all faithful, let us venerate the holy resurrection of Christ. For behold, through the cross joy has come to all the world. Blessing the Lord always, let us praise His resurrection. For enduring the cross for us, He destroyed death by death." Amen.


Sunday of St. John of the Ladder

Fourth Sunday of Great Lent



Excerpts from a piece by Sr. Joanna 



After the passage of fifteen centuries, does the Sinai brotherhood still feel the presence of Saint John Climacus,  author of the renowned Ladder of Divine Ascent?
“As though he were here yesterday!” says Saint Catherine’s Geronta Pavlos, adding that the saint’s words continue to guide the monastery in modern times as of old.
Hundreds attended John’s enthronement as abbot—not least, Prophet Moses, who appeared once more tending God’s people in Sinai, directing servers in the monastery refectory. And amidst the Arab conquests which roiled the region, pilgrims continued to arrive in large numbers to remove their shoes before kneeling on the holy ground where Moses met God at the Burning Bush.
It was very early in the Byzantine age that its great theologians understood the Bush as a “type” of the Mother of God. Like the Bush which contained the non-consuming fire of the Pre-incarnate Logos, the Holy Virgin held the fire of divinity in her womb without being consumed by it. Thus, it was in honor of the Annunciation to the Theotokos that Sinai monks dedicated their first altar in the fourth century, on the roots of the Burning Bush, to the Mother of God.


Saint John Climacus, whose memory is celebrated by the entire Orthodox Church on the Fourth Sunday of the Great Fast, lived in the remote wilderness of Sinai—buthis words have been the inspiration and help of Christians in every land since his time. 

Despite Sinai’s solitude on the outer edge of the empire (or more likely because of it), John’s writings demonstrate profound command of theological issues. He betrays this at the very outset of The Ladder when he states that, beyond imitation of Christ in thought, word, and deed, the Christian is defined by correct understanding of the Holy Trinity. Orthodox Christianity of course stresses the “threeness in one essence” of God. 

Perhaps for this reason, John’s disciple, Saint Anastasios, writes at length of the Trinitarian nature of the divine image in man which mirrors the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the two natures of Christ.

In order to understand the two births of the Logos of God for instance, we need only consider the double birth of our own logos, wrote Anastasios: A single thought is begotten bodilessly in the heart in an unfathomable way; then bodily as a word by the mouth to become known to all—without separation from the soul of which it was begotten.

Similarly, the Logos and Son of God is born invisibly and unfathomably of the Father before all ages; then of the Holy Virgin in the flesh to become known to all the world—without separation from the hidden essence of the Father of whom He is begotten.

Self-knowledge leads to knowledge of God, Anastasios says, because the soul typifies the full theology of the Holy Trinity. He supports this by isolating the characteristics of the Trinity in the unity of man’s unbegotten soul, its begotten logos, and its proceeding nous (which Saint Paul called the “spirit”; described as that faculty of the soul where man comes into contact with God). “Man is created to know God,” say the patristic Saints—not from an intellectual distance but through personal experience of His divine energies.

If it is through the incarnation of the Word of God that the virtue and power and wisdom of the unseen Father and Holy Spirit are manifested to the world, says Anastasios, it is through the birth of our own logos as words by the mouth that the virtue and power and wisdom of our unseen soul and its nous are manifested.

By extension then, as the mind of the Father is made known to the world through the incarnation of His Word, by His Holy Spirit, does it not follow that we become the vessel of divine grace to the world by uniting our own logos with the divine Logos—of whom Saint Paul says, “It is God who energizes in us to will and energize for His good pleasure”?


Like Christian seekers of every age, John of Raithou (at whose behest the work was written) asks John of Sinai to record his divine visions; and like God-bearing

fathers of every age, John responds instead with practical advice on how to achieve them—i.e., through the knowledge of God which Moses begged for when he implored God to see Him on Sinai.

God allowed Moses the experience of His divine energies in the sight of His “back parts”, the knowledge of personal contact with God as interpreted by the patristic age, rather than the theoretical contemplation of His inapproachable essence sought by the religious traditions of the West. Thus John of Sinai teaches how to win freedom from the passions so that the Holy Spirit can take up residence in the purified nous—the mind of the soul that searches out the mysteries of God—and there reveal them.

If John was precocious in being tonsured a monk on the Holy Summit of Sinai while still a teenager, his grounding in the theology of the Holy Trinity reveals the vision for which he was named the “new Moses” in honour of the God-seer who received the knowledge of the Trinity on Sinai. Saint Catherine’s present Abbot and Archbishop of Sinai Damianos I observes that Moses writings in Genesis make this clear, as well as his account of the theophany on Sinai, where, foreshadowing the full revelation of the Holy Trinity at the Transfiguration of Christ, the voice of the Father is heard, the grace of the Son revealed in Uncreated radiance, and the Holy Spirit represented by a cloud.

As another renowned ascetic who influenced Orthodox spirituality in many lands, Saint Gregory of Sinai, wrote: “Moses had seen in the cloud that the one God ‘who is’ was a triune God; that is, he saw the Father giving the law, through the Son, in the Spirit, even though most … thought there was only the Father.”

Breathed into mankind with the divine breath at the creation of Adam, the experience of God is every human being’s deepest longing, and the height of his loss at Adam’s fall from grace, when humans’ natural will for good was corrupted, having lost the instinctual knowledge of what is pleasing to God. But without knowing the divine Logos, in Whom they received their very being, “how could humans even be rational?” asked Saint Athanasios the Great.

An Orthodox elder is distinguished by the ability to discern the will of God in every circumstance. As the Book of Exodus makes clear, the roots of Sinai’s ascetic theology in the accurate knowledge of God are distinguished in the immaterial fire of the Burning Bush where God reveals His name “I Am Who I AM” to Moses. The knowledge empowers Moses to rescue God’s chosen people from slavery to the passions of Egyptian idolatry—the habitual sins that expand within the human soul until they take the place of God Himself.

But Christ alone is the Way and the Truth and the Life through whom the promised land is entered in freedom from the passions; for it is only in the soul purified by the grace of His resurrection that the Holy Spirit comes to dwell.

Moses leads the Israelites out from symbolic slavery to the passions—but then he shepherds their wanderings for forty years in the desert. Maybe it is not so difficult to take one’s life back from the peril of evil, the beginning of joy in the Lord. But having chosen the life in Christ, the road less traveled remains; a difficult journey, often uphill, and sometimes through desert wastes.

A healed will emanates only from a healed human nature, say the saints. To cure one’s symptoms a doctor must identify the underlying illness, and this is where Saint John’s medical handbook of healing for the soul provides the necessary science.


The passions are well known: anger, fear, pride, egotism and the like; but John explains whence they come, how they nurture each other, and how they are healed. For this reason in monasteries, The Ladder is read aloud every year during Great Lent’s journey to Pascha.

“‘Tell me, you nerveless, shuffling fellow, who viciously spawned you?” John says to depression. “I have many mothers,” it replies, “sometimes insensibility of soul, sometimes forgetfulness of the things above, sometimes excessive troubles ... my opponents are psalmody and manual labour. My enemy is the thought of death. But what completely mortifies me is prayer with firm hope of future blessings.”

It sounds too simple: firm hope in future blessings. And yet it works. In Orthodox monasteries at least, depression is unheard of.

Are you suffering from the flesh - who was that recently decimated by your thoughts? Overcome with fears? Kill them with fear of the Lord, says Saint John, for contrition slays cowardice.

It is a difficult journey, but not a grim one. Monasteries are happy places. John is not one to hide behind the truth, yet his wit is refreshing to a fault. And he is perhaps most remembered for his term “joy-producing sorrow”—the “commingling with God” that infuses the sorrow of a soul having repented for its sins.

As a spiritual handbook, The Ladder thus remains in constant use today, not only in monasteries but by all those seeking deeper consciousness of the presence of God in everyday life.

The unseen flames of the Bush remind pilgrims that the Most-Pure Mother of God was counted worthy to contain the fiery divinity of God because she united her human will to God’s divine one. There is no more timeless spiritual goal, for Christ Himself demonstrated the path to theosis by uniting His human will to His divine one. In a rare doctrinal statement, Saint John thus emphasizes the two wills of Christ, noting that “Christ dreads death, but does not tremble at it, in order to demonstrate clearly the properties of His two natures...”


It is in the practical life after all, that Saint John sets up his ladder leading to the radiance of divine vision, which invites a closer look at what monasticism means in Sinai. “It is not safe to swim in one’s clothes, nor should a slave of passion touch theology,” he warns. The practical life has always been considered safer not just for those in society, but for monks too.

Ever since The Ladder became known, non-monastics have wondered if they could access its riches. Father Pavlos gives an emphatic “yes”. If those in the world have less opportunities to acquire humility through obedience, he says, “they have a simpler and even more direct path to humility: to refrain from judging others, a virtue assigned the greatest significance by Saint John.”

Striving to account for Saint Catherine’s unmatched history of peaceful cooperation with its non-Christian neighbours, one finds a tolerance based not on enduring one’s neighbour, but on not judging him, directly traceable to Saint John’s anathema for condemnation of others. Almsgiving is also highly prized by the tradition, and the Sinai monastery’s efforts to assist those in need are woven into the fabric of its earliest history. If anything goes even deeper than this toward explaining the unbroken bonds of mutual respect between monks and their Bedouin neighbours, it must derive from Saint John’s account of the fathers of a monastery near Alexandria whose spiritual estate he extols in The Ladder.

Whatever the nature of his own ascetic exploits, Saint John’s essential humanity reminds that monasticism consists of nothing more exotic than fulfilling the commandments of Christ—hopefully with fewer distractions, but in essentials much the same as the life in Christ outside its walls.

And now if you will indeed hear my voice, and keep my covenant, you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to me a royal priesthood and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6).

Knowledge of God through purity of soul as taught by Saint John in The Ladder should not be considered the exclusive domain of monastics or theologians; on the holy ground of Sinai every Christian is called to be a theologian as a member of the royal priesthood, a vessel through which the grace of God shines onto all creation.

“Every time the Divine Liturgy is celebrated, it is celebrated for all the world” says Father Arsenios, “It is a global event. An elder from Mount Athos has said that the Second Coming will take place when the Liturgy ceases to be offered up on earth…” Even when their numbers are few, Saint Catherine’s monks do not cease to liturgize every day of the week—not only in their great basilica at the foot of Mount Sinai, but in the surrounding desert chapels; on the Holy Summit where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and at the cave where Saint John Climacus spent forty years in ascetic solitude—never omitting to pray for the peace of a world in travail, and all those in it, that hope never cease...

You set up a Divine Ladder,
Displaying to all your inspired method.
By purifying your soul through the practical life,
You led us up to the radiance of Theory.
Thus you became a great Leader of monks, O John,
Sainted Father, beseech the Lord Christ our God,
That He grant us His Great Mercy!


Read about the Lenten 'Canon of Repentance':