Born in the Sinai mountains he spent his life there, describing his spiritual experiences. There he became a monk at the age of 16 in the monastery on Mount Sinai. Around 20 he chose the life of a hermit at Tola, at the foot of the mountain. But his was not an escape from the world. He travelled to other monasteries, was appointed superior of the great monastery of Mount Sinai, which he left a few years prior to his death, “nostalgic about hermit life.”
The Ladder is a “complete treatise on spiritual life that describes a monk’s journey, from renunciation of the world to the perfection of love for God.” The opus is divided into 30 “steps”, each tied to the next, divided in three parts.
In the first part, the “climb” is expressed in a “break with the world in order to back to a true evangelical infancy, the time of childhood, in accordance with Jesus’ words.”
“Innocence, fasting and chastity’ are the “pillars” of this journey. Every “newborn in Christ” learns from these things that allow the soul to enter in communion with God.
“Blessed be the one who mortify their will till the end” for he “shall be placed on the right of Christ,” John said.
The “spiritual struggle against passions” is the journey’s second phase; “together these steps are a lesson in spiritual strategy,” for John saw “passions” not as “bad in and of themselves,” but “become so when they are put to bad use by man’s freedom.” In fact, “if they are purified they open onto the path that leads to God.”
“The struggle against passions becomes positive thanks to the image of the fire of the Holy Spirit, whose strength ensures victory over passions, transforming them by the Creator’s positive nature. [. . .] The fire of the Holy Spirit is the fire of love and truth.”
The last part refers to “Christian perfection,” the “higher levels of Christian life that can be experienced by those who have reached peace of mind and inner peace.” Seven steps are involved. In the first four the most important one is the capacity to discern.” It all depends on our deep motivations, which we must examine. It is a matter of reawakening one’s spiritual sensibility for “after God we must follow our conscience.”
At this point we must ask “how topical is the opus of hermit monk from 1,500 years ago?” said the Pope. “At first glance, we would say no, but if we look closely at monastic life we see that it is a great sign of Christian life. It shows in capital letters what we write daily in small letters; it shows how a baptised person can live in communion with Christ, his death and resurrection.”
The last steps are dedicated to virtue. With faith in God “I give up my arrogance, for which I too must judge for I cannot rely on others.” In the 21st century, it is a question “of overcoming the arrogance of saying ‘I know best’, in order “to enter with humility into this space of faith”, so that we can “enter God’s world” where “our soul grows.”
Theological virtues “culminate in charity, which is Eros, the figure of the soul’s matrimonial love for God. An intense experience of this Eros—said the Pope, who dedicated his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, to this subject—makes the soul progress more than any hard-fought struggle with [one’s] passions. This positive character counts more than the struggle itself” for “hope is charity’s strength” and its “door,” whilst in its “absence” charity is obliterated. Hope surrounds us with “God’s mercy.”
“Only hope,” the topic of Benedict XVI’s second encyclical Spe Salvi, “can make us capable of charity. With hope we can transcend everyday reality. We don’t have to wait for success every day but for God himself in the end. [. . .] We can be good with others without expecting a reward.”
“The mystery of prayer, the personal knowledge of God, hides in charity,” the capacity of “opening up one’s own heart and learn from him his kindness and love.”
Finally, “let us use this ladder of faith, hope and charity to reach true life,” the Pope said.