In the 6th century, St. John Climacus was a highly regarded monk in the East, whose spiritual teaching would influence the entire Catholic Church for centuries after his death. In particular, his Ladder of Divine Ascent would become an influential book, detailing the many steps of spiritual combat.
Pope Benedict XVI offered a succinct summary of his life and teachings during a general audience in 2009. Among other highlights of John Climacus’ life, Benedict explains how spiritual combat is explained in both positive and negative terms.
The struggle against the passions … is steeped in the positive it does not remain as something negative thanks to the image of the “fire” of the Holy Spirit: that “all those who enter upon the good fight (cf. 1 Tm 6: 12), which is hard and narrow … may realize that they must leap into the fire, if they really expect the celestial fire to dwell in them” (1,18; 636). The fire of the Holy Spirit is the fire of love and truth. The power of the Holy Spirit alone guarantees victory.
Benedict continues by explaining how, “according to John Climacus it is important to be aware that the passions are not evil in themselves; they become so through human freedom’s wrong use of them. If they are purified, the passions reveal to man the path towards God with energy unified by ascesis and grace and, ‘if they have received from the Creator an order and a beginning … the limit of virtue is boundless.'”
This explanation of spiritual combat is similar to what others have said over the years, reflecting on the roots of the word for “sin” in Greek, which means “to miss the mark.”
Our passions are sinful when they “miss the mark” and are disordered. As a result, spiritual combat is chiefly the reordering of our passions, directing their energy toward God.
St. John Climacus explains how spiritual combat will begin with the negative side.
Those who enter this contest must renounce all things, despise all things, deride all things, and shake off all things, that they may lay a firm foundation.
After we have renounced our sinful ways, being purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit, then we can start adding virtues, and reorienting our love to God.
Pope Benedict XVI explains this next step of the “ladder.”
The power of human love can be reoriented to God, just as a cultivated olive may be grafted on to a wild olive tree (cf. Rm 11: 24) (cf. 15, 66; 893). John is convinced that an intense experience of this eros will help the soul to advance far more than the harsh struggle against the passions, because of its great power. Thus, in our journey, the positive aspect prevails.
St. John Climacus provides for us a powerful guide to spiritual combat, showing us how we are to renounce our sinful ways, but then we must let our hearts be directed toward God, letting the fire of his love remain in us.