Abba John Climacus was an early 7th Century monk who lived on Mount Sinai. In ‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent’ he writes about virtues which lead us to fullness of life and joyfulness of heart, and how these relate to the vices and distractions which can knock us off course. Remorse for our sins and painfully heartfelt repentance, Abba John says, is a gift from God, and shouldn’t lead to self-loathing. Rather, it should be cherished as a route to true joy, which comes from the growth in self-knowledge and drawing closer to God which results.
Properly understood, Abba John says that experiencing true sorrow for our sins should “bring genuine pleasure to the soul, since at our most secret level, God brings consolation to those who, in their heart of hearts, are repentant.”.
The metaphor Abba John uses for this is rather lovely: a honeycomb.
“As I consider the true nature of remorse for our sins, I discover that I am amazed by the way that inner joy and gladness mingle with mourning and grief, like honey in a comb.”
I love that image: of sorrow for our sins acting like the hexagonal cell walls of the honeycomb into which the joy of heaven pours, and out of which that joy flows. This echoes the Psalmist’s description of God’s ordinances as “sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps.19:10). The Psalmist’s yearning for the sweet, blessed, precious experience of walking in the way of the Lord (see also pretty much all of the epic Psalm 119!) is taken hold of by Abba John, and in the light of our hope in Christ, offers a curious and unexpected fulfilment, using the very same image of the honeycomb. Remorse for our sins holds within it the mystery of God’s forgiveness and love, and the ability thereby to grow into God’s ways. The sweet taste of the honeycomb described by Abba John emerges through knowing both remorse for our sins and the joy of God’s grace. Rather than self-loathing for not keeping God’s Law, the tension between the comb and its honey gives a structure within which we build self-knowledge, and grow: to walk in the Law of the Lord. We know our sins to be grievous to God, and yet by grace this comb is not left dry, tasteless, empty and dead, for Abba John also writes:
“God does not insist or desire that our hearts remain grieved by our sin, but yearns for our love of God to yield joyful laughter of the soul. Banish sin and tears are never required. Where there is no bruising, no balm is needed.”
Remorse for our sins may well be painful, but out of this pain, by the grace of God, we may receive joy at the deepest level of the human heart.
Quotations from ‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent’ by Abba John Climacus (575 – 649CE),
NJM’s paraphrased translation.
A proper, academic translation may be read by seeking out John Climacus, ‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent’ trans. Luibheid, C. & Russell, N. (New York: Paulist Press, 1982)
Nick Morgan is Priest in Charge of the Bramham Benefice, Diocese of York.