Burning Snow

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.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.

  • home42141

    The Reverend Dr Frederick Schmidt, Jr, you have accomplished well and good the things of academia, but what would you say in light of your latest book: “What God Wants for Your Life” is the greatest accomplishment wrought through your hands and mind as a person?

    • Frederick William Schmidt

      home42141, thanks for the kind words. I’ve actually written a few books since What God Wants for Your Life. The question you’ve asked is hard to answer. In the final analysis, I think that’s God’s call and attributable largely to the grace of God. On balance, I think that the best thing any of us can do is say or do something that draws people closer to God or helps them to find hope. My prayer is that has happened along the way.

      • home42141

        Thank you for your quick, compelling, and heart-felt response to this difficult question. Sometimes people place more emphasis on what they have accomplished. It is refreshing to hear a man as learned as you are to have such a humble spirit. We’d all be better off I think by being reminded and fulfilling that purpose that whatever we have said or done would draw people to know the Lord.