St John Climacus of Sinai – Mar 30 I (St. John of the Ladder of Divine Ascent)
St. John Climacus (Klimakos) is honored by the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches, as a great ascetic and as the author of a remarkable work entitled, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a treasury of spiritual wisdom. Therefore, he has been named ‘Climacus‘ or ‘of the Ladder‘. He is known also as St. John of Sinai, the mountain in Egypt on which Moses saw God and received the Ten Commandments (Ex. 3 and 31: 18), as John was a monk at the Monastery of St. Catherine. He was known for his humility, obedience and discernment. He already had a reputation for being extremely knowledgeable about how to practice a holy life and had attained wisdom, through spiritual experience and encounters with the Lord.
He was born in around the year 570, as the son of Xenophon and Maria. Nothing much is known of his life before he entered the monastery at Mount Sinai (St Katherine’s Monastery) at the age of sixteen. After he first arrived, he spent nineteen years, as a novice, in strict obedience to his spiritual father and mentor, Martyrios. After four years of living on Mt. Sinai, Abba Martyrius, tonsured John, a monk. One of the fathers present at his tonsure foretold that John would become a great luminary of Christ’s Church. St. John labored in asceticism for nineteen years in obedience to his spiritual father. When Monk Martyrios died, John chose the life of reclusion and retired to a nearby cave, in the desert place called Thola where he lived in the strictest asceticism, where he wrote the Ladder, as a recluse. In this isolation he lived for some twenty years, constantly studying the lives of the saints and thus becoming one of the most learned Church Fathers. St. John, lived forty years in silence, fasting, prayer, and repentant tears. He reluctantly returned to the monastery when he was made abbot (hegumen) by the brethren, and spent the rest of his days guiding his spiritual children in the way of salvation. He remained there until his death at the age of eighty.
Three forms of monasticism were commonly practiced on Sinai at that time: 1. The communal, or coenobitic (a brotherhood living a life of common prayer and worship and shared resources, under the guidance of an abbot); 2. The solitary, or eremitic, (hermits, or anchorites, living alone in the surrounding desert); and 3. The semi-eremitic (small monastic communities, or sketes, consisting of a spiritual father and one or two other monks living together near the monastery grounds). St. John of the Ladder, tasted and experience all three forms of monasticism.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent, is a spiritual manual for monks and describes in thirty steps the monk’s desired progress on the path of spiritual perfection. The Book is read in its entirety in Eastern monasteries during every Lenten season. St John describes the ascent toward spiritual perfection, which is essential for anyone who wishes to save his soul. It is a written account of his thoughts, based on the collected wisdom of many wise ascetics, and on his own spiritual experience. The book is a great help on the path to truth and virtue. With the exception of the scriptures themselves and St Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, it is the most copied and influential book in Christian history.
It is not by chance that in The Ladder St. John speaks so much of repentant tears in The Ladder. “Just as fire burns and destroys dead wood, so do pure tears cleanse all impurity, both inwardly and outwardly, external and internal.” His holy prayer was strong and efficacious, as may be seen from an example from the life of the God-pleasing saint.
It is noteworthy that many followed examples of St John’s humility. He lovingly received all who came to him and guided them to salvation. One day some envious monks criticized him for being too talkative, rather than reproach the monk, St John kept silence for a whole year never uttering a word. The monks realized their error, and they went to the ascetic and begged him not to deprive them of the spiritual profit of his conversation.
At another time a large company of pilgrims came to Mt Sinai. At supper they all saw a young man, dressed as a Jew, serving at table and giving orders to the other servants, then suddenly disappearing. When they wondered among themselves that this could mean, John said ‘Do not try to look for him; that was the prophet Moses serving you in his own home.’
His prayers were strong and effective and can be seen in the many examples of the great ascetic’s life. When the holy abbot knew that his death was approaching, he appointed his own brother, George, as his successor. George grieved the approaching death of his beloved brother, but St John told him that, if he was found worthy to stand close to God after his death, he would pray that George be taken up to heaven in the same year. So it happened: ten months after St John’s death, George reposed in the Lord.
He is commemorated on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent ad on March 30, by the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
The book “a ladder fixed on the earth” (Gen. 28: 12), leading people to the gates of Heaven, was whatever necessary for the salvation of those in the monastic life and applicable to common men too. The thirty steps of spiritual perfection correspond to the thirty years of the Lord’s age. When we have completed these thirty steps, we will find ourselves with the righteous and will not stumble. The Ladder begins with renunciation of worldliness, and ends with God, who is love (1 Jn 4: 8). Although the book was written for monks, any Christian living in the world will find it an unerring guide for ascending to God, and a support in the spiritual life. The steps of The Ladder proceed gradually from strength to strength on the path of perfection. The Ladder describes how to raise one’s soul and body to God through the acquisition of ascetic virtues. The summit is not reached suddenly, but gradually, as the Savior says: “The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt 11: 12).
Within the general framework of a ‘ladder’, Climacus’ book falls into three sections. The first seven Steps concern general virtues necessary for the ascetic life, while the next nineteen, give instruction on overcoming vices and building their corresponding virtues. The final four Steps concern the higher virtues toward which the ascetic life aims. The final rung of the ladder—beyond prayer, stillness, and even dispassion is love. The steps are:
- On renunciation of the world
- On detachment
- On exile or pilgrimage; concerning dreams that beginners have
- On blessed and ever-memorable obedience (in addition to episodes involving many individuals)
- On painstaking and true repentance which constitutes the life of the holy convicts; and about the Prison
- On remembrance of death
- On joy-making mourning
- On freedom from anger and on meekness
- On remembrance of wrongs
- On slander or calumny
- On talkativeness and silence
- On lying
- On despondency
- On that clamorous mistress, the stomach
- On incorruptible purity and chastity, to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
- On love of money, or avarice
- On non-possessiveness (that hastens one Heavenwards)
- On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
- On sleep, prayer, and psalmody with the brotherhood
- On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil, and how to practise it
- On unmanly and puerile cowardice
- On the many forms of vainglory
- On mad pride and (in the same Step) on unclean blasphemous thoughts; concerning unmentionable blasphemous thoughts
- On meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness which come not from nature but from conscious effort, and about guile
- On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception
- On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues; on expert discernment; brief summary of all aforementioned
- On holy stillness of body and soul; different aspects of stillness and how to distinguish them
- On holy and blessed prayer, the mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer
- Concerning Heaven on earth, or Godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection
- Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues; a brief exhortation summarizing all that has said at length in this book