The Fourth Sunday of Holy and Great Lent: Saint John Climacus (Part I)

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,


Lord and Master of my life, cast away from me the spirit of laziness, idle curiosity, love of power and vain talk. (Prostration)

But grant me, Your servant, the spirit of moderation, humility, patience and love. (Prostration)

Yes, Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brothers/sisters. (Prostration)

For You are Blessed unto the ages of ages. Amen.


(Source: John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent)

With the exception of the Bible and the service books, there is no work in Eastern Christendom that has been studied, copied and translated more often than The Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Climacus. Every Lent in Orthodox Monasteries it is appointed to be read aloud in church or in the refectory, so that some will have listened to it as much as fifty or sixty times in the course of their life. Outside the monasteries it has also been the favorite reading of countless lay people in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, and throughout the Orthodox Christian world. The popularity of the Ladder in the East equals that of The Imitation of Christ, in the West, although the two books are altogether different in character.

The author of The Ladder lived in the desert of Sinai, at the foot of Jebel Musa, Moses' Mount, that rises rocky and precipitous to a height of nearly 7,500 feet. The surroundings would often have called to his mind the scene in Exodus: the lightning and thunder, the mountain shrouded in thick cloud, and Moses climbing up alone into the darkness to speak with God face to face (Exodus 20:18-21). But Saint John Climacus was also reminded constantly of another mountaintop, belonging to the New Covenant--Tabor, "the high mountain apart" (St. Matthew 17:1), where our Lord was Transfigured before the three disciples. For, when he prayed in the church built for the monks of Sinai by the Emperor Justinian in 556-557 AD, each time he looked up St. John would have seen in the apse at the east end the great mosaic that still survives to this day, depicting Christ's Transfiguration.

Visually and spiritually, then, St. John's imagination was dominated by these two mountains, Sinai and Tabor, and both alike are reflected in the book that he wrote. In its severity, its refusal of compromise, and its demand for total dedication, The Ladder, calls to mind the arid desert, and the rocks and darkness of Sinai. But those prepared to look deeper, will discover that the book speaks not only of penitence but of joy, not only of self-denial but of man's entry into divine glory. Together with the gloom of Sinai there is also the fire of the Burning Bush and the light of Tabor.

Saint John's dates have been much debated. According to the view most commonly accepted, he was born in or shortly before 579 AD, and he died around 649 AD, but some scholars put his birth as early as 525 AD and his death around 600 AD. While certainty is not possible, it seems reasonable to regard St. John as an author of the 7th rather than the 6th century, as a contemporary, that is to say, of Saint Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662). It is not known where he was born. His delight in metaphors drawn from the sea has led some to conclude that his early years were spent near the coast, but this is no more than a speculation.

Saint John was 16 years old when he came to Sinai. Here he would have found a monastic center already established, containing in close proximity all the three forms of the Monastic life that he describes in Step 1 of The Ladder. First, inside the fortress walls built at the orders of Justinian, and occupying the buildings around the church with its mosaic of the Transfiguration, there was a fully organized cenobium, a monastic brotherhood pursuing the common life under the direction of an Abbot (Hegoumenos). Second, scattered through the surrounding desert there were hermits (herimeetes) dedicated to the solitary life. And in the third place there were monks following the middle way, intermediate between the cenobitic and the anachoretic forms, whereby small groups lived as close-knit families, each under the immediate guidance of a spiritual father. For this third way, "the life of stillness shared with one or two others," as he terms it, St. John himself expresses a preference: it avoids the dangers of excessive isolation, while being at the same time less "structured" and more personal than the life in a large-scale monastery, and providing more opportunities for silence.

In the course of his life Saint John Climacus had experience of all three forms. Initially, so it seems, he adopted the middle way, taking as his spiritual father a certain Abba (father) Martyrius. After three years, when St. John was 19 or 20 years old, Father Martyrius took him to the chapel at the top of Moses' Mount and there, following the custom of the time, he tonsured John as a monk. Coming down from the summit, the two met Anastasius, The Egoumenos (Abbot) of the central monastery, who had not seen John before. "Where does this boy come from," asked Anastasius, "and who professed him?" Martyrius replied that he had done so. "How strange!," Anastasius exclaimed. "Who would have thought that you had professed the Abbot of Mount Sinai!" Martirius and John Climacus continued on their way, and paid a visit to the celebrated Solitary John the Savvaite, who washed john Climacus' feet and kissed his hand, but took no notice of Martyrius. John the Savvaite's disciple was scandalized by this, but after the two visitors had left the old man assured him: "Believe me, I don't know who that boy is; but I received the Abbot of Sinai and washed his feet." Forty years later these prophecies were fulfilled.

Martyrius, so it seems, died soon after St. John's profession. Saint John now retired into solitude, settling as a hermit at Tholas, some five miles from the fortress housing the main monastery. Yet he was not altogether isolated, for there were certainly other monks in the immediate vicinity. According to St. John's biography Daniel of Raitho, during his years of retreat at Tholas he received the gift of tears and the grace of continual prayer. He reduced sleep to a minimum but displayed a prudent moderation in this fasting, for it was his custom to eat everything allowed by the monastic rule, but in extremely small quantities. In time he became known and respected as a spiritual guide, and he began to receive frequent visits from his fellow monks--so frequent, indeed, that some criticized him for being a gossip and a chatterbox. Thereupon St. John kept total silence for a year, only agreeing to speak once more with his visitors when entreated to do so by the very monks who had been his critics.

At some point during his time in Tholas St. John made a journey to Egypt, staying at a large monastery on the outskirts of Alexandria. What he witnessed in this community of several hundred monks made a lasting impression on him, as can be gauged from the lengthy description that he gives in Steps 4 and 5 of The Ladder. Since his own early years as a monk had been spent in the third way, in a small hermitage and not in a large cenobium, it is easy to understand the impact which life at the Alexandrian house must have had upon him. He was struck in particular by the abbot's power of insight, and by the combination of sternness and affection which he showed in his treatment of the monks...But St. John was impressed by other things as well during his visit to the Alexandrian monastery---by the unity prevailing among the brethren, by the warmth and sensitivity of their mutual love, and by their unceasing prayer.

After 40 years of hermit life at Tholas, against his will St. John was elected Egoumenos (Abbot) of the central monastery at Sinai. On the day of his installation as Egoumenos, a party of 600 pilgrims chanced to arrive at the monastery. While they were all being given a meal, St. John saw "a man with short hair, dressed like a Jew in a white tunic, going round with an air of authority and giving orders to the cooks, cellarers, stewards and other servants." Once the meal had finished, the man was nowhere to be found. "It was our lord Moses," said St. John. "He has done nothing strange in serving here in the place that is his own." To the monks the sign was significant; for they were soon to feel that, in the person of their new Egoumenos John, they had indeed found another Moses.

How long St. John continued in office is unknown. It was during this last period of his life, while Egoumenos (Abbot), that he composed The Ladder of Divine Ascent, at the request of another John, the superior of a nearby monastery at Raitho. "Tell us in our ignorance," asked St. John of Raitho, "what like Moses of old you have seen in divine vision upon the mountain; write it down in a book and send it to us as if it were the tables of the law, written by God." In his reply St. John Climacus protests that the task is beyond his strength: "I am still among the learners." But, he says, constrained by the virtue of obedience, he has complied with the request, composing "in my stammering way" what is no more than "an outline sketch."

Shortly before his death, St. John, longing to enjoy once more the stillness in which he had lived as a solitary, resigned his position as Egoumenos (Abbot), appointing his brother George to replace him.

There is nothing to indicate that Saint John Climacus was ever ordained a Priest. His appointment as Egoumenos (Abbot) is not in itself proof that he was in holy Orders.


Please note: Saint John writes about 33 rungs of the ladder we climb in our ascent to heaven. Each rung represents a different Christian virtue (i.e., obedience, repentance, love, humility, etc.).


*Jacob's Ladder-Read the Old Testament story about Jacob's Ladder, which can be found in Genesis 28:10-17. The ladder represents the Theotokos. Talk about how Jesus came down the ladder in order to show us how to ascend it to Heaven. Talk about things that help us climb the ladder to heaven and things that make us slide down. For your children, the game Chutes and Ladders can be helpful in illustrating this point.

*Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent-The icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent in our church shows the monks that are climbing up towards Jesus Christ. It is a metaphor for our life and for how we must continually ascend, we must continually add virtue to virtue. It shows people ascending toward heaven with Angels helping them. It also shows demons pulling people off the ladder, causing them to fall into the pits of hell. It can be a great discussion starter, especially for teenagers. Consider making copies of the icon for each family member to keep as a reminder of their spiritual ascent and the demons that will be trying to prevent.

The steps of The Ladder proceed gradually from strength to strength on the path of perfection. 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" (St. Matthew 11:12).


"Ascend, my brothers, ascend eagerly. Let your hearts' resolve be to climb. Listen to the voice of the one who says: 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of our God' (Isaiah 2:3), Who makes our feet to be like the feet of the deer, 'Who sets us on the high places that we may be triumphant on His road' (Habakkuk 3:19). Run, I beg you, run with him who said, 'Let us hurry until we all arrive at the unity of faith and of the knowledge of God, at mature manhood, at the measure of the stature of Christ's fullness" (Ephesians 4:13).


Apolytikion (Dismissal) Hymn. Fourth Tone

With the rivers of your tears, you have made the barren desert fertile. Through signs of sorrow from deep within you, your labors have borne fruit a hundredfold. By your miracles you have become a light, shining upon the world. O John, our Holy Father, pray to Christ our God, to save our souls.

Kontakion Hymn. First Tone

As ever blooming fruits, you offer the teachings of your God-given book, O wise John, most blessed, while sweetening the hearts of all them that heed it with vigilance; for it is a ladder from the earth unto Heaven that confers glory on the souls that ascend it and honor you faithfully.



The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.



With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George