Fourth Sunday of Holy and Great Lent: Saint John the Author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent

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



With the exception of the Holy 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 monks will have listened to it as much as fifty or sixty times in the course of their life.

The author of The Ladder lived in the desert of Sinai, at the foot of Jebel Musas' 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 lighting 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 mountain-top, 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 556-7, each time he looked up Saint John would have been 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 and 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.

Little is known, beyond the bare outlines, about the life of Saint John Climacus. In Greek, he is called Ioannis tis Klimakos, "John of the Ladder", after the book that he wrote. In Greek he is also named, "John the Scholastic" (scholastikos); while the term used here could mean a lawyer, it is often more broadly applied to someone well educated or widely read, and this seems to be the sense in St. John's case.

Saint John's dates have been much debated. According to the view most commonly accepted, he was born in or shortly before 579 A.D., and he died around 649 A.D., but some scholars put his birth as early as 525 A.D. and his death around 600 A.D. While certainly is not possible, it seems reasonable to regard Saint John as an author of the 7th rather than the 6th century, as a contemporary, that is to say, of Saint Maximus the Confessor (+ 580-662 A.D.). 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 speculation.

Saint John was 16 years old when he came to Sinai. Here he would have found a monastic center already well 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 Emperor Justinian, and occupying the buildings around the church with its mosaic of the Transfiguration, there was a fully organized Κoinobion (Κοινόβιον) or Cenobium, a monastic brotherhood pursuing the common life under the direction of an Abbot (Higoumenos). Second, scattered through the surrounding desert there were hermits (Ερημίτης) 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, Saint John himself expresses a preference: it avoids the dangers of excessive isolation, while being at the same time less "structured" and more personal than 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 these 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 Saint John was 19 years old or twenty. Martyrius took him to the Chapel at the top of Moses' Mount and there, following the custom of the time, he tonsured Saint John as a monk. Coming down from the summit, the two met Anastasius, the Abbot (Hegoumenos) of the central monastery, who had not seen St. 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 (Hegoumenos) of Mount Sinai!" Martyrius and John Climacus continued on their way, and paid a visit to the celebrated solitary John the Sabbaite, who washed John Climacus' feet and kissed his hand but took no notice of Martyrius. John the Sabbaite'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."

After 40 years of hermit life at Tholas, against his will, John was elected Abbot (Hegoumenos) of the Central Monastery at Sinai. On the day of his installation as Abbot, a party of six hundred 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 around 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 Abbot 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 Abbot, that he composed The Ladder of Divine Ascent, at the request of another John, the superior of a nearby monastery at Raithu, "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 if it was the Tables of the Law, written by God." In his reply, Saint 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 Saint John Climacus, longing to enjoy once more the stillness in which he had lived as a solitary, resigned his position to Abbot (Hegoumenos), appointing his brother George to replace him.

There is nothing to indicate that Saint John Climacus was ever ordained a priest. His appointment as Abbot is not in itself proof that he was in Holy Orders. (Source: John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent)


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!" - Saint John Chrysostomos


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

+Father George