Born: around 575 AD, in Palestine
Died: sometime after 650 AD, Mount Sinai
Feast Day: March 30
Revered in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Catholic churches, Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church
One of the great spiritual writers of the Church in the Middle Ages was Saint John Climacus (“of the ladder”), whose name refers to the title of his most important work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Little is known about John, but it is believed that he was born around 575 A.D. in Byzantium. From a brief history written by one of his contemporaries – a monk by the name of Daniel, from Raithu (an older name for a city in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt) – we discover that from early on John was drawn to the spiritual life. Apparently he was exceedingly bright and could have pursued a scholarly life, but he opted to follow God instead.
At the age of 16, John became a monk on Mount Sinai, that holy mountain where Moses had “encountered God and Elijah heard his voice.”1 He spent most of his years there, not in “the great monastery on the summit, but in a hermitage on the descent of the mountain,” in silence and prayer, in perfect humility and obedience.2 For nearly 40 years, John embraced an austere life, “in the perpetual contemplation of heavenly things.”3 His greatest joy was to live simply in communion with God and in harmony with the natural world. During this time and at the urging of a neighboring community, he also wrote his treatise on the spiritual life, describing the “journey from renunciation of the world to the perfection of love.”4
Contrary to what one might think, such solitude “did not prevent him from meeting people eager for spiritual direction or from paying visits to several monasteries near Alexandria.”5 Rather, this life of contemplation inspired in John an ardent love for God and neighbour. He was highly respected and sought out, and because of his great holiness, St. John was ultimately appointed abbot of the monastery on Mount Sinai, a position he held for several years. As he was nearing the end of his life, John longed for the peace and quiet of the hermitage and decided to turn the governance of the monastery over to one of his brother monks. He died a few years later, around the year 650. “He lived his life between two mountains, Sinai and Tabor, and one can truly say that he radiated the light which Moses saw on Sinai and which was contemplated by the three Apostles on Mount Tabor!”6
The Ladder to God
Though little is known about St. John’s life, what remains is his great body of work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Originally intended for monks, it became “one of the most important devotional texts of the Middle Ages, especially in the Russian Orthodox Church.”7 The ladder (klimakos in Greek) is a familiar image, as we often think of God “above” and man, in his fallen nature, as here, below. We must struggle to know and reach God, all the while avoiding those things that can drag us down: the temptation to sin and the lure of earthly pleasures.
According to John, the journey to God can be likened to a series of steps – 30 to be precise – or three consecutive stages. The first and foundational stage is turning away from the things of the world, a return to spiritual childhood. He explains how we must become “babes in Christ,” rediscovering the innocence that comes naturally to children.8
The second, and largest, stage of the journey involves recognizing our passions and learning how to moderate them through virtue. As John explains, human passions aren’t evil in and of themselves, but because of sin and weakness, we misuse them or allow them to control us.
Christian perfection, the final stage, is attained through silence and inner peace, in knowing God’s will and doing it. “[…]In line with the Desert Fathers, [John] considered the ability to discern the most important. Every type of behaviour must be subject to discernment; everything, in fact, depends on one’s deepest motivations, which need to be closely examined.”9 The last and final step of the ladder involves embracing the cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and love, which naturally propel us toward God. As Pope Benedict XVI points out, “these are not virtues accessible only to moral heroes; rather they are gifts of God to all the baptized: in them our life develops, too. The beginning is also the end, the starting point is also the point of arrival: the whole journey toward an ever more radical realization of faith, hope, and charity. The whole ascent is present in these virtues.”10
“Faith is fundamental, because this virtue implies that I renounce my arrogance, my thought, and the claim to judge by myself without entrusting myself to others. This journey toward humility, toward spiritual childhood is essential. It is necessary to overcome the attitude of arrogance that makes one say: I know better, in this my time of the 21st-century, than what people could have known then. Instead, it is necessary to entrust oneself to Sacred Scripture alone, to the Word of the Lord, to look out on the horizon of faith with humility, in order to enter into the enormous immensity of the universal world, of the world of God.”11
Desires of the Heart
While St. John Climacus might seem far removed from us, his ideas have had a lasting impact on Christian thought and practice throughout the ages. Why? Because they’re firmly rooted in truth; they are timeless. We see the same themes again and again in subsequent writers and their works. For instance, in St. Francis de Sales’ spiritual classic An Introduction to the Devout Life (published in 1608), he also identifies the first step in living a devout life as Purifying the Soul. Even a quote attributed to 19th century American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, demonstrates how we make our lives – our own destinies, so to speak – by how we live them: “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”12
Saint John Climacus deeply understood that the greatest desire of the human heart is to know and love God. As Christians, we might occupy ourselves with many things, but, in the end, what matters most is our relationship with God. Union, and communion, with Him is the goal – the summit of our existence. And it begins now – in this life – through all the means given to us: prayer, reading the Scriptures, and frequenting the sacraments. It requires humility and effort and growth in virtue. We must be purposeful and intentional about the way we live, for our words and actions build upon one another and help shape us into the people we will be.
In this holy season of Lent, let us put our feet upon the rungs once again – wherever that may be – and turn our hearts to God. Let us see with clarity the emptiness in living purely for pleasure and seek, instead, the higher things. Spiritual progress takes time, but the reward is great. Eternity waits! And God is with us every step of the way. Let us place all our hope in Him.
– Kelley Holy
The Rungs of the Ladder
Step 1. On renunciation of the world
Step 2. On detachment
Step 3. On exile or pilgrimage
Step 4. On blessed and ever-memorable obedience
Step 5. On painstaking and true repentance
Step 6. On remembrance of death
Step 7. On joy-making mourning
Step 8. On freedom from anger and on meekness
Step 9. On remembrance of wrongs
Step 10. On slander or calumny
Step 11. On talkativeness and silence
Step 12. On lying
Step 13. On despondency
Step 14. On that clamorous mistress, the stomach
Step 15. On incorruptible purity and chastity
Step 16. On love or money, or avarice
Step 17. On non-possessiveness (that hastens one Heavenwards)
Step 18. On insensibility
Step 19. On sleep, prayer, and psalmody with the brotherhood
Step 20. On bodily vigil and how to use it to obtain spiritual vigil
Step 21. On unmanly and puerile cowardice
Step 22. On the many forms of vainglory
Step 23. On mad pride and unclean blasphemous thoughts
Step 24. On meekness, simplicity and guilelessness
Step 25. On the destroyer of passions, most sublime humility
Step 26. On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues
Step 27. On holy stillness of body and soul
Step 28. On holy and blessed prayer
Step 29. Concerning Heaven on earth, or Godlike dispassion and perfection
Step 30. Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues
A Prayer of St. John Climacus (from Step 27)
“The lessening of evil breeds abstinence from evil; and
abstinence from evil is the beginning of repentance; and
the beginning of repentance is the beginning of salvation; and the beginning of salvation is a good resolve; and
a good resolve is the mother of labors. And
the beginning of labors is the virtues; and
the beginning of the virtues is a flowering, and
the flowering of virtue is the beginning of activity. And
the offspring of virtue is perseverance; and
the fruit and offspring of persevering practice is habit, and
the child of habit is character. And
good character is the mother of fear; and
fear gives birth to the keeping of commandments in which I include both Heavenly and earthly. And the keeping of the commandments is a sign of love; and
the beginning of love is an abundance of humility; and
an abundance of humility is the daughter of dispassion; and
the acquisition of the latter is the fullness of love, that is to say, the perfect indwelling of God in those who through dispassion are pure in heart, for they shall see God.
And, to Him, the glory for all eternity. Amen.”13
1 Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers and Teachers: From Saint Leo the Great to Peter Lombard (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 66-67.
2 “St. John Climacus, Abbot,” EWTN [website]; available from http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/CLIMACUS.htm; Internet; accessed 21 February 2017.
4 Pope Benedict, Church Fathers and Teachers, 67.
7 “ The saint who wrote the Ladder of Divine Ascent,” Catholic Herald UK [online newspaper], March 28, 2013; available from http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/ness/2013/03/28/the-saint-who-wrote-the-ladder-of-divine-ascent/; Internet; accessed 21 February 2017.
8 Pope Benedict, Church Fathers and Teachers, 68.
9 Ibid, 69.
10 Ibid, 71.
12 Ralph Waldo Emerson; goodreads [website]; available from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/416934-sow-a-thought-and-you-reap-an-action-sow-an; Internet; accessed 26 February 2017.
13 Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent; Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America [website]; available from http://www.antiochian.org/node/17474; Internet; accessed 24 February 2017.