Feast Day : March 30 and the fourth Sunday of the Great Lent
Also known as: John the Scholastic, the Sinaita
Little is known about the details of John Climacus’s life, and the estimated dates of his life vary considerably. The prevailing view is that he was born in or shortly before 579 and died around 649. Some scholars have placed his life at ca. 525–600 or 605. Others have fixed his date of death as late as 670–680. John was born in Syria sometime around 525, and had at least one brother, named George. At the time, Mount Sinai was famous for its hermits, and at age 16 John decided to withdraw from the world and study under Abba Martyrius. He joined the Mount Sinai monastery built on the site of the burning bush where Moses had spoken to God. He received his tonsure at age 19 or 20. Soon thereafter Martyrius died, and John withdrew to a hermitage called Tholas at the foot of the mountain. There he lived in near isolation in a cave for about 20 years, studying the lives of the saints. He practiced stringent mortifications and austerities, reducing sleep to an absolute minimum. He received the grace of continual prayer and the gift of tears, a sign of the presence of God and the purification of body and soul. His spiritual depth gained him recognition as a spiritual father among his fellow monks. At some point during his stay at Tholas, John visited monks in Egypt, staying at a large monastery outside of Alexandria. He was impressed by the unity he witnessed there. He even spent time in “the Prison,” a place about a mile from the monastery where erring monks were sent to do penance. In 600 he was persuaded to become abbot of the central monastery at Sinai. On the day of his installation, a large group of 600 pilgrims arrived and had to be fed. During the meal, John saw what he described as “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.” As soon as the meal was finished, the man mysteriously disappeared. John said the stranger was Moses, and his monks took this as a sign that they had found in him another Moses. John attracted many disciples. Pope St. Gregory the Great (r. 590–604) wrote to him asking for his recommendation in prayers, and sent him money for the hospital at Sinai that took care of pilgrims. Toward the end of his years, he turned his responsibilities over to his brother, George, and retired again to solitude. He died at Mount Sinai, probably around 649. John is best-known for his important work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, from which he later earned his surname. Klimakis is “ladder,” and John Climacus means “John of the Ladder.” He composed the book during his years as abbot. The Ladder of Divine Ascent is composed in 30 chapters, intended to correspond to the age of Jesus at the time of his baptism by St. John the Baptist. The 30 chapters are 30 steps, or logoi, of the spiritual life. Each step describes a certain virtue or passion, and the path that can lead from it. The book offers no formulae, but instructs that “the life you have is hidden with Christ in God.” The stages of the spiritual life set forth in the book are the break with the world; the practice of asceticism; the struggle against the passions; the practice of simplicity, humility and discernment; and union with God. The union with God is achieved through heyschia, an Eastern Orthodox method of mystical prayer in which one arrives at a deep interior peace and stillness “at the very center of the mysteries” through the constant remembrance of God. Hesychast prayer featured breathing techniques and constant repetition of a prayer, especially the “Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Other ways to achieve union with God are apatheia or detachment, in which the soul stretches out toward God; and charity. Ladder became one of the most important texts in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Through his years of intense study, John was able to synthesize the traditional teachings of the Fathers of the Church, including the Desert Fathers. It was written at a significant time of transition. Arab invaders were destroying the monasteries of Egypt and Palestine, and monasticism withdrew to Mount Athos. John’s work served as a significant bridge. Because of his stature, John is celebrated in feasts twice a year in the Eastern Church. His book continues to inspire monastics and people interested in the spiritual life. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was inspired by it and wrote a review of it. The monastery where John lived, first dedicated to Our Lord’s Holy Transfiguration, is now dedicated to St. Catherine.