The Monk John is honoured by Holy Church as a great ascetic and author of the renowned spiritual work called “The Ladder,” whereby the monk likewise received the title “of-the-Ladder” [Climacus (Lat.); Klimatikos (Grk.); Lestvichnik (Slav.)].
About the origins of the monk John there is almost no account preserved. Tradition suggests that he was born about the year 570, and was the son of Saints Xenophones and Maria, whose memory is celebrated by the Church on 26 January.
The sixteen year old lad John arrived at the Sinai monastery. Abba Martyrios became instructor and guide of the monk. After four years of living on Sinai, Saint John Climacus was vowed into monasticism. One of those present at the taking of vows, Abba Stratigios, predicted that John was set to become a great luminary in the Church of Christ. Over the course of nineteen years the monk John pursued asceticism in obedience to his spiritual father. After the death of abba Martyrios, the monk John chose a hermit’s life, settling into a wild place called Tholos, where he spent forty years in deeds of silence, fasting, prayer, and tears of penitence. It is not by chance that in “The Ladder” the monk John speaks thus about tears of repentance: “Just as fire burns and destroys firewood, so thus do pure tears wash away all impurity, both outer and inner.” His holy prayer was strong and efficacious, as evidenced from an example from the life of the God-pleasing saint.
The Monk John had a student, the monk Moses. One time the instructor ordered his student to bring ground to the garden for bedding. Having fulfilled the obedience, the monk Moses lay down to rest under the shade of a large rock, because of the strong heat of summer. The monk John Lestvichnik was at this time in his cell resting after a prayerful labour. Suddenly a man of remarkable appearance appeared to him and, having roused the holy ascetic, said to him in reproach: “Why dost thou, John, rest peacefully here, when Moses is in danger?” The monk John immediately woke up and began to pray for his student. When his disciple returned in the evening, the monk asked, whether some sort of woe had befallen him. The monk answered: “No, but I was exposed to great danger. A large fragment of stone, having broken off from the rock under which I had fallen asleep at midday, just barely missed me. By luck, I had a dream that thou wast calling me, and I woke up and started to run off, and at that very moment the huge stone fell with a crash on that very spot, from which I had fled…”
About the manner of life of the monk John is known that he nourished himself by such as what is not prohibited a fasting life by the ustav, but in moderation. He did not spend the night without sleep, although he slept not much, only as much as was necessary for keeping up his strength, so that by an unceasing vigilance he would not destroy the mind. “I do not fast excessively,” said he about himself, “nor do I give myself over to intense all-night vigil, nor lay upon the ground, but restrain myself…, and the Lord soon saved me.” The following example of humility of the monk John Climacus is noteworthy. Gifted with a deeply penetrating mind, and having become wise by profound spiritual experience, he lovingly received all who came to him so as to guide them to salvation. But when there appeared some who through envy reproached him with loquacity, which they explained away as vanity, the monk John then gave himself over to silence so as not to give cause for blame, and he kept silence for the space of a year. The envious realised their error and they themselves returned to the ascetic with the request not to deprive them of the spiritual profit of his conversation.
Concealing his ascetic deeds from people, the monk John sometimes withdrew into a cave, but accounts of his holiness spread far beyond the locality: incessantly there came to him visitors from every rank and calling, wanting to hear his words of edification and salvation. At age 75, after forty years of ascetic striving in solitude, the monk was chosen as hegumen of the Sinai monastery. For about four years the monk John Climacus governed the holy Sinai monastery. Towards the end of his life, the Lord granted the monk grace-bearing gifts of perspicacity and wonderworking.
During the time of his governing the monastery, at the request of the hegumen of the Raipha monastery Saint John, there was written for the monks the renowned “Ladder” – an instruction for rising to spiritual perfection. Knowing about the wisdom and spiritual gifts of the monk, the Raipha hegumen on behalf of all the monks of his monastery requested him to write down for them “a true instruction for those following after invariably, and as such would be a ladder of affirmation, which would lead those wishing it to the Heavenly gates…” The monk John, noted for his humble opinion about himself, was at first perplexed, but afterwards out of obedience he set about fulfilling the request of the Raipha monks. The monk thus also named his work “The Ladder,” and explained the title in the following manner: “I have constructed a ladder of ascent… from the earthly to the holy… in the form of the thirty years of age for the Lord’s maturity, symbolically I have constructed a ladder of thirty steps, by which, having attained the Lord’s age, we find ourselves with the righteous and secure from falling down.” The purpose of this work, is to teach that the reaching of salvation requires difficult self-denial and demanding ascetic deeds. “The Ladder” presupposes first a cleansing from the impurity of sin, the eradication of vices and passions in the old man; second, the restoration in man of the image of God. Although the book was written for monks, any Christian living in the world receives from it the hope of guidance for ascent to God, and a support for spiritual life.
The content of one of the steps of “The Ladder” (the 22nd) discusses the ascetic deed of the destruction of vainglory. The monk John writes: “Vanity springs out in front of each virtue. When, for example, I keep a fast, I am given over to vanity, and when I in concealing the fasting from others permit myself food, I am again given over to vanity by my prudence. Dressing up in bright clothing, I am vanquished by love of honour and, having changed over into drab clothing I am overcome by vanity. If I stand up to speak I fall under the power of vanity. If I wish to keep silence, I am again given over to it. Wherever this thorn comes up, it everywhere stands with its points upwards. It is vainglorious…, on the surface to honour God, and in deed to strive to please people rather than God… People of lofty spirit bear insult placidly and willingly, but to hear praise and feel nothing of pleasure is possible only for the saints and for the unblameworthy… When thou hearest that thy neighbour or friend either afront the eyes or behind the eyes slandereth thee, praise and love him… Does this not shew humility, and who can reproach himself, and be intolerant with himself? But who, having been discredited by another, would not diminish in his love for him… Whoever is exalted by natural gifts – a felicitous mind, a fine education, reading, pleasant elocution, and other similar qualities, which are readily enough acquired – that person might yet never obtain to supernatural gifts. Wherefore whoever is not faithful in the small things, that one also is not faithful in the large, and is vainglorous. It often happens, that God Himself humbles the vainglorious, sending a sudden misfortune… If prayer does not destroy a proud thought, we bring to mind the leaving of the soul from this life. And if this does not help, we threaten it with the shame of the Last Judgment. ‘Rising up to humble oneself’ even here, before the future age. When praisers, or better, flatterers, start to praise us, immediately we betake ourselves to recollection of all our iniquities and we find that we are not at all worth that which they impute to us.”
This and other examples located in “The Ladder” offer us an image of this saint’s zealousness about his own salvation, which is necessary for each person who wishes to live piously. It is a written account of his thought, the collective fruit of many, and also of his refined observation from his own soul and his own profound spiritual experience. It reveals itself as a guide and great help on the way to truth and good.
The steps of “The Ladder,” this proceeding from strength to strength on the path of man’s proclivity to perfection, is not something suddenly but rather gradually to be reached, as in the saying of the Saviour: “The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by strength, and those utilising strength shalt delight of it.” (Mt 11: 12)