St. John Climacus is one of the most accomplished Saints of Eastern Christendom, however most people in the west recognize him as nothing more then a foot-note if anything. In any Eastern-Orthodox monastery you would find that once a year his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, is recited aloud for all of the monks to hear. At this rate, there are monks to this day who likely have heard the literature 50-60 times. In fact, John Climacus is accredited with forming some of the preliminary drafts of the Seven Deadly Sins along with St. Gregory the Great before St. Thomas Aquinas made his finalized list in the 13th century. So who is this Saint that so many theologians venerate even to this day?
His birth and place of origin remain a mystery, the earliest record of him is of when he was sixteen years old and he first came to the desert of Sinai. There is uncertainty as to when, but he eventually came to live in the monastery at the foot of the Jebel Musa (the famous “Mount of Moses”), which rises almost 7,500 feet and would have served as a constant inspiration to him about the story Moses and his conversation with God. Living in Sinai offered Climacus three “paths” or ways of living: first was the obvious path of monasticism, living as a monk in a monastery under the governance of an abbot. Second was the option of living as a hermit in the desert in order to practice complete self-denial; this was a common occurrence at the time, in fact it was at this same time that the famous Desert Fathers came to live in the desert of Sinai (although, if you don’t know who John Climacus is, you probably don’t know who the Desert Fathers are, either, but that’s a story for another node). The third choice was to live within a small group of monks, or a “family” of monks, each of which was governed by a single spiritual father. John Climacus had experience in all three of these paths, but he favored the third “middle path” the most, saying, “the life of stillness shared with one or two others.”
After deciding his favor lay within the “middle path”, Climacus joined one of these families under the guidance of Abba Martyrius (‘Abba’ is the Aramaic word for ‘father’). Three years later, Martyrius took Climacus up to the chapel on the Jebel Musa and performed the rite to make him a monk. Later that same day, Climacus and Martyrius visited the well-known solitary, John the Sabbaite, who, oddly enough, washed the feet of Climacus and kissed his hand while paying no attention to Martyrius (who is, remember, Climacus’ superior). All the Sabbaite said to Martyrius was, “Believe me, I don’t know who that boy is; but I have received the abbot of Sinai and washed his feet.” I’ll come back to this quote later on (hint, hint).
Not long after this event did his former Abba, Martyrius, die. It is assumed that the death of his dear friend is what drove Climacus to become a hermit in the deep desert, but one cannot be certain; so Climacus left behind his life as a monk and went to live in the desert with the Desert Fathers. At this point in his life Climacus became quite popular as a wise man that many people would visit in the desert to speak with and take advice from. In fact, this image of Climacus earned him the criticism of several people as a gossip. So Climacus decided to take a vow of silence and spend his days in contemplation. Humorously enough, John did not come out of his vow until at the insistence of the very critics that prompted him to make the vow a year earlier. It was not long until John left his hermitage and went to live as a monk in the monastery of Tholas in Egypt. Forty years later John Climacus was elected, against his will, to be the abbot of Sinai, just as John the Sabbaite predicted. Over six-hundred pilgrims traveled to the monastery to celebrate John’s succession, it did not take long for the monks of Sinai to feel that they had discovered another Moses in the person of their new abbot. During his later years John was requested, by John Raithu of a nearby monastery, to write a book of his teachings, saying, “Tell us in our ignorance, 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 tablets of the Law, written by God.” This book, written as the letters of the Christian Law of Moses, is The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Before he died, John Climacus stepped down as abbot of Sinai and appointed his brother, George, to replace him; he then retreated back into the desert to experience the solitude that he had felt in his youth one last time.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent, introduction. By Kallistos Ware.
Microsoft Encarta Encylopeda 2002. Climacus, John St. Author Unknown.