Saint John of the Ladder (also known as Saint John of Sinai) was abbot of Saint Catherine's monastery in Sinai, Egypt. He is principally known for writing the Ladder of Divine Ascent, a text intended to guide Christians, primarily monastics, towards a life of holiness. This book is much beloved, particularly in Eastern Christianity. It consists of 30 "steps" or "rungs" of a ladder, each of which a chapter that contains wisdom on overcoming a particular passion or obtaining a particular virtue. Saint John of the Ladder is celebrated in both western and eastern Christianity on March 30. In addition, in Eastern Christianity the fourth Sunday of Lent is known as the Sunday of Saint John of the Ladder.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint John of Sinai, more often known as Saint John of the Ladder. He is also referred to as Saint John Climacus in Greek, and St John Lestvichhik in Slavic, but both of these just mean St John of the Ladder in the respective languages.
Saint John of the Ladder is commemorated on March 30 in both the eastern and western church. In addition, in the Eastern Church (that is, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Byzantine catholics) the Fourth Sunday of Lent is known as the Sunday of St John of the Ladder. He is known primarily for writing a text called the T HE L ADDER OF D IVINE A SCENT.
Let us read a brief biography of his. This is taken from the website of St John of the Ladder Orthodox Church in Greenville, South Carolina:
St John of the Ladder Orthodox Church in Greenville, South Carolina
St John of the Ladder is honored by the church as a great ascetic and the author of the reknowned spiritual book called The Ladder, for which he is named. (St John Klimakos in Greek)
There is almost no information about St John's origins. One tradition suggests he was born in Constantinople around the year 570, and was the son of Ss Xenophon and Maria.
John went to Sinai when he was sixteen, submitting to Abba Martyrios as his instructor and guide. After four years, St John was tonsured as a monk. Abba Strategios, who was present at St John's tonsure, predicted that he would become a great luminary in the Church of Christ.
For nineteen years St John progressed in monasticism in obedience to his spiritual Father. After the death of Abba Martyrios, St John embarked on a solitary life, settling in a wild place called Thola, where he spent forty years laboring in silence, fasting, prayer, and tears of penitence.
It is not by chance that in The Ladder, St John speaks about tears of repentance: "Just as fire burns and destroys the wood, so pure tears wash away every impurity, both external and internal." His holy prayer was strong and efficacious, as may be seen from an example from the life of the God-pleasing saint.
St John had a disciple named Moses. Once, the saint ordered his disciple to bring dung to fertilize the vegetable garden. When he had fulfilled the obedience, Moses lay down to rest under the shade of a large rock, because of the scorching heat of summer. St John was in his cell in a light sleep. Suddenly, a man of remarkable appearance appeared to him and awakened the holy ascetic, reproaching him, "John, why do you sleep so heedlessly, when Moses is in danger?"
St John immediately woke up and began to pray for his disciple. When Moses returned in the evening, St John asked whether any sort of misfortune had befallen him.
The monk replied, "A large rock would have fallen on me as I slept beneath it at noon, but I left that place because I thought I heard you calling me." St John did not tell his disciple of his vision, but gave thanks to God.
St John ate the food which is permitted by the monastic rule, but only in moderation. He did not sleep very much, only enough to keep up his strength, so that he would not ruin his mind by unceasing vigil. "I do not fast excessively," he said of himself, "nor do I give myself over to intense all-night vigil, nor lay upon the ground, but I restrain myself..., and the Lord soon saved me."
The following example of St John's humility is noteworthy. Gifted with discernment, and attaining wisdom through spiritual experience, he lovingly received all who came to him and guided them to salvation. One day some envious monks reproached him for being too talkative, and so St John kept silence for a whole year. The monks realized their error, and they went to the ascetic and begged him not to deprive them of the spiritual profit of his conversation.
Concealing his ascetic deeds from others, St John sometimes withdrew into a cave, but reports of his holiness spread far beyond the vicinity. Visitors from all walks of life came to him, desiring to hear his words of edification and salvation. After forty years of solitary asceticism, he was chosen as igumen (abbot) of Sinai’s St Catherine’s Monastery when he was seventy-five. St John governed the holy monastery for four years.
At the request of the abbot of the Raithu monastery, St John wrote the incomparable Ladder, a book of instruction for monks who wished to attain spiritual perfection.
Knowing his wisdom and spiritual gifts, the abbot requested St John to write down whatever was necessary for the salvation of those in the monastic life. Such a book would be "a ladder fixed on the earth" (Gen. 28:12), leading people to the gates of Heaven.
St John felt that such a task was beyond his ability, yet out of obedience he fulfilled the request. The saint called his work The Ladder, for the book is "a fixed ladder leading from earthly things to the Holy of Holies...." The thirty steps of spiritual perfection correspond to the thirty years of the Lord's age. When we have completed these thirty steps, we will find ourselves with the righteous and will not stumble. The Ladder begins with renunciation of worldliness, and ends with God, who is love (1 Jn 4:8). Although the book was written for monks, any Christian living in the world will find it an unerring guide for ascending to God, and a support in the spiritual life.
In The Ladder, St John describes the ascent toward spiritual perfection, which is essential for anyone who wishes to save his soul. It is a written account of his thoughts, based on the collected wisdom of many wise ascetics, and on his own spiritual experience. The book is a great help on the path to truth and virtue. With the exception of the scriptures themselves and St Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, it is the most copied and influential book in Christian history.
The steps of The Ladder proceed gradually from strength to strength on the path of perfection. The summit is not reached suddenly, but gradually, as the Savior says: "The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force" (Mt 11:12).
St John of the Ladder is commemorated on the fourth Sunday of Great Lent and on March 30th.
The ladder is a remarkable text, and surprisingly easy to read. It consists of 30 “rungs” or “steps” of the ladder, each of which describes a step a Christian should take in putting aside our earthly passions and becoming more like Christ. The Ladder is intended for monastics, but laity can also get a lot out of it for our spiritual progress.
Let us read from some passages of this Ladder of Divine Ascent. I am using a translation by Archimandrite Lazarus Moore, published in 1959 for every text from the ladder I read in today’s episode.
On love of money or avarice.
1. Many learned teachers treat next, after the tyrant just described, the thousand-headed demon of
avarice. We, unlearned as we are, did not wish to change the order of the learned, and we have
therefore followed the same convention and rule. So let us first say a little about the disease, and then
speak briefly about the remedy.
2. Avarice, or love of money, is the worship of idols, 2 a daughter of unbelief, an excuse for infirmities,
a foreboder of old age, a harbinger of drought, a herald of hunger.
3. The lover of money sneers at the Gospel and is a wilful transgressor. He who has attained to love
scatters his money. But he who says that he lives for love and for money has deceived himself.
4. He who mourns for himself has also renounced his body; and at the appropriate time he does not
5. Do not say that you are collecting money for the poor; with two mites the Kingdom was
6. A hospitable man and a money-lover met one another, and the latter called the former
7. He who has conquered this passion has cut out care; but he who is bound by it never attains to pure
8. The beginning of love of money is the pretext of almsgiving, and the end of it is hatred of the poor.
So long as he is collecting he is charitable, but when the money is in hand he tightens his hold.
9. I have seen how men of scanty means enriched themselves by living with the poor in spirit, and
forgot their first poverty. 1
10. A monk who loves money is a stranger to idleness 2 and hourly remembers the word of the Apostle:
Let an idle man not eat, 3 and: These hands of mine have ministered to me and to those who were with
This is the sixteenth struggle. He who has won this victory has either obtained love or cut out care.
The ladder does not just contain abstract meditations on a particular sin or passion to overcome – St John of the ladder also includes anecdotes and stories about how overcoming a particular struggle in a rung looks like in practice. This next passage from the ladder I shall read is part of Step #4, which is about obedience. St John tells a story of a monk named Isidore, and his progress in learning obedience:
A certain man called Isidore, of magistrate’s rank, from the city of Alexandria, had recently
renounced the world in the above-mentioned monastery, and I found him still there. That most holy
shepherd, after accepting him, found that he was full of mischief, very cruel, sly, fierce and arrogant.
But with human ingenuity that most wise man contrived to outwit the cunning of the devils, and said
to Isidore: ‘If you have decided to take upon yourself the yoke of Christ, then I want you first of all to
learn obedience.’ Isidore replied: ‘As iron to the smith, so I surrender myself in submission to you, holy
father.’ The great father, making use of this comparison, at once gave exercise to the iron Isidore, and
said: ‘I want you, brother by nature, to stand at the gate of the monastery, and to make a prostration to
everyone coming in or going out, and to say: “Pray for me, father; I am an epileptic.” ‘And he obeyed
as an angel obeys the Lord.
When he had spent seven years there, he attained to deep humility and compunction. Then the
glorious father, after the lawful seven years and the man’s incomparable patience, judged him fully
worthy to be numbered among the brethren and wanted to profess him and have him ordained. But
Isidore through others and through my feeble intervention, implored the shepherd many times to let
him finish his course as he was living before, vaguely hinting that his end and call were drawing near.
And that was actually the case. For when his director had allowed him to remain as he was, ten days
later in his lowliness he passed gloriously to the Lord. And on the seventh day after his own falling
asleep, the porter of the monastery was also taken. For the blessed man had said to him: ‘If I have
found favour in the sight of the Lord, in a short time you also will be inseparably joined to me there.’ 1
And that is what happened, in witness of his unashamed obedience and divine humility.
24. When he was still living, I asked this great Isidore what occupation his mind had found during his
time at the gate. And the famous ascetic did not hide this from me, wishing to help me: ‘In the
beginning’, he said, ‘I judged that I had been sold into slavery for my sins; and so it was with bitterness,
with a great effort, and as it were with blood that I made the prostration. But after a year had passed,
my heart no longer felt sorrow, and I expected a reward for my obedience from God Himself. But when
another year had gone by, I began to be deeply conscious of my unworthiness even to live in the
monastery, and see and meet the fathers, and partake of the Divine Mysteries. And I did not dare to
look anyone in the face, but bending low with my eyes, and still lower with my thought, I sincerely
asked for the prayers of those coming in and going out.’
The ladder is a gem. Its values lies not just in the wisdom of the individual chapters, but in the structure of the text as a whole. St John’s vision of a Christian life is one of gradually approaching Christ by overcoming our earthly passions and obtaining Christ’s virtues one by one. It is a slow process, that can be painful and can require a great deal of patience. It is a journey that is impossible without the grace of God, but it is a journey that will bring about great rewards.
Let us read from a Homily from the Greek Orthodox metroplitian Sotirios of Pisidia, given on the 4th Sunday of Lent in 2020. Metroplitian Sotiriois reflects on how St John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent encourages us in our virtues and our walk with Christ.
Metropolitan of Pisidia Sotirios
Homily on St John of Climacus
31 March 2020
Today, on this Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate St. John the Sinaite, also known as St. John “Climacus” (Ladder). Although the Saint’s feast day is on March 30th, the Church wants to highlight the narrow path of asceticism and virtue on this particular Sunday of Great Lent, and St. John is an exemplary guide in following this path with sincere love for Christ.
St. John was born in Syria in 523 AD. At the age of 16 he joined the Monastic Brotherhood of the famous Sinai Monastery, where he labored as a Monk under obedience to his spiritual father for 19 years. Because he was attracted to ascetic life in the desert, he fled to a secluded cell, five miles from the Monastery. It is hard to describe the Holy Saint’s struggles in asceticism, but from his writings that have survived we can get a sense of the spiritual heights he reached. His most famous work, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” has been spiritual food for Orthodox monks and nuns for over 1400 years. It is read not only individually, but also communally in the Monasteries during Great Lent. Although it was originally written for monastics, the laity can also benefit from a careful study of the text.
The idea of classifying the virtues as ascending steps for the Christian to reach heaven was inspired by Jacob’s famous vision, where he saw a ladder resting on the earth which reached heaven, and had the angels descending. It is a simple measure of where a Christian is in the spiritual life. As St. John writes, anyone with faith can climb the ladder to Heaven, step by step. A person reflects on their passions and the virtues that God has given to them, seeing what rung they are on. It is a non-stop process, for the Christian is always striving upwards to the next level. St. John urges patience for those who are just beginning, as it is a constant and never ending struggle. Just as you would climb a regular ladder carefully, step by step, so it is with this spiritual ladder. There is no rush or skipping rungs. Thirty steps to the Heavenly Kingdom. Don’t be tempted by the thought of doing it by your own power or will, or discouraged by the height. You will not be alone, but the Holy Angels will be with you, helping you. At the top is Christ, giving you strength.
Let’s look at some of these thirty virtues (corresponding to Christ’s years on earth until His ministry began), which are not only for monastics, but for all Christians. As St. John notes, before a person can even begin the ascent, there are some basic virtues that must be nurtured:
Humility. Humble yourself, and you will see how much easier it is to take that first step. True humility requires actions, not words. St. Paul the Apostle says of himself: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief ”(1 Timothy 1:15). It was in this humility that the Lord saved him.
Obedience. To obey God first in our lives. Because Adam and Eve failed to do this, they lost Paradise and all the evils came into the world. With our free and unselfish obedience to God, we will regain Paradise. This obedience includes the people who lead us to God, who are responsible for the care of our souls. It even extends to those in our family and society. The man listens to his wife and the woman listens to her husband. Brothers and sisters listen to each other.
Other virtues mentioned by Saint John are: Repentance, meekness, forgiveness, kindness, fasting, mental and physical purity, almsgiving, discernment; we must act accordingly in our lives. Prayer unites us with God. On the last steps are faith, hope, and love for God and man. That’s where the thirty-step ladder ends. One of these virtues alone will not save us. A ladder that is missing rungs is impossible to climb. It is like a royal crown, which is adorned with diamonds of different sizes, pearls, and other precious gems. All of these virtues come together in a glorious crown.
St. John encourages us all: “Go up, brethren, go up willingly and rejoice in this angelic ladder, that we may come to the mountain of the Lord, to His high throne.” Amen.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Christian saints podcast. Look for the Christian Saints podcast page on Facebook or Instagram, or look for us on Twitter at podcast_saints. All music in this episode was composed by my good friend, James John Marks of Generative sounds. Please check out his music at https://generativesoundsjjm.bandcamp.com/
We will end with some words from St John of the Ladder – this is the concluding paragraph of his Ladder of Divine Ascent:
Ascend, brothers, ascend eagerly, and be resolved in your hearts to ascend 5 and hear Him who says:
Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of our God, who makes our feet
like hind’s feet, and sets us on high places, 6 that we may be victorious with His song.
Run, I beseech you, with him who said: Let us hasten until we attain to the unity of faith and of the
knowledge of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 7 who,
when He was baptized in the thirtieth year of His visible age, attained the thirtieth step in the spiritual
ladder; since God is indeed love, to whom be praise, dominion, power, in whom is and was and will be
the cause of all goodness throughout infinite ages. Amen.