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Saint John Climacus

by Nicol Zabak

The symbolic ascent to heaven is customarily portrayed by the flight skyward with angelic wings; one of our saints, however, depicts the ascension by the more practical use of a ladder. This symbolic ladder is to be scaled in a series of spiritual rungs where increasingly more exertion is required in order to see the Kingdom of God. The author of this approach was St. John of the Ladder who was one of the greatest writers in Christianity. “The Ladder of Perfection” is a treatise on spiritual exercises and actions, which present in a brilliant and scholarly fashion and approach to the throne of Heaven.

Born in the sixth century, John spent the first sixteen years of his life in Palestine, the ancient Holy Land of his birth whose traditions he respected and whose Christian heritage is cherished.  His early ambitions were realized when he went to the monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai, the oldest Christian monastery in the world.  There he became one of the most scholarly monks in Christendom.  The site of St. Catherine’s was conducive to prayer and meditation, for there the scene of the burning bush took place and there Moses received the word of God himself.  Moreover, to this place the grieving St. Helen, mother of St. Constantine the Great, came on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land some three hundred years before.


John is remembered not only as the author of the masterful “Ladder of Perfection,” but also as the originator of hesychasm, the divine quietness that leads one to God through constant prayer, the prayer which has come to be known as the pure or intellectual “Jesus Prayer.”  Regarding this John wrote: “ Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with each breath, and then you will know the value of hesychia.”  He continued to champion this doctrine which found eager support among Christian thinkers, chief among them was St. Gregory Palamas, whose sponsorship brought about official Church recognition of hesychasm in the fourteenth century.


For more than seventy years, John of the Ladder practiced what he preached in the confines of his desert monastery.  He achieved such a reputation for piety and wisdom that men from all walks of life were drawn to his side and came from all over the east to make a pilgrimage to his retreat.  From John’s strong faith and fervent prayer came the power of healing through the divine intervention of the Jesus.  If nothing else, St. John’s visitors would leave him with a serenity which they had never before experience and with a sense of fulfillment that would last a lifetime.


One of the Christendom’s finest figures, he died on March 30 at the age of eighty-six.  His feast day is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent.


"St. John gives me strength in the times that I appear weak (because I always am).  He reminds me why I am here on Earth and what my purpose is and keeps me on track so that I do not get too caught up school or any one thing.  He inspired people just by his actions, not by words, and that to me says a lot and is powerful."

Back copy from Orthodox Saints written by George Poulos, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.