According to the ways of the world, in order to have great influence, one must be a prominent statesmen, a talented actor or athlete, a wealthy merchant, or a technological genius. But according to the ways of God, it is often the quiet saint, the reclusive monk, who has the greatest influence for good. St. John Climacus is an example of one whose life is still affecting others 1400 years after the end of his earthly sojourn.
When he was only sixteen years old, John left his home and family in Palestine and entered the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai in the Egyptian desert. Already in the 6th century, this monastery (the first to be established) was renowned as a holy place of prayer and spiritual struggle. The mountain had been the place where Moses heard God in the burning bush and received the commandments; St. Helena had come here 200 years earlier on her pilgrimage to the Holy Land; and men from all over the Christian world came here to devote themselves to prayer and meditation.
John was given spiritual direction from the monk Martyrius and, after four years, he received the monastic tonsure. When Martyrius died, the then 35-year-old John moved to a hermitage at the foot of the mountain to live in greater solitude and quiet. A church, dedicated to the Theotokos, had been built on the mountain on the order of the Emperor Justinian, and all the monks living in the area came to this church on Saturdays and Sundays to sing the Office and to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
During the next forty years, John drew closer to God through prayer and contemplation, fasting, and reading scripture and the lives of the saints. John’s ability to see into the heart and offer spiritual counsel became widely known and many pilgrims came to his cell seeking his prayers and advice. The petitioners became so numerous that one day in church, John overheard another monk remark that he could hardly call his cell a “hermitage” for all the visitors he entertained and all the talking he did! In humility, John vowed to remain silent and he did so for a year until the entreaties of his fellow monks convinced him to resume his practice of spiritual guidance.
John corresponded with another John, who was the abbot of the monastery at Raithu near the Red Sea. Abbot John asked the monk John to make a written record of his insights and advice so that future generations would be able to benefit from it. And so the monk prepared what has become one of the most famous writings from a monastic father, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Using Jacob’s vision of a ladder reaching up into heaven for its inspiration, the book consists of thirty homilies (representing the thirty years of Christ’s life before his earthly ministry began) which present Christian virtues as steps to heaven. The reader is called to the spiritual life, ascending from righteous actions to divine vision. Although the book was written for monks, all of us can find words of wisdom in it for our lives.
When he was 75 years of age, John was unanimously chosen to be the abbot of St. Catherine’s. Reluctantly leaving the solitude of his cell, John returned to the top of the mountain where his responsibilities spread to all the other monks and his influence was felt even further. Not only did individuals continue to seek his counsel, but groups of people requested his prayers (as when the people of Palestine appealed to him in a time of severe drought). Our patron, St. Gregory the Great, while serving as the Pope of Rome (590 – 604), wrote to St. John asking for his prayers and sending him a monetary contribution for the hospital which the monks operated for pilgrims.
At the age of 79, John asked to be relieved of his duties as abbot in order to prepare for his death. He appointed his brother, George, to be his successor, but both brothers died in the same year (c. 603) ten months apart.
The effects of St. John’s wisdom did not diminish with his death. The Ladder of Divine Ascent continued to be read and studied, translated into numerous languages, and passed on to many parts of the world. Even today, all Orthodox monks hear this work read during the daily meal on the days of Great Lent. St. John is remembered as the originator of hesychasm, or the practice of constant, inner prayer (the “Jesus” prayer).
May we, following the ways of God and not of the world, be imbued with the spiritual counsel of St. John Climacus, as we strive to take our steps toward heaven:
Ascend, my brothers, ascend eagerly. Let your hearts’ resolve be to climb. Listen to the voice of the one who says, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of our God” [Is. 2:3], Who makes our feet to be like the feet of the deer, “Who sets us on the high places, that we may be triumphant on His road.” [Hab. 3:19] Run, I beg you, run with him who said, “let us hurry until we all arrive at the unity of faith and of the knowledge of God, at mature manhood, at the measure of the stature of Christ’s fullness.” [Eph. 4:13]