Lives of the Saints
ST. JOHN, generally distinguished by the appellation of Climacus, from his excellent
book entitled Climax, or the Ladder to Perfection, was born about the year 525,
probably in Palestine. By his extraordinary progress in the arts and sciences, he
obtained very young the surname of the Scholastic. But at sixteen years of age he
renounced all the advantages which the world promised him, to dedicate himself to
God in a religious state, in 547. He retired to Mount Sinai, which, from the time of
the disciples of St. Antony and St. Hilarion, had been always peopled by holy men,
who, in imitation of Moses, when he received the law on that mountain, lived in the
perpetual contemplation of heavenly things. Our novice, fearing the danger of
dissipation and relaxation, to which numerous communities are generally more
exposed than others, chose not to live in the great monastery on the summit, but in
a hermitage on the descent of the mountain, under the discipline of Martyrius, a
holy ancient anchoret. By silence, he curbed the insolent itch of talking about
everything, an ordinary vice in learned men, but usually a mark of pride and self-
sufficiency. By perfect humility and obedience, he banished the dangerous desire of
self-complacency in his actions. He never contradicted, never disputed with anyone.
So perfect was his submission, that he seemed to have no self-will. He undertook to
sail through the deep sea of this mortal life securely, under the direction of a
prudent guide, and shunned those rocks which he could not have escaped, had he
presumed to steer alone, as he tells us. From the visible mountain he raised his
heart, without interruption, in all his actions, to God, who is invisible; and, attentive
to all the motions of his grace, studied only to do his will. Four years he spent in
the trial of his own strength, and in learning the obligations of his state, before he
made his religious profession, which was in the twentieth year of his age. In his
writings, he severely condemned engagements made by persons too young, or
before a sufficient probation. By fervent prayer and fasting he prepared himself for
the solemn consecration of himself to God, that the most intense fervor might make
his holocaust the more perfect: and from that moment he seemed to be renewed in
spirit; and his master admired the strides with which, like a mighty giant, the young
disciple advanced, daily more and more, towards God by self-denial, obedience,
humility, and the uninterrupted exercises of divine love and prayer.
In the year 560, and the thirty-fifth of his age, he lost Martyrius by death, having
then spent nineteen years in that place in penance and holy contemporation. By the
advice of a prudent director, he then embraced an eremitical life in a plain called
Thole, near the foot of Mount Sinai. His cell was five miles from the church, probably
the same which had been built a little before, by order of the emperor Justinian, for
the use of the monks, at the bottom of this mountain, in honor of the Blessed
Virgin, as Procopius mentions. Thither he went every Saturday and Sunday to assist,
with all the other anchorets and monks of that desert, at the holy office and at the
celebration of the divine mysteries, when they all communicated. His diet was very
sparing, though, to shun ostentation and the danger of vain-glory, he ate of
everything that was allowed among the monks of Egypt, who universally abstained
from flesh, fish, &c. Prayer was his principal employment; and he practiced what he
earnestly recommends to all Christians, that in all their actions, thoughts, and
words, they should keep themselves with great fervor in the presence of God, and
direct all they do to his holy will. By habitual contemplation he acquired an
extraordinary purity of heart, and such a facility of lovingly beholding God in all his
works, that this practice seemed in him a second nature. Thus he accompanied his
studies with perpetual prayer. He assiduously read the holy scriptures, and fathers,
and was one of the most learned doctors of the church. But, to preserve the treasure
of humility, he concealed, as much as possible, both his natural and acquired
talents, and the extraordinary graces with which the Holy Ghost enriched his soul.
By this secrecy he fled from the danger of vain-glory, which, like a leech, sticks to
our best actions, and sucking from them its nourishment, robs us of their fruit. As if
this cell had not been sufficiently remote from the eyes of men, St. John frequently
retired into a neighboring cavern, which he had made in the rock, where no one
could come to disturb his devotions, or interrupt his tears. So ardent were his charity
and compunction, that his eyes seemed two fountains, which scarce ever ceased to
flow; and his continual sighs and groans to heaven, under the weight of the miseries
inseparable from his moral pilgrimage, were not to be equaled by the vehemency of
the cries of those who suffer from knives and fire. Overcome by importunities, he
admitted a holy anchoret named Moyses to live with him as his disciple.
God bestowed on St. John an extraordinary grace of healing the spiritual disorders of
souls. Among others, a monk called Isaac, was brought almost to the brink of
despair by most violent temptations of the flesh. He addressed himself to St. John,
who perceived by his tears how much he underwent from that conflict and struggle
which he felt within himself. The servant of God commended his faith, and said: "My
son, let us have recourse to God by prayer." They accordingly prostrated themselves
together on the ground in fervent supplication for a deliverance, and from that time
the infernal serpent left Isaac in peace. Many others resorted to St. John for spiritual
advice: but the devil excited some to jealousy, who censured him as one who, out of
vanity, lost much time in unprofitable discourse. The saint took this accusation,
which was a mere calumny, in good part, and as a charitable admonition; he
therefore imposed on himself a rigorous silence for near a twelve month. This his
humility and modesty so much astonished his calumniators, that they joined the
rest of the monks in beseeching him to reassume his former function of giving
charitable advice to all that resorted to him for it, and not to bury that talent of
science which he had received for the benefit of many. He who knew not what it was
to contradict others, with the same humility and deference again opened his mouth
to instruct his neighbor in the rules of perfect virtue: in which office, such was the
reputation of his wisdom and experience, that he was regarded as another Moses in
that holy place.
St. John was now seventy-five years old, and had spent forty of them in his
hermitage, when, in the year six hundred, he was unanimously chosen abbot of
Mount Sinai, and superior-general of all the monks and hermits in that country. Soon
after he was raised to this dignity, the people of Palestine and Arabia, in the time of
a great drought and famine, made their application to him as to another Elias,
begging him to intercede with God in their behalf. The saint failed not with great
earnestness to recommend their distress to the Father of mercies, and his prayer
was immediately recompensed with abundant rains. St. Gregory the Great who then
sat in St. Peter's chair, wrote to our holy abbot, recommending himself to his
prayers, and sent him beds, with other furniture and money, for his hospital, for the
use of pilgrims near Mount Sinai. John, who had used his utmost endeavors to
recline the pastoral charge, when he saw it laid upon him, neglected no means
which might promote the sanctification of all those who were entrusted to his care.
That posterity might receive some share in the benefit of his holy instructions, John,
the learned and virtuous abbot of Raithu, a monastery situate towards the Red Sea,
entreated him by that obedience he had ever practiced, even with regard to his
inferiors, that he would draw up the most necessary rules by which fervent souls
might arrive at Christian perfection. The saint answered him, that nothing but
extreme humility could have moved him to write to so miserable a sinner, destitute
of every sort of virtue; but that he received his commands with respect, though far
above his strength, never considering his own insufficiency. Wherefore, apprehensive
of falling into death by disobedience, he took up his pen in haste, with great
eagerness mixed with fear, and set himself to draw some imperfect outlines as an
unskillful painter, leaving them to receive from him, as a great master the finishing
strokes. This produced the excellent work which he called Climax, or the ladder of
religious perfection. This book being written in sentences, almost in the manner of
aphorisms, abounds more in sense than words. A certain majestic simplicity, an
inexpressible unction and spirit of humility, joined with conciseness and perspicuity,
very much enhance the value of this performance: but its chief merit consists in the
sublime sentiments, and perfect description of all Christian virtues, which it
contains. The author confirms his precepts by several edifying examples, as of
obedience and penance. In describing a monastery of three hundred and thirty
monks, which he had visited near Alexandria in Egypt, he mentions one of the
principal citizens of that city, named Isidore, who, petitioning to be admitted into
the house, said to the abbot: "As iron is in the hands of the smith, so am I in your
hands." The abbot ordered him to remain without the gate, and to prostrate himself
at the feet of everyone that passed by, begging their prayers for his soul struck with
a leprosy. Thus he passed seven years in profound humility and patience. He told St.
John, that during the first year he always considered himself as a slave condemned
for his sins, and sustained violent conflicts. The second year he passed in
tranquillity and confidence; and the third with relish and pleasure in his
humiliations. So great was his virtue, that the abbot determined to present him to
the bishop in order to be promoted to the priesthood, but the humility of the holy
penitent prevented the execution of that design; for having begged at least a
respite, he died within ten days. St. John could not help admiring the cook of this
numerous community, who seemed always recollected, and generally bathed in tears
amidst his continual occupation, and asked him by what means he nourished so
perfect a spirit of compunction, in the midst of such a dissipating laborious
employment. He said, that serving the monks, he represented to himself that he
was serving not men, but God in his servants: and that the fire he always had
before his eyes, reminded him of that fire which will burn souls for all eternity. The
moving description which our author gives of the monastery of penitents called the
Prison, above a mile from the former, hath been already abridged in our language.
John the Sabaite told our saint, as of a third person, that seeing himself respected
in his monastery, he considered that this was not the way to satisfy for his sins.
Wherefore, with the leave of his abbot, he repaired to a severe monastery in
Pontus, and after three years saw in a dream a schedule of his debts, to the amount
in appearance of one hundred pounds of gold, of which only ten were canceled. He
therefore repeated often to himself: "Poor Antiochus, thou hast still great debt to
satisfy." After passing over thirteen years in contempt and the most fervent
practices of penance, he deserved to see in a vision his whole debt blotted out.
Another monk, in a grievous fit of illness, fell into a trance, in which he lay as if he
had been dead for the space of an hour: but recovering, he shut himself up in his
cell, and lived a recluse twelve years, almost continually weeping, in the perpetual
meditation of death. When he was near death, his brethren could only extort from
him these words of edification : "He who hath death always before his eyes, will
never sin." John, abbot of Raithu, explained this book of our saint by judicious
comments, which are also extant. We have likewise a letter of St. John Climacus to
the same person, concerning the duties of a pastor, in which he exhorts him in
connecting others to temper severity with mildness, and encourages him zealously
to fulfill the obligations of his charge; for nothing is greater or more acceptable to
God than to offer him the sacrifice of rational souls sanctified by penance and
St. John sighed continually under the weight of his dignity, during the four years
that he governed the monks of Mount Sinai: and as he had taken upon him that
burden with fear and reluctance, he with joy found means to resign the same a little
before his death. Heavenly contemplation, and the continual exercise of divine love
and praise, were his delight and comfort in his earthly pilgrimage: and this imitation
of the functions of the blessed spirits in heaven he placeth the essence of the
monastic state. In his excellent maxims concerning the gift of holy tears, the fruit of
charity, we seem to behold a lively portraiture of his most pure soul. He died in his
hermitage on the 30th day of March, in 605, being fourscore years old. His spiritual
son George, who had succeeded him in the abbacy, earnestly begged of God that he
might not be separated from his dear master and guide, and followed him by a
happy death within a few days. On several Greek commentaries on St. John
Glimacus's ladder, see Montfaucon, Biblioth. Coisliana, pp.305, 306.
St. John Climacus, speaking of the excellence and the effects of charity, does it with
a feeling and energy worthy of such a subject. "A mother," says he, "feels less
pleasure when she folds within her arms the dear infant whom she nourishes with
her own milk, than the true child of charity does, when united, as he incessantly is,
to his God, and folded as it were in the arms of his heavenly Father of Charity
operates in some persons so as to carry them almost entirely out of themselves. It
illuminates others, and fills them with such sentiments of joy, that they cannot help
crying out: The Lord is my helper and my protector: in him hath my heart confided,
and I have been helped. And my flesh hath flourished again, and with my will I will
give praise to him. This joy which they feel in their hearts, is reflected on their
countenances; and when once God has united, or, as we may save incorporated
them with his charity, he displays in their exterior, as in the reflection of a mirror,
the brightness and serenity of their souls: even as Moses, being honored with a
sight of God, was encompassed round by his glory. St. John Cliwacus composed the
following prayer to obtain the gift of charity: "My God, I pretend to nothing upon this
earth, except to be so firmly united to you by prayer, that to be separated from you
may be impossible: let others desire riches and glory; for my part, I desire but one
thing, and that is, to be inseparably united to you, and to place in you alone all my
hopes of happiness and repose.".

As a kind of torch on Sinai, the Mount,
John was glowing in heavenly light
Subduing the body, subdued his thoughts,
Thirty steps, he numbered toward victory.
Miraculous strategy, wonderful tactic
As a legacy, to the spiritual warrior he gave
The spiritual warfare, who desires to learn
And in this warfare to gloriously conquer.
"The Ladder," all miraculous, by the Spirit written,
After the dreadful strife was ended,
When John the Victor, the world from himself shed,
As a precious gift, to the brethren he brought it.
An epic poem, that is the soul of man,
When from dust, toward heaven it desires to climb,
An awesome epic poem of struggle and suffering,
A sparkling epic poem of faith and hoping.
This, John, to us gave, illumined by God,
Weapons, all-glowing, to you and to me.
And now before the Lord, John prays
That the Lord be pleased to send us help
When, to Him, by the Ladder we climb.
That to us, His hand He extends, that we
May to Him arrive.
[1] Butler's Lives of the Saints – March 30.
[2]  The Prolopue from Ohrid.
St. John Climacus Abbot A.D. 605