Saint John of the Ladder is honored by Holy Church as a great ascetic and author of the renowned spiritual book called “The Ladder”, from which he is also called “of the Ladder” (Climacus).
There is almost no information about Saint John’s origins. One tradition suggests that he was born in Constantinople around the year 570, and was the son of Saints Xenophon and Maria (January 26).
John went to Sinai when he was sixteen, submitting to Abba Martyrius as his instructor and guide. After four years, Saint John was tonsured as a monk. Abba Strategios, who was present at Saint John’s tonsure, predicted that he would become a great luminary in the Church of Christ.
For nineteen years Saint John progressed in monasticism in obedience to his spiritual Father. After the death of Abba Martyrius, Saint 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 Saint 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.
Saint 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. Saint 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?”
Saint John immediately woke up and began to pray for his disciple. When Moses returned in the evening, Saint 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.” Saint John did not tell his disciple of his vision, but gave thanks to God.
Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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, Saint 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 of Sinai when he was seventy-five. Saint John governed the holy monastery for four years. Toward the end of his life, the Lord granted him the gifts of clairvoyance and wonderworking.
At the request of Saint John, igumen of the Raithu monastery (Commemorated on Cheesefare Saturday), he wrote the incomparable LADDER, a book of instruction for monks who wished to attain spiritual perfection.
Knowing of the wisdom and spiritual gifts of Saint John of Sinai, the igumen of Raithu requested him 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.
Saint 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 the world, and ends with God, Who is love (1 John 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. Saints Theodore the Studite (November 11 and January 26), Sergius of Radonezh (September 25 and July 5), Joseph of Volokolamsk (September 9 and October 18), and others relied on THE LADDER as an important guide to salvation.
The twenty-second step of THE LADDER deals with various forms of vainglory. Saint John writes: “When I fast, I am vainglorious; and when I permit myself food in order to conceal my fasting from others I am again vainglorious about my prudence. When I dress in fine clothing, I am vanquished by vanity, and if I put on drab clothing, again I am overcome by vanity. If I speak, vainglory defeats me. If I wish to keep silence, I am again given over to it. Wherever this thorn comes up, it stands with its points upright.
A vain person seems to honor God, but strives to please men rather than God.
People of lofty spirit bear insult placidly and willingly, but only the holy and righteous may hear praise without harm.
When you hear that your neighbor or friend has slandered you behind your back, or even to your face, praise and love him.
It is not the one who reproaches himself who shows humility, for who will not put up with himself? It is the one who is slandered by another, yet continues to show love for him.
Whoever is proud of his natural gifts, intelligence, learning, skill in reading, clear enunciation, and other similar qualities, which are acquired without much labor, will never obtain supernatural gifts. Whoever is not faithful in small things (Luke 16:10), is also unfaithful in large things, and is vainglorous.
It often happens that God humbles the vainglorious, sending a sudden misfortune. If prayer does not destroy a proud thought, we bring to mind the departure of the soul from this life. And if this does not help, let us fear the shame which follows dishonor. “For whoever humbles himself shall be exalted, and whoever exalts himself shall be humbled” (Luke 14:11). When those who praise us, or rather seduce us, start to praise us, let us recall our many sins, then we shall find that we are not worthy of what they say or do to honor us.”
In THE LADDER Saint 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.
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).
The Holy Martyr Calliopius was born in Perge, Pamphylia of the pious woman Theoklia, wife of a renowned senator. Theoklia was childless for a long time. She fervently prayed for a son, vowing to dedicate him to God.
Soon after the birth of her son Theoklia was widowed. When Saint Calliopius reached adolescence, a fierce persecution against Christians began. Theoklia, learning that her son would be denounced as a Christian, sent him to Cilicia in Asia Minor.
When the saint arrived at Pompeiopolis, Paphlagonia there was a celebration in honor of the pagan gods. They invited the youth to take part in the proceedings, but he said he was a Christian and refused. They reported this to the prefect of the city Maximus.
Saint Calliopius was brought before him to be tried. At first, he attempted to persuade Calliopius to worship the gods, promising to give him his own daughter in marriage.
After the youth rejected this offer, Maximus subjected him to terrible tortures. He ordered the martyr to be beaten on the back with iron rods, and on the stomach with ox-hide thongs.
Finally, the prefect had him tied to an iron wheel, and he was roasted over a slow fire. After these tortures, they threw the martyr Calliopius into prison.
When Theoklia heard about the sufferings of her son, she wrote her last will, freed her slaves, distributed her riches to the poor, and hastened to Saint Calliopius. The brave mother gave money to the guard and got into the prison to see her son. There she encouraged him to endure suffering to the end for Christ.
When on the following day the saint refused to renounce Christ, Maximus gave orders to crucify the martyr. The day of execution happened to be Great Thursday, when the Savior’s last meal with His disciples is commemorated.
Theoklia begged the guard to crucify her son head downward, since she considered it unworthy for him to be crucified like the Lord. Her wish was granted. The holy martyr hung on the cross overnight and died on Great Friday in the year 304.
When the holy martyr was removed from the cross, Theoklia gave glory to the Savior. She embraced the lifeless body of her son and gave up her own spirit to God. Christians buried their bodies in a single grave.
Saint George, Metropolitan of Mytilene, from his youth he led a monastic life, and was especially accomplished in the virtue of humility. In the reign of Leo the Isaurian (716-741) the saint underwent persecution from the iconoclasts and became a Confessor.
During the reign of the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos (780-797) Saint George was elevated to the archbishopal cathedra of the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. His life was radiant with prudence and purity and resembled the life of angels.
He possessed a gift of wonderworking, cast out unclean spirits and healed incurable diseases. The saint distinguished himself by his compassion, and he helped all the needy.
In 815, during the reign of the iconoclast Leo the Armenian (813-820), the holy archpastor was banished and sent to Cherson, where he died after the year 820.
At the hour of his death a bright star shone in the heavens over the city of Mytilene.