Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest

On April 12, the Church celebrates the memory of St. John Climacus, also known as St. John of the Ladder. The saint was an ascetic, a theologian, and a teacher of monastics. The great Sinaitic tradition of Orthodox asceticism is associated with the name of John.

This celebration in memory of the Sinai ascetic usually goes unnoticed since the memory of John is also celebrated in a special solemn way by the Church on the fourth Sunday of Great Lent.  The calendar commemoration of John on April 12 also falls on Great Lent. Such a correspondence of the time of repentance with the day of commemoration of the saint, who dedicated his life to asceticism and repentance, is an important reason for thinking about monastic holiness in general, and for remembering the life and labors of St. John himself. In other words, the celebration in the memory of John on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent is primarily dedicated to his work 'The Ladder of Divine Ascent', Greek “Κλῖμαξ”, and the monastic tradition associated with it. In its turn, the annual celebration of the memory of John on April 12 is, first, the gratitude of the Church to God, for the great Gift of Grace, revealed in the saints. 

According to the vita, John began his monastic journey in Sinai when he was about 16 years old. After forty years of hermitage in the desert - the undoubted biblical semantics of the wanderings of God's chosen people - John was elected abbot of the monastery of St. Catherine. Like the Scriptures of Moses, the ‘Ladder’ of John became the true tablets of asceticism. The name ‘Ladder’ was given to John by this immortal work of his.

We do not know the exact time of the life of John of the Ladder. Researchers of his works speak of three possible options for dating his biography. It turns out that the life of the Sinai abbot could belong to three different eras.

Surprisingly, each of them was truly a turning point. Like us, John was a man of the apocalyptic time.

1. If we follow the first version of dating - he was born around 525 and passed away in 595 or 605, then John of the Ladder would be a contemporary of Pope Gregory I of Rome (540-604). The Apostle of England Augustine (+604), and even Emperor Justinian I the Great (483-565) would also have been John's contemporaries.

2. The second option, according to which the year of John's birth should be considered 579, and death - 649, makes him a contemporary of Muhammad (571-632) and the first Righteous Caliphs of Islam (632-661). Moreover, Climacus would have seen the Arab conquest of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt (634–640).

3. The third (+680), the latest version of dating, turns John of the Ladder into a contemporary of Maximus the Confessor (580-662), a witness to the Monothelite disputes, as well as several important victories of the Umayyad Caliphate over the Eastern Christian, that is, the Byzantine Empire with its capital in Constantinople.

It is amazing that each of these supposed epochs of John's life was truly a watershed. Like us, the Sinai Abbot was a man of the Apocalyptic Times. It certainly seemed to his contemporaries that the history of the world was about to end.

It is important to understand that in those ancient times, Mount Sinai was a whole community of monasteries, similar to the modern Mount Athos. It was a true City of God, a monastic republic. Many monasteries in Sinai practiced various forms of communal life, where ascetics lived in monasteries, hermitages, and various forms of hermitage. In the figurative language of the time, there were "a thousand monks" in Sinai. This number is, of course, a symbol, but in itself for that era it represented a significant demographic value.

The "desert", as the place of stay of the ascetics was called, was not just a natural area with a harsh climate, sparse vegetation and lack of communications and roads, but also, a kind of topographic symbol of the ascetic Divine City. In the desert the power of the demonic presence of evil spirits, which was previously characteristic of such places was overcome by the power of the Risen Christ.

So the place of life and prayer of the monks who left the world 'lonely before God', as the Greek word “monachos” itself is semantically translated, became the true topos of the Theophany of the Risen On. It became the place of the real presence of the Church, as the life-giving communion of those saved by the faith of the true Heavenly Ladder (cf. Rom. 10:7) - the Lord Jesus Christ.