By Lambros K. Skontzos Theologian – Professor
The Fourth Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to a great ascetic and spiritual figure of our Church, Saint John Sinaites, also known as Saint John Climacus, whose literary output we know only is the Ladder of Divine Ascent.
His venerable figure is an epitome of the struggle against our passions during this holy period.
He was born in Palestine (other tradition suggests that he was born in Syria), around the year 523 from a rich, noble and devout family.
His parent took care to raise him as a devout Christian. He had great spiritual instructors who taught him Theology in depth.
He was fond of studying the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers of the Church. From a very young age, he loved asceticism. That’s why he retired to the desert of Sinai, near the famous hermit and spiritual instructor Martyrius, and was tonsured as a monk.
He lived with the spiritual father for four years, teaching him the virtues and ways of achieving personal atonement, marking tremendous spiritual progress.
His reputation was expanded quickly, so that a crowd of monks and lay people would come for his words of advice.
He had also has the reputation of the wonder-worker through prayer.
He lived there for nineteen years. He then settled in Thola monastery.
When the Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Catherine Sinai was reposed in Lord, the monks persuaded him to be the abbot of the monastery, where he lived for a few years. This is the reason why he is called Sinaites.
However, his nostalgia of the solitary asceticism led him to leave the monastery and withdraw to the desert, where he stayed until his passing away, praying and writing his books, “Scala Paradisi” and “Liber ad Pastorem”.
He reposed in the Lord in 606. The Church celebrates his memory on March 30, the day he passed away. He is additionally commemorated on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent.
He was a wise man and, above all, a great ascetic, equivalent to Anthony the Great, Saint Euthymius the Great, and Saint Savva.
Many thousands of monks were taught great lessons of spiritual struggle by Righteous Father John Climacus.
He recorded all his wise teachings and testimonies in his above-mentioned writings in order that the monks can read them.
The “Climax Paradisi”, which means ladder, is his first and important ascetical treatise, because his contents, as an imaginary ladder, shows that the highest degree of religious perfection may be attained. It is divided into thirty parts, or “steps”, which correspond to thirty virtues.
The treatise begins with the virtues, which are easily acquired and are mainly practical, and proceeds to the difficult and high virtues, which are theoretical.
Saint John proved to have a deep knowledge of the human soul when psychology did not exist as a science.
In an extraordinary way, the writer describes in depth the human soul and tries to detect the sinful habits and their source so as to heal and shield the soul from the devastating repercussions of sin and evil.
He knows that in the human soul there are steps for the defeat of passions and also steps for the acquisition of virtue.
This is why it is an excellent hierarchy of defeat of vices and acquisition of virtue, done in the most appropriate way.
The Ladder begins with the virtues of repentance, obedience, remembrance of death in order to detach man from sin and proceed to high rungs such as discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues, hesychia, apatheia, humility etc.
The acquisition of virtues is classified into the sacred treatise in such a manner that each virtue presupposes the previous one and this is a prerequisite for the next! No one has written such a wonder treatise that makes people reach the greatest moral perfection!
The “Climax Paradisi” is written in fine and elegant Greek, imbued with musical elements.
It presents a picture of all the virtues and contains a great many parables and historical touches, drawn principally from the monastic life, and exhibiting the practical application of the precepts.
His second little book, “Liber ad Pastorem”, is a treatise with his thoughtful and informative comments, which serves as a guide for those who are responsible for giving advice and counseling to people from the congregation.
The fabulous chapters of the “Ladder” book are one of the most popular and beneficial readings of the faithful in this devout period of Great Lent.
“The Ladder” belongs to the neptic texts and addresses both the monks and the lay persons. It is a wonderful example of our Christian literature.
If we feel the need to fight against our passions, to get rid f our evil inner self and to mark a spiritual progress, we have to read the treatises of Saint John Climacus.
The wise admonitions of the great spiritual instructor will be a valuable spiritual guide for a gradual acquisition of virtues, so that we may be pleased to have the Risen Lord in our hearts, clean from the dirt of sin and the ravages of evil.