Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint John Climacus, Abbot

[the Ladder of Saint John Climacus's vision]Article

A.D. 605.

Saint 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 Saint Antony and Saint 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 an hermitage on the descent of the mountain, under the discipline of Martyrius, an holy ancient anchoret. By silence, he curbed the insolent itch of talking about every thing, 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, nor disputed with any one. 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. 1 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 condemns 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 fervour 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 contemplation. 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 honour 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 eat of every thing that was allowed among the monks of Egypt, who universally abstained from flesh, fish, etc. Prayer was his principal employment; and he practised what he earnestly recommends to all Christians, that in all their actions, thoughts, and words, they should keep themselves with great fervour 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, Saint John frequently retired into a neighbouring 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 like two fountains, which scarcely ever ceased to flow; and his continual sighs and groans to heaven, under the weight of the miseries inseparable from his mortal pilgrimage, were not to be equalled 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 twelvemonth. 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 neighbour 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.

Saint 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. Saint Gregory the Great, who then sat in Saint 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 endeavours to decline the pastoral charge, when he saw it laid upon him, neglected no means which might promote the sanctification of all those who were intrusted 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 practised, even with regard to his inferiors that it 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 unskilful 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 every one 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 Saint 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. Saint 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 cancelled. He therefore repeated often to himself: “Poor Antiochus thou hast still a great debt to satisfy.” After passing other 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, on 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 all extant. We have likewise a letter of Saint John Climacus to the same person, concerning the duties of a pastor, in which he exhorts him in correcting others to temper severity with mildness, and encourages him zealously to fulfil 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 charity.

Saint 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 in 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.

Saint 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. 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 say, 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 honoured with a sight of God, was encompassed round by his glory.” Saint John Climacus 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.”

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint John Climacus, Abbot”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 24 March 2013. Web. 1 October 2014. <>