St. John took his name Climacus or “ladder” from his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The reader who climbed The Ladder ascended thirty steps to holiness. According to St. John, the goal was to reach a state of apatheia or passive disinterestedness in earthly life so as to anticipate the wonders of heaven.
Each step communicated some practical insight into Christian living that twenty-first-century readers will still find beneficial. Consider, for example, the tenth step on avoiding slander and judging others:
Slander is the offspring of hatred, a subtle yet crass disease, a leech escaping notice, wasting and draining away the lifeblood of love. I have rebuked slanderers, and in self-defense these evildoers claimed to be acting out of love. My answer was, “If, as you insist, you love that person, then don’t make a mockery of him, but pray for him in secret, for this is the kind of love that is acceptable to the Lord.”
Do not allow human respect to get in your way when you hear someone slandering his neighbor. Instead, say: “Brother, stop it! I do worse things every day, so how can I criticize him?” You accomplish two things when you say this. You heal yourself and you heal your neighbor with the one bandage. Do not make judgments, and you will travel no quicker road to the forgiveness of your sins. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37 NJB). If a man commits a sin before you at the very moment of his death, pass no judgment because God’s judgment is hidden from us. Men have sinned greatly in the open but have done greater good deeds in secret.
A native of Palestine and possibly a disciple of St. Gregory Nazianzen, at sixteen, John entered a monastery in the Palestinian desert. After four years of training in a community, he lived forty years as a hermit. Like other desert fathers, he broke his near-total solitude only on Saturdays and Sundays to worship with other hermits and counsel his followers.
Early in his monastic career John decided that as a mark of submision to God he would receive all criticism as true. Once, for example, some monks reproached him for wasting time in idle conversation. So to correct what he regarded as a serious fault, for a year John observed absolute silence. Only when his disciples insisted that they needed his spiritual teaching did the saint start speaking again.
When John was seventy he was elected abbot of the monastery at Mount Sinai. That was an appropriate choice, for many monks saw John as a Moses who had received Christian commandments from God and recorded them in his Ladder. After four years in office, John retired to his cell and died there around 649 at eighty years of age.