St. Catherine's Monastery

Gate of “Saint Stephen” built on the stepped path (Siqqat Sidna Musa path) leading from the Monastery of Sinai to the Plateau of Prophet Elijah, and further on to the Holy Summit, sixth century. Archive of the Monastery of Sinai.

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Saint John of Sinai is also known as John “of the Ladder” from the title of his acclaimed book on asceticism and theology Klimax (the Ladder of Divine Ascent) that he authored based on the biblical vision of Jacob. He lived during the sixth century (most probably between 526 and 603 or little later), as an ascetic in the Sinai desert. For some time he served as abbot of the Sinai Monastery. He is distinguished as a leading teacher of Christian spiritual life, and an emblematic figure of the monastic tradition of both East and West.

Saint John started his monastic life as a hermit in Sinai at the age of sixteen under the spiritual guidance of the elder Martyrios, having already acquired a higher education in the outside world. After the death of his spiritual father, he lived in seclusion and prayer for about forty years in a nearby location named Tholas, where he attained a high level of sanctity, and rose as the quintessential leader of Sinai monasticism of his time. In his old age he was asked to take on the position of abbot of the Sinai Monastery, where he remained for only a short period of time, setting the solid foundations of the brotherhood’s spiritual life, as he preferred to return to his hermitage in Tholas, where he finally passed away.

His work Klimax was written towards the end of his life, in response to the request of the abbot of the Raithou Monastery to provide spiritual guidance. The work sums up the spiritual wisdom, experience and feats of ascetic struggle of a whole lifetime. The Ladder consists of thirty chapters, in which John analyses in a masterful manner the virtues and passions that one encounters in the struggle for spiritual enlightenment, listing them in an ascending order from the more pragmatic to the more spiritual, and concludes with the chapter “On love, hope and faith”. The Ladder became one of the most beloved and widely read books on monastic life, read by monks of all times. This is evident from the multitude of manuscript copies, as well as the early translation of the work from Greek to other languages (Latin, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, and Slavonic), and, later on, to many languages of the modern world.

The height of the Saint’s course coincides with a pivotal transition period for the Sinai desert. The construction of the monastery’s building complex by Justinian set the foundations for the development of a strong ‘lavra’ and cenobitic monastic tradition in Sinai, while the eremitic and solitary way of life also thrived in the same area. Saint John set his indelible seal on the whole of this monastic activity, not only through the spiritual accomplishment of the Ladder and his saintly life, but possibly also through his organizing efforts, many of which survive and are evident today.

Modern research has identified John with the spiritual patron of the composition of the religiously significant mosaic of the Transfiguration (c. 565) in the apse of the Monastery’s Katholikon, depicting a young John, probably the Saint, during his years as a deacon. The construction of the stepped pathway that links the Sinai Monastery with the Holy Summit of the Ten Commandments has also been attributed to him, as the name Abbot John is found in the inscription in Greek of the path’s archway; at the same time there is a very clear association between the arduous construction of the stone steps of the pathway to the Holy Summit, and the long time required to progress on the spiritual steps of the Divine Ladder. Other construction works as well, such as the building of the chapel of the Holy Bush to the east of the Katholikon apse, are possibly linked with John’s activity in the monastery by the end of the sixth century.

John also had experienced the monastic life of Egypt, during a short stay – as it turns out, according to the Ladder – in the prominent monastic centers of the area. This visit has been considered as a deliberate effort or even a mission, aimed at providing the necessary impetus to organize the coenobitic life in the newly established Sinai Monastery. Because of this spiritual journey to Egypt, the Saint was recently linked with the otherwise unknown figure of an elder John, who discovered in Nafkrati the Report of Ammonios on the first slaughter of the Forty Holy Fathers of Sinai, translating and possibly revising in Greek an original text in the “Egyptian” language. Perhaps it is not by chance that a sixth century funerary inscription containing a hymn, fashioned precisely in reverence to these martyrs, and kept at least since the middle ages in the Monastery Katholikon, twice bears the monogram Priest (presbyteros) Ioannis. Thus, it might be Saint John himself who attended to the collection of the oral traditions, and the promotion of the reverence of these local saints. Along the same lines, researchers have recently proposed that Saint John might also be associated with the oldest surviving text recounting the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine. MMK- N. F.

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