St. John Climacus and the virtues

On the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Church commemorates a great luminary and holy father, Saint John the Sinaite, also known as Saint John Climacus or Saint John of the Ladder. The Ladder is the most famous book written by Saint John, and describes in beautiful and simple language how an Orthodox Christian can develop the virtues that lead closer to God. During the whole period of Great Lent, The Ladder is being read in all the Orthodox monasteries around the world. Even though the book was written for monastics, it is a valuable spiritual guide for all Orthodox Christians – monastics, clergymen, and laypeople alike.


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Free printable teaching packet

Templates and instructions for making one craft each Sunday of Great Lent.



Younger children

At the end of the lesson, the children should be able to:

  • Point to St. John on the icon and say his name. Explain that he taught us what to do to become pure and holy, so that we can get closer to God.
  • Describe a virtue as a good quality of a person that is pleasing to God.
  • Name at least one virtue and give an example from real life when prompted by the teacher.

Older children

Older children should additionally be able to:

  • Say a few basic facts from St. John’s life.
  • Explain that the virtues are the Fruits of the Holy Spirit and offer suggestions on how we can acquire them.
  • Name a number of virtues with examples from real life, contrasting them to passions.
  • Describe the icon of the Divine Ascent.
  • Recite or chant a part of the troparion.

Teaching activities

Using our printable packet above, the children can:

  • Explore the life of the Saint filling in a fact sheet.
  • Play a board game to explore the Saint’s life, work, and teaching.
  • Work on the icon of the Divine Ascent.
  • Make a craft based on the Saint’s icon.
  • Explore a few of the virtues and their corresponding passions.
  • Work on the troparion.

Helpful external teaching resources

We have found the following resources helpful for teaching this theme. However, when using a non-Orthodox resource, one must always make sure that the parts one chooses to use are in line with Orthodox teaching. If unsure, the advice of a priest can be enlightening.

  • Stories from the Gerontikon, a book by Christos Gousides. This Orthodox-focused comic book is one of our absolute favorites. It is mostly useful for older children, as the concepts can be a little complex for the younger ones. However, some of the stories are very good for discussing examples of the virtues.
  • Printable packet on the virtues created by an Orthodox educator, creator of the blog Orthodox Education.
  • Printable page on the virtues by the Orthodox Education website Orthodox ABC.
  • Kids of integrity (*Non-Orthodox source*) – A character-building website offering lesson plans for a number of the virtues mentioned here. Please note that they include some views that are non-Orthodox, so be careful when choosing what to use. However, they are offering great hands-on activities that are worth exploring.



Icon by Julia Hayes, Used with permission.

We don’t know much about the Saint’s origins, because as an ascetic and monastic, Saint John had abolished all worldly things and did not keep a detailed account of his life, not even the name that he received at birth. According to tradition, he was born in Constantinople during the second half of the 6th century, perhaps around 570 AD. His parents, Saints Xenophon and Maria (both commemorated on January 26th), were wealthy and pious; as a result, young John developed a solid faith and also received an excellent education that would secure him a bright future. However, at the age of 16, St. John decided to abandon the world and become a monastic.

He left Constantinople and went to Mount Sinai where he submitted himself as a novice to the elder Abba Martyrius who became his spiritual father. Within four years, St. John developed the virtues of a true monastic and was tonsured a monk by his elder. He stayed obedient to his spiritual father for nineteen more years, until his elder slept in the Lord. Then St. John decided to withdraw in the desert where he lived as a hermit for forty years. His days were full of labor, fasting, fervent prayer, and tears of repentance, and helped him perfect in the Christian virtues. His fame spread all around the area of Sinai so much so that many ascetics went after him to seek his wise counsel and guidance. His tearful prayer worked wonders. At the age of seventy-five St. John was appointed as hegoumenos (abbot) of the Monastery of St. Ekaterini at Mount Sinai. 

At the persistent request of the hegoumenos of the nearby Raithu Monastery, St. John wrote many works of wisdom for the instruction of the brothers to a holy life. His most famous work is known as “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”, or “The Ladder of Virtues” and consists of thirty speeches, each one resembling a step towards heaven, like the rungs of a ladder. St. John guided the brotherhood at St. Ekaterini’s Monastery for four years and then retreated to his beloved hermitage in the desert, until he slept in the Lord at the age of ninety-five. His blessed memory is celebrated on March 30 and on the fourth Sunday of Great Lent. 


Inspired by the Jacob’s Ladder in the Book of Genesis, St. John wrote thirty speeches of counsel, explaining each of the virtues that lead to heaven. Each virtue builds upon the previous one, increasing in strength. The last speech describes the perfection of the virtues: the trinity “faith-hope-love”, of which the most perfect is love (1 Corinthians, 13:13). Originally written in Greek, the Ladder is one of the treasures of our Ecclesiastical Literature as it describes in beautiful and simple words the ways in which a monastic can strive to reach perfection. However, with the exception of the three first steps which are specifically addressed to monastics, all other steps should be goals for all the faithful, under the guidance of their own spiritual father. 


The Christian virtues are those characteristics that every faithful Orthodox should strive to cultivate, under the guidance of their spiritual father. They are also known as the Fruits of the Spirit. God made every person in His image, with the potential to become like Him, so the virtues are first and foremost attributes of our Lord Himself. They are present in every mind and every heart by the gift of God in creation and salvation through Christ. However, in our fallen state, we have the tendency to follow impulses that are the opposite of the virtues: these are called the passions and they lead us to sin. God desires that we share in His goodness by fighting the passions and cultivating the virtues, thus progressing in the spiritual life and coming closer to Him.

As Orthodox Christians, we are supported in this struggle – also called “the good fight” – by:

  • Participating in the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Confession.
  • Praying for guidance.
  • Studying about our Faith.
  • Surrounding ourselves with people who help us lead a holy and pure life.

We selected to work on a few of the virtues that are easier for the children to understand. 

ObedienceAdopting a positive attitude toward authority figures and being quick to listen to them. Desiring to obey God and joyfully do His will.DisobedienceComplaining, not doing what we are asked to do the first time.
RepentanceBeing sorry for our mistakes and doing what is right to make up for them. Self-satisfactionMaking excuses for ourselves and not admitting our wrongdoings.
Forgiveness Letting go of our bad feelings for someone who did something wrong to us. Keeping them in our hearts and praying for them. Hatred
Staying mad with a person that wronged us. Wanting to harm them to get revenge.
Silence Talking only when it is useful.  Boastfulness
Complaining, bragging, gossiping, criticizing others.
Self-controlRefraining from hurtful behaviors by thinking through consequences before speaking or acting. Eating with measure and keeping the fasts. Rashness
Acting impulsively. Desiring more than we need or never being pleased with what we have.
Purity Keeping our mind, body, and soul clean. UncleanlinessThinking about or doing things that are harmful to ourselves.
Joyfully sharing what we have. Being concerned about the well-being of others and quick to comfort and encourage them. EnvyWanting what other people have. Disliking people because of the things they have.
MeeknessStaying calm and pleasant even when things don’t go our way. AggressivenessGetting upset in unpleasant situations and showing it loudly and aggressively.
Humility Thinking of others before ourselves. Recognizing that everything good we have is a gift from God. 
Acknowledging our mistakes. Accepting advice and criticism graciously.
PrideActing as if we are more important than everybody else. Getting upset if someone corrects us or gives us advice.



12th-century icon from the monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This icon is a visual representation of the Ladder of Divine Ascent. The focal point is a long ladder that extends from earth to heaven. The ladder’s rungs are filled with monastics, all of them trying to ascend, and having their eyes fixed on Christ Who is waiting at the top, in the middle of a medallion-shaped glory – a symbol of the Holy Trinity. Our Lord Jesus Christ is extending His arms in welcome, blessing those who make it to the top of the ladder. 

On the top left side of the icon we see a group of angels in heaven looking down at the monastics in their struggle, anxiously waiting and praying for them to reach the top. On earth, there is a group of monastics also praying for the ascending brothers – they are shown at the bottom right side of the icon, mirroring the group of angels in heaven. 

In mid-air, many demons – representing the passions – are flying around the people on the ladder trying to grab and drag them to Hades. Some brothers are almost falling but still hanging onto the ladder, others have already fallen and are carried by demons to Hades. Depicted as a monster at the bottom of the ladder, Hades is opening his mouth widely, ready to devour the fallen people.

There are several types of this icon. In one type St. John Climacus is the person on the top rung of the ladder followed by the Archbishop Antonios (for whom we don’t have any other information). In other types, St. John Climacus may be standing among the monastic brotherhood teaching them, or he may be sitting in his cave writing and listening to angels who have come to guide him.  


Apolytikion (Tone 8)

By a flood of tears you made the desert fertile
And by your longing for God you brought forth fruits in abundance.
By the radiance of miracles you illuminated the whole universe.
O our holy Father John Climacus, pray to Christ our God to save our souls.

Kontakion (Tone 1)

You offered us your teachings as fruits of everlasting freshness,
To sweeten the hearts of those who receive them with attention.
O blessed and wise John, they are the rungs of a ladder,
Leading the souls of those who honor you from earth to Eternal glory in Heaven!

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