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March 30, 2021

The Origins of John Climacus: Was He the Son of Saints Xenophon and Maria?

In his Life of John of the Ladder, Daniel, a monk of Raithu and contemporary of John, writes: "I cannot say for certain in what memorable city this great man was born and reared." For a man whose book The Ladder holds such a special place in the life of the Church, to not know anything of his origins, is most unfortunate, though it has helped monastics through the ages to focus more on what he wrote rather than the writer himself.

While it gives Saint John Climacus somewhat of an aura of mystery, there still have been speculations. Perhaps the most popular speculation is that which is recorded by Saint Dimitri of Rostov in his Life of Venerable John of the Ladder, where he presents the case that John Climacus was the son of Saints Xenophon and Maria and the brother of Arkadios, who are commemorated by the Church all together as a family on January 26th. Saint Dimitri writes the following information in a footnote:

There is an opinion that John Climacus was the son of Xenophon and Maria, whose memory is celebrated by the Holy Church on January 26. In the Menaion (January 26) it is narrated that the wealthy nobles of Constantinople Xenophontos and Maria had two sons: John and Arkadios. The parents wanted to educate them. At that time the school in the Syrian city of Beirut was famous, so they sent their children there. One day, the parents called their sons to them on the occasion of their father's dangerous illness. When they were heading back to the school - and their way was through the Mediterranean Sea - a violent storm suddenly rose up while at sea and smashed the ship on which they were. But both brothers did not die - they escaped from drowning on the boards of the ship and were brought to the coast of Palestine by the waves of the sea. It happened, however, that they landed at different places on the shore, so that they did not know about each other's fate. After the miraculous salvation, both brothers, seeing in the calamity that befell them, a calling from above to a monastic life, entered different Palestinian monasteries, and Arkadios changed his name to George. After a rather considerable time had elapsed, both brothers found each other and, moreover, in the presence of their father and mother, after which the latter also accepted monasticism. One of the sons of Xenophon and Maria is John and is recognized as being one and the same person with John Climacus. This opinion is supported, in the first place, by the fact that, according to the testimony of one of the biographers, John Climacus really had a brother called George; secondly, he spoke of the high education of the monk, suggesting in him a noble origin, and mainly from his Ladder, which shows John had a deep knowledge of Holy Scripture, patristic writings, and even heretical writings.

Whether or not this speculation of the origins of John Climacus is true, we will probably never know, but it is interesting that it does have some sort of a probability in fact, and makes at least for a worthwhile footnote.