Our holy father among the saints John, the Abbot of Mount Sinai, is more commonly known by the epithet Klimakos (or, Climacus), meaning "of the Ladder." He is so named because of his work The Ladder (of Divine Ascent) written at the request of his colleague the Abba John, Abbot of Raithu. The Ladder contains a summary of Orthodox Christian ascetical practice leading a person out of the world of sin and death up to the heaven of God's love.
Saint John wrote that which he learned by experience having been directed for 19 years from the age of 16 by his spiritual father, Abba Martyrius, and then struggling in solitude for 40 years, in unceasing prayer and love of God. From the first years of his entrance into the monastic ranks, first St. Anastasius the Great and then Abba Strategius foretold his eventual appointment as abbot of the monastery at Mount Sinai.
Saint John shared his remarkable insight not only in The Ladder, but also in his work To the Shepherd prepared for those others appointed as directors and spiritual fathers in the Church of Christ. Saint John Klimakos fell asleep in the Lord around the year 603.
Because St. John was a monk, and because he wrote first instructing persons having accepted the monastic way of life, it would be easy for everyone else who is not a monk to dismiss The Ladder as not applying to them. However, the Church established this annual commemoration precisely because The Ladder describes not just a monastic, but an evangelical, way of life, that is, the way of the Gospel intended by Christ for all Christians. As a monk (literally, one who lived alone with God in the quiet [Gk., hesychia] of faith and prayer detached from the distractions of the world), St. John was given, attained to, and described this knowledge possible for all who strive according to their ability for salvation in the Kingdom of God.
St. John describes the way of the Gospel in thirty steps reminiscent of the ladder the patriarch Jacob saw leading from earth to heaven (see Gen. 28:12). The first rungs of the ladder effect the necessary separation of a person from the sinful world and desires of the flesh in order to eventually gain entrance to the unfailing life of the Kingdom of God. The steps in between are a planned course of disciplined exercises (Gk., askesis, that is, asceticism) proven to do away with our bad habits of ungodly, unhealthy living: the passions. As we progress up the steps, these exercises are also a proven course of attaining the good habits of godly, healthy living: the virtues. The goal is communion with God Himself in faith, hope, and love, along with all the family of believers both in heaven and on earth (see 1 Cor. 13:13).
The Ladder is nothing other than the life of Christ actualized in the lives of the faithful. "The Christian is one who imitates Christ in thought, word, and deed, as far as is possible for human beings, believing rightly and blamelessly in the Holy Trinity" (Step 1.4; "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ" [1 Cor. 11:1]; "it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" [Gal. 2:20]). Thus according to the Gospel, the steps begin with renunciation of everything not of God, detachment from sources of sin, estrangement (exile) from things below to cling to things above, obedience to God's commands under spiritual direction, and repentance (Gk., metanoia, lit., "re-orientation of mind"). The steps end with humility, discernment, stillness (Gk., hesychia) of body, mind, and soul, prayer, dispassion (the transformation of desires toward God), and faith, hope, and love.
Christian asceticism consists of trust in God, fasting, personal prayer and Psalmody, Confession, obedience to a spiritual director, keeping vigil, meditation on death, manual labor, patience in criticism, and control of thoughts. The way of the Gospel requires resolve and effort. "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force" (Matt. 11:12). The way of the Gospel also requires spiritual awareness of the enemies' attacks met with common sense and striving within one's abilities given by God.
All of this wisdom is contained within The Ladder, a distillation of the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and His holy apostles and prophets. We have this treasure in the Orthodox Church not as an academic, or intellectual, compendium of knowledge; rather, we have this treasure to read, to make one's own through action, and to practice in faith and love as a true and unerring path for the salvation of our souls.