Saint Catherine was no more than twenty years old when she challenged the emperor Maximinus amidst a celebration of pagan sacrifices taking place throughout the city of Alexandria. Calling upon her wide knowledge of rhetoric and classical philosophy, the Saint denounced the worship of idols and the destruction caused to the populace by the propagation of such ignorance of the living God. Catherine decisively outwitted the numerous orators summoned to debate her, citing examples such as the prophecy of a pagan prophetess Sybil who foretold the coming of a Savior. Those enlightened by her arguments and display of sanctity included the emperor’s own wife, his guard of 200 soldiers, and her former opponents in the debate. Granting her request for their concealment, angels removed Saint Catherine’s relics to what is now known as Mount St. Catherine, a half day trek from the Monastery. Upon their discovery there by the monks shortly after the construction of the present day fortress, the holy relics were enshrined in the sanctuary of their Justinian basilica, where they have continued to emit a miraculous fragrance ever since.
Saint Catherine’s renown quickly spread through Europe when miracles of healing occurred upon her relics being taken to Rouen, France by monks in the eleventh century. To this day, schools, hospitals, churches, and other institutions throughout Europe carry the Saint’s name as a testament to this devotion.
Many aspects of Catherine’s life and martyrdom have captivated the souls of the devout. Not least amongst these is that she chose martyrdom voluntarily, discounting every advantage that great beauty, wealth, education and noble privilege could provide, fully aware of what her stand for the truth would cost. Related to this, the account of how Saint Catherine became the bride of Christ inspired a cult within the Western church, in which various other saints named Catherine were ascribed the same title of honor. This was inspired by the vision in which Saint Catherine of Alexandria saw the infant Christ in His Mother’s arms. Praising the Saint’s newfound beauty of soul following her recent baptism into Christianity, the Infant placed a ring on her finger, betrothing her to Himself as His eternal bride. The Saint awoke from the vision to find the ring still on her finger.
In commemoration of the miracle, pilgrims to St. Catherine’s Monastery still receive a silver ring bearing the Saint’s monogram, taken from the reliquary containing her relics, which they wear ever after as a perpetual blessing of Sinai pilgrimage. In a unique departure from tradition, whereas the Byzantine style invariably places Saint John the Forerunner next to Christ on the main iconostasis of every church, in Saint Catherine’s Monastery the friend of the Bridegroom gives way to His bride; the Holy Forerunner moves to the other side of the icon screen, and Saint Catherine takes his place next to Christ.
Saint John wrote the Ladder of Divine Ascent at the request of the Abbot of nearby Raitho, who compared him to the Prophet Moses: "To the supernatural and angelic father of fathers…..we appeal to your superlative virtue to describe…what you, like Moses of old on that same mountain, have seen in the vision of God, and to send us a book like the divinely written tablets, for the instruction of the New Israel…."
Saint Anastasios of Sinai further links Saint John, the Sinai Monastery, and Prophet Moses in an anecdote recounted in his Tales of the Sinai Fathers. On the day he became abbot, about 600 pilgrims came to visit the Monastery. A man dressed in Jewish garb was noted working to assist the guests, giving orders to cooks and stewards. After the visitors dispersed, the monks searched everywhere but failed to find the mysterious helper. Saint John said, "Leave him be – our lord Moses has done nothing strange by serving in this place which belongs to him!"
As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware pointed out in his introduction to the Ladder, Saint John's aim is "not to… impose a formal code of ascetic rules, but to evoke in his readers an experience similar to his own." And he does so with "a rhythmic prose often not far removed from poetry," as well as with humor and compassion. Saint John provides deft insight into the nature of spiritual struggle, the roots of the vices, and how one can strive to overcome them through the help of divine Grace – timeless wisdom, as applicable in today’s society as when it was recorded in the sixth/seventh century. A visit to the primordial wilderness of the cave where Saint John spent 40 years impresses one with a sense of just how enduring this wisdom of the desert is.
Above all, the lives of saints like John of the Ladder prove that beyond all obstacles, humankind can achieve the authentic love personified by Christ. Far from the distractions of worldly concerns, the Sinai tradition shows how this is accomplished by following the way of grace introduced in the New Testament, the same that was foreshadowed by the Law and Prophets of the Old.
Spiritual lights like the recently canonized Father Paisios, who was a Sinai hermit in the 1960’s before returning to Greece’s Mount Athos, continue to relay the living tradition of Sinai’s wilderness spirituality to the world. Father Paisios was deeply influenced by the time he spent in Sinai and always wished to return, having been forced to leave his high mountain hermitage due to lifetime pulmonary problems. The Sinai brotherhood was building a new cell for Father Paisios shortly before his final illness, when he had planned to return to Sinai in hopes of sustaining the milder climate of its lower environs.