Thirty Steps to Heaven
March 27, 2014 Length: 20:17
Bobby once again interviews Fr. Vassilios Papavassiliou, author of the new AFP book Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life.
Mr. Bobby Maddex: Welcome to Ex Libris, the podcast of Ancient Faith Publishing, formerly Conciliar Press. I’m your host, Bobby Maddex, and today I’ll be speaking once again with Fr. Vassilios Papavassiliou. He is the author of another new Ancient Faith Publishing book: Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life. Welcome back to the program, Fr. Vassilios.
Very Reverend Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou: Hello. Good to be back.
Mr. Maddex: Well, it seems like I just talked to you yesterday, and yet here you are again with another new book. How do you find the time to be so prolific? Are you just a really fast writer?
Fr. Vassilios: I guess I am a very fast writer. Well, I make the time. What spare time I have, I fill with writing. But I don’t know why it all just comes out like that. I think in many ways I kind of write the way I speak. Perhaps one of the things that people find appealing about my writing, so in a way it’s like I just put my thoughts down on the page and then it’s just a matter of restructuring things and improving things. Maybe that’s part of the reason; I’m not sure. I make the time for it. It’s something I enjoy doing, and there’s also so much material that I’ve sort of gathered over the years from instructing people in the faith and things like this. So some of the material is sort of there, waiting to be polished up.
Mr. Maddex: So for those who are not familiar with The Ladder of Divine Ascent, the one written by St. John Climacus, please explain what that is and why that book is important.
Fr. Vassilios: Well, it was written [in the] sixth, seventh centuries by St. John of Sinai, who was a monk at the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula, and when he was eventually elected abbot, another abbot asked him to write a book, a manual for monks, explaining how they could progress in the spiritual life, and he complied with this book. He picked 30 steps or rungs for the years of Christ’s life before he began his ministry—his hidden life, so to speak. And in each step he deals with certain passions and virtues, how one can overcome them and how to progress in the spiritual life. It’s certainly one of the most influential texts ever written, as far as Christian spirituality goes, and in monasteries in Lent it’s read in the services of the hours during Lent, and its influence very quickly spread out beyond the monasteries, and many laypeople tried to engage with it as well. It’s been a very influential book ever since it was written.
Mr. Maddex: What can you tell me about the background of St. John Climacus? What in his early life prepared him to write a book of this sort?
Fr. Vassilios: Unless I’m completely ignorant, we don’t really know a great deal about his life at all. We know that he became a monk on Sinai at the age of 16. He had a lot of experience. There were three forms of monasticism at the time at the monastery. There was the actual monastic community. There was also what we call the sketes: sort of smaller monastic communities around the monastery grounds: one or two monks and a spiritual father. And the hermits, who lived further beyond, in the wilderness on their own.
And he came to experience all three forms of monasticism. He began in a skete. He then became a hermit, for a very long time. And he soon developed a reputation for his holiness and spiritual insight. People would visit him now and again and so on. And eventually he was elected abbot of the monastery. He retired from his position as abbot shortly after writing the book and returned to be a hermit until the end of his life. But we don’t really know much about him apart from that. There’s even speculation about exactly when he was born, exactly when he died, but people say late sixth, early seventh century seems to be the most likely.
Mr. Maddex: Fr. Vassilios, why does St. John’s book need another interpretive text such as yours? Why did you decide to write this book?
Fr. Vassilios: I’ve always heard two very different things about The Ladder. Everyone talks about it, and some people say everyone should read it, especially during Lent, and it’s one of the books that every Orthodox Christian should read. And then, on the other hand, other people say: Stay away from it, it’s a dangerous book, it’s only for monastics, and it can confuse people, it can make them try to do things which are only designed for monasteries. And it seems very clear that a layman’s guide is needed, because it is an influential book; it’s an important text. People are sometimes encouraged to read it, or discouraged in other cases, and it’s very helpful to know how does this really apply to the life of a normal layperson in the world.
So I think it’s helpful to have somebody that can point out what may look like it’s only a monastic text but can take pieces from it to show people that this really applies to the Christian life in general, and people can take from its teachings. I mean, there will be obviously some things that many would just overlook and understand that really that’s nothing to do with me, but there’s gold in The Ladder for everybody, and if we can have a bit of a Klondike spirit and dig for all these amazing passages in there, it can be very beneficial for us, but it takes someone else to sift through it all and draw out these nuggets of gold.
Mr. Maddex: And how do you go about, in your book, drawing that gold out? How is your book structured? Do you take The Ladder step by step? How did you go about this?
Fr. Vassilios: I took it step by step, but I also divided it into seven parts. I felt just reading 30 steps one after the other is a bit daunting, but also because The Ladder kind of deals with seven aspects, I suppose, of the spiritual life. We have the break with the world for the first three steps. We have the fundamental virtues, the spiritual passions, the physical passions, the spiritual passions continued, the higher virtues, and union with God. And I think that really gives you some logical breaks, and it kind of keeps you focused on the basic theme or goal of these certain parts of The Ladder. So it’s in an order where it deals step by step, but I’ve broken [it] up into seven parts.
I’ve simply tried to apply not just quotes from The Ladder but to explore those fundamental themes and how they relate to us. Many of those things, of course they relate to us. Things such as avarice or lust and chastity or the passion of anger or slander and talkativeness, this is stuff that is certainly not just for monasticism; this is stuff we all deal with. For some of us, in fact, these things are even harder for those living in the world. So there’s so much to explore as far as these spiritual passions and virtues which we all—let’s face it—struggle with quite a lot, things like anger and talking too much and gossiping and all kinds of things. There’s plenty there.
Mr. Maddex: Going back to what you said earlier about the dual approach to The Divine Ladder, on the one hand you have laypeople and priests who feel like it’s perfectly acceptable for laypeople to read The Ladder of Divine Ascent, but on the other hand you have those, like you said, who say that it’s not appropriate at all for laypeople to read The Ladder, that its insights are intended for monks alone. How would you respond to that?
Fr. Vassilios: Honestly, when I hear people say that The Ladder has nothing to say to laypeople, I really think that they haven’t read it properly, quite frankly, because there’s so much in there. Some people have pointed out there are some passages—and in fact very few, really—there are a couple of passages—for example, one in particular stands out—which people find very problematic, and it’s a bit of a stumbling block. I don’t know if you want me to mention that, but it’s only a footnote in my book, really. But for example, there’s this passage in which St. John, he’s talking about repentance, and he refers to this monastery called “The Prison” where the monks practice self-flagellation, and he’s praising their repentance, saying, “Look at these people, how austerely they repent.” And that, for example, really puts people off. They think St. John is condoning this practice, which I don’t think is necessarily the case, but then people hear about something like that passage and they seem to think all the book is like this, which is not the case.
I try to avoid the temptation to completely ignore those passages and pretend they’re not there. For one thing, this can be read of course as a stand-alone book—you don’t need to read The Ladder to read my book—but at the same time I’ve had it there to be a companion to The Ladder, so if someone reads The Ladder and then stumbles upon this passage and is really troubled by it, then he can look at my footnote which gives a sort of explanation of why John is praising this. So I don’t think it’s at all true that it has nothing to say to laypeople. There’s plenty it has to say to laypeople. It’s just that we have to understand the context of the book. The original book is obviously for monks.
This is particularly important, actually, with the first three steps. Going back to something you asked me before: Why do we need a guide to The Ladder? The first three steps, the break with the world, is renunciation, detachment, and exile. And the author is speaking in very certain terms. He’s talking about how a monk begins his monastic life, and that means you abandon the world, you leave your family, leave your community, and you join a monastery. Now, a lot of people would read The Ladder and say, “If I can’t even take Step One, what’s the point of carrying on any further?”
But, as I explain in the book, we shouldn’t just understand that in purely literal terms, because renunciation is something all Christians are called to do in some way; even within the world we renounce certain things. Detachment isn’t just leaving society to go to a monastery, but we have to be detached from certain passions and so on. And we are all exiled in the sense that we await a heavenly kingdom, that we are not of this world, so to speak. So all of these steps can be understood in the context of a layperson’s life, and just because the original text is aimed at monastics doesn’t mean it can’t be applied in other ways, and there are plenty of passages I quote which sound like they were indeed written for laypeople. There’s nothing about them that strikes you as exclusively for monks. So I don’t agree with that view “Laypeople shouldn’t read this.” It just requires a guide, which is why I’ve done this book.
Mr. Maddex: What are some of the potential dangers of trying to live according to St. John’s Ladder?
Fr. Vassilios: I think you could apply that to reading many other texts, too, which is, one, untempered enthusiasm, especially someone who’s new to the faith, new to Orthodoxy, seems to think he has to try to go too far too fast and pray like someone who’s extremely advanced or in the spiritual life or fast as rigorously as the monks do. In fact, St. John of the Ladder himself says, “No one can climb the entire ladder in a single stride.” So we have to take one step at a time, and there can be a temptation to want to go too far too fast, but you can apply that to many other things. There’s just as much danger in reading the Scriptures. Someone could take a passage literally, take it out of context, and run with it, as many Christians do. And one can do the same with The Ladder. I think when reading any spiritual text we do require guidance and we require some degree of spiritual maturity and humility.
It may be the case, in fact, that someone shouldn’t read The Ladder itself when they’re at the beginning of their conversion, at the early years of their Orthodoxy. I think in fact one of the things that this book has to offer is that, for someone who is at the beginning of their spiritual life—and The Ladder may be too daunting or may be a little dangerous—this book, I think, doesn’t present the same dangers because it’s written in a much more accessible style with a great deal of explanation as to how it can apply to our life. On the one hand, I don’t think there are as many dangers as people make out, but on the other hand I think for someone early on in their Orthodox life, perhaps reading a simple guide like mine might be the better option.
Mr. Maddex: Maybe we should be clear about this: What awaits the climber at the final rung of The Ladder?
Fr. Vassilios: Love. More specifically, faith, hope, and love. A lot of people just say it’s love, but the actual text refers to the three together, which I think is worth considering, because we kind of can’t quite understand love properly without the other two.
It can be a bit daunting, can’t it, to think that’s the thirtieth step of The Ladder, and if I can ever get there, what am I going to do? But first of all we have to understand that the steps of The Ladder do not necessarily come in the same order for everybody. One person’s real difficulty may be anger, for example, but for someone else it’s gluttony, so the steps are not in the same order for everybody. Also, and I think people make this mistake, again, we think of The Ladder in very literal terms, so we think of them as distinct, isolated steps, but if you read The Ladder and you read my book as well, it becomes very clear that you can’t read it that way. A lot of the passions and the virtues are intertwined. You can’t talk about humility without obedience, and vice-versa, yet they come in different orders.
The other thing people miss is that there are different levels of the same virtues and passions. Many of us may have made a beginning in various virtues, but we still haven’t acquired the degree of the virtues that we need. For example, someone may have already taken the step of humility but is still at the very beginning of it, or he may have acquired a basic degree of meekness, but not the higher degree of meekness. So we shouldn’t understand it in the sense that it’s just one step after another in a very static way.
That is especially true of love, because there’s a part in The Ladder where, before the final step, there’s a summary of all the previous steps—I think before the chapter on dispassion, I think it is, or discernment—and it says that faith is the basis of renunciation, which is the first step; hope is the basis of detachment, which is the second step; and love is the basis of exile, the third step. So we’re already being shown that we can’t even make a beginning of The Ladder without possessing love to some degree, but we haven’t acquired perfect love, and to acquire perfect love, we have to overcome these passions which prevent us from practicing perfect love. If I have a problem with anger, I’m going to hurt people because of that passion, even if that’s not my intention. If I can’t control my greed, others will have too little because I have too much. If I can’t control my lust, I will covet another person’s wife, and it goes on and on like this.
So if we want to acquire perfect love then we have to ascend this ladder, we have to fight against these passions, to acquire pure, perfect, self-denying love, but that does not mean that we can’t all make a beginning of it and that we can’t have it to some degree. I think love actually is not just the last step of The Ladder; it’s every step of the ladder. The Ladder of Divine Ascent could be called The Ladder of Divine Love. With each step we come closer and closer to God, and closer to perfect Love.
Mr. Maddex: Is it even possible for a person to acquire that perfect love? Has anyone ever attained the highest form of every virtue?
Fr. Vassilios: The saints have indeed. In fact, it reminds me that there’s a passage in The Ladder where St. John says that people should not think that it is impossible to do everything that the Gospel demands, because there are people who have actually achieved even more. We may think of things like loving your enemy, turning the other cheek, as impossible, and they may seem impossible, but the reality is: We can achieve the thirtieth step of The Ladder, and the saints are those who really have done.
That’s not to say they have never failed, that they have never gone up the ladder and then fallen down and got back up again, but we certainly can’t say it’s impossible, but we should certainly be under no illusion that we have climbed all those steps. In fact, I think the saints never believed that they had. That’s the problem with humility; it doesn’t let you realize that you’re humble.
So no one should be presumptuous that they have climbed all of them, but we shouldn’t think that we’re seeking the impossible. We are doing what others have done, and people have set this path for us, and we know it is possible. The most important thing, really, isn’t the succeeding but in the trying, in the striving. For as long as we are on the ladder and persisting, there is hope for all of us. St. John says in The Ladder, “Not everyone can acquire dispassion, but everyone can be forgiven and saved by God.” That’s a very encouraging thought, that we’re told even if you can’t reach the height of the ladder, it does not mean that you are beyond salvation.
Mr. Maddex: Would you say that that’s really the best reason to read your book, so that you can demonstrate for readers how they can make a good effort toward the top of the ladder, encouraging them that even though they may never attain all of these virtues, it’s still worth the effort?
Fr. Vassilios: Certainly. Another reason it’s worth reading is that however great a work The Ladder of Divine Ascent is, we’re talking about a book that was written, in Greek, in the sixth-seventh century. It’s going to be a hard read, however classic it is, just because of the time it was written and so on. So people do need something that’s easier to read, easier to engage with, but also which does address the issues that all of us face in our daily lives, which obviously the author of The Ladder was not considering so much, because he was writing for his monks.
I’ll tell you just from some feedback I’ve had why people should read this book, and I’ve heard this a surprising number of times, where someone told me they read the first chapter or whatever, and they said, “So grateful you wrote this, because I tried to read The Ladder, and after the first step I put it away and I thought, ‘There’s no hope. I can’t possibly read this book or get anything out of it.’ ” And after they read the opening chapter of this book, they said, “That really made me realize this book has so much to say to me, and it’s made me want to pick up The Ladder again and to try again.” So that’s just what people have said to me, and I hope many other people feel the same way.
Mr. Maddex: You know, Father, I’ve heard the same thing myself. My mother’s currently reading the book, my sister’s reading the book, and they’ve said the same thing. It’s fantastic. It really opens up The Ladder of Divine Ascent in a way that they thought was never possible before.
Fr. Vassilios: I even heard that from a monk.
Mr. Maddex: Really? [Laughter]
Fr. Vassilios: Yeah.
Mr. Maddex: That’s a good recommendation right there. Is there anything else you want to add before I let you go today?
Fr. Vassilios: No, I think I’ve said it all.
Mr. Maddex: All right. Well, I thank you much for talking to me about it, and we’ll see you in a week with your next book.
Fr. Vassilios: [Laughter] Thank you.
Mr. Maddex: Once again, I’ve been speaking with Fr. Vassilios Papavassiliou, author of the new AFP book, Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, and that book and a number of other great books can be purchased at store.ancientfaith.com. Thanks so much for listening.
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