Fr. Gregory Hallam · April 3, 2014
Last week Fr. Gregory spoke of "Three Trees" and this week he considers "Three Ladders."
Just like last week when I spoke of “Three Trees” so this week I ask you to consider “Three Ladders.” The first “Ladder” is a spiritual text written by St. John of Sinai, now taking his name from his own work, in translation: “Climacus.” He was the abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery by Mount Sinai in the 7th Century, a ministry he began at the ripe young age of 75. It was addressed to another John at his request, an abbot of a Monastery at Raithu on the shores of the Red Sea. The Ladder was written as an instructional work for monks but it has a wider application for any Christian. It considers how he might fight disordered passions, conquer temptations and acquire the Christian virtues thereby ascending to heaven rather than falling into hell. This is Fathers’ interpretation of the two biblical texts upon which the Ladder is based, in Genesis and the Gospel of St. John. Listen to St. John Chrysostom:
“For the ladder seems to me to signify in a riddle by that vision the gradual ascent by means of virtue, by which it is possible for us to ascend from earth to heaven, not using material steps, but improvement and correction of manners.”
St. John used the image of Jacob’s Ladder as the framework for his spiritual teaching. Each chapter is referred to as a “step”, and deals with a separate spiritual subject. There are thirty Steps of the ladder, which correspond to the age of Jesus at his baptism and the beginning of his earthly ministry. Within the general framework of a ‘ladder’, his book falls into three sections. The first seven Steps concern general virtues necessary for the ascetic life, while the next nineteen (Steps 8-26) give instruction on overcoming vices and acquiring their corresponding virtues. The final four Steps concern the higher virtues toward which the ascetic life aims. The final rung of the ladder beyond prayer (proseekia) stillness (hesychia), and even dispassion (apatheia) is sacrificial self-giving love (agape).
It is clear that this is simply a thoughtful arrangement of the ascent to salvation through a Christ-centred life. We see this when we consider the Scriptures upon which the vision of the original ladder, Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis is based. This is the second ladder but really comes first.
“Now Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran. So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep. Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:10-12)
We see from this text that the ascending and descending of the angels in Jacob’s dream connects heaven and earth and establishes a relation between the two. This divine and earthly traffic is sustained by the Ladder itself, which, in St. John’s Gospel, our Lord instructs Nathanael as referring to Himself. The final ladder making three in all is a variation on the first although in truth all three ladders are one when they are seen as being Christ Himself.
“And He (Christ) said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter[a] you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)
The “Son of Man” here is Christ … an enigmatic title that our Lord often uses of Himself. Jesus clearly teaches that it is He Himself, the God-Man who connects heaven and earth and thereby mediates salvation to us in and through Himself, most supremely in his death, three day entombment and resurrection from the dead. Climbing this ladder safely and surely to the top is the call of salvation for each one of us. And what shall we find there?
Clearly at the top of this Ladder we shall find the Divine Agape, none other than the God of Love Himself; but also there, our humanity glorified in Him, resplendent, glorious and perfected in that Love; the likeness of the Image of God fully restored in Christ. That is why the Ladder is worth climbing. It is we who climb but Christ by the Spirit is in the climbing to help and strengthen us on “The Way.”
Let us listen to St. John of the Ladder through a few small extracts from his great work. Let us call these “climbing tips.”
First that we should take courage for the climb …
“Let us charge into the good fight with joy and love without being afraid of our enemies. Though unseen themselves, they can look at the face of our soul, and if they see it altered by fear, they take up arms against us all the more fiercely. For the cunning creatures have observed that we are scared. So let us take up arms against them courageously. No one will fight with a resolute fighter.”
Next we should climb with perseverance …
“Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously. And assuredly, the angel who guards you will honour your patience.”
Finally that to mourn or rather repent and conquer is more fruitful than to climb with supposed effortless ease, which in any case, bearing in mind our condition, is not possible …
“He who really keeps account of his actions considers as lost every day in which he does not mourn, whatever good he may have done in it.” … “I consider those fallen mourners more blessed than those who have not fallen and are not mourning over themselves; because as a result of their fall, they have risen by a sure resurrection.”
A personal resurrection, therefore, is what this is all about, a personal Pascha. That is what we should all be aiming for and for our world. But first, we must climb.