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Climbing John’s Ladder

A spiritual guide for seventh-century monks continues to offer its timeless wisdom to those who follow Christ.

Few spiritual texts except the Bible have been more popular and influential than one titled The Ladder of Divine Ascent, or Heavenly Ladder. Probably written in the first half of the seventh century, it is a guide to monks on the spiritual quest of enlightenment and redemption.

The image recalls Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:12) as a means of spiritual movement upwards, one rung at a time, toward the goal of the beatific vision. Written for the abbot of a monastic community at Raithu on the Gulf of Suez, the book also became popular among Eastern Christians because of its clear images, human insight, and straightforward literary style, as well as its spiritual wisdom.

The author of the text is known as John Climacus, or John of the Ladder. Little is known of him beyond his obvious asceticism, piety, and monastic experience. He had spent forty years in solitude in Thalas, and was named abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, where he wrote the text. While the contents of his book show he knew the rigors of monastic asceticism, they also reveal that he had felt its edification and spiritual liberation.

Monasticism requires strict obedience, chastity, and poverty. These well-known vows are not virtues in themselves. They are difficult experiences which liberate a person from the enslavement of the material world. Monastic life involves other areas of discipline – virtues to develop and vices to overcome in each monk’s struggle for spiritual awakening. It is a lifelong commitment to rigorous trials to rise above the distractions of what we would call human nature.

The author arranged thirty chapters on particular virtues to attain and vices to eliminate. Each of these “rungs on the ladder” represents one of the thirty years of Christ’s hidden life before His public ministry. As he climbs away from earthly concerns, the monk follows Jesus in moving from renunciation of life to a full expression of faith, hope, and love – the pinnacle of the arduous climb to human perfection.

The author shows his insight into human nature as well as his awareness of spiritual nature in his arrangement of the steps. Choosing to embark on this spiritual journey requires the stripping away of the norms of daily life, to be followed by an embracing of obedience to a spiritual director. Penitence and remembrance of death must follow in the progression to break free from the past view toward worldly life and to fix the eyes on the life of the spirit.

John discusses the virtuous “rungs” at length and in depth before moving on to shorter treatments of vices which must be eliminated. While the text is meditative and reflective, it combines different focal points into a clear vision. Through daily experience, the spiritual climber rises through humility, discernment, stillness, prayer, and dispassion before fully living in faith, hope, and love.

John’s Ladder is a means of spiritual awakening through a way of living. As human failings and demons pull the climber down a few rungs or off the ladder, the climb begins anew. The universal character of this struggle plus his lucid writing style made the Ladder a continuous influence in Eastern monasticism, from Africa to Slavonic countries, since the seventh century.

Although the monasticism and rigorous discipline described by John are not meant to be for everyone, the wisdom of his Heavenly Ladder retains its power to raise the consciousness and spirituality of all Christians. It could well become a popular source of prayerful reflection and spiritual growth in the West.

Brian Elderson researches early Church history from his home in New York City.

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