The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Life is a journey throughout the years. As we get older, we look back and can’t believe how fast the years have passed. We have many beautiful memories we remember and for which we thank God and thank the people who have journeyed with us. We may recall difficult challenges we faced, mistakes we made, people we hurt or who hurt us, and we try to forgive or repent, turning these memories over to God for healing and growth. Life is a journey over many years, and if we journey well, we grow in experience and wisdom, in mercy and love, in gratitude and grace.
Yet, not everyone experiences life’s journey in this manner. Some people get stuck along the way – maybe from a past pain or tragedy, maybe from holding on to certain bitterness or anger and not allowing forgiveness and mercy to free us from the past, maybe by allowing our pride and ego to distort who we truly are and who we can become, maybe by getting caught up in the superficial and trivial pursuits of life, or maybe simply from our laziness, indifference and a lack of desire to change and grow.
Life is a journey which has a particular destination but many people don’t use any divine GPS to guide them on the path and thus, end up not knowing where they’re going. They wander around, they travel down dead ends, they go in the wrong direction, and after many years and even decades they end up lost, no closer to the divine destination which God calls us to discover, a journey’s end into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Today on this 4th Sunday of Lent, we reflect on our life’s journey through a particular image offered by Saint John Climacus. St John of the Ladder, as he is often called, was a 6th century abbot of the Saint Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai, one of the oldest monasteries in the world located very near the place where Moses led the Israelites to encounter God and receive the 10 Commandments after he freed them from their 400 year captivity in Egypt. As the spiritual father of this monastery, Saint John wrote a classic treatise on the “Ladder of Divine Ascent.” He carefully described life as a journey up a ladder which leads into the Kingdom of Heaven. Each rung of the ladder describes the vices we must take care to avoid or weed out of our lives as well as the virtues we must cultivate and nurture to ascend higher and higher toward our heavenly goal.
“With the exception of the Bible and the service books,” Metropolitan Kallistos Ware describes, “there is no work in Eastern Christendom that has been studied, copied and translated more than The Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Climacus.”
Why is this book so important and why do we remember this holy monastic every year on the 4th Sunday of our Lenten journey? Precisely because Saint John bluntly reminds us about the intense struggles a Christian must face in order to climb grow spiritually. A serious and sober life in Christ implies struggling on a journey into the kingdom of God and such a journey is not for the faint-hearted or for the casual, nominal believer. Jesus once said “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent will take it by force.” Our salvation is a gift from God and yet, we open up our hearts to this precious gift by exerting great effort against our deceptive passions and opening up space in our hearts for God’s Spirit to work within us!
Let’s take a moment to reflect on our lives and honestly evaluate where we have journeyed over the past years? How many of us can sincerely say that we are growing in our faith and in a Christ-centered life? Where are we compared to five years ago? Ten years ago? As each year passes, do we see ourselves soberly and attentively cultivating and nurturing a living and vibrant relationship with God and in a loving relationship with our neighbor, growing in a deeper understanding and commitment to following the ways of the Lord, and becoming better and more faithful ambassadors and servants of Christ to the world?
Our faith, like our life, is a living organism that does not stay the same with the passing of time. Either we are watering and nourishing our faith so that it grows and matures, or we are ignoring and even starving our spirit so that it withers and dies. Our faith, like our life, does not stay the same. There is no “finished the journey” status quo in the spiritual life. Either we are going forward or falling backward, growing or stagnating, living or dying.
Thus, Saint John offers advice to his monks, which can be applied to our own lives, by asking us to reflect on our journey in life and consciously struggle against the passions which hinder our growth while simultaneously nourish the virtues that lead us closer to God.
What are some of the passions we must control and limit, according to the Ladder of Divine Ascent:
- Gluttony, a hypocrisy of the stomach which when filled, “still moans about scarcity; when stuffed, and crammed, still wails about hunger”
- Lust, which looks “for our weak moments and viciously assails us”
- Avarice, a love for money and possessions which know no limit
- Anger, which conceals hatred and nursing grievances.
- Slander, a subtle yet “crass disease wasting and draining away the lifeblood of love”
- Talkativeness, a loose and idle tongue which we find difficult to control.
- Falsehood, which cultivates dishonesty and deception
- Despondency, a paralysis of the soul, a laziness of mind, a neglect of religious disciplines.
- Insensitivity, not noticing our neighbor and not reaching out in love to the one in need.
- Fear, a loss of trusting in God’s Presence in our lives.
- Vainglory, a desire to be praised by others instead of God.
- Pride, an unwillingness to discover our true selves but live under the façade of our ego.
We all face these passions and yet do we willingly enter into the arena of our hearts and struggle against them? Do we invite God’s Spirit to fill us and empower us so that we can overcome these demons that hinder our ascent up the divine ladder?
While we struggle against the passions and temptations, we must simultaneously cultivate and nourish the virtues of God. According to Saint John, these are some of the central virtues:
- Obedience, humbling following the ways and teachings of the Lord.
- Repentance, “the daughter of hope and the refusal to despair. It is the purification of our conscience.”
- Remembrance of death, not having a fear of death because of unrepented sins but realizing our mortality and the brevity of life
- Sorrow, holding fast to the blessed and joyful sorrow of holy compunction.
- Simplicity, an enduring habit within the soul that grows indifferent to evil thoughts.
- Humility, a gentleness, kindness, and inclination to compunction which leaves us calm in every situation, radiant, unoffended, alert and active.
- Discernment, “understanding the will of God at all times, in all places, in all things”
- Stillness, which puts aside the noise of the world and leads us into the Presence of God
- Prayer, or deep and intimate communion with God
- Love, which by its nature is a resemblance to God insofar as this is humanly possible. It is an inebriation of the soul, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility. Love is the banishment of every sort of contrariness, for love knows no evil.
St. John’s Divine Ladder covers a wide range of vices and virtues for us to reflect upon, yet what I want each of us to take away for today is simply the fundamental idea that in order to journey toward a destination, in order to climb up the ladder of divine ascent, we must proactively struggle against our vices and cultivate our virtues! Only by being vigilant and attentive to how we live every day and by focusing on what we do each hour of the day – with our words, thoughts, actions and inactions – only in this manner will we struggle to climb up the divine ladder that leads into the kingdom of heaven. This strenuous climb is surely challenging, difficult and dangerous and we won’t progress simply by chance and with a lackadaisical approach.
The kingdom of heaven will be taken by force. As we carefully and vigilantly continue our journey through Lent and attend to our journey through life, God will see our efforts and fill us with His grace as we strive to journey to new heights.
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