St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church

The image of a ladder is nothing new in the life of the Christian.  Looking all the way back to the Prophet and Patriarch Jacob, we are told of his dream of a heavenly ladder by which the angels are ascending and descending between earth and heaven fulfilling the tasks given them by God on behalf of mankind.  This same image is used to describe the Mother of God as the ladder by which God descended to us in His incarnation.  Today we lo ok to a different ladder, the ladder of divine ascent, which refers to the teaching of St John, Abbot of Mt Sinai.  St John was known as a great spiritual father, leading many monastics to work out their salvation and to progress in the spiritual life. He was asked to write down a summary of his spiritual direction.  As a result, today we have handed down to us the teaching of St John of the Ladder (as he is known today) which describes a ladder of 30 steps which lead toward union with our Lord Jesus Christ. 

One of the important qualities of a ladder is that it is a tool.  Climbing a ladder in and of itself is not a goal – the goal is to get to the place where the ladder leads.  A ladder is merely the means which helps us ascend from one level to another; and in this case it is a tool which helps us ascend from this life to the heavenly life of Christ in eternity.  A ladder is simply a series of rungs, each rung being a step to raise us a little higher.  These rungs must be addressed in order, one after the other.  One does not generally skip the rungs of a ladder, nor does he start on the top rung without using the lower ones first.

St Theophan (the recluse) of Vysha also describes a ladder which has but 4 steps.  These two ladders are not different for they describe the same process – St John’s is simply more detailed than that of St Theophan. St Theophan’s four steps are: 1. conquer the passions, 2. pray orally, 3. internal prayer, and 4. Divine vision.  Interestingly enough St John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent uses the first 26 rungs to describe the process of conquering the passions, indicating to us that this one step of St Theophan’s is the most difficult and complex of all.  The remaining steps of St John’s ladder deal with prayer and godlike perfection.  This might be surprising to many of us if we consider ourselves advanced in the spiritual life – but it is in fact the case that few men have conquered the passions and most of us are constantly embroiled in the struggle against our fallen nature.  Therefore let us look at some of these lower rungs that we might gain some insight into the struggle that we face, especially during Great Lent which is a time of more intense spiritual effort.  To that end, let us look at the first five steps of St John’s ladder.  Before we begin, however, let us remember that St John wrote about the formation of monastics and therefore it is not always possible to follow his directions exactly while living in the world. However, that does not mean that these directions are of no use to us – only that we must place them in their proper context so that we might gain the most benefit from them.

The first step in St John’s ladder is renunciation of the world.  This means that we change our own orientation.  In our fallen state we are inclined toward the life of the world and the things of the world. Our whole lives are governed by the values, pleasures and achievements of the world.  In order to renounce the world, we must turn away from this orientation, renounce it, and instead turn towards Christ.  Our lives must be governed instead by the values, pleasures and achievements of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Instead of pride, self-esteem and status, we now seek humility; instead of self-reliance, we now rely upon the provision of God, instead of earthly pleasures, we seek the joy of Christ, instead of being ruled by the passions, we seek to be ruled by the Holy Spirit.  This is just an example of the many indications of how we turn away from the world and turn ourselves instead towards Christ.  He now becomes our ultimate goal and desire, supplanting all others; He is our first and only love.

Having turned from the world and set our face towards Jesus Christ, we now endeavor to mount the second rung of this ladder, that of detachment from the world. Even though we have resolved to turn away from the world, still there are many things which still have a hold upon us.  We still have many possessions, interests, hobbies, activities, friends, family members and other things to which we are attached and which try to pull us back to the world.  Our task now is to release our hold upon these things.  It is as if two people clasp hands and only one lets go, then there is still a connection until the other lets go as well.  In our fallen state, the world has a hold on us and we are holding onto the world as well.  God breaks the hold of the world on us by the power of His grace which is given to us at baptism and in the other sacraments (especially confession), but in order to be completely detached, we have to let go as well.  That is the task that we face in this step – to let go of the world so that it no longer has a hold on us.  In order to do that we must develop a strong trust in God because it is to Him that we entrust all our worldly needs and connections, from basic food and drink to the care of family and friends.  This sounds simple, however, it is a very difficult thing because these connections run deep into our minds and hearts and we are so used to them that we often do not even notice them.  But as God shows them to us, we must release our hold one by one.  In the icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, we notice that as the monks are ascending the ladder there are demons flying around them trying to pull them down and these demons occasionally are aided by ropes and chains which are attached to some of the monks.  This is the result of an incomplete detachment.  Whenever we hold onto something of this world, no matter how innocuous it seems, it gives the demons a means by which to influence us and to try and pull us away from God.

When we are detached from the world, we live as if in exile – wanderers no longer attached to their surroundings but simply passing through.  This is the third step, that of exile.   St John defines exile in this manner: “Exile means that we leave forever everything in our own country that prevents us from reaching the goal of the religious (i.e. spiritual) life.  Exile means modest manners, wisdom which remains unknown, prudence not recognized as such by most, a hidden life, an invisible intention, unseen meditation, desire for humiliation, longing for hardship, constant determination to love God, abundance of charity, renunciation of vainglory, depth of silence.”  This definition looks impossible at first, however, as we look more closely we see that the key is in leaving behind anything that hinders our spiritual life.  Our Lord said the same thing in the sermon on the mount in somewhat more graphic terms: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” (Mt 5:29,30)  Naturally He did not wish for us to mutilate ourselves in such a literal manner, but this kind of hyperbole emphasizes the drastic attitude to leave behind anything which hinders our spiritual life.

But it is not good to wander in exile unguided for we can easily be lost or deceived, therefore, we should progress to the fourth step which is obedience.  Now that a person has cut himself off from the world and embarked upon a life of exile, he must have a spiritual guide to help him stay on the true path into the Kingdom of Heaven.  In monastic life, this guide is the spiritual father of the monastery as well as the monastic rule.  The monk lives his life in obedience to these guides.  In the world, we do not have a monastery or monastic rule, but we do have the community of believers of which we are a part.  The spiritual father of that community is the parish priest and other clergy, as well as the bishop.  These are our guides and we follow their direction as we pursue our spiritual life.  There is also the life of the Church, the traditions by which our lives are shaped and bounded to which we conform ourselves, even when such things seem not to make sense or are out of step with the world.  By this obedience we are guided unerringly into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Such a life increases our sensitivity to spiritual things, especially in our own lives and we begin to see our sins.  This is the beginning of spiritual vision which is only a foretaste of the divine vision at the top of the ladder. This awareness of our sins, deficits and shortcomings brings us to the next step of the ladder, that of repentance.  Repentance is the unfailing mark of spiritual life.  If a person does not see their sins, if they are not weeping for their sins, if they do not mourn that they have fallen short of Christ and have failed Him, then they are not fully pursuing the path of salvation.  This is an important touchstone of our spiritual lives and it is how we can begin to discern between truth and falsehood, and recognize the deception of demons.  If there is no repentance, then it is a false path, a path away from God rather than towards him.  The presence of a constant state of repentance in our hearts is what tells us that we are indeed moving towards God.

These are just the 5 beginning steps of the Ladder of Divine Ascent.  I would encourage every person to acquire a copy of this great spiritual work and to learn about this unfailing path to spiritual perfection.  If, however, we begin with just these 5 steps: renunciation of the world, detachment, exile, obedience and repentance then we will have made a good beginning.  In this way we will have taken the first steps on the path of salvation that leads into the Heavenly Kingdom and the presence of God.

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