Ladder of Divine Ascent
On the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the memory of Saint John, the Abbot of Mount Sinai. For centuries, his work, The Ladder, has been a favorite Lenten reading for those who wish to ascend from earth to heaven, and many pastors urge their parishioners to learn from this treasure chest of ascetic wisdom.
Much can be said about the gems contained in the work of Saint John of the Ladder, but I have been thinking about the very image of the ladder. A ladder is not a wormhole; it is not a teleportation device. A ladder has steps, and one has to step on one before stepping on the next, climb on the lower level before continuing to a higher one. The image of a ladder reveals to us the gradual nature of ridding ourselves of passions and acquiring virtues.
It is important to note here that Saint John is speaking about fighting passions and acquiring virtues. He is not speaking about sinful acts. If one is a thief, he is not expected to gradually steal less and less. He is expected to immediately stop stealing, even though it will take time to eradicate the desire to steal out of the mind.
Unfortunately, we do not always understand this. We often think that “for a while,” we may live according to this world, and in time, sometime in the future–perhaps when we retire–we will begin to live differently. We do not reject the Gospel, but neither do we fully embrace it in our life at any given moment; it is always something we intend to follow “tomorrow,” but not today. We admire the heat of the faith of the saints and judge the coldness of the sinners, but it is the lukewarm ones that God rejects: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16)
Jesus said: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 4:17) Repent now–not live the way you have always lived and think about repenting tomorrow, but repent now! The word that is used in Greek is ‘μετανοεῖτε’–’change your mind,’ ‘change the way you think,’ ‘change your purpose.’ Why change now? Because the kingdom is at hand–right here, right now. This passage is not about the Second Coming tomorrow. It is about Christ’s coming into our hearts today, and it is about our hearts being ready today. There is real urgency in this cry: “The kingdom is at hand!”
It is not enough to stand on the first step of the divine ladder for years and decades and to think that the rest of the steps can somehow miraculously be jumped later, when we get old, and tired, and infirm. While we have time, we must be climbing. To be sure, we cannot think that we can reach heaven on our own. If we look at the lives of the saint and think to ourselves, “I could never do that!,” we are absolutely correct. We can never do that. Not on our own. God strengthens us and draws us in. He sees us from afar off and runs to embrace us. But we must give it our best. We cannot stay on our knees at the pigs’ feeding trough, and it is not even enough to get up off our knees–we must begin walking; in fact, we’d better start running! We simply do not have the time to wait any longer or to walk slowly and not always in the right direction.
Saint John teaches us to begin our struggle against sins and passions not slowly and gradually, but in earnest. Sure, the path is difficult, but we must be walking. Sure, the ladder is steep, but we must be climbing. It will be difficult at first. Saint John gives us an image of a building: the heaviest thing is the foundation, and the bricks that go on top of it are much smaller and lighter. He also gives us an example of a walk: it may be difficult at first, but once we are warmed up, it will get easier. But it will never get easier if we do not begin our exercise, and we can never hope to build a house unless we lay down a good foundation. Saint John warns us that the end of our journey will be according to its beginning. So, let us begin in earnest!
The ladder is not a teleporter. No one should despair for not being able to jump from the first step to the thirtieth. Such thinking only serves to keep us down. But if we keep climbing, if instead of wishing that we were on the thirtieth step we just focus on the second, and then the third–with God’s help and through His abundant mercy for us, we will be making progress toward our goal.
Through the prayers of our father among the saints John of the Ladder, Christ, our True Light, guide our steps! Amen!