The Ladder of Divine Ascent

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Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent (St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt)
The Ladder of Divine Ascent is an ascetical treatise on avoiding vice and practicing virtue so that at the end, salvation can be obtained. Written by Saint John Climacus initially for monastics, it has become one of the most highly influential and important works used by the Church as far as guiding the faithful to a God-centered life, second only to Holy Scripture.
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The Ladder of Divine Ascent
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There is also a related icon known by the same title. It depicts many people people climbing a ladder; at the top is Jesus Christ, prepared to receive the climbers into Heaven. Also shown are angels helping the climbers, and demons attempting to shoot with arrows or drag down the climbers, no matter how high up the ladder they may be. Most versions of the icon show at least one person falling.

Contents

History of The Ladder

John, whilst a hermit living at the Sinai Peninsula, was recognized for his humility, obedience, wisdom (which was attained through spiritual experience), and discrenment. He already had a reputation for being extremely knowledgable on practicing a holy life. St. John, igumen of the Raithu Monastery one day asked St. John Climacus (also known as John of Sinai) to write down his wisdom in a book. At first hesistant to take on such a task, John of Sinai honored the request and he proceeded to write The Ladder. St. John Climacus (called such because of this work) and his writing The Ladder (later called The Ladder of Divine Ascent) has been compared to the Holy Prophet and God-seer Moses receiving the Law.

This work was used by monastics. In fact it is read by monastics, to this day, during the Great Fast. It is also suggested as Lenten reading for those who are still "of this world" yet should be done with caution and under the guidance of a spiritual father. This work has made its mark on the lives of innumerable saints, including St. Theodore the Studite, St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Joseph of Volokolamsk, St. Peter of Damascus, St. Theophan the Recluse amongst many others.

Structure and Purpose

The aim of the treatise is to be a guide for practicing a life completely and wholly devoted to God. The ladder metaphor—not dissimilar to the vision that the Patriarch Jacob received—is used to describe one would ascend into heaven by first renouncing the world and ending up in heaven with God. There are thirty chapters that each covers a particular vice or virtue. They were originally called logoi but in the present day, they are referred to as "steps." The sayings are not so much rules and regulations, as with the Law that St. Moses received at Sinai before him, but rather observations about what is being practiced. Metaphorical language is employed frequently to better illustrate the nature of virtue and vice. Overall, the treatise does follow a progression that transitions from start (renunciation of the world) to finish (a life lived in love).

The steps are:

  1. On renunciation of the world
  2. On detachment
  3. On exile or pilgrimage; concerning dreams that beginners have
  4. On blessed and ever-memorable obedience (in addition to episodes involving many individuals)
  5. On painstaking and true repentance which constitutes the life of the holy convicts; and about the Prison
  6. On remembrance of death
  7. On joy-making mourning
  8. On freedom from anger and on meekness
  9. On remembrance of wrongs
  10. On slander or calumny
  11. On talkativeness and silence
  12. On lying
  13. On despondency
  14. On that clamorous mistress, the stomach
  15. On incorruptible purity and chastity, to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
  16. On love of money, or avarice
  17. On non-possessiveness (that hastens one Heavenwards)
  18. On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
  19. On sleep, prayer, and psalmody with the brotherhood
  20. On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil, and how to practise it
  21. On unmanly and puerile cowardice
  22. On the many forms of vainglory
  23. On mad pride and (in the same Step) on unclean blasphemous thoughts; concerning unmentionable blasphemous thoughts
  24. On meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness which come not from nature but from conscious effort, and about guile
  25. On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception
  26. On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues; on expert discernment; brief summary of all aforementioned
  27. On holy stillness of body and soul; different aspects of stillness and how to distinguish them
  28. On holy and blessed prayer, the mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer
  29. Concerning Heaven on earth, or Godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection
  30. Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues; a brief exhortation summarizing all that has said at length in this book

Guide to Reading The Ladder

Like with other ascetical and spiritual texts, this one should be read carefully. Since the original audience were those practicing the monastic life, the language is very strong when contrasting the life of the world and the life devoted to God. This is one of the reasons why this work should be read under the guidance of a spiritual father. This work can be read at once with careful attention and intense concentration, trying to replicate as much as possible the monastic life. Yet this work can also be read in its individual steps as well. The bottom line is that a spiritual father should be there to be a guiding hand with this work.

English Language Editions

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. This edition, based on Archimandrite Lazarus Moore's translation is generally preferred over the Paulist Press edition of the Ladder—especially because of the verse numberings, which are the standard way of referencing Climacus' sayings (these are also present in older versions of Archimandrite Lazarus' translation). It is also physically beautiful and much nicer to have on one's bookshelf. It contains an icon of "The Ladder," many other embellishments, and is printed on high quality paper. All that said, the Paulist Press edition is also worth having, especially because of the helpful introduction by Bishop Kallistos.

References

  • The Ladder of Divine Ascent as published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery
  • Orthodox Church in America, biography on St. John of Sinai
  • "On Repentance that Leads to Joy: The Spirituality of St John Klimakos", by Matthew Steenburg found at Monachos website

Secondary literature

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