In my previous essay about our inability to “go up” and grasp hold of grace, I was reminded of the oft misunderstood advice of John Climacus (a monk at St. Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai a very long time ago) in his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The book is so important in Orthodox spirituality that there is a Sunday during Lent dedicated specifically to it and there is an icon depicting the ideas of the book that hangs somewhere in most every Orthodox Church. At first glance The Ladder of Divine Ascent may appear to be saying exactly the opposite of what I said in that essay. Since the icon, when viewed with a Protestant sensibility, looks suspicious, it’s worth looking closely at the icon so that we can see what is and what is not depicted there.
In the icon one sees the surface of the earth, a monastery (there is an angel above the monastery, which is a sort of short hand saying, “this is a monastery, and not a government building and certainly not the abode of Satan) and a ladder. Approaching the ladder, climbing the ladder, and falling off the ladder are monks from the monastery. At the base of the ladder is John Climacus holding a scroll on which is written, “Ascend, ascend brethren.” Along the way are demons trying to pull the monks off the ladder (and often being successful) and at the top is Jesus the Pantocrator (i.e., Ruler of all, the Defeater of Sin and Death and the giver of life and grace) greeting the monks who have managed to ascend all thirty rungs.
John says he used the story of Jacob’s vision of a ladder as a metaphor for thirty things that monks ought to do as they seek to enter into closer union with Christ (compare the Rule of St. Benedict). It’s worth noting what’s not in the icon. Hell can be found nowhere on the icon. When the monks fall, they fall to earth, and no doubt they can then begin to climb the ladder again. Jesus is not depicted as being in heaven in this icon. To the left are a group of angels or saints. This is the heavenly host looking on at the scene from heaven and praying for the monks (essentially cheering the monks on). Jesus is separated spatially from that heavenly group. The point is that the monks are not going to heaven, but rather they are growing closer to Christ as the residents of heaven look on. In short, this is a depiction of our Christian life here on earth with it’s temptations, victories and failures.
While The Ladder of Divine Ascent has become foundational in Orthodoxy and very popular among Christians in general, it also needs to be said that it is a handbook for monks, and thus the advice sounds strange and sometimes outrageous to those of us living a secular life in the world. The Ladder, it must be remembered, is not a set of rules, but rather a set of monastic guidelines that should be seen as a sort of ideal.
How ought we to live our Christian life? I was hit up last Sunday by an Episcopalian asking if I wanted to join an organization that is seeking social justice in the world. After visiting with her it was clear that she’s sees this as her highest form of Christian life, that is a life of service that leads to systemic change and justice. When I was involved with a group called the Navigators, it seemed that memorizing the Bible, being in small group studies, encouraging others, and evangelism were the highest calling. In the Orthodox Church the highest calling is seeking our union with God in Christ. The icon (and the Sunday in Lent) are all reminders to us that this is the primary manner in how we Orthodox ought to approach our sanctification.
But whether we seek social justice, success at evangelism, or communion with Christ, all these efforts are not possible and make no sense if you don’t begin with Christ coming down to earth (incarnation, death, and resurrection) so that we can be made alive by the Spirit and begin our Christian journey through Christ and to Christ.