The sixth century monk John Climacus wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent for monks, and the book has remained a classic of Orthodox ascetic monastics since. In it, John outlines the stages of the spiritual life by use of the metaphor of a ladder of thirty rungs that reaches from earth to Heaven. The form of John’s text, with its thirty sections or steps, was suggested by the biblical image of the ladder that Patriarch Jacob saw reaching up to Heaven, with angels ascending and descending. The text has had immense influence on the formation of Eastern Christian monasticism. It is read in the monasteries during Lent and it is frequently depicted in icons, frescoes, and manuscripts. The spiritual father (oftentimes John himself) ushers monks to the foot of the ladder. As they ascend, good angels assist them and evil angels try to pull them off and drop them into the gaping jaws of hell. (Abba John’s proper name, Climacus, comes from the Greek word for ladder.)
The Ladder of Divine Ascent is composed with great subtlety and art, a rhythmic prose approaching poetry, yet there is an apparent abruptness about the text. John uses short, sharp sentences, pithy definitions, and paradoxical aphorisms:The growth of fear is the starting point of love, and total purity is the founding of theology. The Word of the Lord, being from the Lord, remains eternally pure. Purity makes of a disciple someone who can speak of God, and he can move on to a knowledge of the Trinity. He who loves the Lord has first loved his brother, for the latter is proof of the former.
John enters upon his climb without any introduction. The first three steps concern themselves with the break from the world: renunciation, detachment, and exile. This may seem very negative, but there is a strong positive element in John’s understanding of it. “All this is done by those who willingly turn from the things of this life, either for the sake of the coming kingdom, or because of the number of their sins, or on account of their love of God.” The body retains its role in the monastic life. The monk has a body made holy, a tongue purified, a mind enlightened. Asleep or awake, the monk is a soul pained by the constant remembrance of death. Withdrawal from the world is a willing hatred of all that is materially prized, a denial of nature for the sake of what is above nature.
When the monk has reached this third step he is well on the way; he “should look neither to right nor left.” The next twenty-three steps devote themselves to the cultivation of the virtues and the extirpation of the vices, what the Fathers called the active life.
The most fundamental of the virtues for John is that of obedience. He found in the desert three forms of monastic life:All monastic life may be said to take one of three forms. There is the road of withdrawal and solitude for the spiritual athlete, there is the life of stillness [hesychia—contemplation] shared with one or two brothers; and there is the practice of living patiently in community.
John favored the middle way, where one would not have all the distractions and cares of the large cenobitic community or the risks of being totally alone, lacking the good of obedience.
John’s treatment of obedience is followed by the steps of penitence, remembrance of death, and sorrow. Then he begins a...
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