About Ascending the Divine Ladder


        Brothers and sisters!


        Today is the fourth Sunday of the Great Fast, when we commemorate our venerable father John, Abbot of Mount Sinai.  Almost all of you know that Saint John was the author of a famous treatise about the spiritual life called The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and many of you have read at least portions of this book.  Although he was a hermit for most of his life, in his last years Saint John was abbot of the coenobitic Monastery of the Burning Bush, which later became the Monastery of Saint Catherine.  John wrote The Ladder for the instruction of monastics leading the common life under strict obedience to an abbot, but his counsels are, for the most part, easily adaptable to the situation of the laity.  Consequently, The Ladder has become, throughout the course of the centuries, the most widely read guide to the spiritual life among Orthodox Christians.

        The great Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, reminds us that our dwelling is in heaven, from whence also we look for our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.[1]  In his book, Saint John employs the image of a ladder to remind us that we must use the present life to ascend from earth to heaven, and that the struggle for virtue is the means to this ascent.  The earliest Christians were intensely aware of divine ascent and the battle against the passions as the chief task of our life, and the devout to this day remain cognizant of it.  Nowadays, however, vastly greater in number are the Christians who have more or less forgotten this, and have made the pursuit of earthly goals and pleasures the purpose of their existence.  They have forgotten the truth that if we do not ascend, then we shall certainly fall.

        This truth is forcefully portrayed for us by the icon of Saint John’s ladder of divine ascent.  In it, Christ is depicted waiting at the top of the ladder for those who ascend and welcoming them into the Kingdom of heaven.  Those who forget that our life must be constant divine ascent are yanked off the ladder by the demons and cast by them into the maw of Hades.

        To attain the summit of the ladder, one must continuously strive to ascend.  When someone stops climbing, the demons lay hold of him and, if he does not resume his ascent, they quickly thrust him down, no matter how high the rung he has reached.  The icon of the ladder shows this clearly, because some of the monks who are falling had almost reached the top.  If we abandon our ascent, then it will not be long before we come hurtling down like them and other heedless souls.

        Even if we are aware of this fact and to some degree are trying to climb, our evil foes persist in constantly tugging at us, urging us to stop and rest.  How then, can our loving mother, the Holy Orthodox Church, abandon us to their wiles, and fail to pull us up, so that the demons do not have their way?  This diligent care explains why the Holy Church has enacted for us the weekly fast days, the four lengthy fasts, and especially the Great Fast of Lent.  We need these to help us from stopping on the ladder; and we especially need Holy Lent as a most insistent, yearly reminder of how we should spend all our days, struggling to ascend and fending off the imps’ efforts to bring us down.

        Among other things, this struggle entails self-examination.  The Great Fast is a time to look forward to where we are bound, but it is also a time to look back to see from whence we have come.  This self-examination requires complete honesty; it necessitates setting aside both self-justification and false humility.  It means assessing which passions are still oppressing us, and which have subsided.

        As regards the virtues, Great Lent offers a unique opportunity to determine where and in what way we have advanced, and where and in what way we have retreated.  We can of course examine ourself and our progress or lack thereof at any time:  daily, weekly, or at the beginning or end of every fast; but just as the growth of a child usually cannot be noticed unless some considerable time has passed since it was last checked, so our spiritual growth (or shrinkage) often cannot be determined unless sufficient time has elapsed since our last effort at self-examination.  This is an important reason why we need Great Lent:  it provides a yearly “check-up” on our spiritual growth and state of health.

        Some conscientious Christians go so far as to make a chart of the virtues and vices during Great Lent, and note their progress or regression in each category.  This helps them focus on where they especially need to put their effort.  More importantly, it assists them in determining which particular failings are especially troubling them, and with especial fervor they beseech the Lord’s assistance in overcoming them.

        Furthermore, we must remember that the Lord may ordain that we depart this life on any day, at any hour.  If we have not repented of our sins and passions, and struggled to prevail over them, then what will become of us?  If we have given up on ascending the ladder of divine ascent, then have we not fallen from it?  Truly, the remembrance of death is a sharp spur urging us to strive to ascend higher and higher, to virtue, to heaven, and to the Lord of heaven.  But what is most important to remember is that virtue, heaven, and God are of themselves supremely worthy of all our effort, all our striving, all our love.  Great Lent reminds us that this quest for the Supreme is the real task of human life.  Temporal existence demands that we devote a measure of attention to various lowly things, but we must not forget that these are distinctly secondary.   Our Christian calling; our calling as human beings created in the image and likeness of the Boundless One; our calling as rational, spiritual beings uniquely able to attain union with God, summon us most imperatively to mount and constantly ascend the ladder of divine ascent.

        By the prayers of our venerable father John of Sinai, may we all ascend and reach the bosom of our Christ, Who awaits us at the summit of the ladder.  Amen.




[1] Phil. 3:20