The Ladder of Divine Ascent


There is something about charts, methods, tables and the like that always make me react in a negative manner. There is a form of rationalism that, for me, simply screams, “This is the work of man.” A Linaeus can invent a table for classifying nature – and I’m sure that biologists find it very helpful. But there is something irrational at the same time about nature in which everything resists classification.

The most frustrating example of this was my experience in geology lab in college. I always did well with the book and the lectures, rarely making a mistake on exams in that area of the course. But one day per week was given over to “lab” work. In geology this consisted of boxes of rocks. Each of the boxes were labeled. We experimented and learned to use the various techniques for identifying qualities that would allow us to say, “This is feldspar,” or “This is quartzite,” etc.

I would go every week and do everything I was told. Indeed I strained what brain I had to learn these classifying techniques. The exam would finally came. And, surprise, the rocks we had to identify were samples we had never seen. We had seen other samples of similar rocks, but not these particular rocks.

My frustration was that I was invariably learning what a rock was by learning that particular rock. I invariably flunked the lab test. This is probably only a revelation about the way my brain is wired. But it left me suspicious of classifications. I know they are real – but my brain just won’t work that way.

This Sunday, the Orthodox Church celebrates St. John Climacus, the author of the great spiritual classic known as “the Ladder.” It offers 30 steps in the spiritual life, with the notion that we cannot go from one “rung” of the ladder to the next without mastering what has gone before. It is Orthodoxy’s 12 steps, only, of course, there are 30 of them.

The Ladder makes for good Lenten reading. Each topic is worthy of everything that is written. I have even gleaned insight into various things by reading it. But I have always wondered if that’s exactly how things work. First this step, then that one.

It may be a general description, but I suspect that grace works in a less predictable fashion. As far as I can tell I am still on the first rung. I know some things and even have experience of other rungs, mastery of none.

My own ladder is to pray for grace for whatever “rung” lies before me. The sin that threatens me at any given moment. I suppose it’s a “spontaneous” ladder.

What is truly amazing about St. John, was that he knew the spiritual life so well, and was in such a state of soul, that he could write authoritatively about so many vices and virtues. Perhaps his prayers will “hold the ladder steady” so that lesser souls such as mine may climb with care the ladder God has set before us.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





8 responses to “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”

  1. handmaidleah Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Christ is in our midst!
    I just blogged about our dear St. John as well, nothing so insightful as what you have written here; however, the idea that I get from his mighty work is that even in step one we can draw close to the Kingdom of Heaven. That is comforting, given that I am in the fallen world and not a monastic.
    Now, if I could just find a way to kick those demons that keep yanking my foot off of the first rung, I might be able to get started… sigh!
    In Christ,
    the handmaid,

  2. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    This was the first Sunday I worshiped in the Orthodox Church, one year ago. I have an icon of St. John Climacus. I made it using the paper bulletin from that Sunday, but it is dear to me. When Fr. Tom came to bless my humble abode I showed it to him and he smiled. Step 17 has proved so true. “He who has tasted the things on high easily despises what is below.” I must focus on what HE has given me to do here. Somedays I view events around me as if they are already a world away.

  3. Steve Avatar

    I have two homemade icons that I’ve used from the bulletins, Alice. One if of Zacccheus. The other is of Jesus healing the lame man who couldn’t walk. When it comes to the ladder, I feel like Zaccheus, who might hope to see the Ladder. Or the lame man, who might hope to walk up to the Ladder. Someday I hope to step on a rung.

  4. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    “I suspect that grace works in a less predictable fashion. As far as I can tell I am still on the first rung. I know some things and even have experience of other rungs, mastery of none.”

    This is nearly verbatim what our priest said today in Oxford. He fears he is still on the first rung.

    He also said he believes John’s book is for nuns and monks. He feels like there is a different track for people in the world, and that monks are not better or vice versa.

    He said (all this is my translation, so don’t hold him to it) that without the people in the world, the church would not be replenished of people, but with the monastics there would not be spiritual replenishment.

    I have only read of few pages of the Ladder, so I’m not ready to weight in. I’m on step one or less, obviously.

  5. Fatherstephen Avatar

    My thoughts in sermon today were on Jesus as our anchor of hope (from the Hebrews reading). I sort of thought of being on the ladder, but with an anchor tied to a rope to keep me safe (the anchor being in the Holy of Holies).

    As someone who’s had some scary ladder experiences in my life, it did me good to think of Hebrews.

  6. Steve Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:

    When you mentioned the anchor (in today’s reading of Hebrews), is the anchor somehow related to the High Priest going into the Tabernacle (once a year) with a rope tied to his ankle, just in case he didn’t make it out?

    Anchor seems a great word for that, although I’m not sure if “anchor” has those same connotations in Greek or in Hebrew.

    I guess, in the New Tabernacle, we don’t need to anchor our High Priest. Rather, He anchors us?

  7. Fatherstephen Avatar

    The anchor seems to be Paul’s contribution. Not particularly connected with temple. But, Paul knew a lot about boats…

  8. Steve Avatar

    “Paul knew a lot about boats”

    Fair enough! Much appreciated.

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