The Ladder of Divine Ascent: A book to read during Lent

One of the great spiritual books that it is surely advisable to be read during the Lenten journey is The Ladder of Divine Ascent, written by St John Climacus (c 525-606), the sixth-seventh century monk at the monastery of Mount Sinai.

In this book, St John, who is revered as a saint both by the Western Catholic as well as the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches, speaks about how one raises one’s soul and body to God via the attainment of virtues. Drawing experience from his monastic life, John knew very well that the acquisition of virtue does not happen overnight. Rather, it is a long and slow process wherein the soul undergoes the necessary repentance, cleansing and strengthening in order to advance in the spiritual life. The image of the Ladder comes from the Biblical account of Jacob’s Ladder, and each “step”, although treated on its own, is beautifully interconnected with the entire ladder. This ladder consists of thirty steps. If the number 30 represents the physical and the mental maturity of a person called by God, so that he would be able to handle the major responsibilities entrusted to him. Those who, by divine grace, manage to climb the ladder will reach that maturity of which St Paul rightly speaks of in his Letter to the Ephesians when he says:

Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles (Eph 4:8-14).

Personally speaking, this pericope from St Paul’s letter informs me very much on the transforming spirit this spiritual work, which The Ladder of the Divine Ascent, undoubtedly imparts on those who read it with a humble open heart. To begin with, when Christ ascended into heaven he led those who followed him towards their complete salvation from the domination of sin and death. Secondly, Christ, who is from Heaven, therefore full of full of grace and truth (John 1:14), is the One who descended into the earth’s lower parts to take us with him above all heavens to fulfil us in himself. Third, the diverse vocations we all embrace, serve us to tend towards this attainment of our complete spiritual maturity in, with and through Christ. Fourth, even if this change will certainly come into effect when we sleep the sleep of death, nonetheless it primarily takes place when we let Christ change us entirely in Himself. In fact, those who experience this fulness of Christ of which the apostle is speaking of, will be the ones who will make a first-hand experience of what Jesus himself said of those who listen and obey his life-giving Word:

Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock (Matt 7:24-25).

This is contrary of course to those who listen to Jesus’ work but then do their own thing as if they did not listen at all, the end of which is truly tragic. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it (Matt 7:26-27). Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians provides perfect sense: so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles (Eph 4:14).

The Ladder of the Divine Ascent is more concerned with speaking [to us] the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love (Eph 4:15-16).

The Ladder of the Divine Ascent enlists the following thirty steps that will help us grow in Christ in every way:

First, on renunciation of the world; second, on detachment; third, on exile or pilgrimage – concerning dreams that beginners have; fourth, on blessed and ever-memorable obedience (in addition to episodes involving many individuals); fifth, on painstaking and true repentance which constitutes the life of the holy convicts and about the Prison; sixth, on remembrance of death; seventh, on joy-making mourning; eighth, on freedom from anger and on meekness; ninth, on remembrance of wrongs; tenth, on slander or calumny; eleventh, on talkativeness and silence; twelfth, on lying; thirteenth, on despondency; fourteenth, on that clamorous mistress, the stomach; fifteenth, on incorruptible purity and chastity, to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat; sixteenth, on love of money, or avarice; seventeenth on non-possessiveness (that hastens one Heavenwards); eighteenth, on insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body; nineteenth, on sleep, prayer and psalmody with the brotherhood; twentieth, on bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil, and how to practise it; twenty-first, on unmanly and puerile cowardice; twenty-second, on the many forms of vainglory; twenty-third, on mad pride and (in the same Step) on unclean blasphemous thoughts, concerning unmentionable blasphemous thoughts; twenty-fourth, on meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness which come not from nature but from conscious effort, and about guile; twenty-fifth, on the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception; twenty-sixth, on discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues; on expert discernment; brief summary of all aforementioned; on twenty-seventh, on holy stillness of body and soul; different aspects of stillness and how to distinguish them; twenty-eighth, on holy and blessed prayer, the mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer; twenty-ninth, concerning Heaven on earth, or Godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection; and thirtieth, concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues. Finally, there is a brief exhortation summarizing all that has been said at length in this book.

It would be wise at this point to taste some of the spiritual fruits which The Ladder of the Divine Ascent has decisively in store for all those who approach it like babes because it is to them that the Father reveals His hidden secrets while having them hidden from the wise and understanding (see Matt 11:25).

For instance, on what to grieve and not to grieve about The Ladder says: It is better to grieve our parents than the Lord. For He has created and saved us, but they have often ruined their loved ones and delivered them up to their doom. On repentance we find: Repentance is the renewal of baptism. Repentance is a contract with God for a second life. Who is the penitent? A penitent is a buyer of humility. And who is God after man’s fall? Before our fall, the demons say that God is a friend of man; but after the fall, that He is inexorable. On remembrance of death The Ladder tells us: Some inquire and wonder: “why, when remembrance of death is so beneficial for us, has God hidden from us the knowledge of the hour of death?” – Not knowing that in this way God wonderfully accomplishes our salvation. We have to be firm with those who speak badly about their neighbour by presenting our sinful state before them so that they make come into their senses refrain from judging. Do not regard the feelings of a person who speaks to you about his neighbor disparagingly, but rather say to him: “Stop, brother! I fall into graver sins every day, so how can I criticize him?” In this way you will achieve two things: you will heal yourself and your neighbor with one plaster. This is one of the shortest ways to forgiveness of sins; I mean not to judge: “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged”.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a book which helps us grow in virtue through faith. Its breath is certainly humility, without which there is no holiness. The Bible is its backbone. In this book St John Climacus teaches us to hope so as to transcend the here-and-now of reality and enter into the realm of God. The more we become united with God by ascending this ladder the more we live our earthly days in that heavenly peaceful joy, even if countering all sorts of obstacles and disappointments. After all, it is thanks to life’s painful challenges that you and I, assisted by God’s grace, can love others authentically. All the prayers and vigils we spend to attend to the Lord only serve us to be more loving, charitable and caring like Jesus himself.

If you are still considering to read The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus, during this Lent, I gently invite you to ponder upon the beautiful reflection Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI gave us on this book in his catechesis on St John Climacus delivered on Wednesday 11 February 2009:

The whole ascent is present in these virtues. Faith is fundamental, because this virtue implies that I renounce my arrogance, my thought, and the claim to judge by myself without entrusting myself to others. This journey towards humility, towards spiritual childhood is essential. It is necessary to overcome the attitude of arrogance that makes one say: I know better, in this my time of the 21st century, than what people could have known then. Instead, it is necessary to entrust oneself to Sacred Scripture alone, to the word of the Lord, to look out on the horizon of faith with humility, in order to enter into the enormous immensity of the universal world, of the world of God. In this way our soul grows, the sensitivity of the heart grows toward God. Rightly, John Climacus says that hope alone renders us capable of living charity; hope in which we transcend the things of every day, we do not expect success in our earthly days but we look forward to the revelation of God himself at last. It is only in this extension of our soul, in this self-transcendence, that our life becomes great and that we are able to bear the effort and disappointments of every day, that we can be kind to others without expecting any reward. Only if there is God, this great hope to which I aspire, can I take the small steps of my life and thus learn charity. The mystery of prayer, of the personal knowledge of Jesus, is concealed in charity: simple prayer that strives only to move the divine Teacher’s heart. So it is that one’s own heart opens, one learns from him his own kindness, his love. Let us therefore use this “ascent” of faith, hope and charity. In this way we will arrive at true life”.

Have you now decided to read The Ladder of Divine Ascent in the remaining days of this Lent?

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap was born in San Gwann on August 26 1972. After being educated in governmental primary and secondary schools as well as at the Naxxar Trade School he felt the call to enter the Franciscan Capuchin Order. After obtaining the university requirements he entered the Capuchin friary at Kalkara on October 12 1993. A year after he was ordained a priest, precisely on 4 September 2004, his superiors sent him to work with patients as a chaplain first at St. Luke's Hospital and later at Mater Dei. In 2007 Fr Mario obtained a Master's Degree in Hospital Chaplaincy from Sydney College of Divinity, University of Sydney, Australia. From November 2007 till March 2020 Fr Mario was one of the six chaplains who worked at Mater Dei Hospital., Malta's national hospital. Presently he is a chaplain at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. Furthermore, he is a regular contributor in the MUMN magazine IL-MUSBIEĦ, as well as doing radio programmes on Radio Mario about the spiritual care of the sick.