The image of a ladder appears many times in our faith. In the Old Testament, Jacob goes to sleep and sees angels ascending to and descending from heaven on a ladder. He wakes up awe-stricken by the presence of God. In the canon for the Salutations to the Theotokos, we refer to her as a “ladder elevating everyone from earth by an act of grace,” for by God’s grace the Father’s Son became her son, uniting the divine with the human and opening paradise for everyone.
Today we remember St. John of the ladder, an ascetic who lived in the seventh century, who wrote a book called “The Ladder.” It is a book about thirty steps in our spiritual journey, which is compared to a climb upon a ladder. The book describes in detail the various qualities that are acquired in this process, the difficulties which arise, and the means by which each step is climbed.
The book is described also as an icon. In this icon we see people at various places on a ladder, with Christ awaiting at the top. There are also dark angels trying to pull people off the ladder and saints and bright angels praying and encouraging those on the ladder to continue upward. People are shown falling from various steps of the ladder – both clergy and laity – as a reminder that vigilance is required in the spiritual life, regardless of how far one may have traveled.
The genuine spiritual life, therefore, is something that requires a certain amount of effort and that there is a certain amount of peril associated with it in that those trying to live this life will encounter trials from both people and demons who will try to prevent them from persevering.
It should be noted at this point that when we speak about the spiritual life in the Church, this is something that the body participates in. Each part of our being-mind, body, and soul-is involved in the spiritual life. Fasting, standing or kneeling in prayer, making the sign of the cross, making prostrations, these are all means by which we use our bodies to ascend the spiritual ladder. In this process, we achieve that which we say in the prayers of baptism: “the body serving the reason-endowed mind.” In climbing the ladder of the spiritual life, thus, we put things in the correct order and set the right priorities for the eternal life.
May we, through the prayers of St. John of the Ladder, persevere in climbing towards our loving God.
With love in Christ,