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March 22, 2015

"The Ladder of Divine Ascent" and the Modern Reader

By John Chryssavgis

When already quite advanced in age, John the Sinaite wrote the Ladder at the request of John, Abba of Raithou. John did not at first wish to write anything, regarding himself as "a pauper and beggar as regards the virtues" and seeing the task as "beyond [his] strength," but he finally acceded to the request of Abba John, doing so under "the yoke of holy obedience, the mother of all virtues." He felt that John of Raithou should have asked this of the "well-experienced" because he believed that he was "still among the learners". The task was "beyond his power," and he only undertook it "with fear and love": "With my poor and scanty knowledge, and in my stammering way, I have sketched in ink alone the bare outline of living words." Humbly acknowledging his limitations and ignorance, his own work appears to him as rather clumsy and uninspiring. The fact of the case proved to be the precise opposite. True, until recently, such ascetic texts were not regarded as "serious" enough for academic study, but this has changed - a welcome change.

The immediate recipients of the Ladder were the cenobites under John of Raithou. John is explicit on this point: he sends it to none other than "to the God-called community who, together with me, are learning under you, O best of teachers." The audience, then, is clearly a monastic one: the Ladder is the work of a former solitary writing for cenobites, but it is the work of a former hermit who had personal contact with monks living in a community and who now, as spiritual father and perhaps already abbot, understood well the tribulations faced by such monks. The modern reader must keep all this in mind and not suppose that John intended people to be put off by, for instance, the Step relating to repentance, and especially the horrendous account of the monastic penitentiary or Prison in the same Step. Chitty believes that writer's of John's generation seem to have an instinct that they were living at the end of an epoch, one which summed up the teaching of the preceding centuries but which was at the same time open-minded, forward-looking and in a way unprecedented. This meant that before John could proceed to write down a teaching specifically for monks, he needed to proclaim the universality of the Creator God, the fact that salvation was for all and that marriage is in no way an impediment, although a married person must not expect to reach the attainments of a monk, and that chastity is by no means a monastic monopoly - and here John quotes Saint Peter as an example.

Two related points, then, should be kept in mind when reading the Ladder: first, the Ladder was written specifically for monks in a cenobium, and, second, it is relevant to lay people, too; the Ladder has indeed over the centuries influenced many monks and married people alike. Symeon the New Theologian finds the Ladder in the library of his father, a layman of the tenth-century aristocracy. It must be remembered that the monastic way of life is merely "the life according to the Gospel"; all are called to respond to Christ's call to salvation. The external circumstances of the response may vary but the path is essentially one. In the spiritual life there is no sharp distinction between monastics and non-monastics; the monastic life is simply the Christian life, lived in a particular way. Monks are Christians who have discovered special possibilities of imitating Christ and transcending normal conditions. "l' hesychaste, c' est le chretien fait priere." Viller-Rahner accuse Climacus of having made still narrower the evangelical way (Mt. 7:13) through his strict ascetical teaching, but this "way" is not more than another relationship with God and this is what is paramount for the understanding of John of the Ladder. Other "ways" may seem wider and easier but may have little or no revelation to the experience of the victory over death which is the Christian life, the goal at which the Ladder aims. "The Ladder is an invitation to pilgrimage," an invitation extended to all those who wish to be saved, provided they sincerely seek salvation. This is why the Ladder, although intended for monks, can also be of benefit to any Christian.

John primarily wants to write down an account of his own personal experience during his forty-year stay in the Sinaite desert, an account which is to stimulate a parallel personal experience in those who read the Ladder. This is precisely why it is, indirectly, addressed to all people. It is personal experience, then, that Climacus continually emphasizes in eliciting a response, in provoking the reader to a leap of faith, in bringing him to the point of personal encounter.

John wants us to understand that the meaning of Christianity lies much deeper than mere acceptance of certain doctrines and rules: "Just as it is impossible to learn to see by word of mouth, because seeing depends on one's own natural sight, so it is impossible to learn the beauty of prayer from the teaching of others." His aim is clearly pastoral, rather than didactic or normative: he usually refrains from giving detailed instructions about liturgical offices, techniques of prayer, methods and hours of askesis, food from which to abstain. He offers no intellectual or moral regulations but rather a path of initiation, a way of life consisting of eros towards God. What matters for him is not external, physical rules of asceticism as such but the interior disposition of the person, not an uncompromising obedience to ethical demands but humility and purity of heart: "David did not say, 'I have fasted,' 'I have kept vigil,' or 'I have lain on the bare earth,' but 'I humbled myself, and straightaway the Lord saved me'" (Ps. 114:6). As regards external rules, Climacus is writing for monks, who would already known about them from their life in the monastery. Thus he does not discuss this aspect. His purpose is to indicate the inner spirit and meaning behind the outward rule.

The Ladder is an existential work, concerned with concrete experience, intended for monks but equally relevant to lay persons resolved to ascend: "Only those who read it existentially will appropriate its true value" (Kallistos Ware).

From Ascent To Heaven by John Chryssavgis (Holy Cross Orthodox Press 1989) pp. 9-12.