I first read Saint John Climacus’ book, The Heavenly Ladder, when I was a teenager. When you open this monument of Christian spirituality, you discover a new world, very different from the vision of the world that we are used to. The spiritual world is real. Spiritual warfare is real. This was the first lesson I learned when I started reading this book. The struggle is not me against the world. It is me against myself and my passions. This is the reason why at the bottom of the ladder one does not find repentance or vigilance but “on renunciation of the world:”
The man who renounces the world from fear is like burning incense, that begins with fragrance but ends in smoke. He who leaves the world through hope of reward is like a millstone, that always moves in the same way. But he who withdraws from the world out of love for God has obtained fire at the very outset; and, like fire set to fuel, it soon kindles a larger fire. (1, 13)
The second lesson I learned was that Christianity, especially in the East, is lived through experience. St. John’s Ladder is THE handbook in thirty steps for spiritual life in the absoluteness, the radicality of the Christian faith in the conversion of hearts. It goes beyond psychology, because it is not about knowing oneself, it is about contemplating God in the silence of prayer.
The paradox of St. John Climacus’ life in the 6th-century desert of Egypt is that by consecrating his life to contemplation in the most inhospitable place on earth, at the same time he traveled through all the places of humanity. This experience became a pilgrimage through his own life, nourishing his knowledge of God by his many encounters, discussions, but also battles. What holiness offers to today’s world is this capacity to give to everything a deeper meaning, to recognize that God is at work in the world as in our lives.
The road to salvation that St. John describes does not only apply to monks and nuns. Every baptized Christian is called to climb up the ladder, step after step. St. John’s talent, his charism, is to make sense out of the weirdest, most radical way of life: monasticism. But it does not only apply to monasticism, it encompasses the spiritual life of every Christian because it speaks of the universality of the virtues. Even if it would not make sense to apply all the advice contained in this work to the letter, much of it applies to today’s life.
When I was a student in Orthodox theology in Paris, I was quick to criticize my professors for not being what I thought they should have been, intellectuals more than “real” theologians. Forgive me, I was young. And one day I came across this quote:
Do not judge too severely those who are eloquent in preaching but do not support this in practice, for the profit of a word has often compensated for the dearth of deeds. We do not all obtain everything in equal measure. With some, speech takes precedence over action, but with others, the latter transcends the former. (26, 155)
Several years later, I still remember this quote and try to apply it to my own preaching. Even if I am not as good as I think I am, I try with God’s help to reconcile teaching and practice.
The Ladder is a wonderful book in which you can read one page a day all your life—some paragraphs are even shorter than a tweet—and, like Holy Scripture, you can continue finding new revelations because the grace of God is infinite. It is by reading it over and over that I opened myself to the world of theology and, more strangely, to the world of literature because it gave me a taste for reading.
At the top of the ladder is not perfection or even contemplation or deification. The last stage of the Heavenly Ladder is dedicated to the three virtues of love, hope, and faith:
May this ladder teach you the spiritual combination of the virtues. On the top of it I have established myself, as my great initiate said: And now there remain faith, hope, love—these three; but the greatest of all is love. (30, 36)
Father Nicolas Kazarian is the parish priest at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church in New York City.
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