The Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent
The Ladder of Divine Ascent, written by Saint John, Abbot of Sinai an surnamed Climacus (of the Ladder) is a manual to the means of acquiring spiritual perfection. This work was written at the request of one of Saint John’s contemporaries, St. John the Abbot of Raithu of Egypt.
The spiritual classic consists of 30 steps, each concerned with a particular aspect concerning the passions and human nature. This is a very real dissection into the heart of man, of which the Holy Fathers understood well. The use of the metaphor Ladder is a very powerful construct, using the notion of ascent, one run at a time. The ladder consists of the following 30 steps, each leading to the next.
Sections 1–4 share common themes of Renunciation of the world and obedience to a spiritual father
1. On renunciation of the world, or asceticism
2. On detachment
3. On exile or pilgrimage; concerning dreams that beginners have
4. On blessed and ever-memorable obedience (in addition to episodes involving many individuals))
Secrtions 5–7 share these common themes: Penitence and affliction as paths to true joy
5. On painstaking and true repentance, which constitutes the life of the holy convicts, and about the Prison
6. On remembrance of death
7. On joyful mourning
8–17: Defeat of vices and acquisition of virtue
8. On freedom from anger and on meekness
9. On remembrance of wrongs
10. On slander or calumny
11. On talkativeness and silence
12. On lying
13. On despondency
14. On that clamorous mistress, the stomach
15. On incorruptible purity and chastity, to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
16. On love of money, or avarice
17. On non-possessiveness (that hastens one Heavenwards
18–26: Avoidance of the traps of asceticism (laziness, pride, mental stagnation)
18. On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
19. On sleep, prayer, and psalmody with the brotherhood
20. On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil, and how to practice it
21. On unmanly and puerile cowardice
22. On the many forms of vainglory
23. On mad pride and (in the same Step) on unclean blasphemous thoughts; concerning unmentionable blasphemous thoughts
24. On meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness, which come not from nature but from conscious effort, and on guile
25. On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception
26. On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues; on expert discernment; brief summary of all aforementioned
27–29: Acquisition of hesychia, or peace of the soul, of prayer, and of apatheia (dispassion or equanimity with respect to afflictions or suffering)
27. On holy stillness of body and soul; different aspects of stillness and how to distinguish them
28. On holy and blessed prayer, the mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer
29. Concerning Heaven on earth, or Godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection
30. Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues; a brief exhortation summarizing all that has said at length in this book
The icon displayed above, and which is so closely linked to the Ladder of Divine Ascent, draws a close connection between ascent of the 30 rung ladder to heaven. The Saviour is portrayed at the top of the ladder, stretching forth His hands as if to say, “well done thou good and faithful servant”.
The “divine ascent” to the top of the ladder is filled with obstacles – snares set forth by the enemy of our salvation. These obstacles are the very graphic portrayal of sin represented by the demons, armed with bow and arrows and standing by vigilantly to take the souls of the unrepentant. The icon shows several examples of fathers and monks that fell into temptation, dragged away by the dark demons with dark chains into the abyss. In the context of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, we understand this ladder as visual representation of the monks and their struggles sin. It is perhaps for this reason that contemporary man has lost any knowledge of this work or has cast it aside as a purely ascetical set of instruction. This is greatly unfortunate as men of this age have lost sight of the spiritual struggle, renouncing fasting, prayer, and soulful morning as foolishness. The moment a man no longer fears sin is the moment he has fallen from the ladder, endangering his soul for eternity. Men need this saving message perhaps more than ever!
It is said that Saint Nikon is father who has completed his ascent. The faithful surely would have recognized his icon and known of his manner of life. His placement in the icon shows encourages us in our climb to remain perserverent, as the enemy’s first dart is to make us despondent of the long journey and struggle ahead of us.
That the prayers of the living are helpful to others, the icon portrays the fathers gathered at the lower right. We see their arms raised in prayer to the Lord so that He might send His angels to help those struggling.
As observers we learn that it is a life based on faith and action, prayer and repentance as the way to salvation. This is the lesson that the monks teach us. This lesson is not unique to this particular work however as the reader can draw many close connections between this work and other works such as “The Spiritual Medow”, “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”, “The Philokalia”, “The Way of the Ascetics”, “The Evergetinos” and others. All of these works share the same spirit and love. This ladder is truly set forth for all of us. This also displays the words of Saint Paul when he teaches us to seek the image of God, that we too may changed from glory to glory cf 2 Corinthians 3:18. The Orthodox see life as a constant journey of man towards his Saviour. This is a journey of toil and labor, of effort and struggle. Contrary to modern thought, this mentality is not designed to limit man somehow or to hold him back. On the contrary, the Church teaches with great boldness that we truly can and must seek after holiness and this can only be accomplished with practice of the virtuous life, with God’s help and abiding Grace.