On the Fourth Sunday of Lent the Church speaks to us of moving upwards, of a climb up a ladder. We all picture ourselves working towards greatness. We want to climb the ladder of success. We strive for excellence in school. We compete for sports trophies. We focus ourselves on reaching our career goal. Sometimes we don’t make the mark; we are close. Other times, we miss the mark entirely. We don’t give up; we get back on the ladder and keep trying. We are driven by our society to climb the ladder of success.
When we reach this “blissful” plateau, are we really happy? For the first few moments we are elated. Then reality sets in; where do we go from here? Do we continually crave more glory? It seems like a never ending climb projecting upward, always wanting more and never being satisfied.
This brings us to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, honoring St. John Climacus or St. John of the Ladder. This isn’t just any ladder; this is the Ladder of Divine Ascent, from earth to Heaven. St. John wrote a manual for monastics entitled The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Though this manual is primarily monastic, the image of the Ladder is relevant for us. In an era, when we strive to climb spiritually hollow ladders of success, the Ladder of St. John Climacus offers the ascent for spiritual success and perfection; Theosis. The Ladder of St. John Climacus is constructed of 30 rungs or steps, each of which represents one year in the life of Christ to the age of His baptism. Each step offers instruction and guidance for those who strive to follow the path of Christ, “Be perfect as your Heavenly father is perfect”, by which the Christian may reach the pinnacle of spiritual perfection, and receive the fullness of life in Christ.
In the monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai, there is an ancient Icon of the Heavenly ladder. The Icon depicts monks climbing a ladder to Heaven. Winged demons flutter about some of the monks and obstruct their progress. Some of the monks are dragged from the ladder and fall into Hell. Jesus is depicted in Heaven at the top of the ladder, and He welcomes St. John Climacus who is on the topmost rung. Yet, there is more to the Icon. Christ is not just at the top of the ladder, but his presence is also on the ladder to assist us on our climb up each step.
St. John describes the rungs as thirty progressive steps on the ladder. The first seven steps describe the basis to climb the ladder and the basic virtues of obedience and penitence. Steps eight to twenty-three describe the main vices to be conquered for progress in the spiritual life. Some of these vices are malice, slander, talkativeness, falsehood, gluttony, avarice, insensitivity, jealousy and pride. St. John Climacus offers recommendations for this spiritual warfare and discusses its virtues: simplicity, humility, and discernment, in steps twenty-four to twenty-six. In steps twenty-seven to thirty, St. John describes the virtues for those who reach the top of the ladder and union with God, for example: prayer, faith, hope, and love.
The ladder symbolizes spiritual progress and growth. St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “Having once put your foot on the ladder, which God is leaning against, go on climbing…every rung leads up to the beyond.” That is the purpose for the Church offering the ladder as an image of spiritual growth during Lent. According to St. John Climacus spirituality is not just perfectionism, but a process of upward progress and spiritual growth which leads to God and holiness
The image of the ladder is our 6th Puzzle piece. Step by step we are to ascend the Ladder on the rungs of faith, love, hope, prayer, humility, repentance, gentleness, kindness, and obedience, nurtured by worship and the Holy Eucharist. We who enjoy the challenges afforded by “climbing” the rungs of various earthly ladders; how many rungs can we climb spiritually? We can only grasp this puzzle piece by making the climb. The progress is step by step, as St. John advises, “You will be rejected if you have the effrontery to leap to the top of the Ladder of love.”
Let’s climb the Ladder of St. John Climacus and obtain the sixth puzzle piece. The advice of each rung provides spiritual enrichment at this point in our Lenten journey and is the preparation for our approach to Holy Week and The Resurrection.