The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a foundational work of Orthodox asceticism and it is one of the few universal classics of world spirituality. It is the inspiration from a renowned icon, pictured along with this article, and it lent its name to its author, St John of Sinai, more commonly known as St John Climacus or St John of the Ladder. Although it was written originally for his fellow monks on Mt Sinai, it outlines a spiritual path that applies to everyone, and it has long been customary for Orthodox Christians to see regard this as obligatory Lenten reading.
Using the image of a ladder connecting heaven and earth from the dream of the Patriarch Jacob in Genesis 28, St John offers a wise and powerfully insightful catalogue of virtues and vices that serve as signposts for spiritual ascent. The following selections are drawn from several different translations, while the notes are those of Archimandrite Lazarus Moore’s original translation, published by Faber and Faber, and reissued in a revised translation by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. The entire text (in Greek) is accessible online at: Βικιθήκη.
“The irreligious man is a mortal being with a rational nature, who of his own free will turns his back on life and thinks of his own Maker, the ever-existent, as non-existent. The lawless man is one who holds the law of God after his own depraved fashion,1 and thinks to combine faith in God with heresy that is directly opposed to Him. The Christian is one who imitates Christ in thought, word and deed, as far as is possible for human beings, believing rightly and blamelessly in the Holy Trinity. The lover of God is he who lives in communion with all that is natural and sinless, and as far as he is able neglects nothing good.” (Step 1, Section 4)
“Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me: ‘We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?’ I replied to them: ‘Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate anyone; do not be absent from the divine services; be compassionate to the needy; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness,2 and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.’” (Step 1, Section 21)
“Those who have really determined to serve Christ, with the help of spiritual fathers and their own self-knowledge, will strive before all else to choose a place, and a way of life, and a habitation, and exercises suitable for them. For community life is not for all, on account of covetousness; and places of solitude are not for all, on account of anger. But each will consider what is most suited to his needs.” (Step 1, Section 25)
“Exile means that we leave forever everything in our own country that prevents us from reaching the goal of the religious life. Exile means modest manners, wisdom which remains unknown, prudence no recognized as such by most, a hidden life, an invisible intention, unseen meditation, desire for humiliation, longing for hardship, constant determination to love God, abundance of charity, renunciation of vainglory, depth of silence. (Step 3, Section 1)
“At the gate of your heart place strict and unsleeping guards. Control your wandering mind in your distracted body. Amidst the actions and movements of your limbs, practice inward stillness (hesychia). And most paradoxical of all, in the midst of commotion be unmoved in soul. Curb your tongue which rages to leap into arguments. Seventy times seven in the day wrestle with this tyrant.” (Step 4, Section 36)
“To admire the labors of the saints is good; to emulate them wins salvation; but to wish suddenly to imitate their life in every point is unreasonable and impossible.” (Step 4, Section 42)
“Let us find in what is called quicksilver an image of perfect obedience. For with whatever material we roll it, it runs to the lowest place, and will mix with no defilement.” (Step 4, Section 98)
“A servant of the Lord is he who in body stands before men, but in mind knocks at Heaven with prayer.” (Step 4, Section 102)
“The beginning of freedom from anger is silence of the lips when the heart is agitated; the next is silence of the thoughts when there is a mere disturbance of the soul; the last is an imperturbable calm when unclean winds are blowing.” (Step 8, Section 4)
“An angry person is like a voluntary epileptic who, on a casual pretext, keeps convulsing and falling down.” (Step 8, Section 11)
“If it is true that the Holy Spirit is peace of soul, as He is said to be and as, indeed, He is, and if anger is disturbance of the heart, as it actually is and as it is said to be, then there is no greater obstacle to the presence of the Spirit in us than anger.” (Step 8, Section 14)
“To judge others is a shameless arrogation of the Divine prerogative; to condemn is the ruin of one’s soul.” (Step 10, Section 14)
“Do not say that you are interested in money for sake of the poor; with two mites the Kingdom was purchased.”3 (Step 16, Section 5)
“The sun shines on all alike, and vainglory beams on all activities. For instance, I am vainglorious when I fast; and when I relax the fast in order to be unnoticed, I am again vainglorious over my prudence. When well-dressed I am quite overcome by vainglory, and when I put on poor clothes I am vainglorious again. When I talk I am defeated, and when I am silent I am again defeated by it. However I throw this prickly-pear, a spike stands upright.” (Step 22, Section 5)
“An angel fell from Heaven without any other passion except pride, and so we may ask whether it is possible to ascend to Heaven by humility alone, without any other of the virtues.” (Step 23, Section 12)
“Some, I know not why (for I have not learned to pry conceitedly into the gifts of God) are by nature, I might say, prone to temperance, or stillness, or purity, or modest, or meekness, or contrition. But others, although almost their own nature itself resists them in this, to the best of their power force themselves; and though they occasionally suffer defeat yet, as men struggling with nature, they are in my opinion higher than the former. Do not boast, man, of the wealth you have obtained without labor. For the Bestower, foreseeing your great hurt, and infirmity, and ruin, at least saves you to some extent by those unmerited gifts.” (Step 26, Section 28-29)
“Let us try to learn divine truth more by toil and sweat than by mere words, for at the time of our departure it is not mere words but deeds that will have to be shown.” (Step 26, Section 36)
“If there is a time for everything under heaven, as Ecclesiastes says, and by the word ‘everything’ must be understood what concerns our holy life, then if you please, let us look into it and let us seek to do at each time what is proper for that occasion. For it is certain that, for those who enter the lists, there is a time for dispassion and a time for passion (I say this for the combatants who are serving their apprenticeship); there is a time for tears, and a time for hardness of heart; there is a time for obedience, and there is a time to command; there is a time to fast, and a time to partake; there is a time for battle with our enemy the body, and a time when the fire is dead; a time of storm in the soul, and a time of calm in the mind; a time for heartfelt sorrow, and a time for spiritual joy; a time for teaching, and a time for listening; a time of pollutions, perhaps on account of conceit, and a time for cleansing by humility; a time for struggle, and a time for safe relaxation; a time for stillness, and a time for undistracted distraction; a time for unceasing prayer, and a time for sincere service. So let us not be deceived by proud zeal, and seek prematurely what will come in its own good time; that is, we should not seek in winter what comes in summer, or at seed time what comes at harvest; because there is a time to sow labors, and a time to reap the unspeakable gifts of grace. Otherwise, we shall not receive even in season what is proper to that season” (Step 26, Section 87)
“In all your undertakings and in every way of life, whether you are living in obedience, or are not submitting your work to anyone, whether in outward or in spiritual matters, let it be your rule and practice to ask yourself: Am I really doing this in accordance with God’s will?” (Step 26, Section 91)
“Even a small thing can be not small to the great; but to the small, even great things are not altogether perfect.” (Step 26, Section 92)
“There are many ways of piety and perdition. That is why it often happens that a way that is unsuitable for one just fits another; and the intention of both is acceptable to the Lord.” (Step 26, Section 105)
“Those who wish to learn the will of the Lord must first mortify their own will. Then having prayed to God with faith and guileless simplicity, and having asked the fathers or even the brothers with humility of heart and no thought of doubt, they should accept their advice as from the mouth of God, even if their advice be contrary to their own view, and even if those consulted are not very spiritual. For God is not unjust, and will not lead astray souls who with faith and innocence humbly submit to the advice and judgment of their neighbor. Even if those who were asked were brute beasts, yet He who speaks is the Immaterial and Invisible One. Those who allow themselves to be guided by this rule without having any doubts are filled with great humility.” (Step 26, Section 111)
“Seeking for what is beyond us may have perilous results. The Lord’s judgment about us is unfathomable. By His special providence, He often chooses to hide His will from us, knowing that, even if we were to learn it, we should disobey it, and should thereby receive greater punishment.” (Step 26, Section 120)
“All creatures have received from the Creator their order of being and their beginning, and some their end too. But the end of virtue is endless. For the Psalmist says: Of all perfection I have seen the end, but Thy commandment is exceedingly spacious and endless.4 If some good ascetics go from the strength of action to the strength5 of contemplation, and if love never ceases,6 and if the Lord will guard the coming in of your fear and the going out7 of your love, then the end of love will be truly endless. We shall never cease to advance in it, either in the present or in the future life, continually adding light to light. And however strange what I have said may seem to many, nevertheless it shall be said. According to the testimonies we have given, I would say, blessed father, even the spiritual beings [i.e. the angels] do not lack progress; on the contrary, they ever add glory to glory, and knowledge to knowledge.” (Step 26, Section 153)
“Stillness (hesychia) is worshipping God and waiting upon Him. Let the remembrance of Jesus8 be present with each breath, and then you will know the value of stillness.” (Step 27, Sections 60, 61)
“Prayer is by nature a dialogue and a union of man with God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves a reconciliation with God.” (Step 28, Section 1)
“Pray in all simplicity. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single utterance.” (Step 28, Section 5)
“If the face of a loved one clearly and completely changes us, and makes us cheerful, glad, and carefree, what will the Face of the Lord Himself not do when He makes His Presence felt invisibly in a pure soul?” (Step 30, Section 16)
1. Cf. Romans 1: 18.
2. Lit. “go near the bed of another.”
3. Luke 21:2.
4. Psalm 118:96
5. Psalm 83:8
6. I Corinthians 13:8
7. Psalm 120:7
8. This patristic expression denotes the Jesus Prayer, and not the simple remembrance of the name of Jesus.
ABOUT ST. JOHN OF THE LADDER
St John of Sinai, more commonly known as St John of the Ladder (Climacus) was born in the year 570 and entered what is now St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai at the age of sixteen. He went on to become abbot of the monastery for four years, but prior to this he retreated for forty years of silence, fasting, and prayer to a cave at some distance above the monastery, which can still be reached through a trek of several hours on a rugged path through wild territory. During his later time as abbot, which began when he was seventy-five years of age, he was asked by the abbot of a neighboring monastery to put into writing his hard-won wisdom as “true instruction for those who seek unwaveringly, and a kind of steadfast ladder that will take those who desire it to the Heavenly gates…” His Feast Day is on March 30.
Perhaps no better hagiography can be found than this Kontakion, which is chanted in Tone 1:
You offered us your teachings as fruits of everlasting freshness,
To sweeten the hearts of those who receive them with attention.
O blessed and wise John, they are the rungs of a ladder,
Leading the souls of those who honor you from earth to Eternal glory in Heaven!