Ladders of Ascent

I am trying to read St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent* for Lent this year. I say trying because I was in the midst of The Mystery of God at the start of this season, so I waited until I was done that before starting this. It struck me as a disciplined way of reading. I am, as it works out, still stuck in the Introduction by Kallistos Ware (the most prolific translator and introducer of the Orthodox world), which is itself illuminating.

I thought I would share some of my pre-reading thoughts with you. Mostly about ladders and ascent.

First, the image of the ladder is not restricted to St John Climacus (of course). It comes into Christian spiritual writing from the vision of Jacob in Genesis 28:10-19 (‘Jacob’s Ladder’). In this vision, Jacob sees the angels of God ascending and descending between heaven and earth. Here is William Blake’s painting thereof:

I always find Blake’s images striking and thought-provoking, even if, like his poetry, they are not strictly orthodox.

Met Kallistos mentions that St Gregory of Nazianzus (Oration 43, 71), St John Chrysostom (Homilies on John 83, 5), and Theodoret of Cyrrhus (Historia Religiosa or History of the Monks in Syria 27) all also used the image of the ladder as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Those three are St John’s precedents — the image also comes later in the West in Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection.

The idea of the ladder is, of course, of a metaphorical, spiritual ‘ascent’ to God from the lowly life of this earthly world. It is worth stressing that, overall (despite use of physical imagery), the biblical and traditional view of God and ‘heaven’ is that He is not in the heavens (that is, the sky) but as close as our very breath. Heaven is all around us. The Kingdom of the Heavens is right here (an important modern contributor to this is Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy).

The heavens are here, but our senses are dulled to them — dulled by sin and by fallenness. We need to climb ‘up’, back to God, back to heaven. And so, using an image drawn from Scripture as well as some Platonic teaching, the image of the ladder goes up.

For interest, the classic anonymous text of fourth-century Christian Syriac spirituality is The Book of Steps — there, we ascend to Christ by a series of steps; there are two paths, one of which is easier to stay on but slower to reach the goal than the narrow one. We also have images from Christian piety of ascending mountains — St John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mt Carmel, for example, or many references, such as in St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Gregory of Nyssa, of ascending Mt Sinai and like Moses.

We have all, through our shared, fallen, human state, as well as our own actual sins, to which we are, sadly, in bondage, moved away from God. Christ, however, has opened up the gate that we may return. This is the ascent. It can be arduous for us at times, but we have more than a Guide in the Good Shepherd who has shown the pathway and will carry us if need be.

The ascent of the mystic into the cloud of unknowing is nothing other than finding the Holy Trinity. And we can start the climb wherever we are, lay or monk, husband or wife, student or job-seeker, CEO or priest, housewife or factory worker. Let’s climb the ladder.

*Two things: Climacus is a latinization of Klimakos, which means ‘of the ladder.’ The name varies; it is often as quoted above in English (as in the translation by Norman Russell for The Classics of Western Spirituality, which I am reading), but sometimes just The Ladder sometimes The Ladder of Paradise.

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On the Quicumque Vult (pt 2): Religion Gone Bad?

Yesterday, I successfully placed the so-called “Creed of Saint Athanasius” or “Quicumque Vult” in its context.  It has lived beyond its context, surviving in books and documents and liturgical use — traditionally, Anglicans recite this statement of faith every Trinity Sunday.  I don’t think very many do, anymore, and not just because of the equation: length + liturgical laziness = cutting out bits of the liturgy.

I would venture to say that many people dislike this piece of theology because of its introduction and conclusion.  The introductory paragraph of the Athanasian Creed runs:

Whoever wishes to be saved, it is necessary before all things, that he cling to the Catholic faith:  unless someone will have held this [faith] whole and undefiled and away from falseness, he will perish eternally.

The offending clause is the closing one, “he will perish eternally.”  No one wants to hear this sort of thing today.  Isn’t this the sort of thing Fred Phelps is into?  Isn’t this what a lot people are trying to get away from?  Doesn’t this just prove that religion is an oppressive, divisive force?

What does it even mean, “perish eternally”?  Most people are probably thinking, “Hellfire and brimstone!  Hellfire and brimstone!  HEAVEN!  OR HELL!!  HEAVEN!!  OR HELL!!!”  I don’t rightly know, actually.  It seems that those who are not caught up into the great embrace of Christ in the great beyond, those who find themselves amongst the goats on Judgement Day, are described variously as being cast into the outer darkness where there is moaning and gnashing of teeth, or into Gehenna which is Jerusalem’s burning garbage heap, or into a lake of fire, or to suffer the second death, or simply to be sent away from the presence of Christ.

Whatever it is that happens to those who find themselves outside of Christ at the Resurrection, it is not something to look forward to.  Perhaps it is simply the cessation of existence.  St. Augustine seems to think it is eternal punishment.  Madeleine L’Engle can’t imagine a good God punishing any of His creation for all time; neither can St. Gregory of Nyssa.  Origen even imagined that the people who die the second death and go to Hades are raised up and perfected by Christ and reunited to the Monad at the end of all things (apocatastasis for those who care).

Whatever it is, though, we freely choose it.  We pave our own road to Hell.  We choose ourselves over others, the world over Christ, sin over righteousness every step of the way.  And this road we pave is easily laid.  It’s also nice and broad, smooth and pleasant.  Until, of course, we reach the top of a hill and are tossed off the hill by demons into a pit of dragons (this description based on an icon I saw in a supermarket in Cyprus).

God offers the free gift of salvation to everyone.  If we choose not to accept it, we are condemning ourselves to perish eternally.

Of course, protestations arise that that’s not what the Quicumque Vult says. It says that we must keep the Catholic faith whole and undefiled.  We must also do good works, according to the conclusion of the text.

The Catholic faith is the means of accepting the gift of salvation.  If God is offering us a gift, we must have faith in Him to accept it.  If I did not have faith in my brother, I might not accept a gift given by him, expecting instead of something pleasant those springy snakes instead.  So faith, as in trust, is essential for accepting the gift.

Part of accepting this gift is knowing the giver.  God is not aloof from us.  He offers us salvation, and if we truly trust* Him, we will come to know Him.  We will learn of Who He is.  And Who is He?  Who is this God whom we trust, this God Who saves us from sin, death, the devil, eternal perishing?

Look at the Quicumque Vult.  It will show you Who it is Whom you trust.

*Philological phun phact: these two words are cognate along with tree.