St Catherine of Siena: ‘Eternal Trinity, you are a deep sea’

Reading II in Benedictine Daily Prayer for today — the feast of St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) — included a selection from the following passage of the Dialogue on Divine Providence. Here is the translation available at the CCEL. The paragraphing is mine.

I confess and do not deny that You loved me before I existed, and that Your love for me is ineffable, as if You were mad with love for Your creature.

Oh, eternal Trinity! oh Godhead! which Godhead gave value to the Blood of Your Son, You, oh eternal Trinity, are a deep Sea, into which the deeper I enter the more I find, and the more I find the more I seek; the soul cannot be satiated in Your abyss, for she continually hungers after You, the eternal Trinity, desiring to see You with light in Your light. As the hart desires the spring of living water, so my soul desires to leave the prison of this dark body and see You in truth.

How long, oh! Eternal Trinity, fire and abyss of love, will Your face be hidden from my eyes? Melt at once the cloud of my body. The knowledge which You have given me of Yourself in Your truth, constrains me to long to abandon the heaviness of my body, and to give my life for the glory and praise of Your Name, for I have tasted and seen with the light of the intellect in Your light, the abyss of You—the eternal Trinity, and the beauty of Your creature, for, looking at myself in You, I saw myself to be Your image, my life being given me by Your power, oh! eternal Father, and Your wisdom, which belongs to Your only-begotten Son, shining in my intellect and my will, being one with Your Holy Spirit, who proceeds from You and Your Son, by whom I am able to love You.

You, Eternal Trinity, are my Creator, and I am the work of Your hands, and I know through the new creation which You have given me in the blood of Your Son, that You are enamored of the beauty of Your workmanship.

Oh! Abyss, oh! Eternal Godhead, oh! Sea Profound! what more could You give me than Yourself; You are the fire which ever burns without being consumed; You consume in Your heat all the soul’s self-love; You are the fire which takes away all cold; with Your light You do illuminate me so that I may know all Your truth; You are that light above all light, which illuminates supernaturally the eye of my intellect, clarifying the light of faith so abundantly and so perfectly, that I see that my soul is alive, and in this light receives You—the true light.

By the Light of faith I have acquired wisdom in the wisdom of the Word—Your only-begotten Son. In the light of faith I am strong, constant, and persevering. In the light of faith I hope, suffer me not to faint by the way. This light, without which I should still walk in darkness, teaches me the road, and for this I said, Oh! Eternal Father, that You have illuminated me with the light of holy faith.

Of a truth this light is a sea, for the soul revels in You, Eternal Trinity, the Sea Pacific. The water of the sea is not turbid, and causes no fear to the soul, for she knows the truth; it is a deep which manifests sweet secrets, so that where the light of Your faith abounds, the soul is certain of what she believes. This water is a magic mirror into which You, the Eternal Trinity, bid me gaze, holding it with the hand of love, that I may see myself, who am Your creature, there represented in You, and Yourself in me through the union which You made of Your godhead with our humanity.

For this light I know to represent to myself You—the Supreme and Infinite Good, Good Blessed and Incomprehensible, Good Inestimable. Beauty above all beauty; Wisdom above all wisdom—for You are wisdom itself. You, the food of the angels, have given Yourself in a fire of love to men; You, the garment which covers all our nakedness, feed the hungry with Your sweetness.

Oh! Sweet, without any bitter, oh! Eternal Trinity, I have known in Your light, which You have given me with the light of holy faith, the many and wonderful things You have declared to me, explaining to me the path of supreme perfection, so that I may no longer serve You in darkness, but with light, and that I may be the mirror of a good and holy life, and arise from my miserable sins, for through them I have hitherto served You in darkness.

I have not known Your truth and have not loved it. Why did I not know You? Because I did not see You with the glorious light of the holy faith; because the cloud of self-love darkened the eye of my intellect, and You, the Eternal Trinity, have dissipated the darkness with Your light.

Who can attain to Your Greatness, and give You thanks for such immeasurable gifts and benefits as You have given me in this doctrine of truth, which has been a special grace over and above the ordinary graces which You give also to Your other creatures? You have been willing to condescend to my need and to that of Your creatures—the need of introspection. Having first given the grace to ask the question, You reply to it, and satisfy Your servant, penetrating me with a ray of grace, so that in that light I may give You thanks.

Clothe me, clothe me with You, oh! Eternal Truth, that I may run my mortal course with true obedience and the light of holy faith, with which light I feel that my soul is about to become inebriated afresh.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus

John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent (The Classics of Western Spirituality)John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book in Eastertide 2015. I’ve been meaning to write about it for about a year, now! Sorry about that. I felt today would be a good day since yesterday was his commemoration in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Anyway, The Ladder of Divine Ascent is one of the most popular works of spiritual writing in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Its popularity in the Christian East is similar to St Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ — this latter being the most copied, printed, and translated book of western Christendom next to the Bible. It is read in every Eastern Orthodox monastery in Lent as well as by many of the laity.

St John ‘of the Ladder’ (translating klimakos) was the late sixth-century abbot of the monastery at Sinai, now known as St Catherine’s. In this book, he distills the wisdom he has acquired through his own long years as a monk, a solitary, and a spiritual guide.

It is hard when reviewing such a classic as this to find the right words (I used this same cop-out in my review of City of God, I know). I found much of value in it, but it was hard-going. It is not an easy book. Books by monks for monks rarely are. Nonetheless, there is much here even for the lay Anglican. That may not be the strongest recommendation. Nonetheless, I do recommend this book for the determined inquirer in the spiritual reality of the Triune God.

A friend on Facebook asked me if this was a good guide to the via negativa. The answer is that this book is not a work of mystical theology. It is mainly a guide to praktike, the external practices that one must couple to theoria (or contemplation) in order to ascent the ladder to God. A great number of the steps are about how to do battle against the passions, using a slightly different schema of their division from the more famous Evagrian one that made its way into the 7 deadly sins via St Gregory the Great.

This is not to say that theoria is completely ignored by any means. Theoria is the point of the ascent. This text lies historically near the beginning of the Jesus Prayer tradition, as we see in this quotation:

“Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath. Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness.”

St John’s Ladder is about the heart of monastic spirituality. It is about the quest for apatheia — dispassion, that elusive state of being where the unclean logismoi of our flesh or of the demons, stirred up in our fallen hearts, break against our armour, as we storm the gates of Hell armed with prayer and the Holy Name of Jesus on our lips. In this, St John stands with Evagrian apatheia and St John Cassian’s purity of heart.

As the topics of discussion listed below show us, the ascetic practices of the Ladder are not restricted to those of prayer or those of daily life. They embrace the whole of our situation. This is in accord with Archimandrite Sophrony’s warnings in His Life Is Mine against engaging in spiritual practices without the rest of the virtuous life and the doctrine of the Church to uphold us. It resonates also with the introductory remarks to The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text, where the translators remind us of so many people who get caught up in the externals of Christian life, forgetting the better part of Mary of Bethany.

The 30 steps of the Ladder are:

1. On renunciation of the world
2. On detachment
3. On exile or pilgrimage
4. On blessed and ever-memorable obedience
5. On painstaking and true repentance which constitute the life of the holy convicts; and about the prison (this is about a monastery he visited in Alexandria where monks guilty of certain offences were sent to a “prison”)
6. On remembrance of death
7. On mourning which causes joy
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 (akkedia
14. On the clamorous, yet wicked master—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 poverty (that hastens heavenwards)
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 psalm-singing in chapel
20. On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil and how to practise 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
24. On meekness, simplicity, guilelessness which come not from nature but from habit, and about malice
25. On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual feeling
26. On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues
27. On holy solitude of body and soul
28. On holy and blessed prayer, 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

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The Cistercian World, selected and translated by Pauline Matarasso

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth CenturyThe Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century by Pauline Matarasso
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my Lent reading for 2016. It is the second Penguin Classic translated by Pauline Matarasso that I’ve read, the first having been her superb The Quest of the Holy Grail. This volume is an excellent anthology in readable English of selections from some of the most important figures in the twelfth-century Cistercian movement. It moves chronologically from the founding of the abbey at Cîteaux to the close of the century.

Matarasso gives a handy introduction to the origins of the Cistercians and their move away from some of the decadence of contemporary Benedictine abbeys, especially many associated with Cluny. Cistercians sought to return to the original letter and spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. Cistercian spirituality is a spirituality based on simplicity of life, dress, manners, art, architecture. It is based upon Scripture and the Fathers, and Cistercians sought through their patristic, scriptural simplicity, to attain union with God through contemplative prayer in the midst of the opus dei, the liturgy of hours. To further assist the reader in interpretation, each text has its own introduction, and there are endnotes.

Cistercians included in this volume are Stephen Harding, Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St Thierry, Guerric of Igny, Amedeus of Lausanne, Aelred of Rievaulx, Isaac of Stella, Gilbert of Hoyland, John of Ford, and Adam of Perseigne, as well as an anonymous description of the abbey and selections of exemplary stories about Bernard and other early Cistercians.

These men are aware of their own finitude in the face of the transcendent God. However, equipped with love, with the Scriptures, and with the power of prayer, they set out to clarify their knowledge of the divine and enter into God’s loving embrace, encountering the bridegroom of the human soul.

Some of St Bernard’s Sermons on the Song of Songs are included here, and they are mightily inspiring, reminding us of the different kinds of love and how we can fulfil the commands. Also inspiring for me were the Meditations of William of St Thierry, who demonstrates the heart of the contemplative. Aelred of Rievaulx’s On Spiritual Friendship is important for us to think over as we live in relationship with others—what sort of friendship is to be cultivated, and how to use friendship to attain spiritual heights.

This is the sort of book that makes you want to pray more and engage in ascetic endeavour. I am a most imperfect example of someone who fulfils that desire, however. Nonetheless, I have copied out some of the passages of the book for private meditation and hope to reread the whole anthology again someday in order to further deepen the grace God gives through his servants. Finally, I would urge anyone interested in the Christian mystical tradition to read this book and see what our forebears in the faith said, thought, and did, and also to be reminded (if you know of the eastern tradition) of the silent ecumenism that links mysticism across time and space and ecclesial boundaries.

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The Silent Ecumenism of the Mystical Tradition

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum
Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In his 2006 article for First Things, ‘Europe and Its Discontents’, Pope Benedict XVI lists those things that united mediaeval Europe, East and West — Christianity, a belief in being successors of Rome, and monasticism. Of the last he writes:

The last factor I would mention is monasticism, which throughout the great upheavals of history continued to be the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, of the ultimate guidance of humankind. As a pre-political and supra-political force, monasticism was also the bringer of ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.

Benedict is writing here from the perspective of society and culture, of course. And I cannot deny the major importance that the monastic and ascetic movement has had and still has across Europe. This paragraph makes me also think, however, of a phrase Diarmaid MacCulloch used in one of the lectures of his ‘History of Silence’: The silent (or quiet?) ecumenism of mysticism (or asceticism?).

As you can see, I don’t quite remember the quotation exactly (I’m notorious for that). Nonetheless, the point comes across.

Whatever differences may exist between power structures of western and eastern Christianity, whatever variations amongst our respective liturgical inheritances, whatever divergences in dogma and formal, confessional teaching of doctrine, the ascetic and mystical tradition of Christianity finds its common source in the Prophet Elijah and St John the Baptist as well as the wellsprings of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Judaean deserts — and its different streams taste remarkably similar.

It is my experience, at least, that the main differences between the Eastern Orthodox/Byzantine/Russian spiritual writers and those from the west (primarily Catholic or Mediaeval) are of emphasis, but they are united in their experience of God. They are also united in their promotion of the disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, contemplation — while steering us clear of illuminism. The goal of all of this, this entry into the Interior Castle (to borrow the term from St Teresa of Ávila), is to encounter the Giver, not His gifts.

And all of them (much to the chagrin of the Reformed) will speak in terms that are best understood by the word synergy. That the encounter with God, the quest for purity and the contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity requires everything of us, requires much effort and labour on our part. Yet it comes, in the end, only because of the grace God. It is wholly dependent on God, yet we are required to seek to purify ourselves so that God will purify us. We are told to seek His face so that He will show it. I am thinking here of St Theophan the Recluse and St John Cassian, one at the end of the Russian tradition, the other at the beginning of the western.

Perhaps, then, Christians should spend more time praying together and more time praying alone. And then, having encountered the Most Holy Trinity Who is Himselves a Communion of Persons, we can find greater communion with each other.

The Mystic St Augustine

St Augustine by Antonio Rodríguez

I recently began reading St Augustine of Hippo’s On the Trinity (henceforth De Trin, because why not). St Augustine, especially in Eastern Orthodox circles but amongst some Protestants as well, tends to be degraded and criticised for not being mystical enough. The good Doctor is too logical, too much the hidebound Platonic rationalist. This sort of pitting ‘mystical’ against ‘rational’ has always irked me; everything theological tradition uses reason, and Western theology is no stranger to the mystical — this includes St Augustine.1

Anyway, arguments for St Augustine’s contemplative/mystical side usually turn to his Confessions. And justly so. Nevertheless, it strikes me that St Augustine is firmly within the mystical tradition of the church even when engaging in the task of rationally describing and arguing Christian dogma.

Using the translation of De Trin by Arthur West Haddan, here are some examples:

… the highest good is that which is discerned by the most purified minds, and … for this reason it cannot be discerned or understood by themselves, because the eye of the human mind, being weak, is dazzled in that so transcendent light, unless it be invigorated by the nourishment of the righteousness of faith. (1.4)

In reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12, ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face’ (NKJV), he writes:

For this contemplation is held forth to us as the end of all actions, and the everlasting fulness of joy. For “we are the sons of God; and it doth not ye tappear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 Jn 3:2) For that which He said to His servant Moses, “I am that I am; thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me to you;” (Ex. 3:14) this it is which we shall contemplate when we shall live in eternity. … Of this contemplation I understand it to be said, “When He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father;” that is, when He shall have brought the just, over whom now, living by faith, the Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, reigns, to the contemplation of God, even the Father. If herein I am foolish, let him who knows better correct me; to me at least the case seems as I have said. For we shall not seek anything else, when we shall have come to the contemplation of Him. But that contemplation is not yet. (1.17)

Later, we read:

In that contemplation, therefore, God will be all in all; because nothing else but Himself will be required, but it will be sufficient to be enlightened by and to enjoy Him alone. And so he in whom “the Spirit maketh intercession with groanings which cannot be uttered,” (Rom. 8:26) says, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that I will seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to contemplate the beauty of the Lord.” (Ps. 27:4) For we shall then contemplate God, the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit, when the Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father … (1.20)

Now, it is difficult to call someone a ‘mystic’, especially in the post-Carmelite world. How do we define the term? As I wrote a few years ago, ‘What is a mystic, exactly?‘ I won’t bog us down, but I think the working definition of a Christian mystic in this case needs to be someone who engages in the Christian spiritual disciplines, and especially ‘contemplation’ and meditation — each of them a way to set aside time within the rhythm of day to purposefully clear the mind and have a fresh encounter with the Most Holy Trinity. Christians who empty their minds and hearts to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

The famous ones, the known ones, will have had experiences, like the people mentioned in footnote one.

Augustine fits this model; first, he leads a disciplined life, such as that in the rule he wrote. Furthermore, he had at least the mystical aspiration. He knew that God, as a person, was beyond mere doctrines and dogmas, and was Someone with whom the Christian can interact. With many of his age, St Augustine, as seen above, believed that the Beatific vision of the age to come was the ultimate goal (telos) of the Christian life.

As Christ says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ (Mt. 5:8)

All of this leads me to one of the wellsprings of western Christian monasticism and spirituality, St John Cassian. In his First Conference, Cassian discusses the goal and the end of the monastic life. Everything in life has a goal towards which one strives, and this goal often has a particular end. The goal of monasticism is purity of heart, the end of which is to see God. Most will not see God until the next life; some blessed few will experience such grace now, such as the Prophets Moses and Isaiah or St Bernard.

It strikes me that Cassian’s conceptualisation of the monastic life would fit precisely with Augustine’s views on the subject (whatever the differences between these two on the subject of grace!). We will one day see God face to face; we must purify ourselves so that we can see more clearly. Certain things can be said according to reason — such things Augustine has written in his books. But the true experience of the realities behind the writings, the Triune God signified by the signs of reasoned, biblical, prayerful thought — this is beyond reason. This is the domain of mysticism.

There is no dichotomy here. Merely two ways of approaching the Throne of Grace, one of which (the logic) is a preparation of the intellect for the other (the mysticism).


1. Other mystics firmly embedded in the Western Christian tradition: St Bernard of Clairvaux, St Francis of Assisi, St Hildegard von Bingen, St Teresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross, Lady of Julian of Norwich, St Catherine of Siena, et al. Others who seem to have had some sort of mystical experience include St Anselm and St Thomas Aquinas, both of whom are famously rational(ist?) theologians.

Mysticism, theology, evangelism, and social action

The Penitent Saint Francis by Annibale Caracci, Capitoline Museum
St Francis, a man who loved God and neighbour (my pic)

I sent an e-mail to my friend who’d given the talk spoken of in this post, outlining the same things I outlined here on the blog. His response included:

Thanks for this. … I am no Eastern Orthodox but Presbyterians need a good dose of EO and the EO could use a little Presbyterianism. I like to think of my theology as a Presby ressourcement. That sort of mystical theology is totally absent from the Free Church.

I, myself, am not a Presbyterian, but the call to mystical theology for low Protestants is important.

The image of people who are interested in evangelism and church-planting, who want to see their culture reached for Christ is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the mystics. Which is a shame.

Another tale.

A couple of my friends run a Greek theology reading group. A third friend joined them a few times (I went once for St Basil, ‘On the Holy Spirit’), but (I am given to understand) his general attitude towards the discussion was, ‘But what does all this have to do with the man on the street in Glasgow?’ (Why Glasgow?)

In my mind, ‘the man on the street in Glasgow’ — in this instance — is in need of social assistance. (This is not intended as a general statement on Glaswegians.) Why should we worry about St Gregory of Nazianzus and Trinitarian theology when there are starving people out there? In Glasgow?

The image of people who are interested in social action/activism, who want to see the poor clothed and the hungry fed is not — fairly or otherwise — typically that of the systematic theologians. Which is a shame.

Somewhere in his book The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton references St John of the Cross as teaching that one should spend more time in contemplation (used here in its mystical sense) than action — that actions ungirded in the contemplative life are prone to be willy-nilly and of less use. How do we know we are doing them for God’s glory? What is His will? That sort of thing.

That’s one approach to contemplation in a world of action (social/evangelistic).

The other is this: Good theologia and good theoria (contemplation), good thoughts about God and good thoughts in God, dogmatics and mysticism — these, in fact, lead to just behaviour and holy living and Gospel-telling.

Think on St Francis, who was a mystic if ever there was one. But his fervour for prayer, dispassion, contemplation was as tied to a fervour for preaching and for helping the poor.

Solid theology and ‘mystical’ practices give heart and soul to our activities in the world.

Perhaps it is our lack of deep thinking and deep praying that weaken our witness of love to a world eroded by hatred and false loves at every turning.

By looking upon God, whether through the intellectual truths of theology or through the noetic experience of mysticism, we can be suffused with His power, His light, and His love for a broken world.

Maybe then we’ll be worth listening to.

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.