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.

Advertisements

Making your own ‘curriculum for Christlikeness’

One of the primary things that Dallas Willard encourages us to do as we decide firmly to live as real disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ is to immerse ourselves in the Gospels. I want to say that straight away before I blog about other things, because that is, I think, primary. The Gospels are our prime source for the ministry and teachings of Jesus; if we want to be his lifelong students and apprentices, we should get to know them intimately. But there’s little to add from one such as myself.

This study of Jesus is part of what Willard calls the ‘curriculum for Christlikeness’; I’m reckoning he’s trying not to scare off low evangelicals by using ‘rule of life’. Anyway, this study of the Scriptures to learn to do whatever Jesus says and teaches is an essential ingredient of our lives, as it has always been for all literate followers of Jesus — and the illiterate when they hear the Word preached by word and depicted by image in stone, fresco, mosaic, and stained glass.

Their successes and failures are a major secondary source for us — what worked for most of them will work for most of us as we seek to become Christlikeness. And Dallas Willard knows it; he calls The Rule of Saint Benedict, The Imitation of Christ, and The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius ‘some of the most profound treatments of discipleship to Jesus’, recommending that if we non-monks:

make necessary adjustments to the content of such works, you will see that they offer, in substance, precisely what we have been discussing in this chapter: a curriculum, a course of training, for life on the rock. And that is why, century after century, they have exercised incredible power over all who open themselves to them as disciples of Jesus. (p. 405)

Willard goes on to note the major traditions of Protestantism and the presence of  similar writings and teachers there as well — sadly as foreign to many Protestants today as the mediaeval monastic texts!

I have many times read calls such as this, or the monastic texts themselves, and said, ‘I should set up such a rule.’ But I don’t know that until know the importance and power of such a rule, such a curriculum, such a deliberate plan for living has impressed itself upon me.

By the grace of God, by changing our life habits, we can be freed from those besetting sins to which we fall prey every time temptation comes. By the grace of God, we can learn how to tame the passions and redirect their energy to virtue, not vice. So I’m going to make my own curriculum, as I’ve said so many times before, and actually follow it this time.

Do you really believe the Nicene Creed?

Christ the Almighty -- as so often with the Gospel in hand (by Theophan the Cretan, 15th c)
Christ the Almighty — as so often with the Gospel in hand (by Theophan the Cretan, 15th c)

I just finished Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. I recommend it highly! In that book, he poses us the question — Do we truly believe that Jesus is who we say He is? If we really did, wouldn’t we act a bit differently?

Putting my own ‘classic Christian’ spin on Willard’s query, who is it that we say Jesus is? We believe

in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came to be;

who, on account of us men and our salvation, came down from heaven and became flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man; and he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures and ascended to the heavens and is seated on the right hand of the Father and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end; (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed)

Do you believe in the depths of your soul that Jesus is true God from true God, of one substance with the Father? Do you believe that through him all things were made? Most of us will immediately say, ‘Yes.’

Certainly, we give mental assent to the propositions of the Creeds and of our denominational confessions or the doctrinal statements of ecumenical councils. Yet shouldn’t such shocking, earth-shattering truths affect how we approach life to its deepest level?

Jesus is the creator of the world. How should we, then, approach his teachings? Clearly as the teachings of the greatest moral philosopher who ever lived! And we should take them to heart. We should try to understand what they mean and how we can live by them. We should spend time reading through the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, to have these teachings of His imprinted on our hearts.

Should we not memorise and meditate upon the Lord’s Prayer? Should we not read over and over the Sermon on the Mount?

Jesus is not an intellectual, theological proposition — although these can be made about Him.

He is the most wondrous, powerful, beautiful, intelligent person in the universe. He is so loving that he chose to set aside His natural form of godliness and take on our form, that of a slave. And His immediate followers tell us that our attitude, our life, should be modelled on his.

Is it?

Dallas Willard (requiescat in pace) and the disciplines

I just learned from Miroslav Volf’s Facebook page that Dallas Willard has passed away. He died on 8 May of cancer, having been on this earth for 77 years. We have lost a man whom the Lord God blessed with wisdom, one of the great spiritual thinkers and Christian philosophers of our age.

I started Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy on a long, northbound bus ride in Toronto to the Varley Art Gallery in Unionville for an exhibition of icons from throughout the Orthodox worlds, from Russia to Ethiopia. I haven’t got around to finishing it, but herein Willard put before us the startling reality that the Kingdom of the Heavens is, in fact, right here, right before our eyes. God’s kingdom and throneroom aren’t ‘up there’ — they are in our midst and readily available to us. All of this life and world are to be suffused with the spiritual, for the spiritual is not someplace else.

My second encounter with Willard was his book Hearing God — a very practical, functional book devoted to the simple, profound question: How do we actually hear from God? In this book, Willard did not promote any gimmickry and avoided vagueness, enabling the careful reader who wishes to hear from the Almighty to reach a place of intimacy that makes God’s urgings and Voice felt and heard.

But by far the most important of my encounters with Dallas Willard will prove to be The Spirit of the Disciplines. Indeed, when I compare the importance of this book with the forests of trees pulped and oceans of ink spilled for the production of Christian literature in the last quarter of the twentieth century, I believe that, paired with Richard J Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, this is one of the most important books for today’s Christian to encounter.

What makes me say that? I do not say it to speak ill of the other books; I have a fondness for a number of current writers, from N T Wright and Miroslav Volf to Kallistos Ware and Nicky Gumble of Alpha Course fame. However, how many of us find books that transform us?

In The Spirit of the Disciplines, Willard tackles the question of why so few Christians lead the lives of holiness and transformation and joy that permeate the characters and promises of Scripture. He approaches our lives and, transforming us through the renewing of our minds, shows us why.

Why? We do not live our daily lives as Jesus and Paul did. It’s all very well to wear a WWJD bracelet and ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’ in times of crisis. But how many of us actually live the way Jesus and Paul did? How many of us invest time in serious prayer and fasting, in the deep study and meditation up scripture? How many of us forego pleasures of this world for the benefits of the Kingdom? How many of us seek to serve everyone? How many of us live in submission ot others? And on and on.

These are the daily, habitual actions, lived out in our bodies, that we are called to engage in. The spiritual masters and deep theologians of Christian history, from St Paul to St Thomas a Kempis to Martin Luther to Kallistos Ware practise these disciplines. Do we wish to have the courage to speak of Christ with friends and coworkers hostile to the faith? Do we wish to have the strength to stand up to corruption and the evils of our society?

Then we should live like our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

I believe that it is only when large numbers of Christians, besides being properly catechised (itself a discipline), live lives of spiritual freedom through the disciplines that will impact each of us, that we will see increased evangelism and social action taking root and spreading throughout the post-Christian West. Only then will we see more disciples — through discipline.

One final note — Willard does a tremendous job of redeeming the body for Christian life. For this alone, the book is worth reading.