Monday, 24 March 2014

Art for Lent (20): ‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent,’
Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai

The icon of the Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Klimakos, late 12th century, from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

Patrick Comerford

I am speaking later this morning [24 March 2014] on the Jesus Prayer, which is an appropriate spiritual exercise to consider during Lent. During that talk, I hope to refer to Saint John Klimakos and The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a spiritual classic in which he recommends the use of the Jesus Prayer.

Saint John Klimakos (Ἰωάννης τῆς Κλίμακος, 525-606) was a monk of Mount Sinai, and he I may refer to him again later in the morning in a lecture on the Desert Fathers during the module on Patristics.

So, for this morning’s work of Art for Lent, I have chosen ‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent,’ a late 12th century icon in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.

I first saw this icon when I visited Saint Catherine’s in 2005, and I saw it again when I was at the Byzantium exhibition in the Royal Academy of Arts in London last year which I reviewed for the Athens News on 9 January 2009.


The icon represents the theological teachings of Saint John Klimakos, also known as John of the Ladder, the author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, an influential book written ca 600.

The icon depicts monks ascending the ladder towards Christ in Heaven, who is depicted in the top right corner of the icon. The ladder has 30 rungs representing the 30 stages of the ascetic life. Saint John Klimakos is at the top of the ladder, being welcomed by Christ. The scroll in Christ’s left hand is a symbol of the Gospel.

In other versions, Saint John Klimakos is in a lower corner, gesturing towards the ladder, with rows of monks behind him.

The monks are helped in their ascent by the prayers of angels, saints and the community. The angels are clothed in light-coloured garments and have large, strong wings. They symbolise positive qualities and virtues, including humility, temperance, chastity, gentleness, hope, love, and so on – the opposites of the passions.

But demons are attacking the monks and trying to make them fall from the rungs of the ladder by pulling them down or striking them with arrows.

The demons are depicted in order to remind us that they exist. Such evil spiritual beings, act upon us through mental suggestion and assaults. Their tails symbolise their fallen, animalistic state.

The demons also symbolise various sins. Saint John’s book minutely analyses the nature of the passions of pride, gluttony, lust, anger, despondency, malice, and so on.

The icon also shows a gaping Devil who is devouring a monk who has fallen from the ladder. Some monks who have almost reached the top of the ladder are being tempted by demons and falling off. Most versions of the icon show at least one monk falling off the ladder, down into hell.

The depiction of the monks falling off is a reflection of what Saint John Klimakos described as “what never ceased to amaze him” – in other words, that some monks still give in to worldly passions when God, the angels and the saints are encouraging them towards virtue.

The memory of Saint Klimakos is celebrated in the Orthodox Church on 30 March, which is next Sunday, and on the Fourth Sunday of the Great Lent, which also falls on 30 March this year [2014], and the icon is usually venerated in Orthodox churches on those same days.

Reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent

Saint John’s book, The Climax or The Ladder of Divine Ascent, was written at the request of John, the Abbot of Raithu, a monastery on the shores of the Red Sea. He also wrote a shorter work, To the Pastor, and the two are often published together.

The Ladder describes how to raise one’s soul and body to God, as if on a ladder, the goal of which is theosis, or mystical union with God. This is one of the most widely-read books among Orthodox Christians, especially during this season of Great Lent. It is often read in the trapeza or monastic refectory during Lent, and in some places it is read in church as part of the Daily Office during the weekdays of Lent.

Saint John Klimakos uses the analogy of Jacob’s Ladder to provide the framework for his spiritual teaching. Each chapter is referred to as a “step,” and deals with a separate spiritual subject. There are 30 steps on the ladder, which correspond with the age of Christ at his baptism and the beginning of his earthly ministry.

The first 23 steps give instruction on overcoming the vices, and the remainder speak of building the virtues.

The Ladder holds dispassionateness (apatheia) as the ultimate contemplative and mystical good in a Christian.

I should advise that reading this book is usually reserved for monastics or lay people who have progressed spiritually, and Orthodox Christians say that this book should only be read with the permission and guidance of a Spiritual Father.

The 30 steps or rungs on the Ladder:

1–4: Renouncement of the world and obedience to a spiritual father

1, Περί αποταγής (on renunciation of the world, or ascetism)
2, Περί απροσπαθείας (on detachment)
3, Περί ξενιτείας (on exile or pilgrimage; concerning dreams that beginners have)
4, Περί υπακοής (on blessed and ever-memorable obedience (in addition to episodes involving many individuals))

5–7: Penitence and affliction (πένθος) as paths to true joy

5, Περί μετανοίας (on painstaking and true repentance, which constitute the life of the holy convicts, and about the Prison)
6, Περί μνήμης θανάτου (on remembrance of death)
7, Περί του χαροποιού πένθους (on joy-making mourning)

8–17: Defeat of vices and acquisition of virtue

8, Περί αοργησίας (on freedom from anger and on meekness)
9, Περί μνησικακίας (on remembrance of wrongs)
10, Περί καταλαλιάς (on slander or calumny)
11, Περί πολυλογίας και σιωπής (on talkativeness and silence)
12, Περί ψεύδους (on lying)
13, Περί ακηδίας (on despondency)
14, Περί γαστριμαργίας (on that clamorous mistress, the stomach)
15, Περί αγνείας (on incorruptible purity and chastity, to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat)
16, Περί φιλαργυρίας (on love of money, or avarice)
17, Περί αναισθησίας (on non-possessiveness (that hastens one towards heaven)

18–26: Avoidance of the traps of asceticism (laziness, pride, mental stagnation)

18, Περί ύπνου και προσευχής (on insensibility or the deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body)
19, Περί αγρυπνίας (on sleep, prayer, and psalmody with the brotherhood)
20, Περί δειλίας (on bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil, and how to practice it)
21, Περί κενοδοξίας (on unmanly and puerile cowardice)
22, Περί υπερηφανείας (on the many forms of vainglory)
23, Περί λογισμών βλασφημίας (on mad pride and, in the same step, on unclean blasphemous thoughts; concerning unmentionable blasphemous thoughts)
24, Περί πραότητος και απλότητος (on meekness, simplicity, and guilelessness, which come not from nature but from conscious effort, and on guile)
25, Περί ταπεινοφροσύνης (on the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception)
26, Περί διακρίσεως (on discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues; on expert discernment; brief summary of all aforementioned)

27–29: Acquisition of hesychia, or peace of the soul, of prayer, and of apatheia (dispassion or equanimity with respect to afflictions or suffering)

27, Περί ησυχίας (on holy stillness of body and soul; different aspects of stillness and how to distinguish them)
28, Περί προσευχής (on holy and blessed prayer, the mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer)
29, Περί απαθείας (on heaven on earth, or God-like dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection)
30, Περί αγάπης, ελπίδος και πίστεως (on linking together the supreme trinity among the virtues; a brief exhortation summarising all that has said at length in this book).

Hymns of the Feast:

Apolytikion: Plagal of the Fourth Tone

With the rivers of your tears,
you have made the barren desert fertile.
Through sighs of sorrow from deep within you,
your labours have borne fruit a hundredfold.
By your miracles you have become a light,
shining upon the world.
O John, our Holy Father,
pray to Christ our God, to save our souls.

Kontakion: First Tone

As ever-blooming fruits,
you offer the teachings of your God-given book,
O wise John, most blessed,
while sweetening the hearts of all them that heed it with vigilance;
for it is a ladder from the earth unto Heaven
that confers glory on the souls
that ascend it and honour you faithfully.

Great Vespers: Tone Plagal of the First

O righteous Father,
you heard the voice of the Gospel
and forsook the world, riches, and glory,
counting them as naught.
And so, you cried to all:
love God, and you will find eternal favour.
Put nothing above his love,
that when he comes in his glory
you may find rest with all the saints.
And so, by their intercessions,
O Christ God,
preserve and save our souls.

Tomorrow:Ecce Ancilla Domini!’ (1850), by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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