Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On Ladders

The concept of ascending a ladder to reach God is common in Christian spirituality. The basic idea is that a Christian new to the spiritual life begins distant from God and close to the world: as he advances, he grows farther from the world and closer to Christ. Thus the steps in a spiritual ladder are specific guides to draw one away from things of the world and towards the things of God.

(As a side note, one could connect this tendency with the Neo-Platonism frequently adopted by early Church Fathers. Neo-Platonism spoke of the world as a series of "emanations" from God (or "the One"): God's self is dispersed through these emanations, with each level of emanation including less of the divine and more of nothingness or "matter." A Platonist strove towards knowing higher emanations, that is, the ones closer to God. Thus a Platonist's view is somewhat similar to the concept of a ladder, although Christianity does not accept the worldview of "emanations.")

There are many of these ladders discussed in Christian spirituality. One of the most common conceptions of the spiritual life, the medieval way of purgation, illumination, and contemplation (union), is a ladder. St. Benedict, in Chapter 7 of his Rule, discusses a 12-step plan for growing in humility, which ends with a monk reaching "the perfect love of God which casts out all fear" (1 Jn 4:18). St. Bernard of Clairvaux, author of the "Memorare," also has a ladder of humility. St. Bonaventure, in his Journey of the Soul Into God, speaks of the spiritual life as a six-winged seraph, with each wing representing a different step on the spiritual ladder.

The Western Church doesn't have a monopoly on spiritual ladders, though. One of the most popular works of the Eastern Church is a 7th-century treatise by St. John Climacus called The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which, as the name shows, describes a spiritual ladder, this one consisting of 30 steps (which is probably the longest I've yet to run across). This work is so popular that its author is sometimes referred to as John of the Ladder.

This brings me to the main point of my post: introducing a much less well-known spiritual ladder, this one from the Eastern Church. It is found in the Philokalia, a collection of spiritual texts from the 4th to 15th centuries compiled by two 18th-century Orthodox saints. While most selections in this collection include an introduction by the compilers, the poem containing this ladder does not. The poem, found in Volume Three, is entitled "The Ladder of Divine Graces" and subtitled "which experience has made known to those inspired by God," and it is by Theophanis the Monk, of whom nothing is known. The poem, after introducing the steps, mostly just extols the virtues of the ladder and the perfection it asks for, with the author admitting his failure to live up to it; however, there is little explanation of the ladder's steps. Here is the ladder:

1. Purest prayer

2. Warmth of heart

3. Holy energy

4. God-given tears

5. Peace from all thoughts

6. Purging of intellect

7. Vision of heavenly mysteries

8. Unheard-of light

9. Heart's illumination

10. Endless perfection

An interesting thing to note about this ladder is that it is not a series of steps to take, per se: instead, it is a series of graces given by God to a devout soul. Though the graces seem somewhat hard to comprehend (what is "unheard-of light"?), Theophanis asserts that "This ten-graced ladder is the best of masters, / Clearly teaching each to know its stages." This seems to be the reason he does no more than list the steps: "Experience alone can teach these things, not talk." The only elaboration on any steps is that prayer (step one) has many forms, and that the final step (perfection) has no limit. Theophanis says that those who have no foothold on this ladder have much to fear in death; he says this fear and dread is a greater cause of repentance than "the lure of blessings promised." The only advice he gives on how to climb this ladder is the common word in spirituality, "detachment":

"My friend, if you want to learn about all this,

Detach yourself from everything,

From what is senseless, from what seems intelligent.

Without detachment nothing can be learnt."

In the end, what can a Christian trying to begin his spiritual life take from Theophanis' ladder? Not much. He can learn that he needs to pray (and that there is no one specific way to do this) and that he needs to learn detachment. These points are common, and they are not at all specific to Theophanis. What Theophanis' ladder seems more useful for is tracking the progress of one who has already make progress in the spiritual life. By noting which graces he has received, a Christian can see how close he is to "endless perfection."

I conclude with this summary observation: Theophanis the Monk's "The Ladder of Divine Graces" gives a series of benchmarks for the Christian who has already advanced in his spiritual life but gives little guidance to those newly embarking upon it.

I hope this post has been helpful. God bless.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!
θεοτοκος, pray for us.
St. Joseph, pray for us.

Nota Bene: I used the translation of the Philokalia by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, published by Faber and Faber, for this post.

No comments:

Post a Comment