Christian Practice

Stepping Up to Jesus in Paradise For the Sunday of St. John Climacus

Published on: April 13, 2024
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Ladder of Divine Ascent

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 honor you faithfully.  (Kontakion—Tone 1)

Have you ever found yourself wrestling with down-sizing, and trying to throw away a box of family snapshots; but, you have to look through them first—images of your elders when they were younger and more robust—and suddenly you see them in a different light. The Gospel is sharing with us in Mark 9:17-31 a snapshot of Jesus working with his disciples, one which isn’t duplicated in any of the other Gospels—it is a unique proclamation. And Mark, remember, is the earliest Gospel evidence we have for the life-story and the ministry of Christ. Jesus is not only witnessed healing; but, if you listen to him teaching, you begin to see him in a new light, for he is also actively supervising his newly ministering disciples, and not everything is going for them quite as they would wish. They are frustrated, and Jesus is teaching them—and us—about the constant priority of faith and humble prayer in authenticating discipleship.

This lesson is beautifully illustrated in the Life of St. John Climacus and his teaching of the Ladder (κλίμαξ in the Greek)—The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Of course, every picture we have of Jesus and his saving work is precious to us. I treasure the part that says: “I believe; help my unbelief!”—the Evangelist is right on the mark there about our human nature. If you can keep just this cry to Christ Jesus praying in your heart from the Gospel, you will have faithfully observed the Sunday of John Climacus. Mind you, all the holy saints of God that are put before us are really stories that are, first of all, a reflection of how God works. Each one offers us guidance for our own personal pathway toward the nearer presence of the Lord—and, as luck would have it, the teaching of John Climacus in his treatise called the Ladder (or Scala Paradisi in the Latin), for which he became colloquially named, literally describes a pathway, with steps of godly formation on the road to Salvation.

The monk John, who eventually became the Abbot, was helping to clarify for his monks the very process of achieving saintliness, in the rough and tumble world of seventh-century Byzantium in the Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mt. Sinai. For this is a book of instruction to lead the monks from the novitiate to spiritual perfection by the imitation of Christ. Our wise Father Schmemann reminds us that this Sunday of St. John of the Ladder is “meant encourage and to inspire the faithful struggling through their Lenten spiritual effort” (Great Lent, 74). The Orthodox tradition finds this classic teaching to be a wonderful tool for us to use, day by day, to inspire our personal progress throughout Great Lent—showing us, as it does, a step-by-step pilgrimage toward the divine. It’s not easy, even for monks, as we might have guessed; but, it can be profoundly rewarding. The summary of the monk’s quest to achieve world-denying asceticism and undistracted prayer may not always apply to us who work in and enjoy God’s Creation in the secular world, but The Ladder of Divine Ascent has nevertheless endured in our Orthodox tradition as an outstanding guide.

The teaching analogy of a spiritual ladder is a well-deployed trope among the Church Fathers. The second-century Bishop Ireneaus writes that it is through the Spirit of God that we are gifted with: “the ladder of ascent to God…that all members receiving it may be vivified” (Adv. Haer. iii.24.1). And in his funeral Oration for his dear friend, Cappadocian Bishop Gregory Nazianzus proudly claims that: “I still more extol Basil for the ladder which he did not merely see, but which he ascended by successive steps towards excellence…which he erected to God” (Homily 43.71). And Gregory of Nyssa, too, in praising the Life of Moses says: “Once having set foot on the ladder which God set up, he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained” (Life of Moses, 227).

Furthermore, in the unique living way that Orthodoxy works, we have not only Abbot John’s “Ladder” teaching, and his life story from the Menalogian; but, we also have the icon according to St. John Climacus. And the sterling example of it located at St Catherine’s Monastery is, as you can see, is a remarkable treasure of artistic icon excellence; and it was created right there at the monastery where Climacus lived as a monk and served finally as its Abbot. But I would still suggest, my friends, that the holy icon is really telling you about your relationship with your Lord and Savior.

Am I really saying that this beautifully executed, highly familiar, but rather funny-looking icon with all the little men being dragged off a diagonal ladder is a really snapshot of Jesus? Yes, indeed. This thankfully well-preserved, twelfth-century masterpiece of iconography depicts beautifully and powerfully, the teaching of a saint who has become one of our most influential theologians, helping us imitate the life of Jesus Christ. This beloved icon depicts monks ascending a steep ladder toward Jesus in Heaven. At the top is John Climacus himself, being welcomed by his Lord, whose arms are open to lead the righteous into Paradise. St. John has handed the scroll of his Ladder-treatise to the Lord—or, think of this—perhaps Jesus Christ is handing on to Climacus the divine inspiration for his writing, and John is reaching to receive it.

Next in line on the ladder is Archbishop Anthony, the Hegemon of St. Catherine’s in his striking white vestments. Mind you, none of the bearded men striving to climb the Ladder are depicted with haloes yet; but rather, they are on the road to Salvation—just like we are. The Ladder of Divine Ascent describes how to raise your soul and body to God through the acquisition of spiritual virtues. The icon shows clearly how John Climacus is using the imagery of Jacob’s Ladder from Gen. 28: 10-17 as the framework for his ascetical teaching. Each of his chapters marks a step, addressing a new spiritual challenge. There are thirty steps on the ladder and St. John explains that Christ himself: “when he was Baptized in the thirtieth year of his visible age, attained the thirtieth step in the spiritual ladder” (30.36). So, the icon depicts symbolically the opportunity for the spiritual ascent of all humanity toward God—it is meant to embody the pathway to the perfection Divine Love. 

Mind you, not everyone is attacking the monks in this highly dramatic depiction. God, the angels, and the gathered community of brothers are encouraging all those striving along the way, demonstrating how each of us is being guided through the snares and pitfalls of our worldly temptations toward the joy of Salvation. Dionysius of Fourna, in his Painter’s Manual, describes how in the upper left: “winged angels make as if to help the monks;”—but, worldly temptation brings on devilish assault. Thus, Dionysius also explains the iconography of those who fail and are being torn from the Ladder: “Beneath them all-devouring Hell is shown as a great and fearful dragon, with a monk between his jaws of whom only the feet are visible” (Painter’s Manual, 82). Black-winged demons embody the idea of the very real temptations we all suffer as we strive to make spiritual progress. One poor monk’s sinful failings, as you can see, have both lassoed him down by the throat and are also riding him like a bronco horse while hammer-pounding at him down toward the Abyss.

Later icons of the Ladder show more gruesome depictions of Hell using the lower right sector; but here, in the ancient Sinai icon, doomed souls are revealed being swallowed up into the gaping mouth of an abbreviated monster’s head, should they fail to progress on their steps upward. And the lower right sector shows the community of monks cheering on their brothers struggling to rise on the Ladder and exhorting them in the moral decision-making of their Salvation quest, just as we do in community with one another.

The teaching the icon depicts offers compelling advice on the virtue of Silence and Prayer:

“Silence is the mother of prayer, and a friend of tears.” It is: “an aid to anguish, a creator of contemplation, and the unseen progress of divine ascent…The friend of silence draws near to God, he who knows the fragrance of the Fire from on high” (11.3-11). “Let your prayer be completely simple,” St. John teaches us: “for both the Publican and the Prodigal Son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.” Indeed, “faith gives wings to prayer, and without it we cannot fly up to heaven…Do not attempt to talk much when you pray, lest your mind be distracted in searching for words…And, if you feel some sweetness or compunction at some word of your prayer, dwell on it; for then our guardian angel is praying with us” (28.5-11). 

Whether or not we want to become monks someday, reading over again The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a wonderful exercise for Lent; the author’s voice comes through with vibrant clarity, even in translation. He adds fresh perspective to the wisdom of the fourth-century Egyptian Desert, filling his pages with fascinating stories of hermits not covered in classic collection, The Sayings of the Fathers. John Climacus was likely influenced by the Evagrian organization of types of sins and temptations; in his analysis of vice and virtues, “he is a particularly faithful echo of Evagrius” (Bouyer, Spir of NT and the Fts., 427).

“Please know, however”—and this is Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky warning us, here in Great Lent—“the soul which is not transformed by repentance does not know grace; and thus, it ceases to make progress in the way of ascent.” But the gift of tears, he says: “is the infallible sign that the heart has been overwhelmed by the love of God” (Myst. Theo., 205). For indeed, on our final pathway to Paradise: “when the soul departs from life,” as it says in the Ladder of Divine Ascent: “we shall not be accused because we have not worked miracles, or have not become theologians, or have not seen visions; but, we shall all certainly have to give account before God because we have not wept unceasingly for our sins.” (7.70, trans. Dhitty.) And: “these charismatic tears, which are the consummation of repentance, are at the same time the first-fruits of infinite joy…for repentance is not merely our effort, our anguish, but it is also the resplendent gift of the Holy Spirit penetrating and transforming our hearts” (Myst. Theo., 205).

May we, then, by the mercy of God, exercise faithful conviction to lay hold of the hope set before us, now along the sacred steps of Great Lent. May we work to make peace with our neighbors and within ourselves, forgiving one another, and beseeching the Lord in our prayer to deem us worthy of reaching Holy Week with purified hearts. May we each, by the mercy of God, stay the course of our Lenten discipline, and escape of the gaping mouth of death, and enjoy the sweet reward of Pascha soon to come.

Note: Quotes for this meditation are from: Joannis Climaci, Scala Paradisi, PG 88.632-1161; English trans., John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, trans. Lazarus Moore, London: SPCK, 1982.

Ladder of Divine Ascent
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  • VK McCarty

    VK McCarty

    Anglican Theologian and Lecturer at General Theological Seminary

    V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who leads retreats, lectures at General Theological Seminary, and contributes to the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity. She is the former Acquisitions Librarian at General Theological Seminary from which she graduated. She is the author of From Thei...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University