The Ladder of Divine Ascent was written in the seventh century by John Climacus, an abbot of St. Katherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the deserts of Egypt, which still houses monks to this very day. He was asked to write a guidebook for beginning monks on how to live the monastic life.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent consists of thirty rungs, one for each year of the life of Jesus before he started His ministry on Earth. This is not a book to sample, skim or skip through, or to criticize. If you do not want to lead a godly life, or repent and begin your life anew, if you do not want to lead a life of daily repentance, it would be better for you to put the book back and not even crack the binding.
The first rung is about the climb, ever persisting, ever repenting, ever climbing, as the final paragraph impresses on us:
- “So who is a faithful and wise monk? He who has kept his fervor unabated, and to the end of his life has not ceased daily to add fire to fire, fervor to fervor, zeal to zeal, love to love.
This is the first step. Let him who has mounted the ladder not turn back.”
Do not think that just because you are not contemplate becoming a monk or a nun that you cannot climb the ladder. Leading a godly life, leading a Christian life, is a monastic calling, whether you decide to become a monk or nun or not. Marriage, work, career, school, child rearing, these are all monastic callings. If you think only of yourself and your selfish pleasures of the moment, you cannot successfully climb any of these ladders.
Marriage is a monastic calling. Marriages are only truly happy when each spouse puts the needs of the other first. Marriages are truly happy where the love each spouse has for the other is like the love St Paul describes, patient, kind, not jealous or boastful, not rejoicing in the wrong but rejoicing in the right, bearing all, believing always, hoping always, enduring everything, never failing.
Work, career and schooling are monastic callings. To get a good job, we spend many years of schooling to learn our trade or profession. If we spend all our school years partying and not studying, we pay for our lack of attention for the rest of our lives. To keep our job, we need to keep our bosses and customers happy. Even when know they are wrong, we bite our tongues and endure, because we work for them, and they are often right anyway. Our job is to serve them. If we mistakenly think they are there to serve us, we will have no job. If the company loses sight of their customers’ needs, the company itself may eventually bankrupt itself.
Child rearing is a monastic pursuit. When children are small they demand your attention, and sometimes they cry and you don’t know why. You can spend fun time with your children when they are little, playing with them and taking them places, or you can spend anguished time with them later, answering to judges and policemen. St Paul in Timothy teaches us that mothers are saved through child rearing if they lead a godly life. We are all saved if we put the needs and desires of others ahead of our own selfishness.
Paul exhorts us to pray without ceasing. To Love God is to pray without ceasing. To pray without ceasing is to Love God. Monastics can approach the ideal of praying without ceasing, but how can we who live in the world, with jobs and wives and kids and dogs, how can we pray without ceasing? Truthfully, none of us truly pray without ceasing, but we can all pray more. We can light our candles and pray in the morning and the evening; we can guard our mind against ungodly thoughts.
Our ceaseless senseless seeking of pleasure and entertainment distracts us from our climb up the ladder of Divine Ascent. We are fools if we think we can drink ourselves into a drunken stupor on Friday night and yet attend the Divine Liturgy days later with a clear conscience. We are fools if we think we can climb the ladder of Divine Ascent on Sundays only, and suspend the climb on the other days of the week. We are fools if we can devote ourselves to the arduous climb up the ladder of Divine Ascent if we ceaselessly glare at the talking American idol in our living rooms all our waking hours.
Why is it that we balk at trying to pray ceaselessly, neglect remembering our Lord our every waking hour, yet we expect God to cheerfully, ceaselessly forgive our every sin? God does ceaselessly forgive as we should ceaselessly pray, but when we carelessly sin the same sins every day we may be forgiven, but we lose the discipline of ceaselessly trying to live a godly life. Spiritual discipline is what the Ladder of Divine Ascent is about. We should be mindful of the Catholic definition of mortal sin, which is a sin if repeated often enough causes us to lose our capacity to Love God.
Will God always forgive ceaselessly, without ceasing? There is a troubling verse that God will not forgive sins committed against the Holy Spirit, but this type of sin is not defined. The Church teaches that when hearing confessions priests should rarely or never assume a sin is committed against the Holy Spirit, that all sins are confessable. Truly when Jesus told Peter he should forgive his neighbor not merely seven times, but seven times seventy times, He must have meant that God is just as forgiving. But will God forgive five hundred willfully committed sins, no remorse, no improvements, no regrets?
What we do know is this verse saying sins against the Holy Spirit are not forgiven tells us God can lose patience with our ceaseless sinful ways, and this is the true lesson of the Exodus desert saga. God may be tolerant of sinners, but He does not tolerate willful ceaseless sin. We must strive for perfection, not tolerating the sin in our lives, ever climbing the ladder. What this verse tells us is that it is possible to anger God so much that He turns His back on us forever, permitting us to fall off the ladder into the abyss of Hell.