Archive for March 17th, 2007

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

March 17, 2007


There is something about charts, methods, tables and the like that always make me react in a negative manner. There is a form of rationalism that, for me, simply screams, “This is the work of man.” A Linaeus can invent a table for classifying nature – and I’m sure that biologists find it very helpful. But there is something irrational at the same time about nature in which everything resists classification.

The most frustrating example of this was my experience in geology lab in college. I always did well with the book and the lectures, rarely making a mistake on exams in that area of the course. But one day per week was given over to “lab” work. In geology this consisted of boxes of rocks. Each of the boxes were labeled. We experimented and learned to use the various techniques for identifying qualities that would allow us to say, “This is feldspar,” or “This is quartzite,” etc.

I would go every week and do everything I was told. Indeed I strained what brain I had to learn these classifying techniques. The exam would finally came. And, surprise, the rocks we had to identify were samples we had never seen. We had seen other samples of similar rocks, but not these particular rocks.

My frustration was that I was invariably learning what a rock was by learning that particular rock. I invariably flunked the lab test. This is probably only a revelation about the way my brain is wired. But it left me suspicious of classifications. I know they are real – but my brain just won’t work that way.

This Sunday, the Orthodox Church celebrates St. John Climacus, the author of the great spiritual classic known as “the Ladder.” It offers 30 steps in the spiritual life, with the notion that we cannot go from one “rung” of the ladder to the next without mastering what has gone before. It is Orthodoxy’s 12 steps, only, of course, there are 30 of them.

The Ladder makes for good Lenten reading. Each topic is worthy of everything that is written. I have even gleaned insight into various things by reading it. But I have always wondered if that’s exactly how things work. First this step, then that one.

It may be a general description, but I suspect that grace works in a less predictable fashion. As far as I can tell I am still on the first rung. I know some things and even have experience of other rungs, mastery of none.

My own ladder is to pray for grace for whatever “rung” lies before me. The sin that threatens me at any given moment. I suppose it’s a “spontaneous” ladder.

What is truly amazing about St. John, was that he knew the spiritual life so well, and was in such a state of soul, that he could write authoritatively about so many vices and virtues. Perhaps his prayers will “hold the ladder steady” so that lesser souls such as mine may climb with care the ladder God has set before us.