Heavenly Ascent

Saint John Climacus and the Ladder of Divine Ascent

Saint John Climacus was a 6th century monk and abbot of the monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt, the same location where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. As a tool to help fellow monastics achieve a perfected spiritual life, Saint John wrote a series of “steps” – like those of a ladder – that each individual must take before he or she can enter the kingdom of God. While many in modern society may view the “Ladder to Heaven” described by Saint John as somewhat unusually “strict” for our time, as Orthodox Christians we cannot ignore its message. The following is a brief description of five of the steps described by Saint John:

Step 5:
On Penitence – Repentance is the renewal of baptism and is a contract with God for a fresh start in life. Repentance goes shopping for humility and is ever distrustful of bodily comfort. Repentance is critical awareness and a sure watch over oneself. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the refusal of despair. The penitent stands guilty – but undisgraced. Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the performance of good deeds which are the opposites of the sins. It is the purification of conscience and the voluntary endurance of affliction.

Step 9:
On Malice - Remembrance of wrongs comes as the final point of anger. It is a keeper of sins. It hates a just way of life. It is the ruin of virtues, the poison of the soul, the worm of the mind. It is the shame of prayer, a cutting off of supplication, a turning away from love, a nail piercing the soul. It is a pleasureless feeling cherished in the sweetness of bitterness . . .

If after great effort you . . . fail to root out this thorn, go to your enemy and apologize, if only with empty words whose insincerity may shame you. Then as conscience, like a fire, comes to give you pain, you may find that a sincere love of your enemy may come to life.

A true sign of having completely mastered this putrefaction will come not when you pray for the man who offended you, not when you give him presents, not when you invite him to share a meal with you, but only when on hearing some catastrophe that has afflicted him in body or soul, you suffer and you lament for him as if for yourself.

Step 22:
On Vainglory - Vainglory is a change of nature, a perversion of character . . . It is a waste of work and sweat, a betrayal of treasure, an offspring of unbelief, a harbinger of pride . . .

Like the sun which shines on all alike, vainglory beams on every occupation. What I mean is this. I fast, and turn vainglorious. I stop fasting so that I will draw no attention to myself, and I become vainglorious over my prudence. I dress well or badly, and I am vainglorious in either case. I talk or hold my peace, and each time I am defeated. No matter how I shed this prickly thing, a spike remains to stand up against me.

A vain man is a believer - and an idolator. Apparently honoring God, he actually is out to please not God but men. To be a showoff is to be vainglorious, and the fast of such an individual is unrewarded and his prayer futile, since he is practicing both to win praise.

When the devil tells you to show off your virtues for the benefit of an audience, do not yield to him. "What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and destroy himself?" (Matt. 16:26).

Our neighbor is moved by nothing so much as by a sincere and humble way of talking and behaving. It is an example and a spur to others never to turn proud. And there is nothing to equal the benefit of this.

Step 26:
On Discernment - Among beginners, discernment is real self-knowledge; among those midway on the road to perfection, it is a spiritual capacity to distinguish unfailingly between what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good; among the perfect, it is a knowledge resulting from divine illumination, which with its lamp can light up what is dark in others.

To put the matter generally, discernment is - and is recognized to be - a solid understanding of the will of God in all times, in all places, in all things; and it is found only among those who are pure in heart, body and in speech. Discernment is an uncorrupted conscience. It is pure perception.

Step 30:
On Faith, Hope and Love - And now at last, after all that has been said, there remains that triad, faith, hope and love, binding and securing the union of all. "But the greatest of these is love" (I Cor. 13:13), since that is the very name of God Himself (I Jn 4:8)

Love, by nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as this is humanly possible. Love is the banishment of every sort of contrariness, for love thinks no evil.

He who loves the Lord has first loved his brother, for the latter is proof of the former. Someone who loves his neighbor will never tolerate slanderers and will run from them as though from a fire.

Hope is the power behind love. Hope is what causes us to look forward to the reward of love. Hope is an abundance of hidden treasure. It is a rest from labor, a doorway of love. When hope fails, so does love. Hope is destroyed by anger, for hope does not disappoint and the angry man has no grace. Love is an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul. It is the condition of angels and the progress of eternity.

The Thirty Steps of the Ladder of Divine Ascent

I. The Break With the World

1. Renunciation
2. Detachment
3. Exile
II. The Practice of the Virtues

(i) Fundamental Virtues
4. Obedience
5. Penitence
6. Remembrance of Death
7. Sorrow

(ii) The Struggle Against Passions
(a) Non-physical Passions
8. Anger
9. Malice
10. Slander
11. Talkativeness
12. Falsehood
13. Despandency

(b) Physical & Material Passions
14. Gluttony
15. Lust
16-17 Aravice

(c) Non-Physical Passions (cont.)
18-20. Insensitivity
21. Fear
22. Vainglory
23. Pride (also Blasphemy)

(iii) The Higher Virtues
24. Simplicity
25. Humility
26. Discernment
III. Union with God

27. Stillness
28. Prayer
29. Dispassion
30. Love

Did you know that with the exception of the Bible and the service books, there is no work in the Orthodox Church that has been more studied, copied or translated than the Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Climacus?


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