*Author’s note: Quotations from The Ladder of Divine Ascent and other texts are often changed in this reflection to make them more immediately comprehensible.
In the gospel story, especially in the Gospel of Mark, which we just heard on the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, almost everything happens “on the way.” It doesn’t say on the way to what, but it all takes place “on the way.”
In the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel (9.17–31), Jesus is on his way down from the mountain, and he finds a crowd arguing with his disciples. He finds out that a man had brought his epileptic son to the disciples for healing, but they could not do it. When Jesus sees the desperation of the man, the confusion of the crowd, the disciples’ failure, and the general immaturity of their faith, he responds by crying out: “O faithless generation! How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?”
How does that feel, to hear those words from the mouth of Jesus? They sound like a cry of impatience, or exasperation—as if God might eventually give up on us and leave if we don’t get on top of things: “How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Is God impatient, or is he exasperated with our immaturity, our confusion, and our failures? Are you impatient?
Later on, the disciples came to Jesus privately to ask him why they had not been able to heal the boy. And to that Jesus simply said, “This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting.”
There again, it can seem like Jesus means, “If you were on top of things, praying and fasting, if you tried harder, if you did more, everything would be fine. We wouldn’t have these problems.”
Does that sound that familiar? Maybe it sounds like that to us, because these are the kinds of messages we carry in our heads every day. And especially in Lent, when we are trying to get on top of our spiritual life with more prayer and fasting. And the more so on the Sunday of St. John Climacus, who wrote The Ladder of Divine Ascent, the ultimate manual of prayer and fasting.
It talks about the spiritual life as steps on a ladder. If you’re like me, just the sight of this book makes you uncomfortable. Just to look at some of the chapter titles:
Step 1: On Renunciation of the World;
Step 5: On Painstaking and True Repentance;
Step 15: On Incorruptible Purity and Chastity to which the corruptible attain by Toil and Sweat;
Step 20: On Bodily Vigil, and how to use it to attain Spiritual Vigil.
Hearing that kind of makes you want to give up before you start.
But the image of life as ascending a ladder has a particular resonance in our culture, where we’re always trying to get ahead. We think of climbing the social ladder, the corporate ladder, or the economic ladder. Bookshelves today are full of “ladders.” They have titles like “Five Steps to Realizing your Goals and Resolutions” (that sounds nice), “Six Steps to Raising Happy, Healthy Children” (these are real titles, by the way), “Seven Steps to Saving your Relationship,” and “Eight Steps to a Pain-Free Back”—or, how about, “FIFTY Steps to Self- Esteem”!
It’s not that I’m saying all these are bad things—we do want your back to feel better—but at the same time, the message we internalize
can be, “you are never enough,” and “your life is never enough.” Life is where your goals and resolutions are realized, and you have to climb the ladder to get there. So our life is always somewhere else, and so our mind is always somewhere else; and the world around us looks pretty crummy. We get impatient and exasperated. We say, “how long can I even bear this?” We would like to skip over the intermediate steps. We are impatient about being on the way to something.
But as one poet said, “It is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability, and that it may take a very long time” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Trust in the Slow Work of God).
In The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John tells the story of a man of the “magisterial rank” named Isidore, who went to become a monk. But the abbot of the monastery recognized that Isidore was “full of mischief,” as it says. So the abbot said, “If you have decided to take upon yourself the yoke of Christ, I want you to first of all learn obedience.”
Isidore replied, “As iron to the smith, so I render myself in submission to you, holy father.”
The Abbot said, “I truly want you, brother, to stand at the gate of the monastery, and to fall down before everyone passing through, and to say, ‘Pray for me, father.’”
So Isidore did this every day, and after seven years the abbot wanted to bring him in and ordain him. But Isidore begged to be allowed to stay there at the gate until his last breath, because he thought it would be soon. And the abbot allowed it.
While Isidore was still living, St. John had the opportunity to ask him what it was like for him during those seven years he spent at the gate.
Isidore, wanting to benefit him, told St. John:
In the beginning, I judged that I had been sold into slavery for my sins; so it was with bitterness, with a great effort, and as it were with blood that I made the prostration. But after a year had passed, my heart no longer felt sorrow, and I expected a reward for my patience from God Himself. But when another year had gone by, I began to be deeply conscious…of my unworthiness even to live in the monastery, and to see and meet the fathers, and partake of the Divine Mysteries. And bending low with my eyes, and still lower with my thought, I sincerely asked for the prayers of those going in and going out.
So, if you notice, those first stages Isidore passed through are exactly what we have been talking about. In the beginning he was impatient and exasperated with his life at the gate. Then he began to dream of some future reward, and his mind was somewhere else. But gradually he learned to be “deeply consciousness” of what a great and holy thing it is to be here—to live here in the community, to see and meet the others, and to receive Holy Communion. He was still at the gate; the people around him didn’t change; living his way of life didn’t change; but he learned that deeper consciousness.
Can you imagine coming to see your own life as it is, with all the details, as great and holy?
Isidore’s ascent in the story is not the same kind of ascent as climbing our social ladders and corporate ladders.
This is divine ascent.
Divine ascent is different, because God is not just up at the top of the ladder, waiting for us to climb our way up. He is with you from the very beginning. And that fundamentally changes the way you see the process.
We have an image of Divine Ascent in the story of Jacob’s ladder (Gen 28.10–22). Jacob was on his way somewhere, and while he was camping on the ground, with a rock for his pillow, he saw a vision of ladder from earth to heaven, with angels of God ascending and descending, and Jacob saw God above the ladder. This was his first real encounter with the God of his father, Abraham.
God blessed Jacob, saying, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, for I will not leave you until I have done that which I have spoken to you.”
After hearing this, Jacob got up, and looked around him, and said,
“Surely, the LORD is in this place, and I knew it not.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
God is not waiting for us to get on top of things. God is not impatient with us. God does not give up on us. God is here with us, wherever we are in our life. And He promises to stay with us the whole way.
If this book (The Ladder) seems discouraging, it is because we don’t notice where St. John begins. He says:
Let us begin like this: God belongs to all free beings.
He is the life of all, the salvation of all—faithful and unfaithful, just and unjust, pious and impious, passionate and dispassionate, monks and laymen, wise and simple, healthy and sick, young and old—just as the sight of the sun, and the changes of the season are the same for everyone; ‘for there is no favoritism with God.’”
That is where we begin.
So prayer and fasting, and anything we do, are not how we climb our way to God. They are not how we become good enough, get on top of things, or make all our problems go away. (If you are doing more praying and fasting this Lent, you probably find you only notice your problems more.) In all this, we are not trying to get God to be with us, and to bear with us.
God stays with us through the whole process.
St. John describes the way of prayer and fasting in an unusual way: he says it is “to strive to keep your incorporeal being enclosed within the house of your body, paradoxical as this may be.”
It is to strive to enclose your “incorporeal being,” that is, all the powers of your soul—thought, imagination, desire— to keep this within the “house of your body.” Because our mind always wants to be somewhere else, as we’ve said—imagining different futures; rehashing different pasts; solving problems; making plans. We feel anxious, and we look for solutions. We feel bored. We look for something to pay attention to. We feel hungry. We look for something to satisfy.
But the way of prayer and fasting is to keep your mind right here, where your body is.
We stay right here, here with the hunger; here with the boredom; with our emptiness, our anxiety, our pain, our failings. We stay with our feeling of being incomplete. Because that’s where we are. We are incomplete. We are anxious. We have problems. We try things and fail, sometimes. And that’s normal. That’s actually good. That means we’re alive. It means we are on the way. And being on the way is a holy ground, because God is with us on the way. He is here, forming us into what we will be.
This doesn’t mean staying in one place. Your feelings might be telling you that you need to make some changes, maybe even big changes, or you need to get out of a bad situation. And that’s good. That’s part of being on the way.
Or you might need to stay right where you are and change your attitude. And that’s good, too.
Or you might not have any idea what you need to do.
You might think you know exactly what you need, and wonder why you keep failing to do it. That is normal.
Only God knows what this new spirit, gradually forming within you, will be (Chardin, Trust in the Slow Work of God).
We are not trying to skip past the process—the anxiety, the pain, and the incompleteness are still there. It still feels that way. But we are learning at the same time to also have that deeper consciousness, that this is what it’s like to be on the way. This is what it’s like to be formed in the image of God.
This place we’re in, with all its joys and sorrows and troubling details, is holy ground. We can look around and say, “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.”
God is with us, right where we are in our life’s journey. We are on holy ground, even at this moment.
“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Glory to Jesus Christ!