Before the Climb
By the time we were on our way to the Sinai desert, I was weary of archeological ruins and artifacts. As part of a study program I had spent two months in Israel looking at old buildings and contemplating their historical significance. The expanse and desolation of the Sinai desert were a welcomed relief. As we camped out under a night sky that glowed like trillions of crushed diamonds, the psalmist’s words resonated: “When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place—What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4-5)
Although I was more enraptured by the stark beauty of the sky and the luminous granite rock than I had been by the ancient buildings, we had one more edifice to visit. We were making a pilgrimage to Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula, the oldest monastery in the world. It had been constructed by order of Emperor Justinian between 527 and 565 CE at the foot of Mount Moses, where the great prophet had received the Ten Commandments and an epiphany of God in the Burning Bush.
We arrived in late morning with the sun already high in the sky, beating down on the imposing granite walls surrounding the monastery, which looked like a burnished fortress at the foot of the parched mountain. Some gardens and orchards outside the walls extended like a long triangle into the desert and created a startling oasis amid the rock.
When we entered the gates a minicity of buildings awaited us: churches, chapels, monks’ cells, a library, icon gallery, and even a mosque (supposedly built around the tenth century to appease the early Arabic rulers of Egypt and the local Muslims who served the monks). I soon discovered that the monastery has one of the largest collections of ancient illuminated manuscripts in the world, as well as one of the most impressive collections of icons, numbering over two thousand. It was the icons that left a lasting impression.
Although not well versed in the spirituality of icons, I had always liked the art form. The exaggerated stylistic depictions seemed more appropriate than realistic ones for images that cannot, and perhaps should not, be captured in their totality. The icon leads one to contemplate that which it symbolizes. The Christian Orthodox traditions venerated and worshipped icons, believing that the honor paid to the image passes to the prototype. At the monastery this reverence for the icons was on full display, as monks bowed before the sacred images and as countless candles illumined their shiny gold–leaf and subtle colors.
One icon stood out from the rest for me. I had seen reproductions of it, but apparently this was the original. It represented a ladder positioned vertically at a forty–five–degree angle, reaching up to the sky. Numerous men, presumably monks, were ascending the many rungs of this ladder to heaven. At the top a celestial welcoming committee was headed by Jesus Christ, who had his hand extended to the arriving monks. But farther down the ladder, black–winged demons appeared to be picking off some monks on the rungs with sticks and weapons resembling bows and arrows. It was an arresting image, leading me to speculate as to why some of the monks were falling prey to the demonic nymph–like figures.
I stood in front of the icon for a long time, unsure why I was so captivated by it. I assumed that the icon was based on the biblical text of Jacob’s Ladder from the book of Genesis:
Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, "I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants."
(Genesis 28:10-13, RSV)
A guide informed me that the icon was from the twelfth century and was inspired by a classic work by a monk, Saint John Climacus, who had actually lived at Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Born around 525, Climacus had come to the desert at age sixteen to be a monk at Mount Sinai and had lived in various hermitages. When he was about seventy–five years old, after forty years of living in one hermitage, Climacus was chosen to be the abbot of Mount Sinai at Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Having been entrusted with the pastoral care of the monastery, Climacus was advised by a fellow monk to write a discourse that would help those in his charge to reach spiritual perfection. Climacus, known to be a holy monk who had achieved a high level of spiritual acuity, was considered to be someone who could impart spiritual wisdom and advice through such a written manual. During his four years as abbot, he wrote his classic work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent
While I vaguely remembered having heard about the work when studying theology in graduate school, it wasn't until I returned to the United States some months later, that finally I read John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent
Though I was not initially enamored with the antiquated language or with some of the dualistic notions Climacus seems to espouse, the general themes captivated me and glistened with relevancy. The timelessness of the topics was uncanny—perhaps the best litmus test for a spiritual classic—prompting me to wonder how a seventh-century text written for desert monks could retain its relevancy through these many centuries.
Some years later a thirty–day retreat that I had planned gave me the opportunity to test the efficacy of my arcane spiritual guide. I decided that John Climacus and the thirty steps to spiritual fulfillment that he proposes in The Ladder of Divine Ascent
would form the structure for my retreat. His book and my Bible would be my only companions on my sacred journey. I set out not sure what to expect and not even confident that the climb would be one worth taking.
The experience surpassed all of my expectations. Meditating on one of the thirty steps each day of my retreat was one of the most formative spiritual experiences I have ever had. Each step seemed to take me deeper into the reality of Spirit with which I so wanted to communicate. I was encouraged to face my vices and demons, assured that they didn't have the power to overcome me, and then to move on. With the virtues and limitless love at the top of the ladder beckoning me forward, by the end of my thirty–day climb, I had changed. And I knew it. The following pages bear testimony to that.
The structure of this book is straightforward, based on the thirty steps that are visually represented by the rungs of the famous ladder. Climacus chose thirty steps to represent the thirty years in Christ’s life before he begins his active ministry. (In Christian literature those years often are referred to as the hidden years, while the last three years of Jesus' life in ministry are the active years.) Of Climacus’s thirty steps, sixteen are vices to overcome and fourteen are virtues to acquire—a clear–cut structure for a book on spiritual mastery.
The following pages demonstrate the continued relevancy of Climacus’s steps. Most are perennial virtues and vices that have also been considered elsewhere in spiritual literature. They have endured because they hold universal truths that can lead to transformative insights. Perhaps that is why The Ladder of Divine Ascent
is still the most popular work in all of Eastern Christendom and is read every Lent in Orthodox monasteries throughout the world.
Take your time on this climb. Climacus himself says that one cannot “climb the entire ladder in a single stride.” Climb, walk, sit, stand, kneel, or do somersaults; I’m not sure it much matters. The structure is simply a means to an end: union with God, the source of all love. Get there however you can. As you savor the beauty of this divine ascent, may God provide for your soul, and may the secret wisdom of these steps reveal to you the path to limitless Love.Love SongHow shall I hold my soul so yours and mine
Don't touch? What path around you can I take
To get to other things? I would mislay
My soul among the clutter left behind
In quiet darkness, far enough away
That it not resonate when your depths shake,
But everything that touches me and you
Takes us together, just as bowing two
Draws from a pair of strings a single sound.
What is the instrument on which we are strung?
And what musician holds us in his hand?
O sweetest song.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
(Translation by Leonard Cottrell, used with permission)Step 1
Renunciation / Offer It Up
Renunciation remains sorrow,
though a sorrow borne willingly.
—Charles DickensThose of us who wish to get away from Egypt, to escape from Pharaoh, need some Moses to be our intermediary with God.
(Climacus, Step 1)
At eight years old I am facing one of my earliest life crises. Where is my Moses when I need him? My Pharaoh mother, whom there is no escaping, thinks—no, is sure—that it is time for me to give up the pillow and blanket that I have had almost since birth. Although the pillow is flattened and worn, and the blanket is stained and hole–ridden, they are nonetheless prized possessions, giving comfort and security in a sometimes merciless world.
“But why do I have to get a new pillow and blanket?” I plead. “I like these.” My supplication falls on deaf ears. Like an arms–folded Yul Brenner in dark eyeliner and a cobra headdress, my mother has made up her mind.
“Don’t be so ridiculous,” she says with no small measure of disdain. “How could you be so attached to a pillow, for God’s sake?”
a blanket,” I correct her.
“Whatever,” she says heartlessly as she wrests both from my clutching fingers. “You’ll see. The new ones will be much better. New is always better.”Well, then, how about a new
mother? I think.Renunciation—is a piercing Virtue—
It would seem that renunciation is not a virtue of the young. In fact, even the more mature tend to stumble on this first “spiritual step.” Despite the precariousness, however, the fruits of voluntary renunciation have been extolled throughout the centuries, indeed the millennia. In advising relinquishments more significant than pillows and blankets, all of the major religious traditions promote renunciation as necessary for spiritual maturation.
Buddhism says that renunciation of the self and the world leads to the deathless state of Nirvana. In Hinduism renunciation (sanyas
) of desires and attachment is necessary to become a true sanyasi
(enlightened disciple), with the Bhagavad–Gita saying that renunciation is the highest form of spiritual discipline and is considered the goal of life (12.12).
In Judaism the renunciation necessary to adhere to the Ten Commandments, such as not coveting another’s wife or goods, produces a law-abiding Jew, while the Koran of Islam suggests, “What is with God is better than diversion and merchandise. God is the best of providers” (62.11).
And finally, in Christianity, followers are urged to deny their very selves, take up their crosses, and follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who renounces all for the sake of the Kingdom (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).
And yet despite these testimonies to the virtue of renunciation, many of us manage to avoid renouncing anything
, especially things we like. The indisputable unpopularity of self–denial in a can’t–I–have–everything? culture may give a clue, however, as to why renunciation endures as a spiritual virtue: because it flows against a mainstream society that, left to its base instincts, often avoids the virtuous. While this is not always true, the lack of examples of voluntary renunciation makes their appearance all the more noteworthy.
Once I was traveling on a fully booked flight from the West Coast to New York. The plane’s departure had been delayed for over two hours, and tempers were flaring. As finally we were boarding, I witnessed an interchange between a smartly attired businessman and an elderly woman with a cane. She was leaning against a wall as the first-class passengers were entering the plane.
“Don’t you want to board first?” the businessman asked her.
“Oh, no, I’m not in first–class,” she responded.
“Yes, but you have difficulty walking, and you have a cane,” he said. “Please, go ahead.” He motioned her forward with a sweep of his hand.
“Well, okay, I guess I can. Thank you.”
She limped ahead of the businessman and a few annoyed–looking first–class passengers and handed the smiling agent her coach–seat boarding pass. The businessman followed with his first–class boarding pass.
When I finally boarded and was passing through the first–class cabin, I noticed the somewhat dazed woman sitting in a first–class seat on the aisle, sipping a sparkling water with lime and looking like she had hit the lottery. I didn't see the businessman anywhere—until I reached my seat, midway down the plane. He was jammed into a middle seat in the next to last row, not sipping anything.With renunciation life begins.
—Natalie Clifford Barney
In his Nicomachean Ethics
, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested that the moderation needed to achieve “the good” is hard work because it requires saying no to desires and passions that, unchecked, become all–consuming. According to Aristotle, the cultivation of renunciation is necessary to live the virtuous life, the only kind of life that leads to true happiness.
Other epochs have looked more kindly on renunciation than ours does today. In the Middle Ages renunciation was a revered spiritual virtue, especially in the Christian tradition, because the focus wasn’t all on this
world. The world to come held just as important a place in people’s consciousness. For many this world was of little importance when compared to the more significant and eternal future world. Therefore, one renounced aspects of this world hoping to acquire something more lasting in the next.
The growing influence of science and technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries caused us to perceive the world differently and perhaps to focus less on the next world. The physical world, perceived with our senses, was presented as the only “real” world; while the worlds of spiritual consciousness came to be thought of as pious, fabricated constructions that collapsed under empirical, scientific scrutiny. Supposed advancement encouraged embracing the progress of science and technology and forgetting about that other world.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Soul Provider by Edward L. Beck. Copyright © 2007 by Edward L. Beck. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.