The Ladder of Divine Ascent
AMONG THE VERY IMPORTANT SCENES depicted on the walls of churches decorated in the
traditional Byzantine manner is "The Soul-saving and Heavenward Ladder," usually
referred to as "The Ladder of Divine Ascent." This painting or mosaic is a large
synthesis that is given prominence in the narthex of some of the churches and refectories
of the Holy Mountain of Athos, as well as in some old churches elsewhere.
The icon is connected with the famous spiritual classic entitled
The Ladder of Divine Ascent of Saint John
Climacos, who flourished in the seventh century. His memory is celebrated by the Orthodox
on March 30 and on the Fourth Sunday of the Great Lent.
In this book, he describes thirty
stages of spiritual development, which he
likens to thirty steps upward on a ladder. The steps lead the spiritual striver to theosis,
divinization, salvationthe ultimate goal of askesis or spiritual struggle.
In the icon which is inspired by this book, the
ladder stands on the earth and reaches Heaven, symbolized by a vault from which emerges
Christ. The ladder stands at an angle. Sometimes, the lower half of it is at a forty five
degree angle, while the upper half stands upright. This is done in order to convey the
idea that more effort is required for rising to the highest levels of spiritual
At the right side of the scene is shown a
building, symbolizing a monastery, and outside its entrance stands Saint John Climacos.
With his right hand he points at the ladder for the monks who stand behind him, while in
his left hand he holds a scroll on which is written: "Ascend, ascend,
Over the top of the ladder is Christ, emerging from Heaven. With His right hand He
blesses the monk who has climbed to the top of the ladder, or holds the monks hand.
In His left hand He holds a scroll, symbolic of His Gospel, or a crown which He is about
to place on the head of the victorious monk. Below, there are other monks at various
stages of ascent. Some stand on the ladder firmly, and are about to rise to the next rung.
Others, however, are barely retaining their hold, as they are drawn by demons. The latter
are flying at the left of the ladder. One of the monks has fallen off the ladder and is
being swallowed below by a great dragon with wide open jaws. The dragon is used as a
symbol of Hell.
Near the right side of the ladder are portrayed holy Angels encouraging and helping the
ascending monks. This is in accord with the statement made by Saint John and other Eastern
Church Fathers, that those persons who struggle for the acquisition of the virtues are
helped both by God and by His Angels.
The Angels are shown with halos, clothed with light-colored garments and large, strong
wings. The demons, on the other hand, are depicted without halos, without garments, with
small, weak wings. Their bodies are of dark, dull colors, and have something that the
bodies of the holy Angels do not have: tails. The latter symbolize the fallen state of the
demons, their animalistic state. For the rational faculty, with which God endowed them
when He created themand which distinguishes both the angelic nature and human nature
from that of the beasts of the fieldhas been corrupted by their rebellion against
The demons are depicted in order to remind the beholder that there exist such evil
incorporeal beings, who act upon us through mental suggestion and assaults, and also to
symbolize various "passions" (negative emotions and desires) in us. Saint John
describes and minutely analyzes the nature of the passions, namely, pride, gluttony, lust,
anger, despondency, malice, and so on. Positive qualitiesthe opposites of the
"passions"e.g., humility, temperance, chastity, gentleness, hope, love,
etc.are symbolized by the holy Angels, who are also to be viewed as real beings.
The statement on the open scroll held by Saint John Climacos is taken from the
concluding exhortation of his book. It begins thus: "Ascend, ascend, brethren, ascend
with eagerness and resolve in your hearts, listening to him who says: Let us go up
to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of our God, Who maketh our feet like those of
the deer, and setteth us on high places, that we may be victorious with His
of Saint John Climacos,
which the icon depicts, is inspired by the Ladder which the righteous Jacob saw in a
dream. Jacob saw a ladder which rose from earth to Heaven, on which some Angels were
ascending and others were descending. His dreamor, better, his visionis
described in the book of Genesis as follows: "Jacob dreamed, and behold a ladder set
up on the earth, and the top of it reached to Heaven, and the Angels of God were ascending
and descending on it. And the Lord leaned upon it and said: I am the God of Abraham thy
father, and the God of Isaac; be not afraid.... And behold, I am with thee, and will keep
thee in all places wither thou goest" (28:12-13, 15Septuagint).
Saint Johns Ladder expresses
the Orthodox view that spiritual perfection, theosis,
salvation is not something attained all at once, as by a leap, but comes after
a long arduous process of spiritual striving or askesis. In this process, with sustained
effort one rises gradually from lower to higher and higher levels of spiritual
development. Thus, in the ninth step, Saint John remarks: "The holy virtues are like
Jacobs Ladder. For the virtues, leading from one to another, bear him who chooses
them to Heaven." Later, in the discussion of the fourteenth step, he observes that
"no one can climb a ladder in one stride."
Commenting on this, Saint Symeon the New Theologian says: "Those who want to climb
these steps climb the first rung of the Ladder, then the second, then the third, and so
on.... In this way one can rise from earth to Heaven" (Tou Hosiou Symeon tou Neou
Theologou ta Heuriskomena Panta, p. 368). The first step of spiritual ascent, says Climacos,
consists in these three virtues: guilelessness (or truthfulness), fasting, and temperance.
"All babes in Christ begin with these virtues, taking as their model natural babes.
For in these you will never find anything sly or deceitful. And they have no insatiate
appetite, no insatiable stomach, no body that is on fire or bestialized." These three
virtues will serve, he says, as a secure foundation for the rest.
The idea of a Ladder of Spiritual Ascent appears often in Orthodox hymnography. The
Kontakion chanted on March 30, feast day of Saint John Climacos, speaks of his Ladder thus: "By offering fresh fruits
(teachings) from thy book, O wise one, thou dost delight the hearts of those who in a
state of inner wakefulness heed them; for it is a Ladder that leadeth from earth to
heavenly and abiding glory the souls of those who with faith honor thee."
I must add a few words about the life of Saint John Climacos and about the intent and
influence of his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This great and very wise ascetic
was tonsured a monk at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai. After three years
he withdrew to a hermitage about five miles from the Monastery and lived there for forty
years. Subsequently, he became Abbot of the Monastery and wrote his Klimaxthe Greek word for ladder. He
owes his nameClimacosto the title he gave to his book.
Although this book is addressed to monks and to those who are thinking of embracing the
monastic life, it contains a wealth of observations, counsels, and exhortations that are
profitable to everyone who is interested in making progress in the spiritual life. For, as
he remarks in one of his discourses (or "steps"), "Angels are the light of
monastics, while the monastic state is a light for all men."
From the time it was written to the present, The
Ladder of Divine Ascent has been read assiduously by monastics as well as by pious
Christians living in "the world" in the Hellenic East, in Palestine, in Russia,
in Serbia, in Rumania, in Bulgaria, in Europe, and elsewhere. It has been translated, from
the ninth century on, into many languages: Syriac, Arabic, Latin, Slavonic, Russian,
Bulgarian, Serbian, Modern Greek, Rumanian, Italian, Spanish, English, and other
languages. There are two translations of it in the English language, one published
around 1960 in New York by Harper and Brothers and one published later by Holy
Transfiguration Monastery in Boston.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent
important place in the tradition of Orthodox spirituality known as Hesychasm. Among the
famous Saints who were deeply influenced by it are Symeon the New Theologian, the great
eleventh-century Byzantine mystic; Gregory Palamas, the great fourteenth-century exponent
and defender of Hesychasm; the eighteenth-century Greek "Kollyvades" Macarios of
Corinth and Nicodemos the Hagiorite; and Starets Paissy Velichkovsky, also of the
eighteenth century, who translated the Philokalia
and The Ladder of Divine Ascent
From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XII, No. 4, pp. 60-63.