The Ladder of Your Daily Life

Perhaps the most prominent ladder in our culture is the one associated with careers. It is an image of the American road to success. We begin at or near the bottom and, step by step, make our way towards the top. It is a metaphor that works well with our modern notions of hard work, persistence and reward. It also serves as a justification for many of the structures in our society and colors our common view of those who linger around the bottom. It is through this cultural image that the Ladder of St. John of Sinai (Climacus) comes into distorted view. I have often thought that certain images are not safe in the hands of modernity – and this is one of them.

There is something buried deep in the human soul surrounding the image of climbing and God. The story of the Tower of Babel is an account of a vast human effort to build a tower that would reach into heaven itself. One of the ancient Ziggurats built by Nebuchaneaer was called, “The place where earth and heaven meet.” Mountains have always played a major role in the meeting place of God and humanity. Our instinct is that we “go up” to meet God.

The Tradition clearly indicates that this instinct has value. But like all human instincts, it has its dark side as well. Our culture’s notion of the “pinnacle of success” is a prime example of this darkness. By its very name, this peak experience is held out as a desirable goal. But we have the strange reality that those at the top are rarely personalities that we would want to nurture in our children. There is nothing that the pinnacle offers other than money and power, neither of which is beneficial to the soul.

This distorted “ladder” often gets translated into the moral life in what is little more than an exercise in Pelagianism. Our struggles for moral improvement frequently have more to do with our inability to bear the shame of moral failure than of any desire for goodness. As such, they are a neurosis rather than a morality. St. John gives us a “ladder” for our consideration. It is worth noting, however, that the fourth chapter in his work concentrates on shame – with the observation, “You can only heal shame by shame.” This is not a “ladder” in any modern sense of the word.

Consider the Beatitudes. Christ offers something of a “list” as He reveals the nature of His Kingdom. Who are the blessed?

The poor in spirit;
Those who mourn;
Those who are meek;
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;
Those who are merciful;
Those who are pure in heart;
Those who make peace;
Those who are persecuted.

The list is not a ladder, a movement from one virtue to another. It is, however, a characterization of the “virtues” that find their place within the Kingdom. Who are these people?

It would seem that there is a consistent picture of those who are best positioned regarding the Kingdom. They are poor, disadvantaged, oppressed, and sorrowful. They are also longing for things to be set right, while at the same time they are merciful and kind towards others.

This same summary can be seen throughout the gospels and in St. Paul:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, (1 Cor. 1:26-28)

The ladder of the spiritual life leads downwards rather than up (or it leads us back to where we already are). The lives of the saints are replete with those who abandoned wealth in order to become poor and find God. I can think of no stories in which a saint acquired wealth in order to enter the Kingdom.

I do not think it is necessary for everyone to abandon what they have and head to the deserts. It is sufficient, in my experience, to simply practice mercy, kindness and generosity where you are, and to bear your own failings and incompetence with patience. And, though this sounds easy, it is more than most are willing to do.

I am always leery when asked about various spiritual undertakings. Whether it’s a rule of prayer or a rule of fasting, the true struggle is never found in doing what is extraordinary. It’s the very difficult matter of enduring what is given to us. God, in His providence, allows us all that is necessary for our salvation. Grace is primarily found within the ordinary faithfulness of our life.

Of course, the monastic example might make many question this “ordinary” route. What is not seen by most is the exceedingly ordinary task that confronts the monastic. The greatest struggles within a monastery are not always in the prayers, vigils and fasting. Most often, they are found in the daily grind of remaining in place. It is said in the desert, “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

We can also know that the good God who loves mankind will never abandon us. No matter how far we may run from the mundane struggles of our existence, the struggles will follow. It is among the promises of Christ: “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matt. 6:34)

33 comments:

  1. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Would you please consider writing about the “kingdom”?
    Thank you.

  2. We can also know that the good God who loves mankind will never abandon us.

    I find great hope in this statement, of late. The simple realization of God’s love and long-suffering for us carries me when I am in danger of despondency.

  3. Thank you Father, I’ll need to read this a few more times to be sure. When you speak of the struggle not being in the extraordinary but the ordinary circumstances that surround our lives, the lives of the Saints come to mind. It seems like virtually all of the examples given to us by the Church are indeed extraordinary. Those who sold all they had and gave it to the poor, those who left family and home and journeyed to the deserts and wild places. Those who, even though married, took vows of celibacy and lived as monks in the world. The list could go on and on. It can sometimes be discouraging as a person living in the world. There is no ‘St. Dave’, father of 4 who worked a 9 – 5 and struggled to pay the bills. How are we to make sense of this?

  4. Thank you, father! I have the same feeling about the danger of this image for a modern interpreter, with the social ladder or the corporate ladder in mind. Looking at our scripture and services, it seems that for pre-modern people the ladder was an image of connection, of communication and coming together, rather than of bootstrapping. Thus, we call the Theotokos the Ladder, because she unites flesh with Logos in herself. Christ, is the fulfillment of Jacob’s ladder because He is the unity of heaven and earth. When Jacob sees the ladder, he realizes not that God is up there at the top of it, but that He is “in this place”.

    Apparently St John thought this way too, based on how he introduces the Ladder, in his words:

    “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.”

  5. I cherish when now and again I read something and it resonates so fully with my experience that my heart skips over the analyzing and deducing and just shouts, “yes!”

  6. Andrew,
    You should search out the life of St. Juliana of Lazarevo. She was a mother. Not extraordinary. We like hero stories – and the “extremes” make for good reading. But it is misleading to imagine that the extraordinary is the model of sanctity. The first saints, and focus of the early Church, were martyrs. They were normal Christians who got arrested and killed. The “white martyrs” are interesting (monastics, etc.), but, again, the true daily martyrdom of ordinary life, rightly lived, is plenty difficult.

    There is this: “It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.” from the Desert Fathers

    I strongly suggest reading Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims for a picture of what sort of saint you and I have the chance to become.

  7. “Whether it’s a rule of prayer or a rule of fasting, the true struggle is never found in doing what is extraordinary. It’s the very difficult matter of enduring what is given to us.”

    Thank you for this.

  8. The virtues you describe here in this article, Father, stand in direct contrast to the behavior and thinking of American politicized Christians. (I’m avoiding specific labels here). Such movements and political cliques have a tendency to favor the opposite ways of being.

    And few housewives get a nod toward their sacrifices. I’m grateful for the mention of a saint among their ranks.

    And I echo Esmee’s words of appreciation for the same statement.

  9. Dee in these times the political class is not devoted to the good. At best it is ideology. Ideology breeds cults. Politicians are instrumental in creating martyrs. Shakespeare’s sating that”…mercy is enthroned in the hearts of kings…” was not true even when he wrote it. It is less true today. Without mercy, there is no truth.
    What is true in that same speech is: “… we do pray for mercy and that same prayer teaches us to render the deeds of mercy…”

    Shylock in refusing mercy lost everything he thought he had and more.

  10. Andrew (more thoughts)
    It’s easy to idealize the lives of monastics (mostly because we don’t spend much time around them). There life is closer to that of a housewife than that of a soldier. It is marked by routine – lots and lots of routine. It can be tedious and boring. Baking bread, making candles, washing dishes, are among the most common obediences given to monks. They are household chores. They pray as they work. There are services – which, on the whole, are longer and not packed with interesting things.

    What is difficult about the monastic life is found precisely in doing the “next good thing” and living a life that gives thanks always and for all things. The demons that monastics face are no more fierce than the demons we all face. There can certainly be fewer distractions and temptations of a sort. Of course, they have enough temptations and distractions in order to find salvation.

    What is mistaken is to be caught up in a sort of fantasy based on reading the lives of the saints. The lives often just give exciting highlights. They do not recount the decades of boredom and tedium (it would make for bad reading). The saying of the Fathers is “stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” By the same token, I would say, “Stay in your life, and your life will teach you everything.” It is grace that saves us – and God is generous – He pours it out on all of us.

  11. Father, being retired and now being a “house husband” with my closest neighbor 1/2 mile away plus seldom going to town I can begin to appreciate a bif of what you say.

  12. Thank you, Father.
    And the comments are so good, as well.

    Paula, AZ, I miss you dear sister.

  13. Andrew –

    I posted this article in my parish forum and another parishioner shared this wonderful story in response…

    Makarios and the Two Sisters (Paraphrased from several sources)

    There is a story of the great Makarios of Egypt. One day, while praying, the thought occurred to Makarios that perhaps there were no more righteous people in the world. For he had lived in the desert for many years, practicing severe ascetic disciplines.

    At that moment an angel appeared to him and said, “In the City of Alexandria you will find two very righteous women. You have not yet reached their level of spirituality. They surpass you.”

    Makarios was perplexed. Yet curious, he traveled to Alexandria, following the instructions of the angel.

    And there he found these two women, and knocked on their door. When they opened, he greeted them, ‘I have heard of your lives from a reputable source. Tell me, what are you doing? How do you live such an amazing spiritual life in the midst of the city?”

    Dumbfounded, they replied, “Well, we don’t know. Surely such a one does not live here. I mean, we were just with our husbands last night.”

    Even more perplexed now, Makarios asked them to explain their manner of life further.

    “We are two sisters, living together for a long time with our husbands, who are also brothers. Once, we asked our husbands if they would release us from the demands of marriage so we could go to the desert, to practice the kind of life you live. But they said, ‘No you stay and live with us’.”

    “And so we simply try to live for God each day, right where we are. We can say that we live in peace, that is all. And do not quarrel.

    “If we ever meet the person you are searching for, we will tell them you came here.”

    When he returned to his cell, Makarios realized that it’s not whether we live in the city or the desert. Whether we live as married people or as single people. Whether we have strict celibate ascetic lives, or lives in the world. It’s that we learn to live for God right where we are.

  14. Father Freeman, thank you for that helpful analysis of the Desert Fathers’ somewhat baffling (at least to me) statement that “your cell will teach you everything.” I had to put down the Sayings of the Desert Fathers because it was too foreign and too frightening. This seeking protestant appreciates your wisdom: “stay in your life…”

    Blessings!

  15. Ben,
    One of my favorite quotes is from the 20th century Catholic saint, Therese of Lisieux: “If you can bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a place of refuge.”

    Simply bearing serenely the daily trials of life (in which I am presuming that one tries to keep the commandments of Christ), is enough to save us (particularly if that “bearing serenely” is joined to giving thanks always and for all things.” Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.”

    Understand, I’m using “salvation” in its Orthodox form…which means to whole of life becoming increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.

  16. Andrew, et al:
    Here’s a couple more accounts from the lives of the saints:
    One of the great saints (I forgot which one) was told by an angel to go into the city and see certain person who spiritually surpassed him. When he got there, it was a widowed mother with 9 children living in the trash dump.
    Another saint (it may have been Anthony) was told to go into the city to a certain person who spiritually surpassed him – it turned out to be a “regular Joe” a cobbler or tanner, “Saint Dave father of 4 who worked 9 to 5 and struggled to pay the bills.”

  17. Dear Ben Nye,
    I can empathize with your reactions to the seeming foreignness and potentially frightening aspects of Orthodox piety. When I first began to realize that Orthodox theology was the most revelatory Christian theology I could find to explain some of my own experiences in science and God, I knew I wanted to enter the Church. But it took a while to overcome my timid response to the culture in the Church. But I followed Christ nevertheless because I knew He was leading me into His Church.

    May God grant you peace and joy in your explorations of the Orthodox Way.

  18. Ben Nye,
    I was at my oldest sister’s funeral today. She was a devout evangelical Christian
    and a wonderful sis.
    I had a deja vu experience there, after over 25 years as an Orthodox believer.
    I felt very uncomfortable at much of the preaching. It seemed strange to me with its blend of the Bible and American culture. The majority of what the minister shared seemed like fluff, or cotton candy that quickly evaporates in your mouth…lacking substance. What you feel as strange or unintelligible is. The Orthodox Church is a different milieu but this lack of familiarity
    will change with time, if you decide on Orthodoxy. The strangeness becomes strangely new. The Orthodox faith has no corner on truth but I believe expresses the fulness of faith. Salvation is not just a “personal relationship” with Christ, as expressed this a.m. by the pastor. Even that expression is fairly new. No, salvation for Orthodox is, as Father notes, all of one’s life lived in union with Him, “That
    they may be one in us, as you Father are in me and I in you.” The strangeness of Orthodoxy wears off
    and is replaced by a sense of “eureka”, I have found it, or rather it (the Church), the Body of Christ, has found me. Fluff is replaced by substance, truth, stability, sobriety, timelessness, joyful sorrow and so much more. This is, and God willing always will be, my heart’s true home.

  19. Dear Dean,
    Thank you for this beautiful and true description of the Orthodox Way. There’s so much to say that makes it difficult to convey in a blog comment. Nevertheless your comment describes so much of the wonder. Indeed the foreigness evaporates as the heart is filled in Christ.

    Personally, I have never held any attraction to Christianity, except for what I have found in the Orthodox Church. I suspect I might not be a Christain to this day in my life, if I had had no opportunity to experience Christ in the Orthodox Church’s services.

    And dear Dean, Memorial Eternal for your dear sister. May God grant her peace and joy in paradise.

  20. Dear Dee,
    Once again, thank you!
    Like you, but for the Orthodox Church I don’t know where I would be right now.
    My life as an evangelical was at an impasse.
    I’m at a grandson’s volleyball game. Time to stop. 🙂

  21. Thank you so much for this Father!
    Among other things, you say, “It’s the very difficult matter of enduring what is given to us.” Sufficient for the day, indeed, but also that’s the stuff of our own crosses. It so often seems we’d prefer anything but that one! (Speaking for myself of course; I think this has something to do with the “noonday demon,” but I’ll leave that to you.)

  22. Oh dear–I seem to have caused a “stir.”

    Dee, Dean, wonderful reflections. Thank you.

    Yes, I am both frightened of, but drawn by, the Orthodox Church (even writing it feels like an irretrievable admission). I am a lay person, so there are no professional concerns. But I have many years and wonderful relationships in old congregations and I am recently married, too! So I do not feel as free as I might have at one time. More prayer and time is needed, I think. I have always been, and will remain a Christian. That much is sure.

    Something has felt “off” in these past few years. A fusion of Americanism that I have grown intensely weary of. Wondering if my childhood wonder about the world was the truer experience. Not the removed, abstracted one. Lately, whenever I hear a bird’s song, I have been reminding myself that they are praising God. A start maybe.

    I appreciate your prayers!

  23. Ben, if the Holy Spirit is working in you as it appears, you will get what you need. Are you familiar with the site Journey to Orthodoxy? If not, it os a good bet you can find a story similar to yours. May Our Lord Bless you on your journey.

  24. To Fr. Freeman and all the commentators, thank you! And thank you, Fr Freeman for the wonderful webinar on shame yesterday evening. Everything I read or listen to by you helps me to sort just a little bit more out. And the thoughtful commentary by others helps, too.

  25. I am probably wrong but my impression is that living the life one has become far more complicated.

  26. Michael,
    In general, the more we allow our focus to drift beyond the immediate and the next, the more complicated life becomes. And, in contrast, the more we focus on that which is immediately at hand, and the “next good thing,” the less complicated it becomes. One thing at a time.

  27. Father, I understand the process and its efficacy but the modern world is expert on fear and distraction. For me, focusing on the reality of both the Incarnation and Resurrection (not just as ideas) helps me remember the essential things close to hand and the mercy undergirding those small immediate things and the immediate good at hand.

  28. Father, as far as I know only the Orthodox teach that first the Forerunner and then Christ went down into hades. This is very much connected to the theme you write here.

    This morning I read 1 Peter 4:6, “For this is why the Gospel is preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.” (RSV)

    The dead heard the good news, and the Christ came to them.

    Following Christ, the way up is a form of death to all that separates you from Christ. It can be a fearful path. But it is one that is holy and deeply imbued with the love of Christ.

  29. Btw, I have now three Bibles to read translations. Two are RSV but by different publishers, one Ignatius press and the other is the Oxford expanded. The third is the Orthodox Bible.

    I find it interesting that the Ignatius Bible has no explanatory note on that verse (1 Peter 4:6) whereas the other RSV Bible by Oxford mentions in a note that the meaning of the verse is related to verse 3:19. And the note on that verse starts with this: “This difficult passage may mean that Christ announced his completed work in the realm of the dead. . .”

    And in the Orthodox Bible there is no difficulty because the verse comes from and is part of the Orthodox tradition. The note on that verse (4:6) states simply “The dead are most likely those preached to “in prison” in Hades” and then it refers to verse 3:19. The note on that verse says this:

    As Noah preached righteousness, suffered unjustly, and rescued those who were with him, so also does Christ. Christ descended to those in darkness and death that light might shine on them and He might deliver them from death. As Christ fearlessly faced His tormentors, death, and hell, so we through Him can confidently face mockers and tormentors—and, yes bring His light to them.

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