Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
St. John's work clearly betrays the monastic milieu from which it emerged, but since those very passions that plague us remain unchanging; and since the very virtues we struggle to acquire also remain unchanging; and since our goal is the Kingdom of Heaven, then his writings more importantly have a timeless and eternal quality to them. Such a text is never really "dated." It does not belong to a particular movement or fad. The Ladder is an enduring monument of spiritual depth that flows from the Gospel. Thus, its singular characteristic and popularity as an enduring classic.
A pop-culture awareness that has staying power over about a forty-five year period is an immediate recognition of the song titled "Stairway to Heaven."
Even those born well after the date of the song's initial appearance (1972) know that it was written by the now-legendary rock group Led Zeppelin. I, for one, will openly "confess" to seeing and hearing this song performed live more than once! I even recall reading an article that somehow managed to calculate that - up to a certain date, at least - it was the most-played song in rock radio history. Yet, I further recall hearing once that the members of Led Zeppelin were "sick and tired" of their famous song!
If not quite arresting, the title is at least attractive. Perhaps it awakens a vague longing deep within our soul: Is there a "stairway to heaven?" Some sort of path to another reality that lifts us above the mundane and everyday cares of life? Was there some formula hidden within the song's lyrics that pointed to that alluring path?
Admittedly, I always found the lyrics rather opaque and esoteric. (Certain members of Led Zeppelin were clearly taken by the esoteric and fantastic, obvious from some of their other songs). Perhaps that simply added to the song's charm as devotees spent inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to decipher or unpack the tantalizing meaning of the song just beyond our grasp. A lot of pseudo-serious literature was actually generated - and passionately argued about - back then offering various interpretations of "Stairway to Heaven's" meaning. And the song did have a compelling energy behind it as its slow beginning moved toward a crescendo of a driving and now classic rock guitar solo.
Yet, the famous "Stairway to Heaven" is so contextualized in a moment of long ago pop culture history, that "it makes me wonder" what the heady commotion was really all about. After forty-five years, it is now just another very recognizable "rock classic;" or, to say that in a slightly more deflating manner, just another "oldie." For some, it may serve to awaken a certain nostalgia for the past. Or, for others, to a past that they would like to forget!
Certainly no one is drawn to analyzing those opaque lyrics which really had nothing much behind them in the first place. Obscurity is often mistaken for depth. However, this is not the place to come down on Led Zeppelin and their famous song from the past. Everyone, including the members of the group, have certainly "moved on."
These brief comments on the song "Stairway to Heaven" were prompted by the fact that on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate St. John Climacus, austere author of the famous treatise The Ladder of Divine Ascent.
I refer to St. John's spiritual classic as the real "stairway to heaven," because after many centuries it is read to this day with great seriousness and pious devotion by Christians as precisely a sure guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, St. John offers a fine definition as to what it means to be a Christian:
A Christian is an imitator of Christ in thought, word and deed, as far as this is humanly possible, and he believes rightly and blamelessly in the Holy Trinity. (STEP 1)
St. John was writing for monks, but to the married Christian he had this to say:
Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourselves from the church assemblies.
Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own spouse can provide you.
If you do all of this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven. (STEP 1)
More specifically, the abiding popularity of his famous treatise is all the more apparent for Orthodox Christians, for as Archbishop Kallistos Ware writes:
With the exception of the Bible and the service books, there is no work in Eastern Christendom that has been studied, copied and translated more often than The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus.
Every Lent in Orthodox monasteries it is appointed to be read aloud in church or in the refectory, so that the monks will have listened to it as much as fifty or sixty tines in the course of their life.
Outside the monasteries it has also been the favorite reading of countless lay people in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, and throughout the Orthodox world. The popularity of The Ladder in the East equals that of The Imitation of Christ in the West, although the two books are altogether different in character.
(Introduction to The Ladder of Divine Ascent, p. 1)
The great abbot of Mt. Sinai (+c. 650) writes with clarity and depth about the interior "withdrawal" from worldliness; the struggle with the passions; the acquisition of the virtues; and the final ascent of the soul into the realm where faith, hope and love are the final stages of that ascent that prepares the believer for the incomprehensible glory yet to be experienced when God will be "all in all:"
Love, by its nature, is a resemblance of God, insofar as this is humanly possible. In its activity it is inebriation of the soul. Its distinctive character is to be a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility ... Love grants prophecy, miracles. It 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. (STEP 30)
Now, St. John himself was inspired by the vision of the Patriarch Jacob of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven "and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!" (GEN. 28) Christ refers to this same vision in JN. 1. St. John will develop this image with greater detail and this is a very effective teaching tool, for again to refer to the words of Archbishop Kallistos:
His ladder has thirty rungs or steps, one for each year in the hidden life of Christ before His baptism. John's ingenious use of the ladder-image soon became part of the spiritual imagination of the Christian East, and is frequently represented in panel icons, refrectory frescoes and illuminated manuscripts. (Introduction, p. 11)
I cannot in the brief space of a meditation offer a detailed outline of The Ladder. I believe the best version available in English translation to be that which belongs to The Classics of Western Spirituality series: John Climacus - The Ladder of Divine Ascent, translated by Colm Luibheld and Norman Russell, Introduction by Kallistos Ware, Paulist Press, 1982.
I further believe that this would be an invaluable acquisition for one's library, and it could be read slowly and prayerfully over an extended period of time. Some of the book's content may appear foreign, but there will be so much that will resonate deeply and stay with the serious reader that what is foreign will seem unimportant.
However, there is an extraordinary passage in Step One that so beautifully captures the meaning of the Gospel, and of God's love of his creation and creatures, that I would like to share at least this much. This passage takes on an even greater meaning when we recall that St. John was fiercely ascetical and at times impatient with false teaching. But here he is truly expansive and he embraces all of humankind:
God is the life of all free beings. He is the salvation of believers and unbelievers, of the just or the unjust ... of monks or those living in the world, of the educated or the illiterate, of the healthy or the sick, of the young or the very old. He is like the outpouring of light, the glimpse of the sun, or the changes of the weather, which are the same for everyone without exception. "For God is no respecter of persons." (Rom. 2:11)
Although employing what is essentially identical images, I believe that we can say with real assurance that The Ladder of Divine Ascent is on much, much firmer ground and has greater staying power than whatever is quite the endpoint of "Stairway to Heaven." In fact, I may be reproached for even making the comparison! Yet, the association of images, and further reflection on the surrounding "culture" that produced each work - and which is embodied within each work - came to mind as we move into the Fourth Week of Great Lent.
In an age of post-modernism and shifting narratives that compete for our attention, there is nothing quite like the "rock" on which the Gospel is firmly planted and not to be moved; while other enticements built on the shifting sands of impermanence are swept away by time (MATT. 7:24-27).
St. John built his house on the Gospel and thus continues to nourish us to this day with his wise counsel:
Baptized in the thirtieth year of His earthly age, Christ attained the thirtieth step on the spiritual ladder, for God indeed is love, and to Him be praise, dominion, power. In Him is the cause, past, present, and future, of all that is good forever and ever. Amen. (Concluding "Brief Summary and Exhortation")