Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review: The Ladder of Divine Ascent, by John Climacus

St. John Climacus, 13th-century Russian icon
In the Western Christian tradition (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism), there are a small handful of classic books that have radically shaped the way we perceive the Christian life--and this is true for you even if you haven't read them. Our Christian culture and self-understanding has been deeply shaped by Augustine's Confessions and City of God, and, if you're an evangelical, by Pilgrim's Progress. The Eastern Christian tradition, however, was largely shaped by other works, and these have played into the distinctive flavor of Eastern Christian spirituality. Among the most influential books of that tradition, at least in terms of the Christian perception of the spiritual life, are Pseudo-Dionysius' works and The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus. So while most Westerners haven't heard of this book, that doesn't mean that it's obscure--rather, that we Westerners may simply be rather narrow in our experience and understanding of our Christian heritage.

 The Ladder was written somewhere around the year 600 AD, by a monk who had spent his life living with communities of other monks in the region of Palestine and Egypt. As such, it's primarily a text written for other monks. It takes the image of the ladder to heaven from the story of Jacob's dream in Genesis 28, and uses it to enumerate 30 steps of spiritual progress on the way to union with God. From this book, the Eastern Christian tradition learned much of its understanding of the life of Christians as a pattern of askesis, of self-discipline for the sake of spiritual growth. It outlines the particular vices to be on guard for, the ways that demons may try to tempt or undermine the progress made by varying temperaments of people, and offers advice for how to grow in one's habits of prayer and discipline.

"The Ladder of Divine Ascent," 12th-century icon
It's not an easy book to read, largely because it comes out of a time and culture that are radically different from our own. But, partly for that reason, it's a very important book. It challenges a great deal of our contemporary Christian assumptions. While admitting that the body is a good creation of God, it views this physical form as our battlefield. Christian theology tends to swing on a pendulum of understandings regarding the spirit/body dynamic, from an almost-Gnostic sensibility about the body's crude weightedness, tying down the spirit, to a blithe assumption that spirit and body dance together perfectly, such that we never give a thought to the ways that our body can impede our spiritual progress. Though there are still some near-Gnostic trends in evangelical thought, most of the theology coming out in recent decades has focused on body-affirming positions. Climacus and the Ladder come down on the other end of the spectrum--the body was created good, yes, but it was created as part of our labor. Following a traditional ancient-Christian perception of God's purpose in creation--that God created a developmental world, fashioned for the growth of its creatures, rather than an already-perfect creation that was later brought down from its heights of perfection by sin--Climacus would have us see our bodies as our battlefields, as the soil in which we labor to produce a harvest for the Lord. We are called as Christians to be agents of the Kingdom of God in this world, and to work for the expansion of that Kingdom. Well, part of that work is to plant the flag of Christ's Kingdom in our own unruly, fleshly natures. The first battle for the Kingdom of God begins at home, reclaiming the dust of our flesh. Thus The Ladder encourages us to be tremendously serious about things that we in American Christianity shrug off--the dual dangers of allowing our bodies to operate with unrestrained appetites (leading to gluttony) and of focusing so much on diet and exercise that we glorify the body itself (leading to vainglory and pride); further, it gives helpful advice to consider spiritual practices that almost none of us dare attempt anymore--challenging the way our bodies' appetites can master our lives in demands for sleep, for comfort, for idle play. There are sections of Climacus' work that leave me unsettled, thinking that, even amid the concessions he allows for the weakness of human nature, he may still drive us too hard. But at the same time, it challenges me to look hard at my life, spent in relative ease, and to consider the great question of whether I have fought hard enough to bring my whole person--body as well as soul--into the obedient submission of the Kingdom of God. As Paul says, "Nothing shall be my master," and that "nothing," I suppose, includes myself.