The Battle is Real
Way back when, around 600 AD, a monk named John Climacus wrote a treatise called The Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is considered an important work for the Russian Orthodox Church and St. John wrote it as a way to represent the monastic path in simple, understandable language. It became an essential book for monks as they journeyed on their sacred pilgrimage. As time passed, the monks who copied the treatise started adding illustrations to it. The result is this unique and sacred icon.
This divine artwork depicts monks climbing a big ladder leading to Jesus Christ in Paradise. On their way, they are bothered by pesky demons who are trying to distract them from their heavenly goal. This is meant to be an allegory for the struggle of the human with the evils of the world. The steps of the ladder symbolize spiritual perfection, something that cannot be achieved immediately but only gradually, step by step. The number of steps, 30, has two meanings. They refer to the 30 years of Jesus’ life before his baptism and earthly ministry and the 30 stages (chapters) of spiritual development laid out in the treatise.
The last steps are the most important ones. They represent faith, hope, and love—the three most vital virtues one can achieve after defeating temptation. Without completing these steps, no one can enter the Kingdom of God.
As the ladder is climbed, trials await people at every step. Someone falls down the stairs at the beginning, someone loses the moral path in the middle, and someone is almost at the top before slipping off. Notice the angels depicted on the left side, frozen in prayer, not interfering with the course of events. I like the thought that angels are praying for us. On the lower right side is a monastery full of monks encouraging fellow sojourners. At the very top of the ladder is thought to be St. John giving his treatise to Jesus.
I think this icon is an interesting, if not strange, reminder of the battle all of us are in. The spiritual struggle of the Christian life is a real one, as told by Paul in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Being Human connection: Many things in this world would like to “pull us off” our spiritual journey. Satan has darts of doubt, distraction, and deception and he is aiming them at our hearts. But be encouraged—Christ has won the battle and his victory is irrevocable. He has given us armor to protect us (see Ephesians 6:10-17 below). Nonetheless, until he comes again, we are in a battle. Can we be like the monks in the corner, encouraging our fellow sojourners even as we make the ascent ourselves?
Featured art: artist unknown, Icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 12th Century, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:10-17).