The imagery of the spiritual life being a ladder that we climb to heaven is based in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Patriarch Jacob dreams about such a ladder which connects earth to heaven (Genesis 28:12). In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man (John 1:51). In church hymnography, Mary has also been described as a ladder uniting earth to heaven.
St. Gregory of Nyssa also made use of the ladder imagery in his THE LIFE OF MOSES. There the ladder stretches on eternally into heaven since there is no plateau to the spiritual life: one continues the ascent to God forever. For St. Gregory no matter how much we ascend to God we will always realize God is even more beautiful than what we perceive. This thought causes us to ever move spiritually upward seeking that greater, more beautiful vision of God. He writes:
“For this reason we also say that the great Moses, as he was becoming ever greater, at no time stopped in his ascent, nor did he set a limit for himself in his upward course. Once having set foot on the ladder which God set up (as Jacob says), he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained. . . .
He shone with glory. And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he is still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken, beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity to partake, but according to God’s true being.
Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype.” ( The Life of Moses, pp. 113-114)
The writings of St. Gregory on Moses also help clarify for us the goals of ascetic practice. We are not trying to perfect fasting, rather we are trying to develop in our souls the love and desire for what is perfectly beautiful. Fasting has an end point – we can only fast so much, we can only deny our self food to a finite degree. Whereas the love for God, the development of the spiritual life goes on forever. Fasting belongs to this fallen world, while the ascent to God and spiritual growth continues for all eternity.