Perfection is Not a Plateau, It’s the Striving

In the imagery of the spiritual life as climbing the ladder of divine ascent, there is a limited number of rungs to climb and one can fall back or off the ladder.  St Gregory of Nyssa on the other hand envisioned the spiritual life as endless growth.  There was no plateau to reach, one simply keeps progressing, and it is the continued growth itself which is perfection.  It is a very dynamic view of the spiritual life because the spiritual life is growth in one’s relationship to God and God is without end so one’s relationship with God never ceases growing.


“Gregory [of Nyssa] went on to make progress itself perfection…  ‘the one limit of perfection is the fact that it has no limit,’ there is no stopping place in the racecourse of virtue (I, 5-6; cf. II, 242). Perfection is unlimited, and so unattainable; hence, perfection is redefined: ‘The perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness’ (I, 10)… ‘Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the good brought to an end because it is satisfied’ (II, 239). Moses ‘always found a step higher than the one he had attained’ (II, 227). Participation in virtue dilates the capacity for more virtue. The flesh can know satiety, but the spirit cannot (II, 59ff., 230).

…Gregory once more reiterates that the only perfection available to men in this life is to be found in progress toward perfection (II, 305-314): ‘The continual development of life to what is better is the soul’s way to perfection.’

Although Gregory makes much of the sequence of events in Scripture, this fact should not be pressed in an absolute sense. Moses’ life is not made to fit a schematized progression of spiritual experience. Some things do logically precede others in one’s spiritual development, but the experiences of life may not be reduced to a formula. The stages of Moses’ life are a pattern not so much in their order as in their constant going on to new things.”

(from the introduction, Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, pp. 12-13)

The Ladder of the Kingdom is Within You

And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac …”  (Genesis 28:12-13)

“Be at peace with your soul and heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Endeavor to enter the treasury within you and you will see that treasury which is in heaven. The former and the latter are one and through a single entrance you will see both of them. The ladder of that kingdom is hidden within you, within your soul. Dive away from sin into yourself and you there you will find the steps by which you may ascend.”   (St. Isaac of Nineveh, On Ascetical Life, p. 34)

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  (Genesis 28:12)

“Be at peace with your own soul; then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is but one single entry to them both. The Ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your soul. Flee from sin, dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend.”   (St. Isaac the Syrian, from Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 71)

The counter intuitive insight of the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition is that to find one’s way to God’s Kingdom, one does not  look outside of one’s self – one doesn’t look to the heavens, but rather one has to learn how to go inward, into one’s heart and mind for there is where God has placed the way to Heaven.   God is not out there somewhere – distant, remote, transcendent – God is found within us.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within  you.”  (Luke 17:20-21)

As the Prophet Isaiah testifies:

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.  (Isaiah 57:15)

Moses and the Ladder of Divine Ascent

Yesterday on the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorated the monastic father, St. John Climacus, author of the LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT.

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.

Climbing the Ladder of Divine Ascent

On the 4th Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate St. John Climacus, author of the book THE LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT.  The imagery of a ladder connecting earth to heaven is an ancient image found both in the Old (Genesis 28:10-17) and New (John 1:43-51) Testaments.  It is an imagery that was popular with the monastic authors of the Church as well.  Here is one of the sayings from the Desert Fathers:

“He also said:

‘At first when we were brought together with each other we used to speak of [spiritual] benefit, confirming each other. We became as choirs, choirs [of angels] and we were going up to heaven. But now we meet together and come to slandering one another – and down we go.’”

(Megethius in Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 206)


Love and the Ladder of Divine Ascent

On the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate in the Church   St. John Climacus , 7th Century monk and spiritual writer.

“The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus (c. 579-649) colorfully and skillfully paints for us an icon of man’s progression to perfection – or completeness – in the spiritual life which, in its fullness, is nothing less than union with and participation in the divine nature of the one true God, the Holy Trinity. But St. John warns us that there is only one proper motive for setting out on this path and that is love for God. In the first step of his allegorical ladder, he says: ‘ The man who renounces the world from fear is like burning incense that begins with fragrance but ends in smoke. He who leaves the world through hope of reward is like a millstone that always moves in the same way. But he who withdraws from the world out of love for God has obtained fire at the very outset; and like fire set to fuel, it soon kindles a larger fire.’ Neither fear of God, nor hope of reward then, are wholly appropriate reasons for setting foot on the ladder. It is far better to do so out of love, and our God must be our First Love!” (Bishop Basil of Wichita in Remember Thy First Love by Archimandrite Zacharias, p 9)

The Ladder that Leads to Heaven

“Enter eagerly into the treasure-house that lies within you,

and so you will see the treasure-house of heaven:

for the two are the same,

and there is but one single entry to them both.

The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within you,

and is found in your own soul.

Dive into yourself and in your soul you will discover the rungs by which to ascend.”

(St. Isaac the Syrian in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, pg.164)

The Impulsive: A Zeal which is Not Enlightened

Some aspects of human behavior haven’t changed through the centuries.  St. Isaac the Syrian comments below on impetuousness of youth, something as observable today as it was 1400 years ago.  Another phrase sometimes applied to such impetuosity comes from St. Paul – they have a zeal which is not enlightened (Romans 10:2).

St. Isaac is referring here to young monks who imagine themselves as being spiritual giants and geniuses whereas old monks with years of experience in the spiritual warfare would never make the claims of spiritual progress that the young inexperienced monks imagine for themselves.  It often happens with people new in the faith as well.  They read THE LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT and though practicing the faith for only a few months rashly judge themselves already to have attained the top steps of the ladder and the heights of heaven.   As St. Isaac says if they continue with their self-deception they will go insane – especially when they find themselves struggling with the most elementary aspects of virtue and purity.

“Even venerable elders, who from youth to old age have exhausted themselves with asceticism in the vineyard of the Son, practicing excellent disciplines, are scarcely accounted worthy of partially receiving one of the gifts of the land of peace. But youths, with the impetuosity of their nature and with disorderly fervor, audaciously rush upon the mysteries of the Fathers hidden in their books. Or else they receive by instruction and hearsay from others that which they ought not. Then grace cuffs them and educates them to delay and not to rush headlong upon lofty things, but, on the contrary, to labor quietly in the vineyard until such a time as they attain to true rest. If, however, they continue in their audacity, grace withdraws from them a little, and they are seized by ten thousand temptations. They are smitten by the passions of the body, the very same passions which they formerly held in contempt, and they are tormented by dark periods of soul and abused by the demons. Violent uprisings, as well as confusion and listlessness of mind, assail them. If they do not recollect themselves and put themselves in order, they will go insane. O how many afflictions, trials, snares, and stumbling blocks in this, our Lord’s, narrow way are arrayed against those who, with the impulses of nature, disorderly fervor, keen wits, and the accepting [or hearsay] from others, wish to enter the abode of life and partake of the honeycomb of the Spirit!” (The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, pg. 401)

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

The 4th Sunday of Great Lent in current Orthodox practice is dedicated to the memory of St. John Climacus (d. 649AD), author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

Many Orthodox saints and monastic writers address the spiritual metaphor of a ladder that one climbs to reach heaven as a description of spiritual life.  St. Isaac of Nineveh (also 7th Century) writes:

“The ladder to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and within your soul. Dive down into your self, away from sin, and there you will find the steps by which you can ascend up.” (The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh, pg. 2)

The Ladder of Divine Ascent a popular spiritual writing in the Orthodox tradition offers many practical ideas for living the spiritual life.  It is part of the monastic literature which has guided Orthodox Christians through Great Lent for centuries.

An example of practical ascetic thinking from the Orthodox monastic tradition which is also good advice for any of us working on our own repentance through Lent is a saying of Abba Poemen:

“He also said, ‘Wickedness does not do away with wickedness; but if someone does you wrong, do good to him, so that by your action you destroy his wickedness.’ ” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers pg. 191)

Images of the Ladder to Heaven

The Publican used humility as a ladder and was raised to the height of heaven; but the  wretched Pharisee was lifted by pride onto rotten emptiness, and fell into the trap of hell.

You are the beauty of Jacob, holy Virgin; the divine ladder he saw in days of old, stretching from earth to heaven, for you bring down the Incarnate God from on high, and bring mortal men up to heaven.

(Both of the above hymns are from Matins of the Publican and Pharisee)