The Ladder

The Resurrectional focus of Orthodox spirituality is noticeable when visiting an Orthodox temple in the prominence of the icons of Christ as creator and life giver, while the cross most visible to a visitor is to one side, in a place reserved for prayers for those who have departed this life, the church's "golgotha."  Of course, there is a cross at the altar, but this may be obscured or even hidden by the iconostasis, which separates the earthly nave from the heavenly sanctuary. 

  It is the Resurrection of Christ that is the evangel of the Christian Gospel. However, the salvation offered by it cannot be acquired as a commodity but rather it is to be cultivated through relationships amongst and between believers in Christ, pointing to the Father, and through the wisdom of grace imparted by the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:5-17), who leads us to confessing the life of Christ though a life of Love (1 Jn. 4:1-21).

Living a life of love in the world requires discernment to make wise choices in daily affairs.  Another way of stating this aspect of The Orthodox Way is to say the life of an Orthodox Christian is a participation of economia of love, the heart of which is the Cross. However, such expressions are so abstract and difficult to explain that they hardly seem compatible with the universality of the Gospel itself. 

Hence, for Orthodox Christians, whose aim it is to ascend with Christ to the Father, while Christ is "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn. 14:6), must also follow the reality, "if any will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me." (Lk. 9:23), so that the Cross is the ladder between Earth and Heaven.

To ascend to blessedness on the ladder of the Cross by following the Way of Christ is very simple to explain even to a child. These are characteristically integral to the celebration of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
  • Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
  • Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
  • Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
  • Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  
  • Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so they also persecuted the prophets which were before you.  (Mat. 5:3-11). 

The bookends of the Beatitudes- poverty of spirit and persecution- aim at putting to death (crucifixion) of hypocrisy and at witnessing (martyrdom) out of love for Christ crucified, revealing a life of faith in deed, demonstrating that the "foolishness of God is wiser than man; and the weak thing of God is stronger than man” (1 Cor 1:25). "For I think that God showed forth us the apostles last, as condemned to death; for we became a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ. We are weak, but ye are strong. Ye are held in honor, but we are dishonored. Until the present hour, we both hunger and thirst, and are naked, and are being buffeted, and never at rest. And we toil working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we bear up; being evilly spoken of, we beseech. We became as the filth of the world, the off-scouring of all until now.   (1 Cor 4:9-13).

The ascent of the Cross through the ladder of the Beatitudes is for all Christians according to their strength, and what can be called Orthodox Spirituality consists of observing the ascetic proscriptions (training disciplines) developed by the Church, consisting of the corporate and personal practice of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and regulated by both the the cycles of the Church year and by individual efforts under the guidance of a spiritual father or confessor. 

As there is no other path to becoming a "man-God" (theosis) than the Cross of the "God-Man" (Christ), there is only one Orthodox Spirituality possible. Monasticism does not represent a unique and different spiritual tradition or method within Orthodoxy. Rather, monastic asceticism is the very heart of the Orthodox life, distinguished by its pure and singular devotion to living foolishly in the tomb of the world in order to enter the angelic realm, while the ascetic life of those living more intimately with the world in their daily lives struggle philanthropically for creation as procreative ambassadors for Christ, though without being excused from an ever deeper quest for purity according to their abilities. 

 It is to aid in the spiritual warfare called for by seeking purity of heart by living as a fool for Christ that the great works of Christian spiritual guidance were written. Spiritual warfare is the hidden toil of repentance (turning to God) that purifies the heart-mind (nous), and constitutes authentic Orthodox psychology (logic of the soul) of special, and urgent, value to the monastic, who, by dedicating his or her life to Christ, mounts their own cross and stays there to be crucified in the love of God.

Crucified Monk

The Novice Reading List identifies many of the important works in the monastic tradition, however, those seeking to read the foundations of Orthodox spirituality should start with the following:

  • Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers
    • St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Holy Transfiguration Monastery
    • St. John Cassisian, The Conferences, trans. Boneface Ramsey, Ancient Church Fathers Series
    • St. Dorothos of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings, Cistercian Press
    • St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies, Holy Transfiguration Monastery