Today we celebrate St. John the Ladder. He was a monk and abbot of the famous monastery located on Mt. Sinai, which is where Moses, after leading the Hebrew people out of Egypt, received the Ten Commandments. St. John is known as the Ladder because he wrote a book, in his old age, of how one ascends up the virtues, as in going up a ladder, in order to reach heaven which is at the top. The book has thirty chapters, which are treated as thirty rungs on a ladder. (As one can see, we have a copy of the famous icon of the ascent up the ladder here with us—the original is at St. Catherine’s on Mt. Sinai).
Before I go any further, I wish to share with you a story. I shared it last year with my parishioners and I want to share it with you now. At the time when I first shared it last year, I came, by chance, upon some old journals I wrote when I was just out of high school. I wrote them when I had taken a summer job painting the exterior of homes over 20 years ago. They refreshed my memory of what I used to do best, that was, climb ladders. I did not work alone back then, but in a crew. And I learned fast. I was younger, skinnier, that is, lighter then, did not have much seniority and was very eager to please my manager who was willing to take advantage, that is, utilize, my can-do attitude.
We would do very large homes, over thousands and thousands of square feet. These were million dollar homes, with Rolls Royces and Picassos in them, which I saw with my own eyes. And these million dollar homes were very tall. They would not be your typical two-story colonials, but multistory homes. They were in a ritzy part of town where the zoning laws were very relaxed for millionaires and many of the homes—with people who had money to spend—were subsequently very unique, kooky even, with strange dimensions, like exceptionally long or tall.
I remember we had to paint this very tall house when I was just new to the job. The painting company I was with did not work with boom or scissor lifts, that is, platforms that hydraulically rise up and down, in order to paint, but we worked with good old-fashioned ladders. They were the largest aluminum extension ladders one could think of, that used a rope pulley in order to extend them.
Well, in order to paint this particular tall house, we not only had to use one giant, heavy extension ladder, but two, roped together, both end-to-end and fully extended. I don’t know if that’s legal! One sees such a thing done, literally, with expeditioners who are trying to climb certain parts of Mt. Everest. I have the picture to prove it!
No one wanted to go up to the gable end, that is, the highest point, of this house, especially on two forty-foot ladders combined together. Everyone was dithering. And guess who the boss chose to go up there. Me!
So, scared out of mind and still afraid of heights, I went up this giant ladder balancing a bucket of paint, my roller and paint brush. It’s like being a sailor trying to reach the top of a mast, but instead of climbing directly upward, at a ninety degree angle, I’m climbing at a 50 degree angle over a tremendous amount of space underneath me, working without a net, while trying not to look down, in order to reach the top.
I will try to explain what goes on in the mind as one makes such an ascent. When one gets on the first rung, everything is still o.k. Then as one makes the climb—especially as one gets farther and farther away from the ground—the ladder starts shaking. One begins to wobble up and down, especially in the middle. One’s hands start to sweat, the heart races and one wants to give up and come down. One has to push oneself though and keep on going. Once at the top, the ladder stops shaking, and there is stability once again. And in that stability, one can work, unhindered, with amazing peace and serenity.
My brothers and sisters, can you see the analogy here? As we make our ascent to God and in the virtues, we leave the stability of the ground, that is, the world and worldliness below—that we are familiar with. As we go up and up, especially as one hits the middle of the ascent, the ladder begins to wobble and shake. We look down and think, “What am I doing! I want to come back down!” But this is only a temptation. One has to push oneself.
We push ourselves through all the wobbling and anxiety—that is, through all the thoughts and temptations generated from within ourselves and/or from the fallen angels, telling us to give up and go back to our old passions. But we must push on. Then, when one reaches the top, the ladder stops moving and there is amazing stability once again, where one can complete the mission that one was originally sent on.
The mission, for us all, is to reach the heavenly kingdom, the goal of our lives. May God, through the prayers of St. John the Ladder, help us reach this Kingdom, that is, the top, the summit! Amen.
(Delivered at the Pan-Orthodox Lenten Service
at St. Michael Serbian Orthodox Church—Hibbing, Minnesota)
March 22 (n.s.) / 9 (o.s.), 2015
by Fr. Kristijan Petrovich