Recently I came across one of those images (inspired by the writings of Saint John Climacus) depicting that mystical ladder extending from earth to heaven upon which struggling souls valiantly battle their way up to Christ who looks down upon them from the top of the ladder and the heights of heaven. On either side of the ladder one sees grotesque demons attacking and, in several instances, successfully dislodging unfortunate souls who are falling headlong into hell. I draw attention to this image because it expresses a certain aspect of some Christian perspectives that view the spiritual journey as inherently treacherous, unpredictable, with damnation always just an easy slip away, off a slippery rung of that ladder.
In addition, as in this picture of the ladder, while the demons are close at hand mercilessly attacking the struggling soul, Christ seems to be watching from a distance, leaving the struggling Christian to battle alone and waiting to see the outcome. Indeed, this was the painful experience of Saint Anthony the Great who, after a long night of struggling with the unrelenting attack of the demons, was finally comforted when, as Saint Athanasius tells us, he saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. In response Anthony is said to have besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, ‘Where were you? Why did you not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease?
Although we may not have experienced anything close to what Anthony endured, I think we can all identify to some degree with his question, for we too have had the experience of seeming to struggle alone and, despite our fervent pleas, have not been speedily rescued from those dark forces bent on our destruction. And so it does seem that the spiritual journey is inherently treacherous, unpredictable, and damnation a real possibility at any moment. But is this the reality of the situation? Does Christ, once having offered us the gift of salvation, simply sit back and observe our progress from afar—from atop the ladder—leaving us to struggle alone?
Perhaps today’s gospel provides us with an answer: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. In this short sentence is encapsulated that whole incredibly intricate and costly plan of salvation according to which God went to extraordinary lengths and great pain to secure our freedom and redemption. Those efforts didn’t cease with Christ’s ascension into heaven—that was not the moment he took his distant place at the top of the ladder so as to henceforth merely observe our arduous climb up to where he is. As Origen reminds us, God has much more care for the salvation of human beings, than the devil has for their damnation. So why don’t we experience and feel this more than we do?
Among several reasons is the simple fact that in their campaign against us the demons are not constrained—as is God—by human freedom. Instead, they are free to ride roughshod over our freedom and try and force their will upon us, utilizing every weakness and vulnerability we possess. In contrast, God has to delicately maneuver within the sometimes subtle constraints attendant upon our human freedom; and to do so in such a way as to preserve our freedom inviolate, thereby never contaminating his gift of a pure love inseparable from freedom. Nevertheless, in order to maneuver thus, God needs to be (and is) closer to ourselves than we are. And so Saint John Chrysostom assures as that in our combat with the devil, Christ does not stand aloof but is wholly on our side. And should I happen to slip, he stretches out his hand, lifts me up from my fall, and sets me on my feet again.
However, given our freedom this outstretched hand can only be grasped by one who freely reaches out. This, in turn, is only possible for truly humble souls who, along with Saint Paul have come to glory in their weakness and no longer rely on their own strength. And so although such a soul is not ignorant of the dangers of the journey home, any anxiety or fear is no longer slavish so that in the words of Augustine it fears not punishment from Him before whom it trembles, but separation from Him whom it loves.
Therefore, even though the rungs of that mystical ladder leading up to heaven seem treacherously slippery and our way forward precarious and uncertain, Jesus is not beckoning from a distance at the top of the ladder, but climbs every rung alongside and within us, supporting us and urging us on to final victory. Accordingly, let us dispel unfounded fear and anxiety and heed Augustine’s call to aim at going forward, not backward. And even if your last day does NOT find you victorious, let it find you at least still fighting, not captured and tied up—or in the imagery of the ladder, still climbing, and not plummeting headlong into the jaws of hell.