Way to Holiness
LADDERS are ancient tools. In the Spider Caves in Valencia, Spain, an 8,000 year old rock painting shows a human using a ladder to harvest honey from a wild honeybee nest. In addition to being used in food harvesting, ladders have been invaluable in construction, in ceremonies, in assaults, and in rescues. Paintings of the Crucifixion frequently depict Jesus’ Body being taken down a ladder propped against the cross. Anthony possibly had this ladder in mind when he wrote about the ladder of holiness.
Most Christians do not realize that, directly after confirming his Messianic role, Jesus begins to prepare the apostles for his Passion. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, immediately after Simon declares that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus renames him Peter (the Rock) and tells him, “‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt. 16:19-21). Jesus always ends discussion of his Passion with predictions of his Resurrection. Suffering and glory are linked. No Resurrection without the Passion.
Peter objects to Jesus’ death. “God forbid that any such thing ever happen to you!” (Mt. 16:22). Far from pleased, Jesus reproaches Peter whom he had just praised. “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are trying to make me trip and fall. You are not judging by God’s standards, but by man’s” (Mt 16:23).
Jesus then explains, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and begin to follow in my footsteps” (Mt 16:24). Jesus allows this message of suffering to sink in for six days before taking Peter, James, and John up Mount Tabor where he is transfigured before them. Having mulled over the Passion (suffering), the apostles now receive a glimpse of the Resurrection (glory).
Through James, whose name is a variant of Jacob, Anthony links the Transfiguration with Jacob’s ladder so that we understand that, if we want to accompany Jesus to glory, represented by Mount Tabor, we must proceed by the ladder of the cross.
To climb this ladder, we first must be like Peter “who recognizes himself as a sinner” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals I, p. 102). Then we must want to uproot the sin, like James “who uproots the vices of the flesh” (Sermons I, p. 102) because his name means “the Supplanter.” To supplant sin, we need God’s grace, like John “who (with God’s grace going before him and following)… carries… the grace of the Holy Spirit in a good will. Jesus took Peter and James and John: do you also take these three men, and climb mount [sic] Thabor?” (Sermons I, pp. 102-3). To reach the summit of holiness, with the help of God’s grace, we must uproot the sin which we see in ourselves.
This is difficult. Anthony uses Tabor to symbolize a spiritual mountain at whose summit we find God. “But, believe me, the climb is hard because the mountain is high. Do you want to climb it with ease? Then you must use the ladder… ‘Jacob saw in his sleep a ladder lifted up and standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven; the angels also of God ascending and descending by it, and the Lord leaning upon the ladder.’ [Gen. 28.12-13]” (Sermons I, p. 103).
Anthony has a specific ladder in mind. “The ladder has two sides and six rungs by which to climb. The ladder represents Jesus Christ, whose two sides are his divine and human nature. The six rungs are his humility, poverty, wisdom, mercy, patience, and obedience” (Sermons I, p. 104).
At this point, the reader may find it helpful to draw a six rung ladder, labeling one side ‘Jesus’ Humanity’ and the other side ‘Jesus’ Divinity’. Label the rungs from bottom to top beginning with humility, then poverty, wisdom, mercy, patience, and obedience. Your drawing will help you visualize how Jesus holds each virtue in place. With him supporting us, we can climb the six virtues to spiritual perfection. Take away the two sides of the ladder (Christ’s Humanity and Christ’s Divinity), and the virtues topple.
The world’s ladder
The ladder image gives us insight into how the secular world, which does not want to know Christ, views these six virtues. The sides of the secular ladder are ‘My Ideas’ and ‘My Choices’. To the secular world, humility denotes weakness, poverty is to be avoided, wisdom is displaced by knowledge, mercy is accorded to those who are politically correct, patience is outdated in a fast paced world, and obedience is given only if necessary. To people whose lives are supported by ‘My Ideas’ and ‘My Choices,’ the notion of sin is medieval.
Anthony presents God’s perspective. “Peter is the acknowledgement of your sins, which consist in these three things: pride in the heart, lust in the flesh and avarice in the world… James… is the supplanting of these vices, so that you may tread the pride of your spirit under the foot of reason; so that you may mortify the lust of your flesh, and repress the vanity of the deceitful world. And take John, the grace of the Lord… so that it may enlighten you to recognise the evil things you have done, and help you in the good things you have begun to do” (Sermons I, p. 101).
Humility, the first rung
To recognize our sin requires humility, the first rung. Humility leads to poverty of spirit, where we acknowledge that we cannot improve on our own. Wisdom reveals that God has the perfect way for us to grow in joy and in goodness. This leads us to have mercy on ourselves and on others who are also imperfect. Because we have developed mercy, we are patient with others and with ourselves as we struggle through life. We turn to God, asking for his direction and obeying the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we seek to know, love, and serve God better.
At the top of this ladder of spiritual perfection, the Lord leaning on it is crucified, for he carried our own sins to his death on the cross. With those pictured in the paintings, we tenderly help take down the body of Jesus and lay him in the arms of his mother. She who knew him from conception now holds him in death while anticipating his resurrection. Passion and resurrection. Suffering and glory. If we climb St. Anthony’s ladder, supported by Christ, making our way up through the practice of the virtues, we will find that, by God’s grace, our sinful self has been crucified, our vices uprooted, and a better version of ourselves resurrected.