Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Ladder of Silence


The ladder of silence consists of seven steps.

The first step is habitual prayer.

The second step is to speak only when necessary, whatever necessary, to the extent possible.

The third step is to reduce the noise of our external world under our control to a practicable minimum.

The fourth step is to grow in constant conversation with God and thereby to deepen our union with him.

The fifth step is to speak out against injustice and oppression.

The sixth step is to keep silent in the face of insult or injury.

The seventh step is to imitate Christ in his suffering and death on the cross.

Originally published in The Montréal Review (March 2017)

Dead Christ (c. 1480) by Andrea Mantegna


  1. SAINT JOHN CLIMACUS (579-649)

    Saint John of the Ladder is honored by Holy Church as a great ascetic and author of the renowned spiritual book called THE LADDER, from which he is also called “of the Ladder” (Climacus).

    ...The following example of Saint John’s humility is noteworthy. Gifted with discernment, and attaining wisdom through spiritual experience, he lovingly received all who came to him and guided them to salvation. One day some envious monks reproached him for being too talkative, and so Saint John kept silence for a whole year. The monks realized their error, and they went to the ascetic and begged him not to deprive them of the spiritual profit of his conversation.

    ...Knowing of the wisdom and spiritual gifts of Saint John of Sinai, the igumen of Raithu requested him to write down whatever was necessary for the salvation of those in the monastic life. Such a book would be “a ladder fixed on the earth” (Gen. 28:12), leading people to the gates of Heaven.

    Saint John felt that such a task was beyond his ability, yet out of obedience he fulfilled the request. The saint called his work THE LADDER, for the book is “a fixed ladder leading from earthly things to the Holy of Holies....” The thirty steps of spiritual perfection correspond to the thirty years of the Lord’s age. When we have completed these thirty steps, we will find ourselves with the righteous and will not stumble. THE LADDER begins with renunciation of the world, and ends with God, Who is love (1 John 4:8).

    Although the book was written for monks, any Christian living in the world will find it an unerring guide for ascending to God, and a support in the spiritual life.




    Saint John [Climacus] says that pride flows out of our love of the praise of men (vainglory). Its midpoint is “the shameless parading of our achievements, complacency, and unwillingness to be found out.” It is “the spurning of God's help, the exalting of one's own efforts, and a devilish disposition.” In rather frightening words, St. John writes: “A proud monk needs no demon. He has turned into one, an enemy to himself.”

    How can we recognize that this spiritual ailment is afflicting us? In a series of proverbs, Saint John gives us several signs which manifest its presence in our hearts: (1) a know-it-all, argumentative spirit, (2) a refusal to obey, a belief that we know better than our spiritual elders, (3) an aversion to correction, a belief that we are beyond the need for reproach and/or instruction, (4) a desire to lead and an innate belief that we know what needs to be done and how it needs to be done better than others, (5) a false humility, (6) a lack of awareness of our own sins and shortcomings, (7) an inflated opinion of our own virtues, (8) a belief that we have attained the blessedness of heaven, a forgetting of the need to finish the race and of the possibility of failure.




    A vain person seems to honor God, but strives to please men rather than God.

    People of lofty spirit bear insult placidly and willingly, but only the holy and righteous may hear praise without harm.

    When you hear that your neighbor or friend has slandered you behind your back, or even to your face, praise and love him.

    It is not the one who reproaches himself who shows humility, for who will not put up with himself? It is the one who is slandered by another, yet continues to show love for him.

    Whoever is proud of his natural gifts, intelligence, learning, skill in reading, clear enunciation, and other similar qualities, which are acquired without much labor, will never obtain supernatural gifts. Whoever is not faithful in small things (Luke 16:10), is also unfaithful in large things, and is vainglorous.

    It often happens that God humbles the vainglorious, sending a sudden misfortune. If prayer does not destroy a proud thought, we bring to mind the departure of the soul from this life. And if this does not help, let us fear the shame which follows dishonor. “For whoever humbles himself shall be exalted, and whoever exalts himself shall be humbled” (Luke 14:11). When those who praise us, or rather seduce us, start to praise us, let us recall our many sins, then we shall find that we are not worthy of what they say or do to honor us.”


    The wisdom of the ancients continues to prick us to the present day.



    “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross,” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer] wrote. “He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. [The Bible] ... makes quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. ... The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”

    In another passage, he said, “To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man—not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”



  5. “The Ladder of Silence” essay: