The Ladder of the Beatitudes – Rung by rung

Blessed is the person whose desire for God has become like the lover’s passion for the beloved.

— Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 30th step, 5.

Even in a culture in which the Bible is a dark and unmapped continent to millions of people, if you say “Blessed are…” someone is likely to add the next few words of the first beatitude, “the poor in spirit.” The text is hard to forget even if it isn’t easily understood.

With only a little effort, all the beatitudes can be memorized. Once learned by heart, we carry within us for the rest of our lives a short summary of the teaching of Jesus Christ: the whole Gospel in a grain of salt.

Some churches see to it that the beatitudes become engraved in our hearts while we are still children. In the Orthodox Church, it is customary to sing the beatitudes every Sunday during the first procession when the Gospel book is carried out of the sanctuary into the main part of the church and back into the sanctuary again to be placed on the altar. Week after week the words are sung until they reach so deep a place that late in life, when the face in the mirror belongs to a stranger, these words will still shine like pebbles in a stream.

Anything sung is easily memorized. The neurologist Oliver Sacks tells the story of a man who has lost every vestige of memory but could, when attending Mass, sing the entire Liturgy. [in “The Lost Mariner,” The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), pp 23-42.]

There are eight beatitudes, if we recognize the last two verses as one, as both describe the suffering often imposed upon those who live the Gospel: eight facets of discipleship. Yet in another sense, there is only one beatitude, because all are aspects of life in communion with God. Each of the eight describes aspects of being in the kingdom of God.

They are like rungs on a ladder which Christ has arranged in an exact order. There is a pattern to his arrangement. Each step builds on the foundation of the previous step, each leads to the next, and each is indispensable. We can’t divide them up, retaining those we find appealing and leaving those we don’t care for to others, as if one could specialize: “I’ll take peacemaking, you can have purity of heart.”

Saint John Climacus (c. 579-649), one of the Desert Fathers, used the same metaphor for a more complex arrangement in his Ladder of Divine Ascent, a strategy of salvation which begins with the renunciation of worldly life and ascends through obedience, penitence, detachment and humility in the daily struggle to enter more and more deeply into the love of God and freedom from everything which impedes that love. So far as I am aware, his is the only book which has given rise to its own icon: the image of a ladder with many rungs stretching from the desert toward the welcoming arms of Christ in the upper-right hand corner. The ladder is crowded with those who wish to enter the kingdom of God, but they are under attack by small demons armed with arrows, spears and robes. Succumbing to various temptations, some are shown falling off the ladder.

The Christian life is climbing the ladder of the beatitudes — and when we fall off, starting once again.

[This is an extract from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, 1999; not to be published without the author’s permission]