The Ladder of the Beatitudes

The Ladder of the Beatitudes received the first place award in the category book on spirituality from the Catholic Press Association. The citation reads:

“This is a remarkable blending of Western and Eastern traditions about the Beatitudes and a contemporary update of their relevance. one beatitude leads to the next, and together they constitute a summary of everything that follows in Matthew’s gospel even to the passion and resurrection. It is a truly magnificent tool to use in meditation on the deepest meanings of the Scriptures as related to our daily lives. The book’s notes manifest the rich array of witnesses to the beatitudes over the centuries and today.”

Here are a few chapters:

Introduction by Fr. Spiridon Vasilakos to the Greek edition of “Ladder of the Beatitudes” published in Athens by Porphyra Editions (2016):

Along the passage-ways of a large bookshop, the books are divided into various categories: poetry, philosophy, literature, theology, history…. but when a book actually gets into your hands, it somehow eludes the label it has been given by virtue of its content … it rises to another level of classification.

When you try putting Jim Forest’s book “The Ladder of the Beatitudes” into a category, you will certainly have difficulty, because it forces you to undertake the spiritual labor of categorizing the state of your own life. At the beginning you may have a sense of where you are; you can see the four walls and the solid roof. But if you abandon the dimension of eternity, and the freedom that goes with obeying the will of God, then you will soon be trapped in the narrow space of surrender to your own selfishness. In this unhappy state you knock desperately on the walls of your cell. And most cases, your “fall” begins at that very point. The ladder of ascent is based on the word of God which is the only solid spiritual ground. The truth of God liberates man. But your small, dark dwelling-place has been constructed out of “anti-Beatitude” — from the sort of building blocks that are to be found in worldly neighborhoods, and not on the Way which is Christ. Selfishness is fashioned from these worldly materials: greed, indifference, refusal to repent, anger, injustice, pollution of the soul, rancor, envy.

cover of the Greek edition of “Ladder of the Beatitudes”

The book you are holding will tear down the walls of these anti-Beatitudes with the power of love and the freedom of the Word of God. It opens up the roof, just as happened with the paralyzed man in the Gospel and removes whatever hid the heavens from your sight. It sets up the base of a ladder of ascent in your life and points towards Christ, who is on the final step and on every step. The true Christ, not the philosopher, the teacher, the social reformer. It shows you the Christ who is your God … and yourself as the object of His teaching, His thirst, His agony, His cross, His spear, His tomb, His love.

Jim Forest does not write, he travels. As you open the “Ladder” you can feel yourself being pushed. You are grabbed and taken on a unique journey. Every word of the book is a step. Every passage is a journey through the air.

It takes you from the holy city of Jerusalem to the one, holy, Triune God. From the “happiness” of acquiring material possessions and physical pleasures to the true blessedness of participating in the life of God. From luxury to the true wealth which is divinity. From the tale of a dry fragment of black bread which a Russian grandmother, in her blessed misery, slipped into the pocket of her enemy, a starving German soldier, to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

From the first step which consists of knowing your inability to be saved without His mercy you find yourself on the threshold of the kingdom, and you will wish, yearn for and desire the Jesus who even today is being stoned to death with public statements, books, research, studies and whom people are trying to kill off with greater skill than the Romans managed with the Cross. Yes, you will seek him. You will search for the Christ who is eternally condemned to death because, as you ascend the ladder, He will put your death to death and release you from all the bonds which your egoism ruthlessly manipulates.

My wish is for you, reader, to ascend as you read this book.

— Fr. Spiridon Vasilakos [English translation by Bruce Clark]


Those who valued Jim Forest’s earlier writings, his studies of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, or his more recent book, Praying with Icons, will not be disappointed in this latest contribution, an exposition of the meaning of the Beatitudes.

From the beginning, Forest insists that this whole series of sayings belongs together, and has a common end and purpose. With their powerful paradoxes about the blessedness of poverty, hunger and grief, all the Beatitudes are showing us the same thing: the way towards living our life in God, and finding the joy in his kingdom here and now.

Forest illuminates the words of the Gospel from other places in the New Testament and from the sayings of the Old Testament prophets. He also illuminates them with the help of the saints, of both East and West, Seraphim of Sarov and Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day and Maria Skobtsova.

In view of his own long connection with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, it is not surprising that Forest is particularly incisive in his comments on “the peacemakers”. He makes use of the example of St Francis himself, and of the life of a contemporary Franciscan sister working in Las Vegas and witnessing for peace. Here, as throughout the book, one finds a particular strength in Forest’s writing, which comes from his knowing both Eastern and Western Christendom from the inside. He is able to show us the way in which the two traditions, with their different experiences, can strengthen and support one another.

This is not exactly a comfortable book. “Each of the Beatitudes has to do with dying to self.., not out of self-hatred or a collapse of self-esteem, but because there is no other way to love God and neighbour.”

It is through this dying that the joy and peace of the kingdom can be known in the reality of daily life, and in the discovery of what it means to love God and our neighbour as our self.
— A. M Alichin
professor at the University of Wales, Bangor
Church Times

I’m teaching church school this year. Our first weeks were blocked out for a unit on “saints,” which I agreed to plan. Our priest had the inspired idea of using the Beatitudes as our framework, looking at one each week and also telling the stories of saints that “fit.” Looking for help, I bought The Ladder of the Beatitudes and have just started reading it – just got through the chapters on “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” I am so grateful to have found it, and not just in my role as church school teacher. This is what I need now.

My only problem is that now I want to quote Jim’s book to everyone, and I have other work I must attend to … but I will be giving this book to others and quoting snippets in spite of myself.

Blessed are the poor in spirit! That’s our starting point, isn’t it? I think I’ve been there, if only for fleeting moments.
Julianne Tarsey
member of an Orthodox parish in Minnesota

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The Ladder of the Beatitudes is published by Orbis Books:

Orbis Books
Maryknoll, NY 10545
fax 914: 945-0670
free phone for book orders: 1-800-258-5838
e-mail: [email protected]

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