People often remark that ‘The Ladder’ is a difficult book to read. They are correct – it takes a certain measure of spiritual discernment to be able to read the text and understand it, and especially how it applies to our lives today. Every topic St John covers has relevance for us, we just have to seek out how. 

Obedience is often identified as the most difficult topic to make relevant in the world – the 4th step of ‘The Ladder’ therefore has many detractors. By that I simply mean people who recommend that those of us in the world would be better served to skip this particular chapter.

I disagree – and here is the main reasons why:

– while it is true that, in the world we do not live in obedience in the same way that a monastic does, we still lead lives of obedience. The monk – to whom ‘The Ladder’ is addressed, lives in absolute and unquestioning obedience to a spiritual father. We also live in obedience in the world today. The Christian is obedient to the Gospel, to their spouse, to their children (many Fathers point this out repeatedly), to our bosses, to the laws of our country, and even to some degree to our parish priests or  spiritual fathers. We still have ample opportunities to reject our own self-will and to follow the will of others. Any time we can do this, we are embodying the things that St John speaks of in this step – learning to subject ourselves to Christ and to His commandments.

There is only one Gospel, only one set of Commandments – we all live the commandments in the context of our own situation and our own lives, but the pull of the Gospel is always the same – “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”

The other beautiful thing that this step shows us is the true mourning of those people who have been very close to God, and through sin have fallen. We see this especially in the many stories St John relates, and especially in the ‘prison.’ What a sight – men who have truly known God in the way that we seek to! Glory to our God for this glimpse into holiness!

Matthew Jackson