St John of The Ladder

The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a work of thirty parts, and was written specifically for a monastic audience, particularly those of Sinai, where the author John (583-603) was abbot, whose monastery was only a very few decades old when the Ladder was written. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is read to the monks at their common refectory meals throughout the course of Lent. The rungs of this Ladder are various subjects, the mastery of which are part of the monastic life. From the first step, “On renunciation of the world,” to the last, “Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues,” the reader/listener is confronted with much intense practical and spiritual advice based in experience. It’s an intense work, not at all intended for light reading, and certainly not for application wholesale by a layperson. To stress the point: the book was written for a group of sixth century monastics living in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, not for people with electricity and running water and anything green in view outside. When read with that perspective in mind, as well as the Lenten refectory reading, it is seen for what it is: a demanding and uncompromising instruction in utter and complete ascesis.

The particular Holy Transfiguration Monastery edition I mention above is a beautiful example of bookmaking. The printing is two colored, black text, with some red page headings, titling, and such. The paper is fine and thick. There are several small drawings in traditional Byzantine style, one full color reproduction of a Ladder of Divine Ascent icon as frontispiece (that above; click it for a closer look), and a truly remarkable pen and ink icon of Saint John by the late Photi Kontoglu, a modern master of traditional iconography. It’s a beautiful hardback edition, most fitting for such a work.

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