Thursday, April 19, 2012

Nouwen Turned John Climacus's Ladder On its Side

Redeemer sanctuary
One of the classics of Christian spirituality is John Climacus's The Ladder of Divine Ascent. (7th century A.D.) Climacus was also known as "John of the Ladder." John's spiritual ladder has 30 rungs that reach from heaven to earth, metaphorically speaking. By ascending these "rungs" one's heart moves towards the contemplation of God.

When Henri Nouwen was a young priest he counseled his students to use John's (and others') "spiritual ladder of ascent." Thomas Christensen writes: "Nouwen had read John of the Ladder, the sixth-century ascetic who sought perfection in the desert, and Nouwen despaired of ever reaching the top." (Christensen, "Nouwen’s Place in Spiritual Development Theory," Appendix in Nouwen, Henri J. M., Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit)

What Nouwen eventually did was turn John's ladder in its side, giving us the spiritually transformative movement from one unChristlike spiritual pole to a Christlike pole. Christensen writes:

"By the time he arrived at Notre Dame as a professor of pastoral psychology, he had turned the ladder of ascent on its side and taught spiritual formation as a series of horizontal movements of the heart, back and forth, that require daily devotion and discipline, with the goal of human wholeness rather than divine perfection." (Ib., Kindle Locations 2204-2206)