I have been praying during Lent with a 12th-century icon called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” I had an opportunity to see the original version some years ago at St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, while on a pilgrimage with St George’s College.
The icon pictures a ladder extending from the lower left to the upper right, on which are a number of monks, steadily climbing towards heaven, where Christ awaits them in the clouds. A choir of angels looks down on them, presumably to encourage them on their way to their eternal home. But floating in the air around the ladder are small demons, some with drawn bows, poised to shoot their arrows at the vulnerable pilgrims. Others have ropes with which they try to entangle the monks and pull them off the ladder. Several of the monks have been ensnared and are seen tumbling into the fires of hell below.
The image is a graphic one, and not everyone will find it a useful image for prayer. But I do. It prompts me to reflect on the ways the Enemy tries to ensnare me and draw me away from my deepest values and purpose. I imagine the voices of these demons – tempting, ridiculing, disparaging, seducing, questioning, suggesting other paths – attempting in every possible way to get me to turn away from that which I have purposed. It helps me to name these voices, to call them out and challenge them. I consider which of these demonic voices holds the greatest attraction for me now, which voices I find most reasonable and most tempting at this stage of my life and in my present circumstances. And I practice my response to them, countering their arguments with my own.
I also ponder the voices of the angels and saints, and of Christ himself, calling me onward and upward, urging me to persevere, to hold fast to my best intentions, to continue climbing towards the vision that Christ has set before me. I hope to continue to grow in this life, always, and I pray that I may persevere until the race reaches its end. Finishing the course still feels like a challenge, not a given, and I am aware of the struggle that continues within me day by day. I do not find it easy to live a counter-cultural life in today’s world – and for me, the Christian life is by nature counter-cultural. Monastic life, in particular, tries to embody many of the counter-cultural values that Christians hold. It can be a struggle.
I thought of this icon when reflecting on St Matthias today. As we have just heard, Matthias was the one chosen to replace Judas Iscariot among the 12 apostles, following Judas’ betrayal and death. It’s hard to know what Judas was thinking, what his motives and purpose were in betraying Jesus, what he hoped to accomplish by it – so we must reserve judgment. Only God knows. But it may well be that he succumbed to voices that seemed reasonable and right, but were in fact drawing him away from the Light and causing him to stumble. On the other hand is Matthias, one who had faithfully followed Jesus throughout his ministry, and who was deemed worthy of filling the vacant spot. We know so little about him – nothing really – except that he had been faithful over time, and that the others saw in him one who had known and could now give witness to Jesus.
Perhaps Matthias went on to accomplish remarkable things which were never recorded and are now forgotten. Or, perhaps he was never really that successful. The tradition assumes, without knowing the details, that he persevered and fulfilled his call, and that, like the others, he paid for it with the price of his life. We remember him and honor him today, and pray that we may have grace to glorify Christ in our own day, resisting temptations and clinging to the ladder of divine ascent, “pressing on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14), until we too are gathered into the loving arms of the Savior and welcomed home.
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