Monday, May 23, 2011

Jacob's Ladder

SHALOM OF SAFED (1887-1980)
I was inspired to write this post because of a project over at Woodlands Home.  I encourage you to check it out.
In order to participate you only need a photo. But you know me; I get carried away sometimes!

The image of Jacob's Ladder comes from the story in the Old Testament -- of the Patriarch Jacob's dream about a stairway reaching all the way to heaven and God's messengers going up and down it. Genesis 28:10-22. 

St. Jerome wrote this:  
Jacob's ladder is probably the most famous ladder in symbolism. Its story is found in the Old Testament (Gen 28:10-17). Jacob, fleeing from the wrath of his brother, lay down to sleep with a stone for a pillow. During the night he dreamed that he saw a ladder or stairway reaching up into the heavens upon which were angels ascending and descending. At the head of the ladder was God the Father confirming the Patriachal blessing upon him and promising to protect him on his journey. Jacob called the place Bethel (house of God). Since many people have surmised that angels travel this ladder daily as they go about the Lord's business, it has become a symbol of the comings and goings between heaven and earth of people, angels, and messages or prayers (The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 22).

This stairway was called a ladder in some translations and we are quite familiar with that image. It was popularized in the African-American spiritual, "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder." 

Engraving 1720
That ladder symbolized the 'help' that God gives to His people while they are journeying on earth. The stairway/ladder was the symbol of God's connection to the chosen people. And the messengers going up and down were 'evidence,' so to speak, of God's continual provision for the people while the earthly journey was going on.

The ancient Israelites had a significantly different understanding of life-beyond-death than we as Catholic Christians do. In fact, many scholars would argue that at the early period represented in the Jacob stories, these ancient Hebrew people had no sense of life-beyond-death at all.

The point is that for the ancient Israelites who heard and then later who read this story about Jacob and the stairway to heaven, the emphasis was on God's provision for the people in the here and now. Jacob's Ladder in this biblical context really didn't have any particular importance for life-after-death.

But, remember, we know that The Old Testament prefigured the New and the New Testament fulfilled the Old.  We now understand those ancient stories from a different point-of-view. And clearly the Resurrection of the Lord made belief in life-after-death one of the primary tenets of our Christian faith. So, when Christians now read the Old Testament we see God's revelation of different meaning in those Scriptures than had the early Hebrew people.

Lika Tov

From this Christian perspective the story of Jacob's dream, with the stairway in it, has come to have a deeper meaning and significance.

We still see that the messengers going up and down the stairway suggests God's willingness to provide for us on our earthly journey, but we also see another very important meaning implicit in Jacob's dream.

Since we know that we are destined to share the Lord's Resurrection, we believe in life-after-death. Furthermore, we believe that in the great communion of saints we are 'connected to' those who have gone before marked with the sign of faith -- as Eucharistic Prayer 1 says


The "ladder" came to be seen by Christians as representing that "link" between heaven and earth which binds us to those saints whom we celebrate on All Saints' Day. This is why you will often see Jacob's Ladder used as associated with All Saints Day.

God's messengers going up and down came to represent the fact that our prayers can assist those souls in Purgatory who are awaiting their final entrance into the full glory of heaven. Just as the messengers brought help to Jacob in the dream and as they carried Jacob's supplication and prayer up to heaven, so they represent our prayers "going up Jacob's ladder" on behalf of the faithful departed.

Jacob’s Ladder Via Latina Catecombs 4th Century
In Christ heaven and earth meet. He is "the way, the truth, and the life." There is no way to approach the Father except through Jesus Christ (John 14:6).
Jesus used the symbolism of Jacob's ladder to describe His intercessory role to Nathanael when He said,
"hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (John 1:51 NKJV)
The monastery, and the Church are considered ladders as they assist people in the attainment of heaven. Sometimes Cisterian and Carthusian religious houses called themselves "Scala Dei" or "Ladder of God." 

In the Byzantium Church, the Virgin Mary is considered a ladder since through her God descended to become a Man and through her intercession He grants sinners the graces necessary to reach heaven.

St. John Chrysostom taught that the Mosaic Law was like a ladder which allowed God's people to ascend to the position of spiritual adoption and freedom they currently enjoyed in Christ. Having reached the top of the ladder, the climber no longer required it to attain his goals (The Commentary and Homilies of St. John Chrysostom on Galatians, Philippians, Homily 11 - Philippians 3:7-10). 

William Blake Jacob's Ladder Painting

St. Augustine wrote that Jacob's ladder represented the Church and the angels the patriarch saw ascending and descending upon it represented the evangelists or preachers of the Gospel - those who ascended into the heavens, beauty, and knowledge of Christ and then descended again to give spiritual milk to the babes of Christ (Lectures or Tractates on St. John, Tractate 7, John 1:34-51; see also 2 Cor. 12:2).

According to Augustine, teachers of the Word also ascend and descend upon Christ when they preach ascendingly of Christ's majesty or divine nature and then descend to relate to their audiences that our Lord came to earth and became a man. He says,
"Christ is the ladder reaching from earth to heaven, or from the carnal to the spiritual: for by His assistance the carnal ascend to spirituality; and the spiritual may be said to descend to nourish the carnal with milk when they cannot speak to them as to spiritual, but as to carnal. There is thus both an ascent and a descent upon the Son of man." 
He adds that
"We ascend to Him to see Him in heavenly places; we descend to Him for the nourishment of His weak members. And the ascent and descent are by Him as well as to Him. Following His example, those who preach Him not only rise to behold Him exalted, but let themselves down to give a plain announcement of the truth" (St. Augustine On the Morals of the Catholic Church, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, Book 12).
The rungs of a ladder may represent the various stages the initiate or pilgrim must pass through to attain his goal, perfection, or heavenly home. Each philosopher, theologian, teacher, or tradition has its own ideas as to how many rungs their ladder to perfection should contain but twelve, seven, or ten runged ladders are the most common.

One may be thought to ascend a ladder by attaining wisdom and descend that same ladder to demonstrate or scatter the fruits of that wisdom in the exercise of various virtues or the doing of good works. Hannah Whithall Smith wrote that the little sacrifices we constantly make in our daily lives are "actual rounds in the ladder by which we are mounting to our thrones" (The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, Chapt. 19, p. 154). Her book can be found online here. Hannah was a Quaker from Germantown, PA.
The quote above made me think, immediately, of  St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower and her "little way."  But instead of climbing to her throne" she said this: "I will spend my heaven doing good on earth".

Edward Bounds said, "Asking, seeking, knocking, are ascending rounds in the ladder of successful prayer" (The Necessity of Prayer).

Jacob’s Ladder III – Kathleen Anderson – 1995
St. John Chrysostom urged his congregation to climb a Jacob's ladder of virtue to heaven, correcting one fault a month as if it were a step in a spiritual ladder (The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom on the Gospel of John, Homily 83, John 18:1).

St. Jerome taught that "the Christian life is the true Jacob's ladder" and admonished his listeners to give all they had to the poor so that they might climb Jacob's ladder unhindered by material possessions. At the head of this ladder he envisioned the Lord "holding out His hand to those who slip and sustaining by the vision of Himself the weary steps of those who ascend" (The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 54 & 58).

The sides of a ladder may be used to symbolize the pillars of Solomon's Temple known as Boaz and Jachin or the two special trees of the Garden of Eden. 

Several saints have ladders as one of their attributes because of their visions or teachings. These include St. John Cassian, St. Andrew, St. Romuald, St. Benedict, St. Perpetua, and St. John Climacus.

Artist: Gustave Doré

  • St. Benedict's ladder represents his vision of the members of his order climbing to heaven on the twelve runged ladder promoted in chapter seven of his Rule. 
  • St. Romuald, the founder of the Order of Camaldoli, decreed that its members be dressed in white because he had dreamed of white-robed men ascending and descending upon heaven's ladder while he was looking for a place to build his monastery. 
  • In The Ladder of Paradise (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Scala Paradisi), St. Climacus describes thirty rungs (symbolising the thirty years of Jesus' hidden life) or qualities desirable for holiness and the attainment of Paradise. This work was illustrated with a picture of monks falling or being assaulted by demons while ascending a ladder to heaven. Climacus may be portrayed writing his book as a vision of this ladder floats near him.
  • Encouraged by her brother, St. Perpetua asked the Lord for a vision to let her know if her imprisonment would end in martyrdom. Then she dreamed of a "golden ladder of marvelous height, reaching up even to heaven, and very narrow, so that persons could only ascend it one by one; and on the sides of the ladder was fixed every kind of iron weapon. There were there swords, lances, hooks, daggers; so that if any one went up carelessly, or not looking upwards, he would be torn to pieces and his flesh would cleave to the iron weapons.

    And under the ladder itself was crouching a dragon of wonderful size, who lay in wait for those who ascended, and frightened them from the ascent. And Saturus went up first, who had subsequently delivered himself up freely on our account, not having been present at the time that we were taken prisoners. And he attained the top of the ladder, and turned towards me, and said to me, 'Perpetua, I am waiting for you; but be careful that the dragon do not bite you.' And I said, 'In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he shall not hurt me.' And from under the ladder itself, as if in fear of me, he slowly lifted up his head; and as I trod upon the first step, I trod upon his head. And I went up, and I saw an immense extent of garden, and in the midst of the garden a white-haired man sitting in the dress of a shepherd, of a large stature, milking sheep; and standing around were many thousand white-robed ones. And he raised his head, and looked upon me, and said to me, 'Thou are welcome, daughter.' 'And he called me, and from the cheese as he was milking he gave me as it were a little cake, and I received it with folded hands; and I ate it, and all who stood around said Amen. And at the sound of their voices I was awakened, still tasting a sweetness which I cannot describe. 
    And I immediately related this to my brother, and we understood that it was to be a passion, and we ceased henceforth to have any hope in this world" (Tertullian, 5. Appendix, Chapt. 1).

Father Phillip @ CatholicQ&A 
an article by Suzetta Tucker
A collection of Gustave Doré: The Bible Illustrations
Hannah Whithall Smith's Book, The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life
    Quick review of book:
"One of the most inspiring and influential books we have ever read." -- Dale Evans and Roy Rogers "IS YOUR LIFE ALL YOU WANT IT TO BE? Hannah Whitall Smith--Quaker, rebel, realist--faced life as she found it, and she found it good. She took her Bible promises literally, tested them, and found them true as tested steel. She stepped out of conjecture into certainty, and the shadows disappeared. Here she reveals the secret--how to make unhappiness and uncertainty give way to serenity and confidence in every day of your life." -- from the Spire edition.


The Bronze Ladder, by Malcom Lyons


A Bit of the Blarney said...

As always most enlightening!!! Thank you!!! Have had time to reflect today in ways I had not considered with the Ladder as it focus! Cathy

Soutenus said...

Thanks Cathy!
I started brainstorming and one thing lead to another.
I learned a lot, too!!

Woodlands Home is looking for a regular contributor for "Point of View". Might you be interested?

Feel free to FB message me or email me. :-) peggycortez (at) yahoo (dot) com

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