Wednesday, September 28, 2016


I am back at work--sort of.  In truth I am actually having a little trouble bidding farewell to my “vacation” mentality.  For one thing we have been enjoying a string of beautiful Indian Summer days, warm and sunny mornings and afternoon, but with the evenings crisp enough to require a serious blanket on the bed.  This is definitely outdoor weather, and Lord knows there’s plenty of stuff needing attention around the place, the garden having crossed over the jungle line in our absence.  There is also a moderate sized stack of general interest books that I have either begun or set aside to begin.   None of them has explicit relevance to medieval asceticism, the general subject of the little book of my own that I want to finish off before the end of the year, but all of them have attractive powers for a weak-willed scholar seeking plausible distraction.

I did no writing on this book while I was in Europe, though I thought a certain amount about it, and made one concrete investment in it.  While we were visiting Poitiers our hosts drove us out to Ligugé Abbey, a still vital Benedictine community where the best traditions of monastic chant are still well preserved.  Ligugé was founded in the mid-fourth century by Martin of Tours on land donated by bishop Hilary of Poitiers, both of them today major saints in the Roman calendar.  The abbey has an extensive tourist shop attached to it, and there I found and bought a long desired copy of a certain French scholarly edition of the spiritual masterpiece written by the Greek monk John Climacus in the seventh century.  This is among the texts I propose to deal with in the aforementioned new book.

Many books bring fame to their authors; this one actually gave its author the name by which history knows him.  John Climacus means “Ladder John” or “John the Ladderer” or somesuch after the title of his book The Ladder (kλιμαξ in Greek), the most famous of many medieval works in which spiritual growth is treated as a process of ascending gradation.

 From a Sinai manuscript of John Climacus (12th century)

One of the great engines of the “symbolism” in medieval and Renaissance art—the greatest indeed—is the text of the Bible allegorically interpreted.  As the famous Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” puts it, “…you know words sometimes have two meanings.”  As far as the early Christian readers of the Scriptures were concerned, they almost always did.  The ancient Christian ascetics, solitary cave-dwellers and hermits atop stone pillars--believed that their (to us) strange mode of life was actually a continuation of the history of the ancient prophets of the desert.  Hence they thought they walked in the footsteps of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha.  One of the earliest of the Old Testament “monks” they admired was Jacob.  This is perhaps surprising given the fact that the patriarch Jacob was not merely married but had two wives, and that he was a fraudster.  Jacob was, however, “a plain man who dwelt in tents” (Gen 25:27).  Together with two mysterious biographical episodes, simple tent-dwelling was enough to transform Jacob into an ascetic prototype.  The first episode (Genesis 32) was his cryptic all-nighter wrestling match with a “man” who, though unable to defeat him, “touched the sinew of [Jacob’s] thigh and forthwith it shrank.”  The second meaning here, according to the Fathers, was a kind of spiritual emasculation or moral cleansing that prepared Jacob for his sacred vocation and name change to “Israel”.  Though a patriarch, he was metaphorically a eunuch for the kingdom of God’s sake.  The second was Jacob’s strange dream on the road from Beer-sheba to Haran (Genesis 28), perhaps induced by using a stone for a pillow.  “And he saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth and the top thereof touching heaven, the angels also of God ascending and descending by it…”
Bath Abbey: the front 
The early monks imagined that in their dedication to prayer and austerity they were participating in a recreated “angelic life”.  They regarded such an existence not as socially retrograde, but as revolutionary.  Their asceticism was a program—though usually one of more than twelve steps.  The Ladder of Spiritual Perfection of John Climacus has thirty rungs—one for each year in the “preparatory” or pre-ministerial life of Jesus Christ.  I have not been able to identify the first ascetic interpretation of Jacob’s ladder.  In the seventh century John Climacus was already dealing with a well-worn trope, but he gave to it its most famous and influential literary expression.   It has left many beautiful artistic traces.  Illustrated manuscripts of John’s Greek text are among the most impressive surviving examples of Byzantine book-painting; and no one who has studied the façade of Bath Abbey will fail to appreciate the book’s continuing importance in the West in the late medieval period.  The Byzantine illustrators frequently imagine demons trying to pull the climbers off the ladder.  These figures were the personifications (demonizations?) of those forces that would keep the scholar from taking even the first step toward the achievement of his ostensible goal.