Archives For Spiritual Direction

One of the pivotal events in the history of God’s grace is found in the Torah account of a dream. Jacob was the heir of Abraham, through whom the Lord promised to redeem the world. But Jacob was far from noble.

Nevertheless, because of the Lord’s mercy (the same mercy he offers to us), he forgave Jacob and promised to bless his descendants. In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder extending from earth all the way to heaven. “And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Genesis 28).

This dynamic connection between heaven and earth reveals God’s constant concern for his creation. Some, such as Martin Luther, have seen in the dream a foreshadowing of the Incarnation itself.

This ladder or stairway can be interpreted in a variety of ways. One thing it is not, however, is a guide to human ascent from our fallen world to the presence of our Creator. (The Lord is the one who comes to us.)

Having acknowledged that the dream’s purpose is not to model sanctification or individual spiritual ascent, it is easy to see why the metaphor of ladders, and the action of climbing, give way to other applications.

The most vivid contemporary example comes in the form of a Christian spiritual entitled “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” A number of versions of the lyrics exist. This is quite unsurprising since it began as part of an oral tradition. According to one website devoted to spirituals, the following lyrics are typical.*

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldier of the Cross

Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Soldier of the Cross

Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Soldier of the Cross

If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
Soldier of the Cross

While there are longer versions, this one aptly illustrates how the metaphor of the ladder—in this case, explicitly Jacob’s ladder—offered a powerful image of deliverance. Climbing the ladder with Jesus, was tantamount to experiencing deliverance from the ills of this world.

America’s Library of Congress offers a useful page which describes “African American Gospel music [as] a form of euphoric, rhythmic, spiritual music rooted in the solo and responsive church singing of the African American South.” They add that “its development coincided with—and is germane to—the development of rhythm and blues.” The site offers links to four 1943 recordings of spirituals. None of these, however, is the hymn we are discussing.

“We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” was one of the earliest spirituals to be widely adopted by the interracial faith community. It is familiar in many denominations, and was recently sung in my own Lutheran congregation. Hymnary.org states the song has been “published in 79 hymnals.” Even those who consider themselves unfamiliar with the hymn often recognize its rousing refrain: “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, Soldiers of the Cross.”

The talented Paul Robeson recorded the hymn on a number of his albums. The inspiring rendition by scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon was included in Ken Burn’s documentary, The Civil War.

C.S. Lewis and the Spiritual Ladder

The ladder offers such a convenient analogy for growth or spiritual maturation that others have also applied it in this manner. The ladders inspired by Jacob’s dream include the following two which continue to influence Christian disciples today, even though they were written many centuries ago. The second of these was considered by C.S. Lewis to be one of the works of faith influential in his life.

John Climacus (579-649) was a Christian teenager when he entered the monastic life at the foot of Mount Sinai. He soon earned the respect of his elders in that barren land. In the words of Fathers of the Desert, “in this ascetic seclusion he became ripe for the designs of God.”

The abbot of a monastery on the Red Sea requested guidance on the ascetic life to use with his monks. John responded with The Ladder of Divine Ascent. You can download a modern translation of this priceless work here. While the treatise was written specifically to guide monastics in their spiritual growth, many other Christians have also found its wisdom helpful in their own, non-monastic settings.

John introduces the virtue of obedience with two vivid images used by the Apostle Paul, the athlete in training and the armor of God.

Our treatise now appropriately touches upon warriors and athletes of Christ [and the manner in which] the holy soul steadily ascends to heaven as upon golden wings. And perhaps it was about this that he who had received the Holy Spirit sang: Who will give me wings like a dove? And I will fly by activity, and be at rest by contemplation and humility.

But let us not fail, if you agree, to describe clearly in our treatise the weapons of these brave warriors: how they hold the shield of faith in God and their trainer, and with it they ward off, so to speak, every thought of unbelief and vacillation; how they constantly raise the drawn sword of the Spirit and slay every wish of their own that approaches them; how, clad in the iron armour of meekness and patience, they avert every insult and injury and missile.

And for a helmet of salvation they have their superior’s protection through prayer. And they do not stand with their feet together, for one is stretched out in service and the other is immovable in prayer.

The following passage will be of particular interest to Christian writers. John advises those drawing closer to God to maintain a journal of their progress and insights. I offer it within its wise context.

Let all of us who wish to fear the Lord struggle with our whole might, so that in the school of virtue we do not acquire for ourselves malice and vice, cunning and craftiness, curiosity and anger. For it does happen, and no wonder!

As long as a man is a private individual, or a seaman, or a tiller of the soil, the King’s enemies do not war so much against him. But when they see him taking the King’s colours, and the shield, and the dagger, and the sword, and the bow, and clad in soldier’s garb, then they gnash at him with their teeth, and do all in their power to destroy him. And so, let us not slumber.

I have seen innocent and most beautiful children come to school for the sake of wisdom, education and profit, but through contact with the other pupils they learn there nothing but cunning and vice. The intelligent will understand this.

It is impossible for those who learn a craft whole-heartedly not to make daily advance in it. But some know their progress, while others by divine providence are ignorant of it. A good banker never fails in the evening to reckon the day’s profit or loss. But he cannot know this clearly unless he enters it every hour in his notebook. For the hourly account brings to light the daily account.

In the fourteenth century, an Augustinian mystic in England wrote a book called The Scale [Ladder] of Perfection.” Walter Hilton (c. 1340-1396) provides spiritual exercises requested by a woman adopting life as an anchoress.⁑ You can download a free copy of Evelyn Underhill’s 1923 edition of Hilton’s counsel at Internet Archive.

In 1940, C.S. Lewis wrote to Roman Catholic monk Bede Griffiths in response to the latter’s question about his familiarity with Hilton’s work. “Yes, I’ve read the Scale of Perfection with much admiration. I think of sending the anonymous translator a list of passages that he might reconsider for the next edition.” That same decade Lewis’ collected correspondence reveals he recommended the title to at least two individuals.

Of greatest interest to students of C.S. Lewis will be his mention of the medieval treatise in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Here the great author describes his worldly understanding of prayer served as a terrible stumbling block to his faith.

To these nagging suggestions my reaction was, on the whole, the most foolish I could have adopted. I set myself a standard. No clause of my prayer was to be allowed to pass muster unless it was accompanied by what I called a “realization,” by which I meant a certain vividness of the imagination and the affections.

My nightly task was to produce by sheer will power a phenomenon which will power could never produce, which was so ill-defined that I could never say with absolute confidence whether it had occurred, and which, even when it did occur, was of very mediocre spiritual value.

If only someone had read to me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort “by maistry” what God does not give! But no one did; and night after night, dizzy with desire for sleep and often in a kind of despair, I endeavored to pump up my “realizations.” The thing threatened to become an infinite regress.

One began of course by praying for good “realizations.” But had that preliminary prayer itself been “realized”? This question I think I still had enough sense to dismiss; otherwise it might have been as difficult to begin my prayers as to end them.

How it all comes back! The cold oilcloth, the quarters chiming, the night slipping past, the sickening, hopeless weariness. This was the burden from which I longed with soul and body to escape. It had already brought me to such a pass that the nightly torment projected its gloom over the whole evening, and I dreaded bedtime as if I were a chronic sufferer from insomnia. Had I pursued the same road much further I think I should have gone mad.

This ludicrous burden of false duties in prayer provided, of course, an unconscious motive for wishing to shuffle off the Christian faith; but about the same time, or a little later, conscious causes of doubt arose.

David Downing, co-director of the Wade Center wrote an excellent essay entitled “Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis” which describes in the broader context what C.S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy.

Note for example a passage in Surprised by Joy in which Lewis discusses the loss of his childhood faith while at Wynyard School in England. He explains that his schoolboy faith did not provide him with assurance or comfort, but created rather self-condemnation.

He fell into an internalized legalism, such that his private prayers never seemed good enough. He felt his lips were saying the right things, but his mind and heart were not in the words. Lewis adds “if only someone had read me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort ‘by maistry’ [mastery] what God does not give.”

This is one of those casual references in Lewis which reveals a whole other side to him which may surprise those who think of him mainly as a Christian rationalist. “Old Walter Hilton” is the fourteenth-century author of a manual for contemplatives called The Scale of Perfection. This book is sometimes called The Ladder of Perfection, as it presents the image of a ladder upon which one’s soul may ascend to a place of perfect unity and rest in the Spirit of God . . . [passage continued in footnotes]. ⁂

We’ve considered four separate ladders today. Despite their differences, they all share a common trait—they are meaningful to those who are earnest about growing in the faith. Whether slave or free, wise or simple, or hermit or cosmopolitan—each of these ladders affirms eternal truths.

Underhill described Hilton’s motivation for writing in this way: “It is for those who crave for this deeper consciousness of reality, and feel this impulse to a complete consecration, that Hilton writes.” I believe this is true for the authors of each of these four treasures.


* The following, simpler version appears to follow an earlier tradition. A musical accompaniment for this example can be found in The Books of American Negro Spirituals. The author, James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938), provides a rich and earnest introduction to the book, originally published in two volumes. He expresses his hope that collection “will further endear these sons to those who love Spirituals, and will awaken an interest in many others.”

We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the cross

O

Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Soldiers of the cross

⁑ An anchoress (or anchorite) was a religious woman (or man) who would often be walled off in their monastic cell near a church, to foster their life of prayer by freeing them from interruption.

⁂ Downing’s discussion of C.S. Lewis’ reference to Walter Hinton’s insights on prayer is so valuable that I am compelled to offer the rest of it here. You can read the entire essay via the link on the article’s title.

The passage about “maistry” Lewis wished he’d known as a boy comes early in The Scale of Perfection, a section about different kinds of prayer, including liturgical prayers, spontaneous prayers, and “prayers in the heart alone” which do not use words.

Hilton’s advice for people “who are troubled by vain thoughts in their prayer” is not to feel alone. He notes it is very common to be distracted in prayer by thoughts of what “you have done or will do, other people’s actions, or matters hindering or vexing you.”

Hilton goes on to explain that no one can keep fully the Lord’s command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. The best you can do is humbly acknowledge your weakness and ask for mercy. However badly one’s first resolve fades, says Hilton, you should not get “too fearful, too angry with yourself, or impatient with God for not giving you savor and spiritual sweetness in devotion.”

Instead of feeling wretched, it is better to leave off and go do some other good or useful work, resolving to do better next time. Hilton concludes that even if you fail in prayer a hundred times, or a thousand, God in his charity will reward you for your labor. Walter Hilton was the canon of a priory in the Midlands of England and an experienced spiritual director of those who had taken monastic vows. His book is full of mellow wisdom about spiritual growth, and Lewis considered it one of “great Christian books” that is too often neglected by modern believers.

Hilton’s recurring theme—do what you know to be right and don’t worry about your feelings—is one that appears often in Lewis’s own Christian meditations. But, alas, Lewis as a boy did not have the benefit of Hilton’s advice.

In those boyhood years at Wynyard, he was trapped in a religion of guilt, not grace. More and more he came to associate Christianity with condemnation of others, as in Northern Ireland, or condemnation of oneself, for not living up to God’s standards.


A Note on the Illustration

Nicolas Dipre was a French early Renaissance painter, who flourished 1495-1532. His painting of Jacob’s Ladder portrays the biblical account of the Jewish patriarch’s dream. The icon Ladder of Divine Ascent was painted four centuries earlier by an anonymous iconographer. It is from Saint Catherine’s Monastery beside Mount Sinai, and portrays the ascent of saints in the pursuit of holiness. While fallen angels (devils) seek to drag them from the path, John Climacus leads other in the path to heaven.

Who are you? If you were to fully answer that question, it would require serious introspection. However, if you were to answer it completely, it would also require an honesty that is extremely rare.

That’s because anyone who reveals everything about themself, comes to a point where the qualities and actions are no longer flattering. They ultimately arrive at the place where the exposé becomes a confession.

The truth is that no one actually knows everything about themself. But some of the things we are aware of . . . some of the secrets we desire to hide, even from ourselves . . . are seldom shared. That is one great value of the “confessional.” There, one can unburden themselves and face their demons, so to speak, in a setting where they know their confidence won’t be violated.

As a Protestant pastor, who has never used a physical confessional stall or screen, I note that I have nevertheless heard thousands of confessions. They are, as one would expect, a common element of counseling as people seek to experience healing and restoration. As a Lutheran, I belong to a tradition that guarantees the privacy of these confessions, or what is considered “privileged communication.” Moreover, as a military chaplain, I was grateful to serve a nation that enshrines the same promise in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

As Lewis wrote, “if there is a particular sin on your conscience, repent and confess it” (Letters to an American Lady). Once that is done, the pastor (or any “confessor”) can assist the individual with working to make as right as possible in the future what was damaged or destroyed by their choices in the past.

From the Psychological Vantage Point

If you have never encountered it before, I commend to you the model called the Johari Window. I have written about it in the past in the context of honesty and dishonesty.

The model illustrates just how complex our personalities are. The arrows on the model below reveal how we can expand the “open” part of ourselves. Naturally, there are some “hidden” aspects that should only be disclosed in certain contexts.

When it comes to the darkness in our lives, that which we strive to keep veiled, psychologists describe it in a variety of ways. One chaplain with whom I worked was particularly enamored with the work of Carl Jung. He loved to toss around the word “shadow,” and suggest there was some dark psychological significance to even the most offhand comment or expression. In essence, the shadow is the part of our personality we don’t want to admit to having. In terms of the Johari Window, you might think of it as the sinister stuff in the Hidden quadrant.*

C.S. Lewis wrote about Jung in an essay entitled “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism.” Lewis disparages the Freudian theory, saying “poetry is not a substitute for sexual satisfaction, nor sexual satisfaction for poetry.” Jung, he argues, presents “a much more civil and humane interpretation of myth and imagery.” Of course, Lewis is discussing these psychoanalysts from the perspective of a literary critic, not a psychologist. In that regard, we can appreciate his assessment of one of Jung’s major works.

Thanks to my training I can suspend my judgement about the scientific value of Jung’s essay on “Mind and the Earth:” but I perceive at once that even if it turns out to be bad science it is excellent poetry.

From the Christian Point of View

I have already described how confession can serve as a means of expanding our self-awareness in a constructive and healing way. That’s why confession and absolution are a formal part of many worship service, going back to the earliest times. If we want to read the finest primer on confession, we need look no further than the book of Psalms.

As King David, in recognition of this great sins, prays in the fifty-first psalm:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

One of the earliest Christian classics (outside the Bible itself) was aptly entitled Confessions. It was written by Augustine, the bishop of a North African city called Hippo. His description of our self-awareness is so deep and profound, it will likely require more than a single reading.

No one knows what he himself is made of, except his own spirit within him, yet there is still some part of him which remains hidden even from his own spirit; but you, Lord, know everything about a human being because you have made him . . .

Let me, then, confess what I know about myself, and confess too what I do not know, because what I know of myself I know only because you shed light on me, and what I do not know I shall remain ignorant about until my darkness becomes like bright noon before your face. (Augustine, The Confessions, translation by Maria Boulding)

One of C.S. Lewis’ many correspondents was a man who was acutely troubled by his own self-awareness, and in particular, the consciousness of his own selfishness and egotism. Lewis offered some comforting and sound spiritual direction to the man. Since I believe the letter has a message for us all, I choose to close with it.

You are of course perfectly right in defining your problem (which is also mine and everyone’s) as “excessive selfness.” But perhaps you don’t fully realise how far you have got by so defining it. All have this disease: fortunate are the minority who know they have it.

To know that one is dreaming is to be already nearly awake, even if, for the present, one can’t wake up fully. And you have actually got further than that. You have got beyond the illusion (very common) that to recognise a chasm is the same thing as building a bridge over it.

Your danger now is that of being hypnotized by the mere sight of the chasm, of constantly looking at this excessive selfness. The important thing now is to go steadily on acting, so far as you can—and you certainly can to some extent, however small—as if it wasn’t there. You can, and I expect you daily do—behave with some degree of unselfishness. You can and do make some attempt at prayer.

The continual voice which tells you that your best actions are secretly filled with subtle self-regard, and your best prayers still wholly egocentric—must for the most part be simply disregarded—as one disregards the impulse to keep on looking under the bandage to see whether the cut is healing. If you are always fidgeting with the bandage, it never will

A text you should keep much in mind is I John iii, 20: “If our heart condemns us God is greater than our heart.” I sometimes pray “Lord give me no more and no less self-knowledge than I can at this moment make a good use of.” Remember He is the artist and you are only the picture. You can’t see it. So quietly submit to be painted—i.e. keep on fulfilling all the obvious duties of your station (you really know quite well enough what they are!), asking forgiveness for each failure and then leaving it alone. You are in the right way. Walk—don’t keep on looking at it.


* In contrast to the insignificant or embarrassing things we are aware of that we may prefer to keep to ourselves. For example, although I sing decently, I am an exceptionally poor instrumentalist. This despite the fact I married a talented and patient music teacher. It’s not my lack of talent which motivates my secrecy, it is the sad fact that I am a total sluggard when it comes to practicing. And this reveals a major flaw in my personality—if something is not inherently fun or doesn’t come easily to me, I have a terribly difficult time applying myself to the task. (And this shortcoming has very real consequences, both in terms of professional success and interpersonal relationships.)

⁑ Several years ago, a member of our Mere Inkling described in her blog how everyone experiences seasons of restlessness.

In his Confessions, Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Yet even those who have found Christ feel restless at certain times, and these times lead us to a salutary discovery.

Augustine’s Confessions is a Christian classic. You can download a free copy here.

stfrancisMy brother, sister and I have nearly finished the somber task of going through my father’s possessions. We distributed many items to various family members, but the local charities have probably benefited most, as we cleared out the three bedroom home.

Sadly, my mother died nearly twenty years ago. My sister inherited her cedar chest, but had left it in our father’s house. As she prepared to take it home, we discovered some interesting items, including forty pictures my father had sent home during his 1967-68 tour in Vietnam.

We also found a Bible my mother had used when she attended studies. She was born in the generation which would never dare to highlight passages or scribble in the margins. Thus, the Bible bears no evidence it ever belonged to her . . . aside from some inspiring bookmarks, and a few newspaper clippings she had found meaningful.

One of the quotations that I too found particularly edifying, came from the pen of a Roman Catholic priest named Francis de Sales:

Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering or he will give you the unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.

Francis was a post-Reformation Bishop of Geneva who was noted for his gentle approach toward religious divisions—in an era when such moderation was extremely rare. He is known for writings on spiritual growth (in Roman Catholic parlance, “spiritual formation”).

Although I have not read it, his book Introduction to the Devout Life comes highly recommended, and is available for free download here. I suspect even agnostics could enjoy it for its historical value.

By all accounts, Francis led a chaste and humble life, much like his namesake, Francis of Assisi. (Both men were canonized by their Church.)

Speaking of the first St. Francis, I have always wondered why no Pope ever honored his legacy by assuming his name. I suppose this is because his most prominent characteristics are not those most Popes seek to emulate. The assumption of Francis’ name by the new Pope, I believe, bodes well for his papacy. If he follows in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi, he cannot stray too far afield.

C.S. Lewis appreciated the thirteenth-century saint who began life as a self-indulged soldier and ended it living under a strict vow of poverty. Francis’ celebrated affection for animals—he is considered their “patron saint”—could not help but endear the monk to the creator of Narnia. Each year, many Christians participate in Roman Catholic and Anglican ceremonies for the blessing of animals on Saint Francis’ feast day.

In The Four Loves, Lewis discusses the nature of our physical body. He notes that there are several competing perspectives about our corporeal constitution, with the extremes either demeaning or glorifying humanity’s material nature. Lewis suggests that a metaphor created by Saint Francis provides a more biblical view.

Man has held three views of his body. First there is that of those ascetic Pagans who called it the prison or the “tomb” of the soul, and of Christians like Fisher to whom it was a “sack of dung,” food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are the Neo-Pagans (they seldom know Greek), the nudists and the sufferers from Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious.

But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body “Brother Ass.” All three may be—I am not sure—defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money. Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now the stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body. There’s no living with it till we recognise that one of its functions in our lives is to play the part of buffoon.

Yes, I have to live for a while yet in this donkey of a shell, which illustrates daily the wisdom of the Apostle Paul who wrote that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak . . . and short-sighted . . . and lazy . . . and stubborn . . .

This body, my flesh, argues that I should spend my day worrying about tomorrow. But the Holy Spirit speaks a more hopeful word. A promise. As God inspired Francis de Sales to eloquently proclaim: “Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day.”