Lent is especially time to reflect on our spiritual journey.
From the Catholic mystical tradition we have many enduring images for this journey. The mountain. The interior castle. The mystical ladder. All three both blossomed fully in the late Middle Ages and also are firmly rooted in Scripture. The ladder is especially fitting image for us during Lent as it foreshadows so well the cross to which we are all journeying in this liturgical season.
In Genesis 28, Jacob is on a journey of 500 miles, from his family home in Beersheba to his uncle in Haran, where he would meet his wives. But it was to a different journey and a different covenantal relationship that God called Jacob in a dream during one of his rest stops. The extraordinary vision is recounted in verses 12 to 13:
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; And the Lord leaning upon the ladder, saying to him: I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac; the land, wherein thou sleepest, I will give to thee and to thy seed (Douay-Rheims).
This incredible account holds several lessons for us.
God takes the initiative. God always acts first. Jacob did not build the ladder to reach heaven, God extended it to him. This story contrasts with the building of the Tower of Babel. We tend to think of Babel as an act of human pride and folly—an attempt by its citizens to manifest their greatness. But we forgot that they undertook even more than the construction of a magnificent building. They very much wanted something that would ‘reach to heaven’ as the more literal translation of Genesis 11:4 reads. It did not end well for them. Man cannot make his own way to heaven.
Grace builds on nature. The ladder also well illustrates the relationship between nature and grace. Note how the ladder is well-suited towards Jacob’s physical capabilities. So also is it with grace and nature. Grace, as St. Thomas Aquinas famously wrote, does not destroy nature, but presupposes and perfects it. What God lowered from heaven Jacob could climb without changing his nature. We could say the ladder is made for Jacob, but theologically it would be more accurate to say he is made for the ladder: we are created and called to make that ascent to heaven.
God first came to us. God not only takes the initiative, but He first descends to us. It is He who crosses the gulf between the human and the divine. The lowered ladder is not a challenge from God to us such that its successful ascent could become an opportunity for our boasting.
God is with us. This implication follows from above. Having first made the descent means that God is with us as we make the ascent. Christ humbled Himself so that we might be hoisted up to heaven with him. As Jesus says in John 12:32, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” God is both the destination and our erstwhile companion on the way.
Channels of grace. Notice in the Genesis account that there are angels running up and down the sides of the ladder. One biblical commentary sees these angels as carrying our wishes to God and bringing back his help. This idea could be stated more richly in terms of grace. In his classic book, Introduction of the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales, seizes upon the ladder as a metaphor for how we grow through grace towards God.
[I]t is a true picture of the devout life; the two poles which support the steps are types of prayer which seeks the love of God, and the Sacraments which confer that love; while the steps themselves are simply the degrees of love by which we go on from virtue to virtue, either descending by good deeds on behalf of our neighbor or ascending by contemplation to a loving union with God.
We must respond. It is God who acts first and completely even to the point of crossing the way. But we must respond to this invitation to heaven. God does not drag us up the ladder. The account records Jacob’s wonderful response in verses 16 to 17:
And when Jacob awaked out of sleep, he said: Indeed the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. And trembling he said: How terrible is this place! This is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven.
Jacob’s response is one of holy fear at the presence of God. Earlier in the chapter, Jacob is depicted as being oblivious to the fact that he might near God. Genesis 28:11 notes that he came to ‘a certain place.’ The underlying Hebrew word, maqom, not only has the generic meaning of place but also can refer to a sacred place. Jacob is not only unaware of the divine presence, but he falls asleep. So the story becomes a metaphor especially for how we tend to become asleep to the reality of God’s presence in our life. And what is it that awakens Jacob to God? It is this vision of the ladder. For us, it is the Cross—our true ladder to heaven—that ought to awaken us to the presence of God.
We must act. After the vision ends, Jacob does more than wake up and remark how truly awesome it had been. He goes beyond a mere verbal utterance. He sets a stone in place and anoints it (Genesis 28:12).
Our world is changed. Jacob sets the stone in place as a permanent memorial of what happened. It could also be interpreted as a kind of a primitive temple since he also renames the area Bethel, which means ‘house of God’—house being synonymous with sanctuary or temple. And the renaming of the area itself suggests to us a fundamental change in its identity. Finally, Jacob calls on God to be with him and to ‘keep’ the ‘way by which I walk’ and to nourish and clothe him. Jacob arrived at Bethel as a simple itinerant. He walked away with God.