Symbols of the Spiritual Journey

Since the ninth century the rock cliffs of Metéora have towered, practically inaccessible, high above the plains of Thessaly, Greece. In order to escape the tumult of the world, intrepid monks have ascended the forbidding natural formations, resorting to a combination of folding ladders, ropes, baskets, and nets.

Hundreds of years passing, they built and inhabited up to 24 monasteries. Only six remain today.

Early last century, steps were cut into the rock and the government, after the Second World War, constructed roads all the way up to the very perimeter of the remaining monasteries. St. Stephen’s Monastery, for example, is accessible without any climbing at all. Motoring up the road, visitors have but to step across the concrete footbridge spanning a windy chasm to arrive at the monastery door.

Metéora illustrates the truism that there is more than one route to a single destination. It is a metaphor that invites us to visit historic conceptions of the spiritual journey from the standpoint of multiple routes. We will touch upon watershed conceptions—the ladder, the threefold way, the mountain, the interior castle.

The Ladder

A common image in monastic literature is that of the ladder. Jacob’s ladder is probably the origin of this image. “Then he had a dream: a stairway rested on the ground, with its top reaching to the heavens; and God’s messengers were going up and down on it.” (Genesis 29:13)

Ladder of Divine Ascent, 17th c. icon.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the most famous—and elaborate—exposition of the image of the ladder is found in Saint John Climacus’ The Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is a mature exposition of a long tradition. In this work Saint John divides progress in the spiritual life into 30 steps, organized into three major groupings. The first part describes the break with the world and the exile into the desert and consists of three steps. The second part, consisting of 23 steps, describes the practice of the virtues of the active life. They include virtues at the foundation of the monastic life, such as obedience or penance; virtues invoked in the struggle against the passions; and virtues of a higher attainment, such as simplicity or discernment. The third part consists of four steps describing the virtues of the contemplative life—stillness, prayer, dispassion, love.

The image of a ladder is also a central motif in the Rule of Saint Benedict, written about one century before The Ladder of Divine Ascent. The Father of Western monasticism describes the spiritual life as an ascent in twelve degrees of humility leading up to the “perfect love of God that casts out fear.”

Hence, brethren, if we wish to reach the very highest point of humility and to arrive speedily at that heavenly exaltation to which ascent is made through the humility of this present life, we must by our ascending actions erect the ladder Jacob saw in his dream, on which angels appeared to him descending and ascending.

By that descent and ascent we must surely understand nothing else than this, that we descend by self-exaltation and ascend by humility.

And the ladder thus set up is our life in the world, which the Lord raises up to heaven if our heart is humbled.

In Concerning the Four Rungs of the Ladder of Monks, or The Ladder of Monks, for short, Guigo II, third prior of La Grande Chartreuse, originates the scheme of prayer in four steps—reading, meditation, prayer, contemplation. Lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio. It is a scheme that has long endured.

“This is a ladder for monks,” Guigo II says, “by means of which they are raised up from earth to heaven. It has only a few separate rungs, yet its length is immense and incredible: for its lower part stands on the earth while its higher part pierces the clouds and touches the secrets of heaven.”

The Threefold Way

One of the most influential schemes describing progress in the spiritual life originates in Pseudo-Dionysius, late fifth century, whose true identity is lost to history. Imbued with Neoplatonism, Pseudo-Dionysius divided the spiritual life into the threefold way of purgation, illumination, and perfection as an ascent à la Proclus back to God.

The threefold way of purification, illumination, and perfect is prominent in The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, where Pseudo-Dionysius assigns a different function of the threefold way to each of the three clerical orders of deacon, priest, and hierarch or bishop, respectively, (Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, translation by Colm Luibheid, pp. 235-37).

Pseudo-Dionysius holds the honor of originating “mystical theology” as a descriptive term and of advancing negative theology following the pioneering The Life of Moses by Saint Gregory of Nyssa.

The threefold way has been notably influential among spiritual writers.

The threefold way undergirds Saint Bonaventure’s The Life of Saint Francis, for example, where Saint Francis of Assisi’s life is described according to virtues corresponding to the three stages of purification, illumination, and union, culminating in the intimate identification of Saint Francis with the crucified Jesus, shown forth by the charism of the sacred stigmata.

Dominican Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s Three Ages of the Interior Life is also based on the threefold way. He uses the threefold way as a framework to synthesize theological principles of the spiritual life according to the rich Roman Catholic tradition.

The Mountain

Another image of progress in the spiritual life is that of the mountain. This image of the spiritual life is very apt. Because God is transcendent, ruling over all creation, the soul must ascend, literally and metaphorically, to encounter God.

In the Bible, Mount Hebron, Mount Sinai, and Mount Tabor are all important symbols. They invoke the ascent to God, who is essentially unapproachable.

Sixteenth-century mystic Saint John of the Cross describes the spiritual life as the ascent of Mount Carmel. He assumes the threefold division of souls into beginners, proficients, and the perfect—a scheme which originates in the Carthusian Hugh of Balma—and uses the framework of scholastic theology throughout, bringing together important threads in Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism to accomplish a synthesis notable in the history of mystical theology.

Saint John of the Cross begins The Ascent to Mount Carmel by establishing a theme:

The following stanzas include all the doctrine I intend to discuss in this book, The Ascent to Mount Carmel. They describe the way that leads to the summit of the mount—that high state of perfection we here call union of a soul with God. Since these stanzas will serve as the basis for all I shall say, I want to cite them here in full that the reader may see in them a summary of the doctrine to be expounded, (The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. by Kieran Kavanaugh, p. 113).

He presents his poem describing the passage of the soul through the “dark night” of the purification of sense and spirit, arriving at the ecstatic union of love with God.

One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
—ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
(op. cit., p. 113)

The famous poem, The Dark Night of the Soul, eight stanzas long, is the basis for the exposition of The Ascent, which remains unfinished.

The Interior Castle

Saint John of the Cross’ spiritual confrere, Saint Teresa of Avila, in contrast, invokes the image of an interior castle. It maps out a journey not upward, but inward.

The image of an interior dwelling-place has antecedents, for example, the inner cell of the heart of Saint Catherine of Siena. However, Saint Teresa uniquely employs the metaphor of an interior castle in a highly developed manner. Her account is based on the extraordinary fullness of her mystical experience, so that her book has no precedent in the spiritual literature.

In the first chapter of The Interior Castle, Saint Teresa exclaims:

Today while beseeching our Lord to speak for me because I wasn’t able to think of anything to say nor did I know how to begin to carry out this obedience, there came to my mind what I shall now speak about, that which will provide us with a basis to begin with. It is that we consider soul to be like a castle made entirely out of a diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in heaven there are many dwelling places.
(The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Volume II, trans. by Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. and Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D, p. 283).

She continues: “Well, let us consider that this castle has, as I said, many dwelling places: some up above, others down below, others to the sides; and in the center and middle is the main dwelling place where the very secret exchanges between God and the soul take place,” (Ibid., p. 284).

The way inside the castle, she explains, is through prayer: “Insofar as I can understand the door of entry to this castle is prayer and reflection,” (Ibid., p. 286).

The Desert

In all images—the ladder, the threefold way, the mountain, or the interior castle—the spiritual journey is always conceived as a progression and often as an ascent, so that some charting of progress in the spiritual life is inevitably entailed.

An alternative image of the spiritual life is suggested by the journey of Elijah the prophet to Mount Horeb when he fled from the murderous Jezebel.

Mortally afraid, Elijah flees a day’s journey into the desert until, overwhelmed by exhaustion, he lays himself down beneath a broom tree, praying, “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” Roused by an angel from sleep, he is refreshed by a hearth cake and a jug of water. Descending into sleep a second time, he is awakened by the angel, who exclaims, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!” Afterwards, so fortified is he that at once he walks forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb. (1 Kings 19:1-8)

In this image of the desert the traveler is preoccupied—not with their progress upward or inward but with advancing in love toward their destination, often in darkness and struggle, but also as God wills resting in oases of light and peace.

The image offers the advantage that it is a spur to prayer and ascetical practice yet at the same time a check upon self-conscious introspection or prideful dwelling upon “spiritual progress.”

The image of a journey across a flat desert combines the images of the dark night of the soul of Saint John of the Cross and the desert oasis of Saint Bruno the Carthusian.

The dark night of the soul is a desert because it is a period of purification of the senses and the spirit—painful, mysterious, yet despite it all, ardent. Saint John of the Cross says it cannot be adequately described:

So numerous and burdensome are the pains of this night, and so many are the scriptural passages we could cite that we would have neither the time nor the energy to put it all in writing; and, doubtless, all that we can possibly say would fall short of expressing what this night really is, (St John of the Cross, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” II, 7, op. cit., p. 406).

Saint John compares it to a “dark dungeon” where a prisoner, “bound hands and feet,” is “able neither to move nor see nor feel any favor from heaven or earth.” The soul in this condition is “humbled, softened, and purified, until it becomes so delicate, simple, and refined that it can be one with the Spirit of God, according to the degree of union of love that God, in his mercy, desires to grant,” (Ibid., pp. 407-408).

Souls who endure this suffering “know that they love God and that they would give a thousand lives for him (they would indeed, for souls undergoing these trials love God very earnestly)” yet “they find no relief. This knowledge instead causes them deeper affliction,” (Ibid., p. 409).

In contrast, the desert oasis is the foretaste of the fruits of Paradise, the vision of God in purity of heart that for reasons entirely hidden to the soul and out of sheer gratuitousness God wishes to bestow upon the soul.

Saint Bruno’s letter to his friend, Raoul, offers us glimpses of this rarefied spiritual attainment. He writes, “In any case only those who have experienced them can know the benefits and divine exultation that the solitude and silence of the desert hold in store for those who love it.” They “enter into themselves,” “rest in quiet activity,” “eat the fruits of Paradise with joy,” even “see God himself.”

Of this divine exultation, Saint John speaks as well.

There are intervals in which, through God’s dispensation…the soul, like one who has been unshackled and released from a dungeon and who can enjoy the benefit of spaciousness and freedom, experiences great sweetness of peace and loving friendship with God in a ready abundance of spiritual communication, (Saint John of the Cross, op. cit., p. 408).

Thus the spiritual journey may be conceived and understood as a trek across the flats of Elijah’s desert.

image: Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas, Meteora / Dido3 (own work) via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Gonzalinho da Costa—a pen name—teaches at the Ateneo Graduate School of Business, Makati City, Philippines. He is a management research and communication consultant. A lover of world literature, he has completed three humanities degrees and writes poetry as a hobby.

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