Theophanis the monk and the ladder of Divine graces
Type of Spiritual Experience
This observation comes from the short mystical poem, “The Ladder of Divine Graces” by Theophanis the Monk. “The Ladder” is found in the third volume of The Philokalia, a classic compilation of Christian mystical writings ranging from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries
The Philokalia is an anthology of writings on prayer, asceticism and mysticism compiled by Nicodemus the Hagiorite (1748-1808), an Athonite monk. First published in Venice in 1792, it was instrumental in bringing about a revival of interest in the Desert Fathers, the monks of Mount Sinai, and the Hesychasts of Mount Athos
We know very little about Theophanis, not even when he lived. All we are sure of is that he was a monk, one among many monks on Mount Athos at the time, whose quest towards hesychia or stillness gave rise to them being called ‘Hesychast Fathers’. For Theophanis, Christianity was not a dogma or a creed or a set of rituals enacted without understanding. For Theophanis and all the monks that followed the same path, Christianity was a mystic religion – it was a way of travelling the spiritual path.
The poem is a bit short on practical instructions, but Theophanis does a very good job nevertheless of giving ideas, as he says ‘Experience teaches one, not words’.
A description of the experience
The Ladder of Divine Graces
which experience has made known to those inspired by God
The first step is that of purest prayer.
From this there comes a warmth of heart,
And then a strange, a holy energy,
Then tears wrung from the heart, God-given.
Then peace from thoughts of every kind.
From this arises purging of the intellect,
And next the vision of heavenly mysteries.
Unheard-of light is born from this ineffably,
And thence, beyond all telling, the heart's illumination.
Last comes—a step that has no limit
Though compassed in a single line—
Perfection that is endless.
The ladder's lowest step
Prescribes pure prayer alone.
But prayer has many forms:
My discourse would be long
Were I now to speak of them:
And, friend, know that always
Experience teaches one, not words.
A ladder rising wondrously to heaven's vault:
Ten steps that strangely vivify the soul.
Ten steps that herald the soul's life.
A saint inspired by God has said:
Do not deceive yourself with idle hopes
That in the world to come you will find life
If you have not tried to find it in this present world.
Ten steps: a wisdom born of God.
Ten steps: fruit of all the books.
Ten steps that point towards perfection.
Ten steps that lead one up to heaven.
Ten steps through which a man knows God.
The ladder may seem short indeed,
But if your heart can inwardly experience it
You will find a wealth the world cannot contain,
A god-like fountain flowing with unheard-of life.
This ten-graced ladder is the best of masters,
Clearly teaching each to know its stages.
If when you behold it
You think you stand securely on it,
Ask yourself on which step you stand,
So that we, the indolent, may also profit.
My friend, if you want to learn about all this,
Detach yourself from everything,
From what is senseless, from what seems intelligent.
Without detachment nothing can be learnt.
Experience alone can teach these things, not talk.
Even if these words once said
By one of God's elect strike harshly,
I repeat them to remind you:
He who has no foothold on this ladder,
Who does not ponder always on these things,
When he comes to die will know
Terrible fear, terrible dread,
Will be full of boundless panic.
My lines end on a note of terror.
Yet it is good that this is so:
Those who are hard of heart—myself the first—
Are led to repentance, led to a holy life,
Less by the lure of blessings promised
Than by fearful warnings that inspire dread.
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
You who have written this, hear, then, and take note:
Void of all these graces,
How have you dared to write such things?
How do you not shudder to expound them?
Have you not heard what Uzzah suffered
When he tried to stop God's ark from falling?
Do not think that I speak as one who teaches:
I speak as one whose words condemn himself,
Knowing the rewards awaiting those who strive,
Knowing my utter fruitlessness.