The Stairway of Life
September 01, 2002
Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a stairway set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you." (Genesis 28:10-15)
Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!"
Nathanael said to him, "How do you know me?"
Jesus answered him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."
Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"
Jesus answered him, "Because I said to you, 'I saw you under the fig tree,' do you believe? You shall see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." (John 1:47-51)
Introduction by Mona Diane Conner
One of the unique aspects of the Swedenborgian faith is our understanding that the inner sense of the Bible, which we also call the Word, represents our own personal life story in each and every part of it; that the characters and activities in the Bible, such as Jacob and his vision of the ladder, represent some aspect or phase of our spiritual growth and our effort to connect ourselves with the Divine. The Bible also conveys to us through its imagery an understanding of the way life works--how the universe ticks, so to speak. If we pay attention to these images, we can use our understanding of them to help us deal with our life situations in very practical ways. The Bible, in this sense, is really the best "advice" or "self-help" book we can ever own.
Jacob's ladder, one of the most beautiful and affirming Biblical images, belongs to each of us; and this "personal ladder" we have each been given is nothing less than the stairway of life.
What does your stairway of life look like? What meanings does the image of a ladder or stairway hold for you? As an artist, one of my personal heroes is Georgia O'Keeffe. Her version of the stairway of life is a very simple and poetic painting called "Ladder to the Moon," depicting a ladder floating in a blue evening sky poised midway between a dark silhouetted landscape and the moon above. This image of a ladder is symbolic; Zen-like.
Before we hear what Julian Smyth has to tell us about the stairway of life, I'd like to give you three basic points about the "stairway" to keep in mind:
First, Jacob's personality in the Bible relates to the behavioral aspects of our spiritual nature--to that part of life where we are trying to bring what we know and feel to be right and good into action. Consequently, the stairway of life is a place of great activity, teeming with more human beings and angels that we can even conceive of. It is where heaven and earth come together. In terms of the "level of busy-ness," think of scenes like the New York Stock Exchange or a crowded supermarket. And if you think such scenarios are too chaotic or mundane to use as examples, then remember the Lord's promise to Jacob: "Behold, I am with you wherever you go"--in every aspect of life.
Second, the stairs are not as steep as we think; they are easy to climb. Even the smallest increments of growth and progress count. If we simply focus on the particular task in front of us, and take care of that, we will be moving upward step by step.
Third, the image of the stairway is brimming with infinite levels of meaning; and both because there isn't time to cover all the symbolism and because I don't want to set limitations on your vision of this image, I'll highlight just a bit of the Swedenborgian interpretation for you:
The ladder or stairway is a picture of how we regenerate--how we become reborn and grow toward the Divine.
The ladder or stairway itself represents the Word. It is a picture of the levels of meaning inherent in the Bible--the lowest rung or step being the most external or surface meaning, and the highest being the innermost or celestial meaning.
The symbolic meaning of the angels ascending and descending involves the idea that in the first part of life we begin from the lowest level of understanding and ascend higher, until we reach a point of opening up to let the Lord enter more actively into our lives. After this the Divine can descend into our outward lives, and we can extend that good to others. Our primary focus reverses from our former selfish concerns to newer, unselfish concerns. This is the descending part of the ladder.
The ladder or stairway thus represents the Word and the Lord at the same time.
Now as we listen to the picture of the stairway that Julian Smyth paints for us, let's allow our vision of the stairway to increase in flexibility, expansiveness, and sense of wonder.
And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! (Genesis 28:12)
n this profoundly and perpetually beautiful old Testament story there is a path to some of the greatest things in human life. The richness of its spiritual meaning flashes out the instant our Lord makes his application of it, saying to Nathanael and his companions, "You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." He, too, had his dream, his vision, his purpose; not as of a wayfarer who had lost his way; but, rather, as One who, in his incarnate nature, set himself to pass through every phase of man's experience, from the bareness of his physical needs to the completeness of his highest spiritual possibilities.
The word "ladder" that is often used in our reading from Genesis really means "a way"--a way of steps. It is not necessary to think of this path or way as steep and perilous. It will be truer to think of it as gradual, perfectly possible; the steps broad, secure, no gaps, no traps, one rising easily above another, on and on, in almost countless number. The vision at no point suggests difficulty; quite the contrary, it suggests a wonderful and beneficent opportunity. When we know what those steps stand for, we will realize that they are for every one of us, no matter who we are. Furthermore, when we get the spiritual idea of the angels on those steps--some ascending as if to lead the way, others coming back as if to reinforce our efforts--we shall begin to appreciate what a thrilling revelation of the way of life God has here set before us.
These steps are numberless; and he who created us knows how closely and how perfectly they lie together. He knows and bids us learn that he has set them there to enable us to ascend from the ground of our bodily senses to the heavens of the soul.
There is nothing impossible about it. Nothing theatrical is required of us. All we have to do is follow those steps. The passage from one step to another a little higher need never be hard. The treads have purposely been made low. And every step is good in itself. There isn't a power of enjoyment of any kind--the love of the simplest or deepest things; the joys of the senses, sights, sounds, food; the love of beauty in nature, art, in works of any kind; the zest in games; the delight in song and recreation; the joys of the mind with their countless possibilities; our tastes, the joys of accomplishment, of doing things; the delight of adventure, of travel; the joys of home, of friendship; the joy of a genuine faith, the joys of sincere Christian love, joy in truths of the Word, joys in Christ--these are all steps in our way of life. All of them bring good and happiness; none are difficult except as we make them so; all are so ordered as to make it possible for children, out of the utter helplessness and ignorance in which they are born, to go up those steps and come into the kingdom of heaven.
Every natural activity and experience, whether of the body or of the mind, has its spiritual possibilities. There is never anything so simple that it may not serve some higher end. That is the meaning--the true, beautiful meaning--of the throngs of angels coming and going on the stairs. The steps are never bare. Always there are angels coming and going.
This is the soul of the vision. Let me endeavor to lift it out of vagueness and set it before you as a spiritual fact. We often limit help to sight and sound and touch. Yet who can say, who can believe, that it is not possible for good souls in heaven to help every soul striving for goodness here on earth with a help just as true, though unseen and unheard, as that with which a strong man lifts a weak man who has fallen into the ditch, or a wise man guides a foolish man with a whisper in his ear? It can be so. No person can say it is impossible. In our highest moods, every one of us is aware of influences deeper than we can trace.
Oh, if we only realized what these angels ascending and descending on the stairs of life stand for in this great vision! What possibilities of being true and brave and happy they are trying to point out! How, instead of dwelling on the hard, sordid, or tragic side of life, they bid us believe there is no step we honestly take that is not capable of a great good and a secret joy; and that life, this life that God has given us, he has given us for righteous and beautiful purposes.
Believe the vision. It is a picture of a beautiful life that God has made possible for every one of us, and to which he calls us. It is the picture of a person alive all through, from the summit to the foundation, in the celestial and the terrestrial portions of his life. He is one total person. The heavenly part of him is not vague because it is high; and the earthly part of him, the lower part, is not counted wicked or contemptible. All things in such a life have their place. They are there in their order. By them one passes from strength to strength. The holiest influences, the highest powers, go out in encouragement and joy to the person who will ascend by this way of the steps. It is also written:
The steps of a good person are ordered by the Lord; and he delights in his way. (Psalm 37:23)
O Lord, our Savior, we thank you for yourself, and for the revelation of life that you have made to us. Though we have difficulties to meet, temptations to combat, sorrows to endure, yet we would have you take away from us the thought of life as a burden. Help us to see life as you have made it, and as you have walked in it: a way of steps, possible for all, bright with the holiest purposes, attended by mercies and helps all the way. Set us in the way of these steps, guiding little feet, guarding youth's glad movements, giving direction to the strong and strength to the weary. And so, beginning our pilgrimage on earth, bring us all to the kingdom of heaven and to you, our Way, our Truth, and our Life. Amen.
Rev. Julian Smyth