Jacob’s Ladder: On the Ups and Downs of the Spiritual Path

The book of Genesis tells the story of how Jacob — the future father of the nation of Israel — was on the run one night from his older brother whom he had manipulated into giving over his inheritance. Coming to a suitable resting place, Jacob set up camp under the stars, with nothing but a rock for a pillow. There, cold and alone, he dreamt of a ladder reaching from the earth to heaven, and on it were several angels ascending and descending.

A general interpretation of the dream is that God wanted to be connected to, or commune with, His Creation. But Saint John of the Cross, the saint most widely known for his depiction of the time of spiritual turmoil known as the Dark Night of the Soul, saw in the dream a metaphor for the devout spiritual seeker’s inner experience as they progress. He looked at Jacob’s ladder as a symbolic ‘ladder of contemplation’ on which the ascending and descending angels represent our alternating experiences of spiritual consolation and emotional trials as our communion with the divine deepens.

The Ladder of Contemplation

Saint John of the Cross had noticed that as we progress along our spiritual path, we enter into a period of rapid alternation between moments of spiritual consolation and peace, and ‘humbling’ experiences of intense angst. Frustration, anger, jealousy, or any of the ‘seven deadly sins’, can be our experience, when only the day before we’d felt a calm equanimity and strength associated with our general spiritual outlook.

We alternate between ascending a ladder towards the peace of God, and then descending toward earth, or ourselves, becoming painfully aware of our ego. Saint John of the Cross (and others of the Christian tradition, such as Saint Teresa of Avilla), refer to this latter experience as ‘self-knowledge’, meaning we become aware of remaining egoistic traits, habits and defences, all connected to our self-concept. Says the saint of this bi-directional aspect of the spiritual path (see Collected Works):

‘In the spiritual way, to descend is to ascend, and to ascend is to descend, because everyone that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.’

The virtue of descending is that by addressing grievances associated with our angst, we take another step toward loosening our identification with the ego. And as we pass through our particular forgiveness lesson, we feel peaceful again. We ascend the ladder, and experience ‘abundance and ease’ where before we felt bereft and fractious. Contrary to our fear that these emotional oscillations reflect a lack of dedication or progress, Saint John assures us they are normal:

‘If the soul will reflect on the nature of a ladder… it will see at once the ups and downs of this road; how after prosperity come storms and trials, so that its previous repose seems to have been given it to prepare it and strengthen it for its present sufferings; how, also, after misery and distress come abundance and ease, so that the soul shall seem to have observed a vigil previous to the feast. This is the ordinary course of the state of contemplation, for until the soul attains to repose it never continues in one state; for all is ascending and descending with it.’

Respect for the Ego

Another significant value in understanding the ascending and descending process, is that we don’t make the mistake of trying to force ourselves into feeling okay about someone or something when we are in the midst of a major forgiveness lesson — that we don’t fight ourselves when the descending angels have presented us with another chance to address our ego in preparation for taking the next ascending step.

The Course’s forgiveness process is one in which we learn what it is we really believe about a situation, others, and ourselves, and how we are maintaining the dark lessons of the past. We first have to look at what we’ve taught ourselves before we can be reminded of the Truth: ‘Remember that you will have to go through the clouds before you can reach the light’ (W-70.8:5).

In trying to go straight to the light, we’re avoiding the process of gradually undoing our ego identification and associated grievances through a gentle process that involves self-reflection, and our ego will strike back at the attempt to toss it aside wholesale: we inadvertently increase our fear.

This was something experienced by Helen Schucman, the Course’s scribe, as illustrated in the following extract from Kenneth Wapnick’s book, Absence from Felicity: The Story of Helen Schucman and Her Scribing of A Course in Miracles:

‘It was a rainy Saturday, and Helen and I were not able to go out, as we usually did. This particular afternoon Helen was incensed at someone whom in general she did not like, but this time more than usual. Her anger went on and on, and nothing I could say or do could convince her to let it go. As the day wore on in fact, her rage seemed to increase. But finally after dinner, Helen’s fury abated enough to allow me to suggest a possible solution. I… asked her to imagine herself kneeling before the altar [from an earlier vision] with Jesus on one side, and this person on the other. She reluctantly agreed, and eventually was able to allow Jesus’ presence to evaporate the anger, and she felt peaceful once again. I left for home shortly thereafter. The following day when I came over, Helen greeted me at the door with an icy rage I did not often see in her, and certainly hardly ever directed at me. “Don’t you ever do that to me again,” she said sharply. I had no idea what Helen meant, but she promptly explained that after having gone to bed peacefully, she awakened in the middle of the night in a fury that almost equaled her London experience many years earlier. If that object of her unforgiveness had been available, she might have literally torn him limb from limb. Her rage was so all-consuming that she was unable to fall back asleep, and was still experiencing the effects of that forgiveness exercise. I assured her I would never “do that to her again.” It was clear that Helen’s anger was needed to “protect” her ego from the peace of God that was still so threatening, and I grew to respect that need in her.’

That particular grievance of Helen’s was not one for a swift removal through guided meditation or well-meaning thoughts. Whatever the grievance was about, Helen’s self-concept was so threatened by the possibility of seeing the person in a different light, that a sudden shift was simply too frightening. This is why the Course emphasises that forgiveness waits on welcome, not on time. In practicing forgiveness, we wait for our ego’s resistance to die down; for our willingness to let our self-concept (tied to feelings of victimhood and associated shame and guilt) change. And the change itself can be unsettling, as seen in the following passage from the Course:

‘You will make many concepts of the self as learning goes along. Each one will show the changes in your own relationships, as your perception of yourself is changed. There will be some confusion every time there is a shift, but be you thankful that the learning of the world is loosening its grasp upon your mind’ (T-31.V.16:1-3).

In the midst of our emotional turmoil, our goal of forgiveness will allow us to become aware of things — a book, a memory, an overheard conversation — that will help our perspective of the past (including the motives of others) change. Where before we took things personally, we’ll be able to incorporate a larger perspective. But patience and gentleness are key aspects of the process, and we can be consoled in the knowledge that Heaven’s help goes with us:

‘Try to pass the clouds by whatever means appeals to you. If it helps you, think of me holding your hand and leading you. And I assure you this will be no idle fantasy’ (W-70.9:2-4).

Image: Jacob’s Dream, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, via Wikimedia Commons

Books by Stephanie Panayi

The Farthest Reaches of Inner Space

Alchemists of Suburbia

Above the Battleground: The Courageous Path to Emotional Autonomy and Inner Peace

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume One

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Two

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Three

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volumes One to Three

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s