The Ladder of Paradise
Simple Method to Reach the Heights of Mystical Life
by Guigues the Carthusian
We present here extracts of a text from the Middle Ages, published by “Les Éditions du Sel” in Avrillé, to raise your souls above the turmoils of this world, who rejected the Kingship of Our Lord. Spirituality is the strength of the Catholics in times of crisis.
I The Four Degrees of the Spiritual Exercises
One day, while I was thinking about the exercises of the spiritual man, I suddenly saw four degrees: 1) reading, 2) meditation, 3) prayer, 4) contemplation.
This is the ladder of the contemplative souls, which takes them up from earth to Heaven.
It has few rungs: it is very high, however, and incredibly long. The base rests on the earth; the top surpasses the clouds and penetrates the depths of the Heavens. From these rungs the name, number, order and use are distinct. If one carefully studies their properties, functions and hierarchy, soon this careful study will seem short and easy, so useful and gentle will it be.
— Reading is the attentive study of Sacred Scripture, made by an applied mind.
— Meditation is the careful investigation, with the help of reason, of a hidden truth.
— Prayer is the elevation of the heart to God to ward off evil and obtain good.
— Contemplation is the elevation to God of the soul delighted in the savor of eternal joys.
Having defined the four rungs, let us look at the function of each of them.
The ineffable sweetness of the blessed life – reading seeks it, meditation finds it, prayer asks for it, contemplation savors it. This is the very word of the Lord: “Seek and you will find. Knock and it will be opened to you”. Seek while reading, you will find while meditating. Knock while praying, you will enter while contemplating.
I would like to say that reading brings substantial food to the mouth, meditation grinds and chews it, prayer tastes it, and contemplation is the very sweetness that rejoices and makes you happy. Reading stops at the bark, meditation goes into the marrow, prayer expresses the desire, but contemplation revels in the savor of the sweetness obtained.
For a better understanding, here is an example among many others. I read the Gospel: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God”; short maxim, but full of meaning, infinitely sweet. To the thirsty soul it offers itself like a bunch of grapes. The soul looks at it and says: this word will be good for me. Gather yourself my heart, try to understand and above all to find this purity. Oh how precious and desirable it must be, since it purifies those it inhabits, and has the promise of the divine vision – eternal life, since the Holy Scriptures never cease to praise it!
Then, the desire to understand better invades the soul: and it seizes the mystical bunch, it gathers it up, it crushes it, it puts it in the press, and it says to reason: look and seek what it is, tell me how one acquires this so precious and desirable purity of heart.
The soul then approaches to meditate on the text. What then does attentive meditation do? It is not enough for it to approach: it penetrates the text, it goes to the bottom, it scrutinizes the hidden corners. And first of all, it notices that the Lord did not say: “Blessed are those who have a body, but a pure heart”, for it would be little to have hands free from evil works if the mind were stained with perverse thoughts. The Prophet had already said, “Who will climb the mountain of the Lord? Who will stand in his sanctuary? He who has innocent hands and a pure heart.” (Ps 23:3).
The meditation notes again what powerful desire the Prophet called this purity of heart, since he said in his prayer, “Lord, create in me a pure heart, for if iniquity is in my heart, the Lord will not be able to hear me”. With what care Job watched over this intimate purity, he who said: “With my eyes I made a pact not to think even of a virgin” (Job 31:1). This holy man had to close his eyes to useless things so that he could not see what he would unconsciously desire afterwards.
Having thus scrutinized purity of heart, one continues one’s meditation by examining the reward promised to him. O glorious and delectable reward! Contemplate the longed-for Face of the Lord, beautiful beyond all the beauty of the children of men! The Lord, no longer abject and vile in that appearance with which his mother in the Synagogue clothed him, but adorned with immortality, crowned with the diadem which his Father imposed on him on the day of his resurrection and glory, “the day which the Lord made“. And in his meditation, the soul thinks of how full that vision will be, how overflowing his joy will be… “I shall be filled with joy as I contemplate your glory, says the Prophet” (Ps 16:15).
Ah! What generous and abundant wine flows from the little grape! What a fire has been kindled by the spark! As she lays down on the anvil of meditation, the small mass of metal, that short text: “Blessed are those who are pure of heart, for they shall see God”. And how much more would it lengthen if it were worked by an experienced servant of God! Yes, the well is deep, but, poor novice, I was only able to draw from it a few droplets.
What will she do, the poor soul, burning with the desire of this purity that she cannot attain? The more it seeks it, the more it thirsts for it; the more it thinks about it, the more it suffers from not possessing it, for meditation excites the desire for this innocence without giving it water. No, it is neither reading nor meditation that makes one savor its sweetness: it must be given from above.
The wicked as well as the good read and meditate; pagan philosophers, guided by reason, have glimpsed the sovereign Good, but because “knowing God, they did not glorify him as God” (Rom 1:21), and proud of their strength, they said: “We will exalt our tongue, our goods are ours, who is our master?” (Ps 11:5) They did not deserve to find what they had glimpsed. “Their thoughts vanished” (Rom 1:21) and “all their wisdom was devoured” (Ps 106:27), for it came from a human source, not from that Spirit who alone gives true wisdom, which is that savory knowledge which, uniting itself to the soul, pours out priceless sweetness, joy and comfort, and of which it is written: Wisdom does not enter the soul that wants evil. It proceeds from God alone. The Lord has entrusted to many the office of baptism, to few the power to forgive sins, he has reserved this power for himself. As St. John says of him, “This is He who baptizes,” so we can say: this is He who alone gives the savory wisdom that enables the soul to taste it. The text is offered to many, but few receive wisdom. The Lord infuses it to whom He will and how He will.
The soul understood: this knowledge so longed for, this sweet experience, it will never reach them by its own strength alone; the more its heart rushes forward, the more God appears to it. Then it humbles itself and takes refuge in prayer.
O my Lord, whom only pure hearts can see, I have sought, through reading and meditation, true purity so that I may become able to know you a little. “I have sought your face, O my Lord, I have desired to see Thy adorable Face” (Ps 26:8). “For a long time I meditated in my heart and in my meditation a fire was kindled, the desire to know Thou more and more” (Ps 38:4). When you break the bread of Scripture, I already know you, but the more I know you, O my Lord, the more I want to know you, not only in the crust of the letter, but in the reality of union. And this gift, O my Lord, I implore, not by my merits, but by your mercy. It is true, I am an unworthy sinner, but don’t the little dogs themselves eat the crumbs that have fallen from the master’s table? To my distressed soul, O God, give a deposit on the promised inheritance, at least a drop of heavenly dew to quench my thirst, for I burn with love, O my Lord.
With such ardent words, the soul inflames its desire and calls the Bridegroom by incantation of tenderness. And the Bridegroom, Whose gaze rests on the just and whose ears are so attentive to their prayers that He does not even wait for them to be fully expressed, the Bridegroom suddenly interrupts this prayer: He comes to the greedy soul, He flows into it, moistened with the heavenly dew, anointed with precious perfumes; He restores the tired soul; He feeds it, fainting; He waters it, parched; He makes it forget the earth, and from His presence He detaches it from everything, marvelously He strengthens it, invigorates it and intoxicates it.
In certain coarse acts, the soul is so strongly chained by lust that it loses its reason and the whole man becomes carnal. In this sublime contemplation, on the contrary, the instincts of the body are so consumed and absorbed by the soul that the flesh no longer fights the spirit in any way, and man becomes all spiritual.
V What Are the Signs That We Recognize the Coming of the Holy Ghost
O my Lord, how will I know the time of this visit? At what sign will I recognize Your coming? Are sighs and tears the messengers and witnesses of this consoling joy? What indeed is the relationship between consolation and sighs, joy and tears? But can we say that they are tears? Is it not rather the intimate dew poured from above, overflowing, to purify the inner man and overflowing? In baptism the external ablution signifies and operates the internal purification of the child: here, on the contrary, the intimate purification precedes the external ablution and is manifested through it. O happy tears, new baptism of the soul through which the fire of sins is extinguished! “Blessed are thou who weep, thus you will laugh” (Mt 5:5).
In these tears, O my soul, acknowledge your Bridegroom, unite yourself to your desire. To His torrent of delights intoxicate yourself, suckle with the milk and honey of His consolation. These sighs and tears are the marvelous gifts of the Bridegroom, the drink that He measures out for the day and night, the bread that strengthens thy heart, sweeter in its bitterness than the honeycomb.
O Lord Jesus, if they are so sweet, the tears that flow from a heart that desires you, what will be the joy of a soul to whom You show Yourself in the clear eternal vision! If it is so sweet to weep while desiring you, what a delight it is to enjoy you!
But why desecrate before all, these intimate secrets? Why in banal words try to translate inexpressible tenderness? One who has not experienced them, will not understand. One reads these mysterious colloquies only from the book of experience, or is instructed in them only by divine action. The page is closed, insipid the book to the one whose heart does not know how to illuminate the external letter with the sense of intimate experience.
VI The Spouse Retires for a While Shut Up, My Soul, You’re Talking Too Much
It was good up there, with Peter and John, contemplating the glory of the Bridegroom. Oh, stay with Him for a long time, and if He had wanted to, raise not two or three tents, but only one to dwell in together in His joy.
But already the Bridegroom cried out, “Let me go, behold, the dawn is coming up”: you have received the bright grace and the visit so longed for. And He blesses you, and like the angel to Jacob in the past, He mortifies the sinew of your thigh (Gn. 32:25,31), He changes your name from Jacob to Israel, and behold, He seems to withdraw. The long-awaited Bridegroom quickly hides Himself, the vision of contemplation fades away, His sweetness vanishes.
But He, the Bridegroom, remains present in your heart and governs it, always.
Fear not, O wife, do not despair and do not think yourself despised if sometimes your Bridegroom veils His face. All this is for your own good; both His departure and His coming are a gain. It is for your sake that He comes and for your sake that He withdraws. He comes to comfort you, He withdraws to guard you, lest, intoxicated with His sweet presence, you should be proud. If the Bridegroom were always substantially present, would you not be tempted to despise your companions and to believe that this presence is due to you, when it is a pure gift granted by the Bridegroom, to whom He wills and when He wills, over which you have no right? The proverb says: “Familiarity breeds contempt“. To avoid this disrespectful familiarity He shuns you. Absent, you desire Him more strongly; your desire makes you seek Him more ardently, and your expectation more tenderly finds it.
And then, if consolation were here on earth all the time – though beside eternal glory it is enigma and shadow – we would perhaps believe that we have here the permanent city and we would look less for the future City. Oh, no, let us not take exile for the fatherland, and the deposit for the inheritance.
The Bridegroom comes, He goes, consoling, desolating; He lets us taste a little of His ineffable sweetness; but before it enters you, He shuns, He is gone. Now this is to teach us to fly to the Lord. Like the eagle, He spreads his wings widely over us, and provokes us to soar. And He said, “You have tasted a little of the sweetness of my gentleness. Would you like to eat some? Run, fly, to my perfumes, lift up your hearts to the top, where I am at the right hand of the Father, where you will see Me, no longer as a figure or enigma, but face to face, in the full, total joy that no one will ever be able to take from you”.
Spouse of Christ, understand this well: when the Bridegroom retires, He is not far from you. You no longer see Him, but He keeps looking at you. You can never escape His sight, ever. His messengers, the angels, were spying on your life when He hid, and they would soon have accused you if they saw you light and unclean. He is jealous, the Bridegroom, and if your soul would admit another love and seek to please someone, He would immediately forsake you to unite with the more faithful virgins. He is delicate, noble, rich, the most beautiful of the children of men: therefore he wants in His wife [your soul] all beauty, and if He sees in you a stain or a wrinkle, He will turn away His eyes, for He cannot suffer any impurity. Therefore be chaste, reverent, and humble before Him, and you shall receive His visit often.
I got carried away with my speech, I was too long. But how can I resist the training of such a fertile and gentle subject? These beautiful things have captivated me. But let’s summarize for clarity:
All the degrees on our scale stand together and depend on each other:
Reading is the foundation; it provides the material and commits you to meditation.
Meditation carefully searches for what to desire, it digs and uncovers the desired treasure; but unable to grasp it, it excites us to pray.
Prayer, rising with all its strength to the Lord, asks for the desirable treasure of contemplation.
Finally, contemplation comes to reward the work of her three sisters and intoxicates the altered soul of God with the sweet heavenly dew.
Reading is therefore an external exercise. It is the level of the beginners.
Meditation, an inner act of the intelligence. It is the rung of those who progress.
Prayer, the action of a soul full of desire. It is the rung of those who are God’s.
Contemplation surpasses all feeling and knowledge. It is the rung of the blessed.
VII Reading, Meditation, Prayer and Contemplation Support Each Other
Reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation are so strongly linked to each other, and help each other so much that the first are of no use without the last, and that one never, or by great exception, reaches the latter only by passing through the latter. What is the use of spending our time reading the lives and writings of the saints if, in meditating and ruminating on them, we do not draw the juice from them, and make it our own and go down to the depths of our hearts? Vain will be our readings, if we do not take care to compare our lives with those of the saints and if we allow ourselves to be carried away by the curiosity of reading rather than by the desire to imitate their examples.
On the other hand, how can we keep on the right path and avoid errors or childishness, how can we remain within the just limits set by our fathers without serious reading or learned teaching? For in the term of reading we understand teaching; is it not commonly said: the book I read, although sometimes it was received through the teaching of a master?
In the same way, it will be vain to meditate on one of our duties, if it is not completed and strengthened by the prayer that obtains the grace to fulfill that duty, for “every exquisite gift, every perfect gift comes down from the Father of lights” (Jac. 1:17), without whom we can do nothing. He works in us, but not entirely without us, for, says the Apostle (I Cor. 3:9): “we are cooperators with God”. He deigns to take us as helpers of His works and, when He knocks at the door, He asks us to open to Him the secret of our will and consent.
To the Samaritan woman the Savior asked for this will, when He said to her: “Call your husband”; that is to say, here is my grace; you, apply your free will. He excited her to prayer by saying: “If you knew the gift of God and the one who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would certainly ask Him for the living water”. For this woman, as though instructed by meditation, said in her heart, “This water would be good for me”; and inflamed with longing, she began to pray: “O Lord, give me this water that I may never thirst again and come to this well”. The divine word heard, invited her heart to meditate, and then to pray. How would she have been inclined to pray if the meditation had not ignited her desire? And, on the other hand, what use would it have been to her to see spiritual goods in meditation if she had not obtained them through prayer?
What, then, is fruitful meditation? That which blossoms in fervent prayer, which almost ordinarily obtains the most suave contemplation.
Thus, without meditation, reading will be arid.
Without reading, meditation will be full of errors.
Without meditation, prayer will be lukewarm.
Without prayer, meditation will be unfruitful and vain.
When prayer and devotion are united, they obtain contemplation. On the contrary, it would be a rare exception and even a miracle to obtain contemplation without prayer.
The Lord, whose power is infinite and whose mercy marks all His works, can well turn stones into children of Abraham, by forcing hard and rebellious hearts to want good. A prodigy of His grace: He pulls the bull by the horns, as one says vulgarly, when, unexpectedly, He melts with a quick blow in the soul. He is the sovereign Master; and so He did in Saint Paul and in a few other chosen ones. But we must not wait for such prodigies and tempt God. Let us do what is asked of us: let us read and meditate on the divine Law, let us pray to the Lord to help so much weakness, to look at so much misery. “Ask and you will receive, He Himself told us, seek and you will find knock and you will be opened. The kingdom of Heaven suffers violence and it is the violent who prevail” (Mt 7:7; 11:12).
Blessed is he who, detached from creatures, is constantly practicing to climb these four degrees! Blessed is he who winds all he possesses to acquire the field where the treasure so desirable of contemplation lies, and to taste how sweet the Lord is! Applied to the first degree, prudent to the second, fervent to the third, delighted to the last, of virtue in virtue he ascends in his heart the steps that lead him to the vision of the Lord in Sion. Blessed at last is he who can stop at the top, if only for a moment, and say: I taste the grace of the Lord; behold, with Peter and John on the mountain I contemplate His glory; I have gone with Jacob to Rachel’s caresses.
But let him take heed, this happy one, not to choose sadly from the heavenly contemplation in the darkness of the abyss, from the divine vision in the worldly vanities and impure fancies of the flesh.
The poor human soul is weak, it cannot sustain for long the radiant splendor of the Truth: it will therefore be necessary for it to descend one or two degrees and rest quietly in one or the other, according to her will or to the graces she receives, absolutely remaining as near from God as possible.
O sad condition of human weakness! Reason and Holy Scripture agree that these four degrees lead to perfection, and that spiritual men must work to practice them: but who does this? A lot begin. A few goes to the end. May God permit us to belong to this few number of souls!
VIII Of the Soul That Loses the Grace of Contemplation
Four obstacles can prevent us from climbing these degrees: 1) inevitable necessity, 2) the usefulness of a good work, 3) human weakness, 4) worldly vanity.
The first is excusable; the second, acceptable; the third, pitiful; the fourth, guilty.
Yes, for him who departs from his holy resolution out of worldly vanity, it would be better to have always ignored the glory of God than to refuse it after having known it. How can one excuse such a fault? To this unfaithful person the Lord reproves justly: “What could I have done that I did not do for you?” (Is 5:4). You were nothing, I gave you being; a sinner and slave of the devil, I redeemed you; with the ungodly you wandered through the world, I took you back by choice of love, I gave you My grace and established you in My presence; in your heart I chose My dwelling place: and you despised Me; My invitations, My love, I in the end. You threw everything away to run after your lusts.
O God, infinitely good, sweet, gentle; tender friend and cautious adviser: how foolish and foolhardy is he who repels You and drives from his heart such a humble and compassionate guest! Wretched and damnable exchange: drive out his Creator to hospitalize impure and perverse thoughts; deliver the dear, closed retreat of the Holy Ghost, still embalmed with the recent heavenly joys, to low thoughts and sin; profane with adulterous desires the still warm remains of the Bridegroom. O shocking ungodliness! Those ears which a short while ago listened to the colloquies that man cannot repeat, are now filled with lies and calumnies; those eyes, purified by holy tears, are pleasing to vanities; those lips barely cease to sing the divine epithalam and the burning canticles of love which united the husband and the wife introduced into the mystical cellar, and there they say vanities, trickery and slander. O Lord, preserve us from such falls!
If, however, human weakness in this misfortune causes you to fall, do not despair, frail soul; no, never despair, but run to the gentle Physician who “raises from the ground the needy and the poor from their dunghill” (Ps 112:7). He does not want the sinner to die. He will help you and heal you.
I have to close my letter. I pray the Lord to weaken today, to remove tomorrow from our soul every obstacle to contemplation. May He lead us from virtue to virtue to the top of the mysterious ladder to the vision of the Divinity in Sion. There, it is no longer drip by drip and intermittently that His chosen ones will taste the sweetness of this divine contemplation; but always flooded by this torrent of joy, they will possess forever the joy that no one can take away, the immutable peace, the peace in Him! O Gervais, my brother, when by the grace of the Lord you have reached the top of the mysterious ladder, remember me, and in your happiness, pray for me. Let the curtain be drawn to you, and let Him who hears say: Come!