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Angels on Jacob’s ladder – symbol of contemplative souls *

On this scale there were Angels
that went up and down.
Gn. 28, 12

Saint Benedict teaches that the double movement of the Angels on the ladder undoubtedly means that with exaltation one descends and with humility one ascends. Non aliud sine dubio, descensus ille et ascensus a nobis intelligitur, nisi exaltatione descendere et humilitate ascendere. Now how can this apply to the Angels? Do we not know, with absolute certainty from theology, that these blessed spirits are immutably fixed in glory and that they can no longer ascend or descend on the ladder of perfection? For them it is impossible both to fall for an act of pride and to rise for an act of humility.

The analogy of faith certainly does not allow us to take these words of our Holy Father literally. How are we to understand them then?

It should be noted that with the word angels we want to designate the religious who must be the angels of the earth. Saint Bernard is very explicit on this point: «With the angels who ascend and descend – says this holy Doctor – he wanted to understand the souls who live in the religious life. Among this, some humiliating themselves go up to heaven; others, taking pride in the progress they make in virtue, fall into the depths of hell “.

On the other hand, the confrontation between angels and monks, between the angelic life and the monastic life, is very common among the Greek Fathers. Therefore on this scale, which is our Rule, there are angels who continually ascend to God with obedience, poverty, detachment, charity, etc. There are others who descend with pride, self-satisfaction, contempt for others, the Pharisaic spirit. St. Benedict also calls these angels, to point out that it will not be for the sin of the flesh that they will fall at the beginning, but for that of the spirit; for the complacency that will lift their hearts to the consideration of their good observance and their virtues.

In the same sense, the passage from St. John is interpreted where the Lord speaks of the open sky and of the Angels who ascend and descend upon the Son of man. “It is a question here – says Saint Bonaventure – of the religious, because they lead an angelic life on earth” [1].

To corroborate this explanation, the vision of Jacob can be compared to that of St. Romualdo who saw in a dream the Camaldolese sons of him, ascending and descending a staircase that connected heaven to earth. This detail shows us that under the very simple expressions of our Blessed Father, very profound teachings are hidden and that therefore it is necessary to reflect carefully on the smallest details of the Holy Rule. In the century in which a so-called science strives to establish on solid grounds the kinship of man with the monkey and neglects nothing to find all the links of this glorious ancestry, it is a beneficial and consoling thing to learn at the school of St. Benedict that man belongs to the race of Angels; that, fixing his eyes on the life of these celestial spirits, he rediscovers his lost innocence and that the last word of perfection for him will consist, like you for St. Benedict, in leading an angelic life here on earth: Vitam angelicam gerens in terris [2].

We will therefore endeavor to imitate these pure spirits, becoming “spiritual” men, that is, men of prayer; and this can only be achieved by subjecting the flesh to the spirit as perfectly as possible with mortification, and keeping in mind the old proverb which says that fasting is the nourishment of the Angels. We will also remember that if they are represented with wings, it is to indicate the readiness of their obedience; when God manifests the slightest desire to them, they are already there where He calls them “intolerant of the slightest delay in carrying out the command”.

Just as St. Benedict also requires of us [3]. The Angels are also our models for the exquisite charity they exercise among themselves; for the patience with which they endure the defects of the men entrusted to their care; for the zeal they show in procuring the salvation of souls; for the fervor with which they ceaselessly sing praises to their creator and for the state of continuous contemplation that they never abandon even when their ministry calls them to very imperious and distant tasks.

And finally we will remember that precisely because of their spiritual nature, free from all heaviness and encumbrance of the flesh, the choice they made on the day God put them to the test was irrevocable and unreserved. Those who embraced the cause of Lucifer passed in a moment to the most complete revolt, to the most hateful blasphemies, to the most obstinate and unforgivable hatred against their Creator. They will never acknowledge their guilt, they will never go back. On the other hand, those who opted for obedience gave themselves to God in an absolute and subtle way; they adhered to him with that “totalitarian” spirit that the Gospel also asks of us when it repeats to us insistently that we must love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, as if not wanting to let go of the slightest particle of our affective capacity. The love of the Angels will never diminish, habit and the slow unfolding of the centuries will never cool down their fervor or moderate their momentum; it will eternally preserve the freshness, intensity, dynamism that it had on the first day of creation.

Unfortunately we are far from resembling these blessed spirits! It is true that perhaps on the day of our entry into religion or in a moment of particular enthusiasm, we made a sincere, full, unreserved offer of ourselves. But later, with the passing of days, weeks, years, human nature claims its rights and does not cease to take back something of what it has given, so that sometimes one notices, after a few years, of to be far from the fine dispositions he had at the beginning.

The example of the angels will be a light and a precious stimulus to keep our will in the initial momentum and fervor. Finally, we note, before finishing these preliminary considerations, that the ladder appeared to Jacob. Now Jacob is also a figure of the religious – or rather of the proficient – that is, of the soul that has left the state of “beginners” to set out on the path towards that of the “perfect”. His name means – according to Holy Scripture itself “suppliant”; because still young he succeeded in supplanting Esau. In the spiritual sense it must be understood that he managed to take away the birthright rights of the old man, rude and violent, in himself, to transfer them to the new man, to the one who, regenerated in Christ, became, in his image, sweet and humble of heart. . Jacob is also a figure of the religious, because he left his father, his mother, his country, completely stripping himself of everything; moreover he took refuge far away under the protection of a foreign master, who imposed on him a thankless, painful and continuous job without giving him any pay. Although he worked bravely without losing heart, without getting tired, because he wanted to obtain Rachel-Rachel whose name means, according to the Fathers, “vision of the Prince” and which symbolizes the grace of contemplation.

* The text is taken from chapter 8 of the book “Jacob’s ladder – commentary on the 12 degrees of humility” by Jean Monléon O.S.B. which we recommend reading.

[1] In Ch. 1 Joannis, Coll. X.
[2] Office of 21 March, 3rd Antiphon at Lauds.
[3] S.Reg. chap. 5