As we remarked in the very beginning of our study, the Ladder of Divine Ascent is a way to union with God. This is the goal of the spiritual life: direct, unhindered and undistracted communion with the Holy Trinity. Everything that St. John has outlined, the negative and the positive, has been presented with this goal in mind: to prepare ourselves to know God and, in knowing God, to experience Eternal Life. What is the highest pinnacle of the knowledge of God? When is our labor no longer preparation for, but actual enjoyment of the presence of God? St. John answers: "when we love." He writes: "Love, by its nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as this is humanly possible. In its activity it is inebriation of the soul." In another paragraph he explains: "Not even a mother clings to her nursing child as a son of love clings to the Lord at all times." In still another place, he writes: "Love grants prophecy, miracles. It is an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul. It is the condition of angels, and the progress of eternity." It is truly significant that St. John isolates love as the highest expression of spirituality. For those of us who have grown up in the West, we have tended to associate great spiritual progress with either intellectual achievement or social action. Neither of these is antithetical to the spiritual life, but neither represents its highest attainment either. The person who truly knows God is love even as God is love.
This too is an important consideration. We all from time to time love. Love is something we do and something we give. At best, love is an "attribute" which is part of our inner selves. In this respect, for us, love is most often "premeditated." We think and plan to love. This is the beginning of the spiritual life. Those fully deified do not "love" as an expression of forethought or will, but they themselves have become love. Here is where true union with God takes place. To know the heart of God is to know love. "Love" is not an attribute of God, which takes its place among the other "attributes" of God. Love is God and God is love. Everything He does, even His punishment and wrath against sin, is an expression of His love.
To love is to be obsessed by and with the thing or person which is loved. The deified ones are completely overtaken by desire for God Himself. St. John explains: "Someone truly in love keeps before his mind's eye the face of the beloved and embraces it there tenderly. Even during sleep the longing continues unappeased and he murmurs to his beloved."
This kind of consuming and exhilarating love for God is a gift, a grace, which comes from Him. This is the mystical side of the spiritual life. We can prepare ourselves to receive God's love; this is the ascetical side. But true love comes from God and draws us back to God. Having ascended the Ladder through the practice of the virtues, at its pinnacle, we encounter the Eternal Mystery, we are drawn into that Light which is also Darkness and that Darkness which is also Light and we learn the meaning of the parable: "We love because He first loved us." We encounter Someone bigger, more powerful and more real than all of our feeble attempts to understand Him. We find the End of our search, and in experiencing Him, realize the End to be simply the Beginning.
1-8 St. John begins by defining love. But given that it is a divine attribute, St. John proceeds with caution.
The man who wants to talk about love is undertaking to speak about God. But it is risky to talk about God and could even be dangerous for the unwary. Angels know how to speak about love, but even they do so only in proportion to the light within them.
"God is love" (1 John 4:16). But someone eager to define this is blindly striving to measure the sand in the ocean.
Love, by its nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as this is humanly possible. In its activity it is inebriation of the soul. Its distinctive character is to be a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility.
Love is the banishment of every sort of contrariness, for love thinks no evil.
9-24 St. John then speaks of the attitudes and aspirations of those who love and how they find themselves consumed by their desire for God. Wholly transformed by love they begin to take on heavenly qualities - sustained and strengthened in ways unknown.
Not even a mother clings to her nursing child as a son of love clings to the Lord at all times.
Someone truly in love keeps before his mind's eye the face of the beloved and embraces it there tenderly. Even during sleep the longing continues unappeased, and he murmurs to his beloved. That is how it is for the body. And that is how it is for the spirit. A man wounded by love had this to say about himself - and it really amazes me - "I sleep (because nature commands this) but may heart is awake (because of the abundance of my love)" (Song of Songs 5:2). You should take note, my brother, that the stag, which is the soul, destroys reptiles and then, inflamed by love, as if struck by an arrow, it longs and grows faint for the love of God (cf. Ps 41:1).
Holy love has a way of consuming some. This is what is meant by the one who said, "You have ravished our hearts, ravished them" (Song of Songs 4:9). And it makes others bright and overjoyed. In this regard it has been said: "My heart was full of trust and I was helped, and my flesh has revived" (Ps. 27:7). For when the heart is cheerful, the face beams (cf. Prov. 15:13), and a man flooded with the love of God reveals in his body, as if in a mirror, the splendor of his soul, a glory like that of Moses when he came face to face with God (cf. Exod. 34:29-35).
Men who have attained this angelic state often forget to eat, and I really think they do not even miss their food. No wonder, since an opposite desire drives out the very wish to eat, and indeed I suspect that the bodies of these incorruptible men are immune to sickness, for their bodies have been sanctified and rendered incorruptible by the flame of chastity which has put out the flame [of passions]. My belief is that they accept without any pleasure the food set out in front of them, for just as subterranean waters nourish the roots of a plant, the fires of heaven are there to sustain their souls.
Love grants prophecy, miracles. It is an abyss of illumination, a fountain of fire, bubbling up to inflame the thirsty soul. It is the condition of angels, and the progress of eternity.
Most beautiful of all the virtues, tell us where you feed your flock, where you take your noonday rest (cf. Song of Songs 1:7). Enlighten us, end our thirst, lead us, show us the way, since we long to soar up to you. You rule everything, and now you have enraptured my soul. I am unable to hold in your flame, and therefore I will go forward praising you. "You rule the power of the sea, you make gentle (and deaden) the surge of its waves. You make humble the proud thought as a wounded man. With your powerful arm you have scattered your enemies" (cf. Ps. 88:9-10), and you have made your lovers invincible.
25-26 At the end of his discussion, St. John records for us the teaching of Love Himself.
"My love, you will never be able to know how beautiful I am unless you get away from the grossness of the flesh. So let this ladder teach you the spiritual union of the virtues. And I am there on the summit, for as the great man said, a man who knew me well: `Remaining now are faith, hope, and love, these three. But love is the greatest of them all' (1 Cor. 13:13)."