Ladder of souls – United Methodist Insight

“We’re climbing Jacob’s ladder … each round goes more and more …”

These words from an old gospel song reflect the biblical myth of Jacob dreaming of a stairway to heaven, with angels climbing up and down. A 12th-century French Catholic Christian monk, Guigo II, picked up this painting describing spiritual life as climbing a ladder. The steps were lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio – reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. Other Christian mystics have expressed the journey of the soul by similar metaphors. St. John of the Cross painted a picture of the spiritual ascent of the metaphorical Mount Carmel, climbing “via negativa”: step by step marked “not this – not this – not this”, dropping everything that is not God to reach God. “To achieve everything, you want to be nothing.

To this rich Christian knowledge of the ladder I add my interpretation:

Awe is the first step on the scale of souls. What is beyond our comprehension captures our attention.

The second step is learning and practicing spiritual disciplines that nurture awe and language acquisition for that faith, art, music, and literature.

The third step is the release of judgments, opinions, categorizations and definitions of what causes awe in our souls. What we learned on the second step prepared us for this step, but now we have to let it all go through to move on to the next.

The fourth rung on the scale of souls is ahhhh …. where we are completely immersed and absorbed in divine love.

We climb the ladder into oneness with this Ultimate Reality.

We go down the ladder to serve people and the planet – and invite others to climb the ladder with us.

Dr. Paul Laughlin, a former head of the religion department at Otterbein College in Ohio, once remarked that it may not be a coincidence that almost all major figures in the world’s religions have names including the sound “ahhhh”: Yahweh – Yeshua – (Jesus, in Hebrew) – Buddha – Krishna – Rama – Brahman – Atman – Allah – Muhammad – Wakan Tanka (the name of Lakota for the divine) – to name just a few. The experience of awe is a universal phenomenology of religion. But of course you don’t have to be religious to know that. I recently wrote about new research that sheds light on the neural correlates of feelings of transcendence. We now have strong scientific evidence to suggest that nurturing awe and wonder in young people leads to measurably improved life outcomes. Awe is our birthright, and caring for it and encouraging it makes us more complete people. And more completely divine.

My dad, Don Burklo, had nothing to do with religion until he married my mom. Going to church was part of her package. He never complained about it and was very active in supporting the church. But he perfected the art of sleeping by sitting upright in a bench. (My goal as a pastor was to keep him awake whenever he was in the community where I preached.) I once asked him about his theology. “Well,” he said, rubbing his jaw, “You’re going to have to ask me that question outdoors on a starry night.” That is still his theology, at the age of 93. I am grateful to my mother, Barbara Burklo, for introducing me to the Christian tradition – even though it required me to go to seminary in order to recover from my version received! From my father, I received powerful nurturing for my natural spirituality of awe. He encouraged us to marvel at nature, but most of all he delighted us with his amazement at our place. Every night he would come to our bedrooms and, without saying a word, just look at us for a while … pure love that we will never forget.

Ideally, these two aspects of spiritual education would be fully integrated. We would carefully observe and encourage our children’s natural spirituality and help them establish a connection between their experience of awe and ahhhh and the myths and rituals of our religious tradition – giving them a rich language to express their innate relationship with the transcendent.

“Every round goes more and more …” I invite you to climb the ladder with me!

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