Most of us are used to thinking of the rosary as a prayer aide. But did you ever think of it as a ladder?
Besides the more common rosary made of connected metal links or knotted string, there is also a “ladder rosary.” The beads in this rosary are strung sideways either using pins or with doubled strands of string. This sideways linkage allows the beads to slide up and down and puts less stress on each bead. The arrangement of the beads with chains or string up either side reminds people of the rungs of the ladder.
The ladder rosary also goes by the name of “Jacob’s Ladder.” (While it is also called the Old Mexico rosary, there seems to be no real explanation for that appellation.) However, the term “Jacob’s Ladder” gives us plenty of spiritual ties to prayer, well beyond its appearance in the Genesis story (28:12) of Abraham’s grandson.
Jacob dreamt about a ladder to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. He realized that, where the ladder rested in his dream was a holy place because it was where earth connected to God. That was why Jacob named the place of his dream, Bethel, meaning “House of God” in Hebrew.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus referred to himself as “Jacob’s Ladder.” “I say to you, you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51).
On his July 8 homily on the image of Jacob’s ladder, Pope Francis said, “In Christ Jesus, the connection between earth and heaven is guaranteed and is accessible to all” (vatican.va).
Matthew Henri, a 17th century Bible commentator wrote about this section of John’s Gospel. Henri said that Christ “is this ladder; the foot on earth in his human nature, the top in heaven in his divine nature. Christ is the way; all God’s favors come to us, and all our services go to him … We have no way of getting to heaven but by Christ.”
St. John Climacus
Several saints have used the image of a ladder to heaven. One was St. John Climacus, honored by both Eastern and Western Catholics. John speaks of “the ladder of divine ascent.” (His name, Climacus, means “ladder” in Latin.) He wrote a book by that title and described this ladder as having 30 rungs, which he linked to specific virtues. John believed that each of these virtues drew one closer to God.
St. Francis de Sales was said to have dreamt of not one ladder, but two. One led to Jesus, but it was steep and hard to climb, so many fell off. The second ladder was easier to climb and led to Mary. Francis said that Jesus told him to advise people to use the second ladder, the one that led to his mother.
St. Dominic, credited with spreading the use of the rosary, is also said to have had a vision of the rosary as a ladder to heaven.
The ladder rosary has sometimes been called “the stairway to heaven rosary” because of the belief that praying any rosary draws one closer to God. In the famous Michelangelo painting, “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, one of the many images near the middle of the painting is of two figures being pulled up from destruction — with a rosary.
St. Alphonsus Liguori, citing St. Peter Damian, noted that “by means of Mary, God has descended from heaven to earth, that by the same, or by her, (people) might merit to ascend from earth to heaven.”
Mary as the means
Mary, the Lord’s mother, is of course connected with the rosary. Her title as “Our Lady of the Rosary” is celebrated by the church on Oct. 7 each year. Praying the rosary — living the events of the Gospel through Mary’s eyes — is one of the most popular Marian devotions.
In Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches, Mary is called the Theotokos (the God-bearer). The late Archbishop Dmitri Royster of the Orthodox Church in America called Jacob’s vision of a ladder as a prefiguring of Mary herself. “The story of Jacob’s ladder,” the archbishop wrote, “refers to (Mary) being the means by which God chose to enter into the world physically.”
So it is not hard to see why Mary, who was the means by which Christ came to earth, is also seen as a ladder by which we can connect to Jesus and, through him, reach heaven. Whether we use a traditional chain or knotted rosary, or a sturdy ladder one, we hold a physical reminder of the stairway to heaven that is Jesus, brought to earth through Mary.
Sources: Marian library at udayton.edu; vatican.va; benedictsbeads.com; rosarymakersguide.com; sacramental.org; Orthodox Church in America at oca.org; St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary at stots.edu; and The Glories of Mary at ecatholic2000.com