A couple of days ago I noted the anniversary of the day I visited three of the four Patriarchal basilicas of Rome during the Great Jubilee, St John Lateran, St Mary Major and St Paul outside the Walls. I have memories of all of them. But some things stand out. Most amusing was my entry into St John Lateran where I was accosted by a nun handing out booklets. Declining the Italian text offered I explained, "Inglese". Quick as a flash a North American voice returned, "And I thought you looked like Perry Como!" To this day I have been unable to discover any resemblance with an Italian American singer of my parents' generation- although with a little fresh air I am susceptible to tanning. She very kindly gave me an English version which contained, among other scriptural texts, St Luke's Gospel- a free gift from the organising committee! This, however, was merely the prelude to something that I regard as one of the defining experiences of my life.
After the basilica we went across to the Santa Scala- the holy staircase. These are the steps reputedly from Pilate's Praetorium in Jerusalem brought to Rome by St Helena and incorporated in the old papal palace of the Lateran,Before my visit to Rome I had read somewhere that Martin Luther, the infamous heresiarch, had given up the climb about half way. A champion of orthodoxy, no wimp and, indeed an Englishman to boot, I saw no real difficulty in climbing the twenty-eight steps on my knees. If you have never done it, be warned! Never in my whole life, either before or since have I voluntarily inflicted so much pain upon myself.
The original stone staircase, already worn by the knees of countless pilgrims over the centuries, was encased in a wooden covering at some point in the eighteenth century. This in turn has become worn and knobbly so that every movement one makes is extremely uncomfortable. The question "Why am I doing this to myself?" is unavoidable. I certainly couldn't dismiss it.
It is all very simple really. In fact it is one of those things which is so simple and blindingly obvious that it is easily overlooked. By doing this, I realised, I am expressing a wish to follow Our Lord in His sufferings. A prayer sometimes said when doing the Stations of the Cross sums it up,
O Jesus, who for love of me,
dids't bear Thy cross to Calvary,
in Thy sweet mercy grant to me,
to suffer and to die with Thee.
As I had started my way up the stairs I read from the Gospel account of the Passion in the booklet I had received earlier. The reality of the pain in my knees, however, brought home very vividly to me the fact that Our Lord's Passion was no cakewalk. I also found myself filled with a sense of dismay and even dread at what the Lord might be asking of me long before I got to the top of the stairs. I could see that the suffering ahead could, very likely- indeed almost certainly- involve people very dear to me and I felt terribly helpless. Only as I neared the top did it become clear to me that the real destination of the Way of the Cross was and is the Resurrection. At that moment and upon that day I received a grace which was to sustain me in the troublesome times that would soon follow.
So the Holy Stairs: would I advise it? Yes! Would I, knowing what I know now, attempt it again?
Most certainly, (ouch!) Yes!
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