With only a week until Good Friday I thought I might share my experience with the Scala Sancta, the "Holy Stairs" located in an unassuming building across from the Lateran Cathedral in Southeastern Rome near the gate of the City.
According to tradition the stairs of the Roman Prefect of Jerusalem's palace were removed either during the visit of St. Helena to the Holy Land or some time soon there after and brought to the City for the devotion of the faithful. The Stairs are currently housed in a very anonymous looking building with a baroque facade across the square from the Archbasilica of Our Savior, aka the Lateran Cathedral. Adjoining this building is a strange structure with an apse and a Christian mosaic that is fenced off from the public, being only a few feet from the street. At first I thought that perhaps this was the ruins of a pagan temple that had been made into a church and since disintegrated in time. How wrong I was! It was the last remaining part of the Lateran Palace given by Emperor Constantine to the Popes for a residence and place of administration (although built by the Laterani family, Constantine acquired it by marrying into its later owners, the Fausta family). The palace, immense and grand in scale, fell into disrepair during the Avignon Papacy and was knocked down by Sixtus V after the popes moved to the Vatican. A smaller edifice conjoined to the Cathedral was erected as a replacement. That apse was actually the end of the great hall where the Lateran Councils were held. The Scala Sancta, it seems, were once part of the Papal residence.
My fellow travelers and I walked into the building that houses the Stairs with little fanfare. There is no gate, no admission process, no guard. The Stairs are between two tall medieval walls painted with faded Renaissance imagery, to dulled to be worth a look. On each side of the Stairs is another staircase for descent. My two friends and I, after meandering for a few minutes, knelt down before the first sep and began our personal ascents.
Every man climbs the steps with Christ at his own pace, attuning himself and opening himself to the Savior's words. I took the first few steps in quiet, attempting more than anything to think of something to consider during prayer. Rather than leaving myself to my own devices and disparate spontaneous prayer I turned to the Rosary and prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries, one Ave Maria, Pater Noster, or Gloria Patri per step.
I prayed for one of my friends travelling with us. Although baptized he really had no religion and was a self-described Deist. All that began to change when we spent more time together the previous year at university. Often he would ask about why God should care about our actions, why God is worthy of veneration, why God would involve Himself in the affairs of man. I do not pretend to have given him good answers. Instead I hoped that in our excursion through Rome he would see and encounter those answers. So I prayed for his conversion. The previous day we had made the day trip by train to San Giovanni Rotondo and visited Padre Pio's convent. In the gardens we stumbled upon a criss-crossed path with Stations of the Cross. We passed each station in silence. My friend spent a particularly long amount of time considering the twelfth station, the Crucifixion. And so I prayed that Christ's passion might penetrate him ever more.
Each person seems to climb a little differently. Some would look at the sacred artwork around the Stairs. Some would venerate the Stairs through openings in the wooden casing which protected each step. One woman climbed in a rush to the top, arriving in a minute or two! Yet the idea "to each his own" seems fitting here.
Christ ascended these steps betrayed, but in mostly good health. We climbed the same steps on our knees. Yet He climbed the Stairs likely in shackles and followed by men with spears. We climbed with Him, and only for Him.
At the top is a small hallway. Opposite the stairs is an elevated kneeler and a large window, on the other side of which is a medieval Roman chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. I did not labor there, saying a prayer of thanksgiving with Irish efficiency. Turning back to the Stairs, with the chapel behind me, I stared down those steep steps at the people crawling up. Here, I thought, atop these steps, perhaps in this very stop, a man sat in judgment of God. Is this not what sin is? Could sin be summarized any more succinctly? Pilate did not know who Jesus was beyond being a preachy carpenter. At some level we Catholics know much more than Pilate and are more in need of a "good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ" than he was. However, Christ did not ascend those steps to condemn, but to free us, "for He is good and He loves mankind."
I have never been to the Holy Land, although hopefully I will visit one day Deo volente. This was the closest I have come to the Passion of Christ thus far.
A year later my friend converted to the Catholic faith.