One of the highlights of my trip to Europe last year was the unexpected albeit very profound visit to La Scala Sancta or The Holy Stairs in Rome.
My group had no scheduled tour one afternoon so we had time to go sightseeing around Rome. We ended up at La Scala Sancta, located in a building that holds part of the old Lateran Palace or Palazzo Laterano (an ancient palace of the Roman Empire which eventually became the Papal Residence for about ten centuries).
The Scala Sancta has 28 marble steps and is believed to be part of the praetorium or headquarters of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. It was St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, who brought the staircase to Rome in 326AD.
According to tradition, these were the actual steps Jesus Christ walked on as he put his fate in Pontius Pilate’s hands. Droplets of what is believed to be Christ’s blood can still be found on the steps, encased in glass. The steps themselves are now encased in walnut wood, which is said to be more forgiving to devoted pilgrims who climb the steps on their knees.
Yes. On their knees! Which, I thought to myself, I could definitely do!
Being presented with an opportunity to experience Christ’s Passion in such a physical way was truly rare. So I readied myself with a short prayer and braced myself for the task ahead. As I looked up the stairs and saw around thirty pilgrims on their knees, I told myself: “Yakang-yaka.” (Easy as pie.)
I had no idea what I was in for. Looking back now, it was a good thing I didn’t know that there were twenty eight steps, or I would have backed out early on. Walking on one’s knees can be painful, but to ascend the stairs on one’s knees? That would have made me think twice!
Climbing the first three steps was a breeze. But I could slowly feel pain as I reached the fourth step and realized it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. But even if I wanted to back out, it was too late because by then, the steps behind me were already filled up with other pilgrims, each determined to climb their way to the top. There was no way out but up.
Having left with no choice, I mustered enough strength and self-will and made my way up, along with about thirty other people. Step by painful step, I ascended. It was quite an ordeal, almost comparable to getting a tattoo. A third of the way through, the pain on my knees felt like explosives detonating on every contact with the hard wood, spreading like fire all the way down to the tips of my toes. Honestly!
But just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, something wonderful was happening… I was praying and meditating and somehow, the pain was dulled by the intensity of the collective prayers around me. And I as whispered the Lord’s Prayer under my breath, I imagined Christ climbing the steps beside me, all bloodied and with worse fate than I. I imagined seeing his bare feet beside me, his blood dripping on the steps, never leaving my side. This was what got me through La Scala Sancta… thinking how puny my little bout with the stairs was compared to His.
When I finally reached the top, a mixture of relief, triumph and overwhelming love washed over me. And as I looked behind me and saw the pilgrims still inching their way up, I thought: don’t worry guys, just a few more steps… it’s all worth it.
The Scala Santa is at the Basilica de San Giovanni in Laterano. It’s closed during lunchtime.
Note: Originally posted on March 27, 2009.