An Army friend and I were on holiday in Rome and he decided to keep up a family tradition. Stood in front of us in a building once regarded as “the holiest site on earth”, were the 28 steps or the Scala Santa (Holy Steps) which his grandmother and mother had climbed when they were both young.
Tradition says that the marble steps were brought from Pilate’s house in Jerusalem by the Empress Helena because they were the very steps that Jesus climbed on the day he was sentenced to death.
Side by side were three staircases, but for the middle one the ascent had to be on our knees. In fact there is a different prayer for each step. Martin Luther climbed half way, stood upright and walked back down. For us there was no choice.
The marble steps, each now covered with well worn wood to protect possible bloodstains, took us half an hour to climb. We progressed in silence, admiring the devotion paid by those ahead. After ten steps the side rails were needed to raise us to the next one. Even for a well trained Army officer, soon to go to Afghanistan, the ascent was taxing.
When we reached the twentieth step our knees ached even more, but still the only sounds were the almost silent prayers uttered by the nuns and Asian pilgrims bowing and praying on every step.
On reaching the final step, we both felt a tremendous feeling of something positive; difficult to explain, but still with me as I wrote. We had seen all the touristy sites of Rome, some amazing, others disappointing, but in this humble building, in the shadow of San Giovanni in Laterano, we found a tranquility in it’s purest sense.
My Army medic has since returned from Afghanistan, but still remembers that moment of peace.