I have begun to work on a project about Pontius Pilate, that classical character plopped suddenly down into the Passion narrative, and the only human individual (besides Mary) singled out in the Creed. The scope of the project is still up in the air, but during my recent trip to Italy, I thought I would look for vestiges of the old Roman governor. You just never know what will turn up. I had limited success with this half-hearted search, but still there was value to what I was able to see with my own eyes, and feel with my own knees.
In Rome, I made my way out to the Latern, which I had never seen before– it’s a large, impressive baroque church, fitting for the genuine cathedral of Rome, but given the city’s other glories, something of an afterthought on the tourist itinerry. To me, the classicist, the most important thing at the Lateran are the large bronze doors that once graced the entrance to the Curia.
Across the street, in a separate building that was once the old Lateran palace (San Lorenzo in Palatio), were the spolia I had in fact come to see, the Scala Sancta– the staircase of white marble from Lebanon that reputedly lead up to the praetorium in Jerusalem, and from the top of which Pilate would have addressed the crowds. Christ is said to have walked down this stairscase, dripping blood on the top step, the eleventh, and second.
Brought to Rome in the fourth century AD by St. Helena, when they were known as the Scala Pilati, the stairs have been the subject of devout veneration since. For centuries now, worshippers on their knees have ascended the 28 stairs, now covered in wood (what kind? I don’t know), and are granted a plenary indulgence for doing so. Even Luther climbed these tairs on his knees, as have countless others, past and present. Charles Dickens visited in the mid-nineteenth century, and condemned the practice in no uncertain terms:
I never, in my life, saw anything at once so ridiculous, and so unpleasant, as this sight – ridiculous in the absurd incidents inseparable from it; and unpleasant in its senseless and unmeaning degradation. There are two steps to begin with, and then a rather broad landing. The more rigid climbers went along this landing on their knees, as well as up the stairs; and the figures they cut, in their shuffling progress over the level surface, no description can paint. Then, to see them watch their opportunity from the porch, and cut in where there was a place next the wall! And to see one man with an umbrella (brought on purpose, for it was a fine day) hoisting himself, unlawfully, from stair to stair! And to observe a demure lady of fifty-five or so, looking back, every now and then, to assure herself that her legs were properly disposed!
There were such odd differences in the speed of different people, too. Some got on as if they were doing a match against time; others stopped to say a prayer on every step. This man touched every stair with his forehead, and kissed it; that man scratched his head all the way. The boys got on brilliantly, and were up and down again before the old lady had accomplished her half-dozen stairs. But most of the penitents came down, very sprightly and fresh, as having done a real substantial deed which it would take a good deal of sin to counterbalance
This hot summer day, I stood before the holy stairs and watched thr throngs making their way up. Indeed, you have to pay to go in the building, and the young woman behind the counter looks alternately bored and annoyed with the crowds before her–occasionally she emits a loud SSHHH!
Others like me are standing at the bottom of the stairs, wondering what to do. What does it mean if I get on my knees and start to go up? Will I be a believer at the end of it? A believer of what? The likelihood of these being the very stairs of Pilate is remote. To kneel on them–is this not rank superstition, a willing suspension of reason for the sake of some hoped-for sweeping holy feeling? Or is this nothing more than a tourist activity, like kissing the Blarney Stone or taking a selfie in front of the Grand Canyon?
In the end, I climbed the stairs on my knees, and was surprised by the comfortable grooves in the wood. I listened to the murmering prayers of the others around me, most of them not speaking English. I tried not to race up, but to stay more or less on par with the nice Filipino man beside me–when he reached the top, there were tears in his eyes and, while I did not feel the need to weep myself, I was glad to witness the sincerity of his devotion. A Spanish family reached the top shortly afterward, and the mother whipped out her phone to take a picture of the four of them, all still on their knees. I got out of the way, not wanting to ruin their picture.