Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven

Crawling On Our Knees To Heaven

The Catholic faith, with all of the elaborate liturgies and rich traditions, is a testament to the incarnational reality of Christ. Rather than simply receiving Christ spiritually, we consume what looks like bread and tastes like wine but which we profess is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Rather than simply believing that we are forgiven, we profess our sins aloud and then hear the words of absolution extended as we are reconciled to God. Though not dogma, we profess to have the crown of thorns, nails from the cross, pieces of the true cross, and even the cloth wrapped around Jesus before He was laid in the tomb. The physical realities of the God-man are brimming in the Catholic churches around the world.

On a recent pilgrimage to Rome with some students, I was able to climb the Scala Santa or Holy Stairs. These twenty-eight steps of marble are believed to be the stairs Christ ascended as the Jewish authorities turned Him over to Pilate. Transported from the Holy Land to Rome at the request of Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, pilgrims have come for centuries to climb these steps on their knees as they recall the Passion of Jesus Christ. The ardent devotion of thousands upon thousands of pilgrims began to wear away at the stones and it was a desire of the Church to preserve them for future Christians. Around three hundred years ago, the steps were covered with wood to prevent their further deterioration.

A restoration process that has unfolded over the past few years led to the uncovering of the steps. As the restoration neared its end, for a few weeks during May and June, the Church allowed pilgrims to ascend the uncovered steps on their knees. The pilgrimage I was on happened to fall during the final week of the steps being uncovered.

Nine years ago, I climbed the steps during my first trip to Rome. Knowing the steps would be uncovered this time, I didn’t really consider how that would alter the experience of climbing them. The deep grooves in the marble, formed by thousands upon thousands of knees before me, made the ascent a bit more complicated than when it was on planks of wood. How many knees had been on these same steps? How many kisses had been placed on these marble slabs that formed the path Jesus took to condemnation? How many saints had made this same pilgrimage?

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Communal Meals

There we were.  Gathered around a long table, laden with food and wine, surrounded by a small sampling of the globe.  Simple food was passed around, abundant and filling.  Joy was passed down the row of people, the seasoning that was added to the top of each bowl of stew that was consumed.  It was warm–or perhaps it was the wine and the intoxicating blend of languages and cultures, a beautiful spin on the Tower of Babel with English being a common reference point for many.

Some say this is what the Camino is–this is the ultimate Camino experience.  The communal meals shared in random albergues around Spain to an eclectic gathering of people.  We are from the US, Canada, Brazil, India, Germany, France, Spain, and beyond.  We speak a smattering of languages but we are sharing our stories and bonding, even though this may be the only moment we are ever together.  This part of the day was one of my favorites and the memories are poignant.

Despite the beauty of those moments, they simply made me feel like I was remembering something rather than experiencing it for the first time.  Of course this was my first time walking the Camino and sharing in those lovely communal dining experiences.  But I had shared a common meal with people of varying backgrounds and motivations.  I had felt the warm embrace of belonging to a community.  All of this was simply pointing to our membership in the Body of Christ.  I belong to Him and, through Him, am united to so many others.  Although we seem so different, we are very similar.  We are all searching for truth and goodness and beauty.  We all desire friendship and companionship and love.  We are longing for fulfillment and something to transcend this fragile life on earth.

The communal meals along the Camino were the physical nourishment for the road that stretched in front of us, the difficult, beautiful road leading to Santiago.  The Eucharist is the spiritual nourishment that prepares us for the road that stretched on, the road strewn with thistles and roses that meanders to the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb.  Both are shared with others and both point to something even more.

And the angel of the Lord came again a second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you.”  And he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.                              -1 Kings 19:7-8