Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pilgrimage to Rome: Stalled soul on the Scala Sancta (reflections on minor sufferings of American commuters)

According to Catholic tradition, St. Helena, mother of Constantine, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the years 326-328, where she recovered the True Cross. Evelyn Waugh's fictional account of Helena's pilgrimage, simply titled Helena, portrays her as a late comer to faith and spiritual kin to the three Magi, who arrived tardy at the manger of Christ.

A less well known tradition holds that Helena also discovered the actual stairs that Christ walked for his meeting with Pontius Pilate, who condemned Christ to a horrible death. Those stairs, called the Scala Sancta, are now in Rome, where pilgrims can crawl up all 28 steps in remembrance of Christ's suffering.

I creeped up those steps myself when I was in Rome earlier this month, somewhat reluctantly I confess. Pilgrims surrounded the stairs by the hundreds, and I had to wait in line for the privilege of my holy crawl.  I was aware of course that I should spend my time in contemplation as I ascended the stairs on my knees, and I resolved to reflect on the last terrible hours of Christ's life.

But as I waited for my opportunity to ascend the Scala Sancta, I observed a woman half way up the stairs, who wasn't moving. She would kneel for a time in prayer, pull herself erect occasionally to stretch her legs, and then sink to her knees again--always in the same place. In short, she was blocking traffic, forcing other pilgrims to veer around her, exactly like motorists veer around a stalled car on the freeway.

"How inconsiderate," I thought to myself. And that led me to think back on all the years I have spent commuting to work, all the minor traffic accidents I have witnessed, all the times I got stuck in traffic because someone's car broke down on the freeway, slowing the flow of traffic--sometimes for hours.

And that is what I thought about as I crawled up the Holy Stairs--all the years I've spent commuting to work in my car and all the millions of other Americans who spend so many hours of their lives simply driving to and from work. I thought of the collective boredom of all those commuting Americans sitting in their cars with nothing to divert them but their radios and their mugs of coffee.

And why do we do it? We do it to get to our jobs--our boring, uninteresting, unimportant jobs: the jobs we do simply to get a paycheck to pay our home mortgages. Most commuters drive to jobs in the cities but they live in the suburbs, where the schools are better. They sacrifice 2 or 3 hours of their lives every working day simply to live in a town that has decent schools for their children.

These are small sacrifices that commuters make--certainly small compared to the sacrifice Jesus was prepared to make when he walked up the Scala Sancta to meet Pontius Pilate. But I devoted my holy crawl to American commuters who suffer the minor inconvenience of driving to work every day for the sake of their children and for no other reason. Surely the Holy Family looks down on them in their daily commutes and sends them a blessing.

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