I followed a man in southeast Rome on a rainy afternoon. He strolled from outside the Colosseum to the Basilica of Saint John, where he met another and both entered the nave of the church. I stepped into a building across the street to wait somewhere out of the storm.   

Unknowingly, I had entered the home of the Scala Sancta if you had Latin in school, or the Holy Stairs if you were heathen born and bred. According to Catholic legend, the 28 steps that make up the staircase are the same ones Jesus climbed on the day of his death sentence in the palace of Pontius Pilate. Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, transported the staircase from Jerusalem to Rome in 326 AD.

The Holy Stairs can only be climbed on one’s knees. The faithful typically offer a spoken prayer on each step before ascending to the next using a handrail. In the 18th century, the marble stairs were covered with wooden planks to reduce extensive erosion after being significantly worn away by countless pilgrims throughout the centuries.

If one preferred to walk uninhibited to the top and view the few venerated relics displayed there, additional staircases on each side of the Holy Stairs were open for easier access. I read somewhere that St. John’s finger and several other body parts from downed saints were on display there behind bulletproof glass. I’m not sure why anyone would want to shoot a saint’s finger or tongue or false teeth, but 1975 was an unpredictable time.

As I stood in the entryway watching the heavy wooden doors of St. John’s, three Dutch teens pushed past me. They were rowdy coming off the street, and several worshipers turned to stare at them. I moved to the side so they could shake off the weather and turned my attention back to the church across the way. But the trio failed to settle into any sort of reverent piety or religiosity befitting a place of worship.

When I heard one of them say, “I bet I can…”, I cut him off in mid-sentence. This was not going to turn out well. The Italian police were the last people I wanted to show up right now.

“Maybe you should wait,” I said, nodding my head toward the six or eight worshippers moving up the Holy Stairs.

“They won’t bother us,” replied the kid in the middle, completely missing the point.

“So let’s race to the top. I bet I can say a prayer on every step faster than you, Jan.” said the teen to the right.

“I bet you can’t, Pieter!”

“I’ll get to the top and yell go!” said the teen to the left. He vanished up a side staircase.

Pieter and Jan grinned at each other like Wiley Coyote and the Roadrunner. They settled in on the first step. Within seconds, the third lad reappeared at the top of the staircase. He raised both arms and slammed them down as if the two were racing for pink slips.

The pair started mumbling and running up the Holy Stairs on their knees. They elbowed devout worshippers out of the way like roller derby contestants at the county fair. One older lady lost her balance and rolled down a step or two. Others were crossing themselves faster than a woman changes her mind.

It was time for me to take my chances with the storm outside. I didn’t know if there was a god or not, but if there was, I was positive this building was about to be struck by lightning.

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​​Three Dutch Boys

The Hollow Man     |     The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage