Scaling new heights in Rome

Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world the way they’ve been told to.  Alan Keightly

I’ve climbed a few mountains in my travels. I’ve scaled the 1237 steps to the Tiger cave temple in Thailand and made my way up several other steep staircases to magnificent temples, castles and rooftops all around the world, but the hardest climb I’ve ever made was up just 28 wooden steps in Rome.

My journey up the Scala Sancta, the Holy Stairs, also known as Pilate’s Stairs was one made on my knees.

The Scala Sancta are housed in one of the most important papal sanctuaries in the Roman Catholic Church. I grew up indoctrinated in the Catholic faith but was never aware these stairs existed. By luck and a Lonely Planet guide-book, I discovered them on a trip to Italy some years ago.  Early one morning I set off on foot to locate the very unassuming building that houses this treasured relic.

It is thought Jesus climbed these stairs, once part of Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem, on the day he was sentenced to death. The stairs were later transported to Rome by Saint Helena, she secured a number of other holy relics also. The Holy Stairs were housed in a few places before the current sanctuary. The marble has been covered with wooden treads to protect them from wear and at certain points there are little glass windows that offer a view to the marble beneath and to stains, thought to be the actual blood of Jesus.

The truly devout will think poorly of me, for I had not worshipped in a church for many years nor had I knelt in prayer for some time, though my faith was strong. Having travelled across the world and appreciated the peace and quietude of other sacred and blessed places, I felt moved to join a small number of morning visitors up the stairs.

What I didn’t realise, despite my sincerity and solemn approach, was that to truly pay homage, to honour and respect the sanctity of the chapel and the man to whom it stands in remembrance of, one had to go slowly, with deep reverence. Each of the faithful climbers offered a prayer on every step. Not a short and sweet prayer but a decent, well-considered prayer. Many worked rosaries in their hands. I later discovered many climb the stairs to be forgiven for sins and seek favour with God.

With a genuine respect I proceeded, offering some long memorised prayers alternating with personal prayers of gratitude and thanks. It was a humbling and moving experience.

At the top of the stairs is a private, papal chapel adorned with 13th Century frescos and a 4th century painting of Christ, thought to have been begun by Saint Luke and completed by an angel. This Sancta Sanctorum, is viewed through a grated opening.

Descending is much easier with a set of steps on either side of the Holy Stairs. These can also be used by those interested in viewing the chapel who do not wish to or cannot ascend the Holy Stairs on their knees.

Once reserved as a place for popes the Scala Sancta and the Sancta Sanatorium are now open to the public for a small entrance fee. When visiting ensure appropriate and modest attire is worn. Arriving early in the morning there were no tourists in sight. In fact the whole piazza was empty.

It is easy to be critical and questioning when faced with monuments of faith. Is the story true? Did a man called Jesus climb these stairs? Were they once part of a palace in Jerusalem? Are they stained with blood? Whose blood is it? Regardless of faith, regardless of belief or facts; historically and anthropologically this experience made my mind buzz with intrigue. It served as a gesture in humility a chance to count my blessings and reflect on the sweetness of life. I hobbled away more enamoured with life than before my visit, which is saying something — I was in Rome after all.

Have you been somewhere that moved you to experience the world in a different way?

My letter to you

My spelling wasn't great but I was only 10. Is that a reasonable excuse?

My spelling wasn’t great but I was only 10. Is that a reasonable excuse?

“In an age like ours, which is not given to letter-writing, we forget what an important part it used to play in people’s lives.” – Anatole Broyard

Dear Reader,

I miss letter writing.  Actually, what I miss is receiving letters. The thrill of opening the letter box and finding a missive, addressed to me from a loved one, is now just a beautiful memory, a lost joy.  As a child and young adolescent I took great delight in this now old-fashioned communique.  My grandmother and I, separated by distance, closed the miles between us through our regular handwritten correspondence.  This was a time when our household did not have a telephone and weekend phone calls were made at the local phone box.  Our family of five crammed in the booth, each vying for their two minutes to hear our grandparents soothing and loving tones before the coins ran out.  This was a time before email and Skype and Snapchat.

Our letters did not contain acronyms, shortened or abbreviated phrases as is common with forms of messaging today. My handwriting, now decrepit through lack of use, was easy to read, the pen felt good in my hand as it glided across pretty stationery, of which I had a great stash.  Pretty stationery of matching letter paper and envelopes was always a gratefully received gift.

I’ve read a great many books and seem some film recently where letter writing was a significant means of communication, informing confidantes of discoveries, expeditions and life in general.  Our understating of the past has been gleaned from lengthy and detailed letters. In fact, the history of the letter weaves a beautiful passage through the ages.

The material on which and with which letters were written has progressed from the use of tree leaves and folded bark, to papyrus, cotton and paper. Writing implements from bone, reeds and quills to modern-day pen offer a fascinating study. For a long time letters were folded and sealed by wax, no lick and go glue strips on envelopes then.  In fact, no envelopes at all. The stamped letter in an envelope came into being much later, in the reign of Queen Victoria in 1840. Postal services too have seen many changes through the ages. Modern cities and advancements in courier services have improved the lag between writing and delivery of the letter.  No longer are letters passed on by footed couriers, chariot or coach.

In all of this fascinating history the single most intriguing point for me is where the first letter originated.  That, I guess we will never know, though by luck and good fortune we can trace the origin of the first recorded handwritten letter. It was crafted by a woman, a Queen from Persia no less.  This small fact teased the recesses of my mind; I had to research who Queen Atossa was, who wrote this letter around 500 BC.  What was she like? What prompted her to write? What was the content of her letter and to whom did she send it?

Letter writing might be old-fashioned now, though I notice researchers are encouraging the act of putting pen to paper and citing the benefits to both writer and receiver.   Letters communicate an emotional closeness that is often lost in email, texts and the like.  The thrill of receiving a letter is beyond words.  It lifts the spirits and lightens the mood. We have to concentrate, be deliberate and mindful when writing a letter.  No backspacing or deleting, no automatic spell check or thesaurus. We are forced to preserve or improve our long-lost art of handwriting. Letters are a lovely way to enclose little mementos, heightening the personal connection.

On several occasions I have written little messages and tucked them into my husband’s luggage when he travels away or in his lunchbox to discover and remind him of how much he is loved. A handwritten and posted message expressing thanks for a dinner invitation or thoughtful gesture is so much nicer than a text.  Letters leave a legacy.  My much-loved bundle of letters between my grandmother and I tell a story spanning years that may, at some point in the future, be of interest to our descendants adding some depth and form to the lives of otherwise intangible names on the family tree.

Here’s to bringing back the waning art of handwritten letters.

With kind regards,

Shannyn

 

What’s your story?

Dada and Rodney

That’s my Dad on the left, as a young man, with his brother.

 

“Since storytelling is a dialogue, shared stories create more understanding; bring people closer together as a community;  and serve as a string that binds one heart to another.  (And I believe that the universe is made up of string.)”
Peninnah Schram

“Stories are at the very heart of being human; they talk about where we’re from, where we are, and where we’re going.  They’re like bread; you need to hear and tell them everyday.”
Bill Harley

We all have a story. Sometimes we live a false story and are victims of a self belief but that’s not the story I’m talking about. I’m talking about our own individual history kind of story. The really interesting stuff, the stuff that make us, well, us I guess.

I recently had dinner with my parents and I was moved by what I learned about my father. I was moved and intrigued by his stories; stories I didn’t know; stories of him I’d never imagined. Okay, he didn’t go hunting tigers or elephants  in the savannah or trek the arctic on a quest of find a long-lost artefacts. But he did do some pretty unique things.

My dad is an artist, a lover of art, race horses and fine wine. He is also a handy man and can fix just about anything. He has been married for near on 46 years, has three daughters, worked in retail as a manager and then went into insurance. He played squash and entered walks for charity when I was young. He loves the oceans and still, to this day, at the ripe old age of 73, goes for a body surf to relax and unwind. He is clever and kind and, well, you know, a dad.

A drawing my my father did as a child.

A drawing my my father did as a child.

Growing up I’d learnt a little of my father’s early life, life before me and my sisters, life even before my mum was in his picture. I gleaned these little snippets from my grandmother and some from passing comments he’d make at times, in relation to other things, never as a topic of conversation in and of themselves. So I knew my dad had attended boarding school, that he was a pretty good student, I’ve seen report cards. I knew too, that as a young man he had learnt and practiced Judo. I’d also seen photos of him in a rugby uniform while at school but I hadn’t realised he continued to play as a working adult. He also played hockey. For some reason I imagined he’d played ice hockey, why in Australia would I assume this?  I’m not sure. Too many movies I guess. Anyway, dad told me about the very rough grass court they’d play on, not a smooth manicured green as one might see today but a rough and tumble, bumpy lumpy piece of paddock. He loved it. He and a mate, from an outlying property near Gladstone, would play of a weekend. They’d also turn their hand to lawn bowls on occasion, to test their mettle in other ways.

Graeme felsch second row frist on left

Second row, first on the left.

The story that really blew my mind and had me gawping in amazement and horror was a tale involving a boat. I knew Dad had sailed in a Brisbane to Gladstone yacht race. If you are unaware, this yacht race is an icon of Queensland, the state in which I live. It’s a pretty high-profile race held every year over the Easter long weekend. It begins from Shorncliffe in Moreton Bay and follows a 308 nautical mile journey up to Gladstone.

Over dinner I discovered my father had sailed in, not one but, five Brisbane to Gladstone yacht races.  I learned how it came about that he was recruited as crew with no ocean-going experience,  just river sailing under his belt. The skipper, a very  colourful character, and his two sons, both teenagers, were making their maiden voyage and needed an extra hand. They took dad out for a day on the seas and he got the tick of approval.  Dad, in his twenties, loved the experience and became close friends with the family.  My parents are still friends, some 40 odd years later, with this family.  One year, after race was run and things were winding down, news that a cyclone was brewing set things back in motion.  Dad had to be back in Brisbane for work. Time was of the essence. To make it back in time and safely they had to leave immediately when normally they would rest and celebrate. Trouble was, one crew member, the older son, had left to make a rendezvous elsewhere and the skipper had retired to the bar, where he felt most at home. With a sense of urgency Dad and the youngest of the crew collected the skipper, poured him into his bunk and set sail for home.  As fate would have it the cyclone hit early and Dad singlehandedly, with some assistance from a young teenager, manned the boat through rough seas negotiating twenty to thirty metre waves.  They rode out the night, a very tense night I imagine, and sailed into calmer waters by dawn, safe and sound, surrounded by thick fog.

The skipper was rudely awakened from his slumber to navigate their whereabouts. Funnily enough, my Father had managed the boat through tremendous odds but had no navigational skills in the white out. I think that’s gorgeous. I was aware my jaw and eyes were wide open (not an elegant look in an upmarket restaurant) in amazement as I listened to this story and marvelled at the courage, skill and foolhardiness of my Father.  What an incredible experience.

How is it I never knew these things before?

I asked him why he’d never told me and he simply said he didn’t think they were worth telling, they were just things he’d done. From my wide-eyed stare and enthusiastic responses he said he guessed he should write some things done.  You bet you should DaddyO.

If we don’t tell our stories we are like ghosts on this planet. We appear to be but husks without our narrative to give essence and depth. Our stories are bridges; they deepen relationships, they inspire, and, through hearing them, they give us a greater connection to ourselves and our own sense of place in the world. That may sound a little odd but I walked away from that meal with my parents with a greater sense of who my father was but I also felt differently positioned in my own narrative as a result.

Whatever your story, share it. Nothing is too grand or too insignificant.  Sometimes it’s the most mundane scraps of information that feed the soul and mind of the listener.

What’s your story?

Graeme October 1959

Did I forget to mention he liked to swing a golf club as well as a hockey stick?