The new front entrance to our Clyde monastery was solemnly blessed this Sunday. Its circular drive, which comes right to our front door, replaces several steep flights of cement stairs. The stairs may have represented the monastic fuga mundi, flight from the world, which is a legitimate monastic value. Nevertheless, the many steps denied entrance to many visitors. With the new entrance, we are fully accessible to all comers. Hospitality is another important monastic value.
This got me wondering. Noah’s ark must have had a ramp, although the Bible does not specify this. Some animals may not have been able to do a ladder or steps. They would have had to use a ramp instead. God requires that the ark have an entrance in Gen. 6:16: “Make an opening for daylight and finish the ark a cubit above it. Put the ark’s entrance on its side; you will make it with bottom, second and third decks.”
Then there’s the Tower of Babel. The Tower of Babel was a ziggurat, a sort of pyramid with steps. It is a symbol of pride in Gen. 11:4: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.’” And so the Lord put an end its building, by confusing the language of the people.
Jacob’s ladder was really a stairway. We read in Gen. 28:12-13: “Then Jacob had a dream: a stairway rested on the ground, with its top reaching to the heavens; and God’s angels were going up and down on it. And there was the Lord standing beside him and saying: I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants.” God revealed himself to Jacob in this way and renewed the covenant he had made with Abraham.
Rahab the harlot had a house in Jericho built into the city wall. Steps led up to a flat roof, on which she hid the Israelite spies sent by Joshua. When the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, only Rahab and those with her in the house were saved.
We learn in Neh. 3:15 that there were steps that leading from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple. On these steps the Levites sang in choirs (Neh. 12:37-40). It was from these steps that the governor Nehemiah read the Law of Moses to the people, and the people re-committed themselves to follow it.
Solomon’s Temple had at least one winding staircase and perhaps two. 1 Kings 6:8 says, “The entrance to the middle story was on the south side of the house; stairs led up to the middle story and from the middle story to the third.” The Jewish historian Josephus also describes a winding staircase in the Temple: “The king also had a fine contrivance for an ascent to the upper room over the temple, and that was by steps in the thickness of its wall; for it had no large door on the east end, as the lower house had, but the entrances were by the sides, through very small doors (Antiquities 8:3:2). The Second Temple, which was smaller than the first one, seems to have lacked such staircases. We used to have two winding staircases in our monastery. They were removed for safety reasons in the course of our major renovations. Our monastery is now smaller too.
Stairs can take on a variety of meanings, both positive and negative. Our monastery, though, like the Temple, is a house of God. It is place where the praise of God is sung several times each day. We are smaller, older, and perhaps now we can also do without stairs.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the new American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission from the copyright owner.