Friday, December 17, 2004

Ladders & legends

Humans are the storytelling animal: we're good at creating stories to explain things we don't understand, even if the stories later turn out to be completely wrong guesses.

I'm reminded every year around this time that new "legends" are constantly being created. (See, for instance, the so-called "legend of the candy cane."

I shouldn't be snide about them, I suppose, since traditions can be created in any century and be no less meaningful. What annoys me is the aura of venerability that quickly attaches itself to any "legend," which leads the unwary to assume it's quite old, dating from medieval or even Biblical times. This can perpetuate some remarkably silly notions about what historical times were like.

Over the last few years, I've watched with interest the development of (as far as I can tell) brand-new "legends" about the modern "ladder" rosary, in which the beads are not strung in a line, but are hung on crosswise bars (like the rungs of a ladder) between two lengths of chain. These are now being billed as "ladders to heaven" and stories written about the supposed meaning.

The story most often quoted in connection with the modern ladder rosary is this one:

According to the most popular legend, St. Francis
de Sales had a vision of two ladders to heaven.
The first one was quite long, steep and dangerous,
and led to heaven through Jesus. The second ladder
was much shorter and easier to climb, less steep
and led to Mary. According to this legend, Jesus
told St. Francis de Sales, "Tell your people to
come to me by this ladder, through my mother."

(I've seen this story attributed to St. Alphonsus Liguori, who apparently quotes it in his writings, and also mis-attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. The theology seems a bit odd to modern tastes, but it dates from a time when it wasn't uncommon to exaggerate Mary's importance in this way.)

But as far as I know, the "ladder" rosary has only really become popular within the last five to ten years. I haven't been able to find ladder rosaries for sale earlier than about 1990, though one rosary vendor (since gone out of business, apparently) used to advertise "the rare but famous Old Mexico Ladder Rosary." So perhaps the "ladder" construction has Hispanic roots, which doesn't seem all that unlikely.