Much to my surprise, I was asked by Father Roderick Vonhögen to be a return guest on “Catholic Weekend” this past Saturday; you can download the episode in iTunes or listen to it on the show website. I enjoyed myself once again, and thank both him and SQPN for the opportunity to reach an audience that might not spend a lot of time reading blogs – or at least, blogs as arguably esoteric as this one. And as often happens in my experience, though perhaps this is simply how my brain works, a detail of the show got me to thinking about the intersection of prayer and technology.
In Saturday’s episode, Father Roderick used the audio conceit of visiting an imaginary, giant headquarters for “Catholic Weekend”, which was spread out over several virtual floors, and required the use of an elevator to reach the different parts of the building. This got me thinking about a type of Victorian-era passenger elevator called the “paternoster”, which I suspect few of my American readers will be familiar with, unless they have studied architecture and engineering, or have traveled to places where they are still in use. Although there are still some of these in existence, today they are few and far between.
The paternoster gets its name from the first two words of the “Our Father” in Latin. Its design is of a continuous loop of chain with multiple cars attached, rather than a single car system on cables, which is the type with which today we are most familiar. This allowed the chain of compartments to slowly continue rotating, so that a passenger would not have to wait more than a few seconds for a car going up or down. The name stuck because it was reminiscent of the rosary, which of course we Catholics use for prayer and meditation, as each decade or cycle of the rosary begins with praying the bead for the “Our Father”.
We do not see paternosters much any more, for they were an efficient but somewhat slow way to move people from one part of a tall building to another. They could also be incredibly dangerous, depending on how they were designed. For example, people could injure themselves getting into or out of one of the constantly moving cars, or they could fall into an open shaft between the cars, and be caught or killed. In many places, paternosters have been banned or taken out of service, although there are a few buildings where they are still in operation and can be seen or ridden at one’s own peril.
I have always found it curious that the name “Jacob’s Ladder” wasn’t applied to this type of elevator instead. For those of you who have forgotten your Bible stories, in Genesis 28:10-19 the Patriarch Jacob has a dream of angels going up and down a ladder from Heaven to Earth, in a continuous cycle. This would seem to be much more analogous a popular religious concept to apply to naming this particular type of elevator. The praying of the “Pater Noster” is the beginning of a cycle in the rosary, yes, but the rosary does eventually come to a definite end, unlike Jacob’s Ladder. Perhaps the choice of this term betrays a lack of understanding of Catholic practice on the part of the Protestant English marketing experts who so named the device.
Although one rarely sees paternosters anymore, modern life in the West would be unrecognizable if we did not have the elevator. Our commercial and civic buildings would be considerably shorter, for one thing, as would many residential structures. I suspect that we would also be thinner and healthier from all the walking we would have to do, and that the landscape would be more beautiful, dotted by trees and church or city hall spires, rather than by boring glass and concrete boxes dedicated to the worship of Mammon and Narcissus.
I wonder how many of us stop to think, when we board an elevator, that we are embarking on a risky journey. We assume that the engineer has done his work properly in designing the elevator, and that the workers have done their job properly in installing it. And we can see the certificates placed in the car by the local authorities, telling us that the car has been inspected and met the government-required safety standards satisfactorily. In other words, we have every possible human assurance that the elevator ride we are about to take will bring us safely to our destination.
And yet, once we step inside that car, our lives are quite literally hanging by a thread. It is a very large and strong thread, to be sure, but that steel cable is a thread nonetheless. We are told by our fellow human beings that it is very unlikely that anything bad will happen to us, and yet they cannot absolutely promise us that this will be the case.
I am not trying to create phobias for anyone, of course, since I have no doubt of the good work done by modern engineers to keep us safe. Elevators are a necessary part of modern life in many instances, at least insofar as we have come to design our structures with them in mind. Yet perhaps it would be a good practice for us, once in awhile at least, to say a prayer not only for our own safety when traveling in an elevator, but also for others who do so, and for the men and women who work to build and keep these devices safe. As to what we ought to pray, at least for my Christian readers, saying an “Our Father” would seem to be entirely appropriate.