Stairway to Heaven: A Whimsical Look at a 1970s Song

In the Office of Readings for December 26th (Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr) there is a meditation by Saint Fulgentius of Respe describing love and forgiveness as the way by which the heavens were opened for St. Stephen. Saint Fulgentius commends the forgiving love of St. Stephen for his enemies and calls love a stairway to heaven:

My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together…. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end (St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, bishop, Sermo 3, 1-3, 5-6: CCL 91A, 905-909).

This is solid biblical advice, for God is love, and Heaven is union with God. Hence, we must walk in love and become God’s love to enjoy the perfect communion with God that is Heaven.

The 1971 Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” is among the most popular rock songs of all time. When asked about the lyrics, the author, Robert Plant, said that he thought that their popularity stemmed from the fact that they are an “abstraction.” He added, “Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way — and I wrote the lyrics” [*].

Some of us back then wanted the almost mystical opening section of the song to have religious meaning. After all, it spoke of a stairway to heaven and of the “May queen.” If there really were a stairway to Heaven but a highway to hell, it would explain life well. However, there are many problems with the song’s lyrics. Its notion of that stairway to Heaven is ambiguous at best and antithetical to religious and biblical teaching at worst.

The lyrics of “Stairway to Heaven” are shown below in bold italics, while my commentary (much of it lighthearted) is presented in plain red text.

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

One can’t buy a stairway to Heaven with mere gold, and even if it were theoretically possible, we would never be able to accumulate enough. So maybe the lady should be less sure in her gold and more trusting in and dependent on God. Maybe she should concentrate on loving the light that makes her gold glitter rather than the glittering gold itself. There’s an old gospel song that says, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold.”

When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for

No, actually, she can’t. Only Jesus opens the door, and He will be our judge. No one forces the heavenly gates open. Of Jesus, Scripture says, What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open (Rev 3:7). The woman’s gold is no good in Heaven; all that matters is knowing the gatekeeper, Jesus.

Oh oh oh oh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

No, she isn’t. She can’t afford it.

There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
’Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook
There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving.

To some degree we love ambiguity because it allows us to avoid making decisions and being obedient to what is taught. However, sometimes words are very clear in their meaning and we must decide either to accept and live by them or to reject them and suffer any consequences. This is especially the case with God’s revealed word. As for our thoughts, we love to rationalize and make excuses, but deep down we hear the voice of God echoing; we know what we are doing and whether it is right or wrong.

Ooh, it makes me wonder.
Ooh, it makes me wonder.

Well, don’t wonder forever. Sooner, rather than later, we have to make some decisions. Do you want what God is offering or not? Do you want to be holy or not?

There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving

Don’t look to the west; Look to the east where you will see Christ come again in glory. The west is the land of sunset and darkness. The east is the land of sunrise and light, Jesus, the Light of World. Above all, make sure that when your spirit is leaving it leaves to the east, to the light! Do not yearn for the darkness.

And it’s whispered that soon,
If we all call the tune

Then the piper will lead us to reason

And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.

Yikes! Don’t ever think that if we call the tune we will be led to utopia. No, no, no! Let God call the dance; let Him set the tune and the path. Utopianism led to the horrifying killing fields of the 20th century. The forests are certainly not echoing with laughter; if anything, they are being consumed by the lustful blazes of a world insistent upon marching to its own tune rather than God’s.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just spring clean
for the May queen

Well, I suppose that alarming movements in our life can alert us to trouble and summon us to positive change. Let’s let this verse stand, but the May queen referred to here can’t be Mary because she doesn’t need spring cleaning.

Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on

It is true that there are just two paths; there is no third way given! Conversion is still possible if you’re on the wrong path. But be sure to switch paths only if you’re not walking with Jesus.

And it makes me wonder
Your head is humming and it won’t go

In case you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him

Danger, Will Robinson! We learned that the piper is a symbol for the world. Do not follow this piper. Ignore his tunes!

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show

Ah, here is Mary! See, I told you this is a religious song!

How everything still turns to gold

Oops, where did that come from? I guess this isn’t Mary—unless she’s into the prosperity gospel.

And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last

Now there’s that crazy piper again with his worldly tune, still trying to mesmerize me and give me an earworm of earthly tunes!

When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll

No, sorry, only God can be all in all. We might all be one, but even together we could never be all. It’s great to be a steady rock, but that is only accomplished by building our house on the solid rock of Christ’s teachings.

And she’s buying the stairway to heaven

No, she isn’t. She can’t afford it—but she can ask Jesus!

Well, I guess we’re just going to have to accept that “Stairway to Heaven” isn’t the religious song we’d like it to be. Whatever “Heaven” is alluded to, it isn’t our heaven.

It’s better to listen to St. Fulgentius of Ruspe, who reminds us that the true stairway to Heaven is the way of love—and not mere human love, but divine love infused in the soul. It is God’s love that animates our actions and lifts us higher as we accept its movements in our heart. This love cannot be bought; it is offered freely.

It does “cost” us, however, as our favorite sins fall away, and our priorities and passions change for the better. As the fruit of love, these changes are accepted not because we must but because we want to.

Yes, love is the stairway to Heaven. An old song, older than this 1970s song says, “Love lifted me … When nothing else could help, love lifted me.” There is our stairway to Heaven, not purchased with gold but with the precious blood of Jesus.

20 Replies to “Stairway to Heaven: A Whimsical Look at a 1970s Song”

  1. FWIW I understood the song to be referring to the Statue of Liberty as the Lady and the phrase to “buying a stairway to heaven” as a criticism of materialism.

    On another note though I’ve always thought every good love song could be a hymn with a few minor changes “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” comes to mind as an example.

  2. The reference to the “piper” is to the Greek god Pan and the Pied Piper simultaneously [the latter would lure youth away from their families with the sweet melodies of his flute, whereafter, they would never be seen again]. It would take too long to explain all of this here, but I challenge all to just a brief WiKi search to confirm this. The members of Led Zepplin were classically educated [esp. Page and Plant]. They were occultists, nature worshippers, neo-pagans (hence, the Pantheistic references and nature symbolism throughout the song). Page bought the famous occultist Alastair Crowley’s haunted house in England. Many songs were recorded there. Interestingly, the Zep also have many references to J.R.R. Tolkein in their songs (Misty Mountain Hop, The battle of Evermore, etc.).

    What one can conclude from all of this is that, contrary to what many believe as simply a harmless tune, Stairway (the greatest Rock song of all time) was inspired by Satan himself, and assisted in luring many youth away from their families. The popular song was a gateway to the rest of the Led Zepplin opus, which is very dark (esp. Whole Lotta Love, etc.).

    Zep was the quintessential Rock band who lived the life of sex, drugs and rock n roll. They were recently given the prestigious “Kennedy Center Award” for their lifetime achievement. At the awards, they were introduced by the occult “comedian” Jack Black, who joked about rumors of their music being Satanically inspired, and then joked that that makes no difference, “since it sounded so heavenly!”

    Rock and roll is dangerous to the soul, make no mistake about it.

    Thank you for your lighthearted commentary Msgr…the post, no doubt, ought to spark a plethora of comments! 🙂

    1. What’s more dangerous to the soul, and the faith, was those in the name of Christianity who judged innocuous things, such as rock and roll, to be Satanic. Those folks drove myself and nearly every single person I grew up with far away from the Church, Christ and even belief in God. It wasn’t their place to play amateur music critic, or to judge that which they did not understand. The fact that I returned to the Church is a miracle in and of itself, but sadly, comments such as yours do more to make me question whether I am among the right company than any rock song I ever heard.

      People who nitpick over nonsense that has no biblical basis, such as rock and roll being a tool of the Devil, drive people from Christ far more than Led Zeppelin. If one’s faith can be shaken by the enjoyment of Stairway to Heaven, then it wasn’t that strong to begin with. The only thing that drives one from God is Satan, and he works through people who claim to follow Christ far more often than he works through 3 chords and a steady backbeat.

      1. The influence of music on the soul goes all the way back to Aristotle. Read more, review your history.

      2. I’m an 80s baby music and dance defender myself — the first beat we ever heard and danced to was our mother’s heartbeat! But you have to be a bit naive not to look more deeply into the drug channeled greatest wonders of the sixties and seventies with concern. Look at Jim Morrison’s death. And the waywardness of most fans back then. You were indeed blessed to be brought back.

    2. Your comment brought back old memories of my freshman year at Franciscan University when young, well meaning Catholics would claim that even “the beat of the secular music” led to perverse, sinful thoughts. I would be cautious of painting with a broad brush in saying that rock music is “dangerous to the soul.” No art form, rock music included, is in itself evil. While Satan can be found in many elements of art and music, so can God.
      Respected Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin wrote a very good article on this subject several months ago that I think brings this subject into focus.

      I cannot speak for Led Zeppelin as I wasn’t a fan, but taking your advice and doing a quick review of wiki, I did see that Jack Black, a former atheist and cultural Jew returned to synagogue after deciding to raise his son in the faith.

      1. Your using Jimmy Akin as a source pretty much sums up your whole response… without merit.

  3. A few points.

    1. I never once thought of this song as even vaguely religious, so this post has been entertaining. Thank you.

    2. “With a word she can get what she came for”… seems to me if we capitalize “Word” and if she came for Heaven, then isn’t that pretty much EXACTLY true?

    3. While the May queen may not need to be cleaned, would that spring cleaning not be meant for us? No one cleans a queen when she comes to visit, they clean their house!

    My two cents FWIW.

  4. Of course, this raises the question of Let it Be.

    Paul McCartney has said that he did not intend for it to be about the Blessed Virgin, but about his own mother instead. The words and theme, however, are very suggestive of BVM, and I tend to think that subconsciously, at least, he did write it about her.

  5. Jimmy Page was *deeply* immersed in satanism. His *strong* ties to Aleister Crowley (Satanist, the Beast, founder Thelma, member OTO, Order of the Golden Dawn) are entirely in the open.

    Quite seriously, *everything* Jimmy Page has had a hand in should be avoided as a direct conduit to hell. Literally.

    Simply go to duckduckgo and enter the search term jimmy page aleister crowley

  6. Frankly the song is nonsense. There are no rational links between the phrases. It’s a disconnected mess. It has no artistry whatsoever.

  7. I think music has many levels and interpretations. You could ride in your Cadillac and hear and feel one way, then puff the holy herbs and interpret the song in a whole other view.

  8. I was raised on 70s rock and loved it. But my mother for some reason kept us rather away from Zep. I LOVED it but obeyed…then one day I listened closely to one of my favorite songs, Ramble On. I had just finished LOTR for the first time and Tolkiens masterpiece entered deep into my soul.
    When I heard Zep’s lyrics, “in the dark of Mordor, there was a lady so fair…” chills went thru me because There is NOTHING fair in Mordor, its analogous to hell…and there is nothing lighthearted or naive about the very well educated Page and Plant.
    I wouldn’t take this song up so lightly eithrr, Monsignor

  9. I was raised on daily Mass, dancing, and 70s rock, from infancy. But my mother for some reason kept us away from Zep. I LOVED it but obeyed…then one day I listened closely to one of my favorite songs, Ramble On. I had just finished LOTR for the first time and Tolkien’s masterpiece had dripped deep into my soul.

    When I heard the lyrics, “In the dark of Mordor, there was a lady so fair…” in Ramble On, CHILLS went thru me and I shut it off–

    –because I KNEW THERE IS NOTHING FAIR or beauteous or holy in Mordor, as it’s analogous to hell…and there is nothing lighthearted or naive about the very well-educated Page and Plant. Nothing in their music is not deliberate.

    Hello! Drugs! Sex! Suicide! Satan! The Doors to hell had opened wide! These were the greatest rockers of all time! The Doors too! Jim Morrison! (Wow, now i wonder about their very name!) I wonder how many souls Satan took through this “innocuous” irresistible!! great music.

    I wonder, really, how many of our greatest hitmakers had a special music “contract”—

    I wouldn’t take this song up so lightly either, Monsignor

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