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Pilgrimage: A journey of the heart and soul

It’s easy to romanticize the idea of a pilgrimage, to turn it into something larger than life, something we think we can experience only when have the money, time and stamina to travel to a far-off country to see one of the great spiritual sites. We imagine Lourdes, the Holy Land, Rome, Assisi, and file our pilgrimage plans away on some sort of spiritual bucket list.

But the reality is that true pilgrimage doesn’t require a passport. In fact, it doesn’t really require any travel at all. True pilgrimage is as much an interior journey as a geographical one. If we approach our entire lives with a pilgrim mindset, we can find places that will feed our hearts and spirits just about everywhere we turn – from the little shrine in the next town to the cathedral in our diocese to that historic church near our favorite vacation spot.

My first “real” pilgrim journey was to the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York, where St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born and where Jesuit missionaries St. Isaac Jogues and St. Rene Goupil and lay missioner St. John Lalande were martyred. Although this beautiful and sacred place overlooking the Mohawk Valley is only 45 minutes from my home, it took me eight years to “discover” it, and even then it was only because I was joining my son’s Boy Scout troop for their annual retreat.

Walking on holy ground, praying with other pilgrims, sleeping in a tent not far from the ravine where Rene Goupil died for the faith gave me my first taste of just how powerful the pilgrim journey can be. I felt a sense of oneness with everyone around me, with all those who came before me and all those would come after me.

Pilgrimage has the power to take our spiritual journey to a new level, but without careful and prayerful planning, a pilgrimage can quickly go from spiritual bliss to tourist nightmare.

I was fortunate to go on a 10-day trip to Rome in 2010. It was not arranged as a pilgrimage, and yet I hoped that’s what it would become. It didn’t take long for me to realize that without a willingness to step outside the tourist box, my “pilgrimage” was going to turn into a parade of indistinguishable ancient churches. Even my first trip to St. Peter’s Basilica at noon on a Tuesday left me somewhat disappointed. I was crammed against thousands of other tourists, unable to get near Michelangelo’s Pieta or the main altar. I vowed to come back and experience the basilica as church rather than museum.

The next morning at 7 a.m., I returned to St. Peter’s with a friend. In each of the more than 40 chapels lining the sides of the basilica, priests, many of them tourists themselves, were celebrating Mass in their native languages. We became a congregation of two in one chapel where a Nigerian priest was offering Mass in Italian. This was the St. Peter’s I had longed to experience, one where the heart of the Catholic faith could be felt beating powerfully in the familiar refrains of the Mass, even if the languages were unfamiliar to my ears.

So sometimes it takes a little creative thinking on our part to Church in Rensselaerget a true pilgrim experience. Talk to locals and find out when the church or shrine is less crowded. Ask when Masses or other special services will be celebrated. Try to enter into the local community’s celebrations rather than watching from the outside. It can make the difference between going home with nothing more than a few nice photos and going home with a sense of spiritual renewal.

If you don’t have any plans to travel to a pilgrim site in the near future, look for opportunities closer to home. There are so many wonderful Catholic shrines, churches, monasteries, and chapels to explore, some probably right in your own backyard. That church in the photo on the right is just across the Hudson River from us. Dennis and I spotted it one evening after a dinner out. As I stared off at its spire in the distance from our spot along the Corning Preserve, I wondered aloud what church it might be. Dennis suggested we just get in the car and find out. So we did. A pilgrim moment right at home.

If all else fails, become an armchair pilgrim. Read pilgrim accounts of places you’d like to visit one day and begin to plan. That’s what I did with Assisi. I read and I dreamed and I hoped — for years. And now I am packing my bag and heading back to Italy in two days. God willing, my Assisi dream will become a reality later this week, when I visit the sacred city of Francis and Clare. But my pilgrimage to Assisi really began long ago, long before I ever purchased a plane ticket, because pilgrimage is not just about physically traveling to a different place. It’s an interior journey that requires no passport.

“Learning to Pray in Scripture” a practical prayer tool

Author Stephen Binz combines the ancient practice of Lectio Divina with theology, history, and Scripture as it relates to the Catholic Mass in a comprehensive new book that can be used by individuals or groups. Using the lectio practice of listening, understanding, reflecting, praying and acting, Binz takes readers through key Scripture passages, offering reflection points to get readers thinking about familiar Scripture scenes in new ways and offering practical suggestions for putting those words into action in daily life. Read more

Wisdom Wednesday: Heart of Darkness

Today’s Wisdom Wednesday is brought to you by Thomas Merton:

“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us… It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…I have no program for this seeing.  It is only given.  But the gate of heaven is everywhere.” – Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander


Marriage: It’s hard work, if it’s done right

In honor of Sister Anne Bryan Smollin, CSJ, who died last week, I thought I would run this Life Lines column from last July. It was sparked by the marriage workshop she offered in the Albany Diocese. The column also ties in nicely with my chat this morning on the Morning Air Show on Relevant Radio. I was talking about marriage and faith. At the end of this column is a link to a follow-up piece I wrote called “Prescription for a Better Marriage: Start dating.” Read more

Give Us This Day: Always, always

My reflection from today’s edition of Give Us This Day:

This past summer, when my family spent a week at the New Jersey shore, I hopped out of bed every morning to run down to the beach with my camera and capture the sun as it came up. My husband thought I was a little bit nuts to get so excited about the same sun rising every day, but I would stand there in awe over the never-changing and yet ever-changing sun. I marveled at the way it could be bold and brilliant one morning and soft and subtle the next but always, always there, even when I couldn’t see it behind the clouds. Read more

The Song: An honest, soulful look at this beautiful, messy thing called marriage

Marriage is hard, even under the best of circumstances. Add in some problems, and marriage can feel beyond hard, maybe impossible, as evidenced by the soaring divorce rate. But marriage is also beautiful, a calling to go beyond yourself, if it’s done right. Read more

It’s about the journey, not the destination

My latest Life Lines column, running in the current issue of Catholic New York:

I’m a wannabe hiker. And a wannabe camper and kayaker, for that matter. Although I’ve done a little of all of those things, I’m no expert.

A writing colleague who knew I was clamoring for a hike messaged me one night and asked if I wanted to join her for a beginner trip to Huckleberry Point in the Catskills. With a little appointment juggling and a lot of assistance from my husband, Dennis, I said yes, packed a lunch, and dusted off my hiking boots. Read more

Wisdom Wednesday: 5 ways to fine tune your life

I love to read about how other people have transformed their lives into something more manageable, less stressful, more satisfying. What steps did they take? How do they maintain it? I’m always curious, hungry for information. Even if I’m not going to go off the grid, live in the mountains, sail around the world, homeschool my kids, start canning my own food, whatever the particular path might be, I can learn from every single person. There’s always a morsel of magic to be obtained, a nugget of spiritual gold hidden in every story.

So when I came across this post yesterday on the Tiny House page (I dream of living in a Tiny House some day when the kids are grown), I knew I had to share it today. So much goodness, even if you live in a big house crammed with stuff or a city apartment amid the noise and smog.  Read more

Foodie Friday: Hollow chef kicks it up a notch

When we were planning our date night this week, there was only one place on my list of suggestions: The Hollow Bar & Kitchen on North Pearl Street in Albany. I was craving the eggplant stack, which I’d had the first time we visited. I don’t care if you think you don’t like eggplant, you will love this. Trust me. It. Is. Incredible. So off we went, in search of eggplant and gnocchi and craft beer and wine.  Read more

Italy: Five weeks and counting…

Five weeks from today, our Italy: A Feast for Body and Soul pilgrimage will depart from JFK airport bound for Rome. The 40 of us will spend 13 days making our way from the beautiful spa town of Montecatini to Florence, Siena, Assisi, Rome, Naples, Salerno, the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento, Massa Lubrense (the small town where my grandfather was born), and finally to the Isle of Capri. I know how fast these next few weeks will go with start-of-school events and work deadlines to meet before leaving. It’s going to be here before I know it.  Read more