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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.

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

In the footsteps of St. Benedict…

In honor of the Feast of St. Benedict, I thought I would re-post my Time Union reflection on my trip to the Monastery of St. Benedict in Subiaco, Italy, four years ago. 

With a breathtaking valley stretching out below and an ancient monastery clinging to the cliffs above, Subiaco, Italy, feels as though it is a world away from the chaotic streets of Rome, only 40 miles to its west. And, in a sense, it is.

Steeped in history that stretches back to the Roman Empire and the earliest centuries of the Roman Catholic Church, Subiaco is a place out of time, giving visitors a chance to step into the very same cloisters, caves and gardens that were once home to ancient saints and medieval monks. Read more

A romantic getaway 10 minutes from home

Dennis and I decided we wanted a romantic night away from home, but with three kids and busy schedules, we didn’t see how that was going to happen any time soon. And then we had an Aha! moment. We didn’t have to go far to get away. Maybe romance was right around the corner. And so we set out to give ourselves a 16-hour escape only 10 minutes from home. Read more

Manic Monday: A busy week in and around Albany

Hey, gang. What a beautiful week to be from New York’s Capital Region. No, seriously, I’m not kidding about that. For once. These days I am loving my adopted hometown more and more. Maybe because Dennis and I are regularly abandoning our children to hang out in pubs and parks, and did I mention pubs?

And this week we had the added bonus of tulips, tulips and more tulips in Washington Park, which happens to be right across the street from the offices of the New York State Catholic Conference, where Dennis spends his days. We skipped the overcrowded Tulip Fest yesterday and instead opted for a trip to Cardona’s Italian Market for Mother’s Day lunch fixings, but Dennis and I celebrated our own small-scale version of Tulip Fest at lunch time today. Lots of photos this week, lots of photos… Read more

Rome via iMessage: Next best thing to being there

Thanks to the thoughtfulness of my husband and the wonder of iMessage (free texts between Apple devices), I have been traipsing around Rome for the past few days. The journey has felt so real I’m expecting a blister on my foot at any moment. Throughout Dennis’ weeklong trip to Rome, he has kept me in the Italian loop almost every step of the way. Literally. (And I don’t take that whole “literally” thing lightly, trust me.) Read more

A not-so-hidden gem in Albany: City Beer Hall

For the past few years, whenever we would go to Sunday Mass at Historic St. Mary’s in downtown Albany  (The church is a destination in itself, if you’ve never been there.), we’d drive past The City Beer Hall on the way home and say, “We have to try that some day.” Something about the 1903 building with the “Beer Hall” in lights on the roof spoke to us. It looked like it just had to be good. But, as with many things we say we’d like to do, we never got around to it. Until yesterday. Dennis and I spent Easter Monday downtown — first with a walk along the Hudson in the Corning Preserve and later with a walk over the highway, into Albany and onward to the Beer Hall.  Read more

Finding God amid the scaffolding and noise

I realized yesterday that I’m a bit like a homing pigeon when it comes to visiting New York. No matter where I am in Manhattan, I always end up back at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is like home base for me. Back when I was a reporter for Catholic New York, I used to cover Cardinal John O’Connor’s Sunday Masses there with regularity, along with lots of other events, from the unusual (Andy Warhol’s memorial Mass complete with Liza Minelli and Grace Jones) to the the sublime (meeting Mother Teresa after a Mass marking the anniversary of Cardinal Terence Cooke’s death.) Read more

Italy 2014: Order coffee like an Italian

So you’re going to Italy and you want to know how to order a coffee. Okay, well, first things first. If you ask for coffee, “un caffé,” you will get an espresso. It will be “short” and dark and may have a lovely golden rim around it. If you want something more akin to what you drink at home, you could ask or caffé americano or caffé lungo, and they’ll water down your espresso, but why would you want to do that? Caffé macchiato is an espresso “stained” with a little milk. Read more

Italy alert: We are now under the one-year countdown to the most amazing pilgrimage

One year from now we will be just back from the most amazing pilgrimage, a 13-day food and faith tour of Italy that will take us from Montecatini, Florence, Siena, and Assisi to Rome, Naples, Salerno, Sorrento, and the Isle of Capri. There’s still plenty of time to save up some money and vacation days and join us for a wonderful weaving of spirituality, sightseeing, and one fabulous meal and hotel after another. You can find the full itinerary HERE. Read more