Writings of saints, places they lived offer pilgrimage opportunities

By Kristen Hannum Catholic News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. — The ancient, battered landscapes of the Holy Land and the magnificent basilicas of Rome are the places that first come to mind for Catholics considering a pilgrimage.

And yet the church’s rich history of saints and doctors of the church — that is, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, ecclesiastical writers who have greatly benefited the whole church — provide dozens, if not hundreds of places that can grace a traveler’s prayer life and closeness with God. In fact, the question may be how to choose a saint whose instructions on the mystery of faith feels most meaningful.

Four of the six saints most recently named doctors of the church have been women. Pilgrimages that include reading the works of these women doctors, and even a journey to where they lived, is worth consideration.

Barb Anderson, retired pastoral associate at St. Mary Parish in Corvallis, Oregon, was a pilgrim with a group that she organized with her husband, Deacon Chris Anderson. Benedictine Abbot Peter Eberle of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon accompanied the pilgrims as their chaplain as the group visited Assisi, Siena and Rome.

“Just the hills alone, the physical rigors, were compelling,” Anderson said of St. Catherine’s Siena, in the heart of Tuscany.

Many of those traveling with the group hadn’t understood just how important St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was, but they witnessed traces of her wherever they went, said Anderson.

She warned that St. Catherine of Siena’s writing can be tough to understand, with a spirituality very different from ours.

Anderson suggests reading “Catherine of Siena; Vision Through a Distant Eye,” by Dominican Sister Suzanne Noffke to get a foothold on understanding her worldview.

Anderson puts St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) in the same category. “Her spirituality is so heavily mystical that it may need some introduction,” Anderson said in an interview with the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.

Anderson suggests “The Collected Letters of St. Teresa of Avila,” by Carmelite Father Kieran Kavanaugh. “This book gives you a real sense of her day-to-day life,” Anderson explained by email. “It is written by an excellent scholar.”

For pilgrims, St. Teresa’s major shrine, the Convent of the Annunciation in Alba de Tormes, Spain, has the added benefit of being near the Church of St. John of the Cross. He was a poet and mystic who joined St. Teresa’s reform of the church. St. John of the Cross was promoted to doctor of the church in 1926. October is the month to visit nearby Avila. The month is dedicated to St. Teresa there.

The next woman saint promoted to doctor to consider is St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897). St. John Paul II named “The Little Flower” a doctor in 1997. Because of her, Lisieux, in France’s Normandy region, has become second only to Lourdes as France’s most popular pilgrimage destination.

Pilgrims to Lisieux should first read her spiritual memoir, “Story of a Soul.”

“You’ll understand what was going on at the time, and be prepared for what you see,” said Carol Percin, who coordinates pilgrimages for Oregon Catholic Press. (OCP is publisher of the Catholic Sentinel.)

Percin urged pilgrims always to learn about the saints featured in a pilgrimage ahead of time, reading their biographies and watching about them in order to understand the political and religious conditions of their times. “Otherwise you can get lost in the modern cityscapes,” she said.

Percin believes in her work organizing pilgrimages, having accompanied many pilgrims with the OCP tours. At holy sites, she said, “you’re sitting next to people from all over the world, people who are praying in their own languages; it’s powerful.”

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) founded Eibingen Abbey in Germany in 1165. It is her major shrine and is on the Hildegard of Bingen Trail, where the route is marked by a sign showing a nun.

“With Hildegard, begin by listening to her music,” advised Miriam Marston, who serves as coordinator for the Institute for Catholic Life and Leadership for the Archdiocese of Portland. “It is ethereal, anointed.”

Marston said listeners should pay close attention to St. Hildegard’s lyrics as well, poetry that can open spiritual doors.

It’s difficult to find a downside to listening to St. Hildegard’s music, watching films about the saints or reading their biographies and spiritual works — even if those activities don’t culminate in travel. “The world is full of people who won’t be able to go on pilgrimage,” Anderson noted.

Meaningful pilgrimages of the mind can take place through the pages of a book.

However, as Anderson said, “there’s something evocative about being in the actual place. It can be overwhelming at times.”

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