The Pilgrim's Italy
James & Colleen Heater
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Buy *The Pilgrim's Italy: A Travel Guide to the Saints* online

The Pilgrim's Italy: A Travel Guide to the Saints
James & Colleen Heater
Inner Travel Books
288 pages
December 2002
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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It's an idea so simple that it's remarkable it hasn't been done before. Lucky for James and Colleen Heater, co-authors of this pleasant and useful book, they were the ones who got to write it. The Heaters are Americans, followers of Paramhansa Yogananda, from whose teaching they experience the practical joys of meditation. The book mirrors the format of many ordinary travel guides - it tells, without touting, how to get around and where to stay. But the focus is meditation on holy persons and their history.

The concept of a non-Catholic meditating at the shrine of a Catholic saint may seem, to those not acquainted with universality in religion, a little awkward, to say the least. The authors state, "We believe that truth is universal and transcends religious boundaries." Whether we grew up Catholic, Protestant or not Christian at all, most of us have our favorite saint. The life of St. Francis is part of our Western heritage, and of course Peter, Paul and other apostles are saints and have their shrines where one may contemplate the dedication and devotion of their lives.

Pilgrimage, the authors assert, "has been practiced since the sun first rose on human civilization." The urge latent in all of us to connect in some way with the sacred leads us to holy places and to the study of saintly lives. This book gives us a practical way in. Italy is certainly, for Christians, a treasure trove of pilgrimage sites. The book helps the potential pilgrim get from shrine A to shrine B, and is seeded with helpful phrases in Italian for the language limited traveler. "Do you have a guidebook in English?" and "Can I see the saint's relics?" - two questions, for example, that would certainly go a long way to solving immediate problems.

For each place of pilgrimage, information is well formatted, including "Quiet areas for meditation" along with the usual lodging, transportation, and recommended reading.

The accounts of the lives and work of the saints begin with quotes when possible: "Speak only to God, or about God" (St. Dominic); "I have been useful in my life but I will be moreso after my death" (St. Agnes of Montepulciano); "He who does the work of Christ must always live in Christ" (Fra Angelico). There are the most recently beatified such as Padre Pio, who died in 1968 after living for many years with the stigmata, including pain and dripping blood "a bewilderment and embarrassment to his superiors." And the most ancient, such as the church of St. Mary Major. At Mary's request, a snow fell in August of 352, indicating where the chapel was to be built, and where, we are told, "a reliquary below the center altar displays a piece of the baby Jesus' crib."

The book contains maps, web site information, and tips about travel in italy. It includes some helpful hints for the vegetarian pilgrim. The authors have centered in, as it were, on the possibilities of spiritual satisfaction that a sincere seeker may derive from spending time in a sacred room or cave where others have meditated and prayed over the years. They offer a chapter on getting started in basic meditation technique and advise, much as a hiker must get in shape, that a beginner needs to practice meditation before setting out.

As a compendium for the uninitiated, the book is worth reading for its own sake, even if one is not planning a trip to Italy and has not the means to make an outward journey to holy places. As the authors say,

“Whether we travel to a sacred site or stay home and read about a saint, our prayers and focused meditations are the most important aspect of inner pilgrimage. The true essence of pilgrimage is always centered at home, in one’s own heart."

© 2003 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book

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