Sister Ann Heath

Taking a walk is a favorite activity of mine. I have walked in lots of places around the world, but the walks with the greatest impact possess a spiritual dimension. They are the soulful ones. And for me the walking is a pilgrimage.

There are many ways to make a pilgrimage and you do not need to travel far, although you can. I like to think of pilgrimage as a journey of the heart which carries me closer to God, by entering into the lives of the saints, touching places they have blessed with their presence; or encountering the sanctity of the ages by visiting churches, shrines, and sacred places, which speak of God’s unique blessings upon past generations; or seeking out beauty with the intention of glorifying all that is good, holy and perfect in God’s creation.

What kind of walking is required? For sure, my preparation involves calming my hurried pace and stepping into a gentle, meandering kind of walk, a saunter. As the pilgrim saunters, so too I focus on walking with the spirit of a traveler seeking a holy land, one seeking to be revitalized by purpose and goodness, one ready to be immersed in a holiness of time, place and presence.

At one time in my life, the thought of traveling worldwide to places where saints have trod was unimaginable!  But trying to envision that experience led me to consider how each day offers an opportunity for moments of personal pilgrimage. The words of St. Paul in Philippians 4:8 provided inspiration: “If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

So, this mindfulness makes possible a pilgrimage of the heart where we step deliberately into the presence of the holy to think upon such things in the ordinariness of daily life.

Now, for those who have the benefit of living around Philadelphia and its environs, we are surrounded by actual places where saints have walked. Each Lent, I make a one-day pilgrimage locally to become immersed in the spiritual life of the church as lived concretely by these witnesses to the faith. The proximity provides easy access to some wonderful places.  The itinerary could be quite varied, but here are a few saints whose shrine rank among my personal favorites.

St. John Neumann (1811-1860) worked tirelessly as a Redemptorist priest and bishop among the people, especially the most abandoned poor, in the vast diocese of Philadelphia during the 19th century. His shrine, located at 1019 North Fifth Street in Philadelphia, invites visitors into the heart of the Church’s mission as servant.

St. Rita of Cascia (1381-1457) plays a significant role in the devotional life of many individuals today. While on earth, she strove to be a peacemaker, imploring the intercession of her three patron saints, John the Baptist, Augustine, and Nicholas of Tolentino. Her shrine in South Philadelphia at 1166 South Broad Street welcomes visitors to seek the intercession of St. Rita for peacemaking, healing, and reconciliation.

St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) renounced life as a wealthy Philadelphia heiress to become a religious sister, educator, and foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Her profound legacy of service has its roots in her dedication to work among the American Indians and African-Americans in the western and southwestern United States. Her sacred remains were recently moved to a shrine within the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.

Pilgrimage offers a framework for walking with the divine, sometimes through brief moments in our daily life as we encounter the spiritual dimension in how we live, and at other times through journeying to places with spiritual significance. Today, technology offers the option to visit some holy places via the internet and to take a sacred virtual tour in the quiet space of our hearts.

So, as the Lenten journey begins, the Spirit might be beckoning each of us to exercise our soul through a pilgrimage of grace, to walk with the holy in a new and perhaps unexplored way.

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Sister Ann Heath, I.H.M., is a professor of higher education at Immaculata University.