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Travelling with the Saints in Italy

October 3, 2011

What started out as a basic idea a few years ago eventually came to pass as an amazing pilgrimage to Italy in June/July 2011.  Undertaking a pilgrimage is one way to help us grow spiritually and reach a little closer to the Ultimate Source. It is a time when we leave behind our comfort zone and general routine, to face new challenges on every level: physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual. Starting this journey with an open mind helped us shake free from old and restrained patterning to become more expansive in our entirety and experience a greater feeling of connectedness. Pilgrimage is very much an inner journey as it is an outer journey. It is much easier to relate to an outer pilgrimage than the inner one.  The pilgrimage becomes an experience filled with awe, joy, sadness, (when one realizes the extreme hardship the holy ones of the past endured so patiently), questioning, and really getting in touch with one’s own spirituality. Walking great distances on the pilgrimage gives one the opportunity to really reflect and introspect, and develop awareness of how one thinks, speaks and acts. The greatest reward of a pilgrimage is to embrace fully and to continue benefiting from what one has gained from the inner journey.
So there we were, three like-minded friends from different backgrounds, cultures and faith traditions – ready to explore, experience, and expand. God’s Grace provided timeous insight into the greater planning of our trip – from a book called, Travelling with Saints in Italy –Contemporary pilgrimages on ancient paths, by Lucinda Vardey. This wonderful book shaped our trip extensively for visiting the places/sites of selected saints of Italy.
We started in VENICE. St Mark’s Basilica was an enormous work of exquisite architecture and art. In Piazza San Marco, one has to stand back quite a distance to be able to take in the whole view of this magnificent building. One thing that struck the mind, and a common factor that we experienced throughout our pilgrimage in Italy, is how big and how lofty these structures are. It suggests that when man, in his efforts to honour the Divine; he does it on grand scale – to represent the majesty, magnitude of greatness and the beauty of the Divine. Many of these outstanding buildings took centuries of hard toil from all types of men, from labourers to artists and it brought forth some of the most beautiful artistic work ever created by man. Similarly, this also applies to all other devotional places of worship – irrespective of country or faith denomination. Churches, temples, mosques are built in such a way as if the devotees want to reach up as high as possible to attain nearness to the Divine, both physically and spiritually.

PADUAbeckoned us next.  We visited the Basilica di San Antonio, known as Il Santo.  St Anthony was a Franciscan Monk, well-known for the conversion of people to religious life through his tremendous oratory skills. We felt very much drawn to the sanctity of this great church. A deep sense of peace and spirituality prevailed in its exquisiteness. The building of this church was initiated by one of his disciples, bearing testimony to their great love and reverence for the saint.

Throughout our pilgrimage we particularly enjoyed the lengthy times of sitting in silence in the churches, caves and sacred places as it aided the internal processing and personal shift taking place. We delighted in our daily morning meditation and evening satsang, thus starting and ending our day by connecting with the Higher Source. Satsang was our getting together with devotional interfaith singing and sharing.

Our next stop was FLORENCE. We saw Ponte Vecchio, (old bridge), built in 1345 – Florence’s first bridge across the Arno River and is the only surviving bridge from Florence’s medieval days, (others were destroyed in World War II). A short walk through the historic busy streets in the heart of Florence led us to the Galleria degli Uffizi which contains the works of great artists such as Michelangelo, Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Perugino, and Raphael.  Yes, we viewed Michelangelo’s famous “David”. The meticulous detail of this famous artist’s works is totally awe-inspiring. Michelangelo was brilliantly talented. Observing the minute details on this exceptional sculpture makes one wonder how Michelangelo was able to carve out such a masterpiece from a cold and enormous marble block. “David” is holding a stone in his right hand and wearing only a slingshot over his left shoulder. Every part of the human anatomy is beautifully sculpted.  Michelangelo’s many paintings too, bear testimony that he must have been tuned into some higher level of spirituality, and therefore were divinely inspired to have imparted this into his art.

Santa Maria Novella,
the first great basilica in Florence, is decorated with beautiful black and white marble inside and outside and has a magnificent green and white marble façade.We also visited the stunningly beautiful Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, (St Mary of the Flowers) – a very ‘feminine’ cathedral dedicated to Mother Mary. It is a huge Gothic cathedral with an exterior made of green, pink and white marble, and an impressive dome.
St Catherine underwent great hardship and fasted frequently, and continued to have spiritual experiences. She also showed great dedication towards the poor. After 20 years of pure contemplation, she began an intensive social and political activity. As pilgrim of peace, she gave significant attention for the life of politics since it directly involved the Church, and by implication the great interest of the people of God. From 1374 onwards Catherine ventured into a series of journeys as facilitator of peace between the Pope and the various cities that were constantly at war with the Pontifical State. In 1375 she received the stigmata, (wounds of Christ), in front of The Crucifix in the Church of Santa Maria della Spina, in Pisa. Catherine was the only woman who was canonized in the 14th century. Her tomb is in front of the main altar in Rome in The Basilica of St Mary above Minerva, (an ancient Roman temple dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom).

SIENA, the home of Saint Catherine, was our next stop. What a delightful place – peaceful and tranquil. Our tour covered the Basilica San Domenico and also St Catherine’s house. She is revered for being a pilgrim of peace, a nurse, a teacher and a facilitator in the social and political field.  She received her first mystic vision at the tender age of 6, which she saw on the roof-top of St Dominic’s church.
We then travelled to ASSISI by bus, arriving at the station of Santa Maria degli Angeli, (St Mary of the Angels) – so known because it is said that four pilgrims passing by that spot heard the song of angels. We knew from the start that Assisi would be the highlight of our pilgrimage.  Five glorious days we stayed there. Assisi lies about 5km away on top of a large hill. It houses many churches and places of spiritual significance. Of course, our first visit in Assisi was to the Basilica San Francesco, which consists of an upper and lower church and where the tomb of St Francis is housed.

St. Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in history. He founded the men’s Franciscan Order, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the lay Third Order of Saint Francis. He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, and he lived the high-spirited life typical of a wealthy young man. While going off to war in 1204 Francis had a vision that directed him back to Assisi, where he lost his taste for worldly life. On his return he began preaching on the streets and soon amassed a following. In 1224 he received the stigmata.

The Porziuncola, (“little portion”), is the original stone chapel that St Francis restored after Divine instruction. It stands directly under the later-built Basilica’s large dome. Dating from the 9th century, the long-abandoned little chapel was given to him by the Benedictines and became the early headquarters of the new Franciscan order, founded here in 1209. This is also where he died in 1226.

Our accommodation in Santa Maria degli Angeli offered an incredible view of the whole of Assisi in the day and lit up at night – which provided a stunning view for our daily satsang.

At the other end of Assisi we find the beautiful pink and white-stoned Basilica Santa Chiara, (Church of St Clare), which houses her tomb.  St Francis and St Clare shared a great spiritual bond and he held her in high regard.

St Clare was from a noble family. At the age of 18 she was entered into the order by St Francis after she ran away from home after renunciating everything. Her beautiful long yellow stresses were shorn and she became a nun dressed in a coarse habit with a rope tied around her waist and remained bare feet. St Francis sent her to live in the San Damiano Convent with other, (mostly young women), who joined her and eventually known as the ‘Poor Clares’.  They all lived upstairs in one large room, bare and cold under the rafters of the roof. A bed was nothing but a bundle of twigs, with a piece of wood serving as a pillow. Over their shorn heads they wore a white head cloth and a black veil on top. Under her clothing, St Clare also wore a hair shirt made of pig skin with the rough side inwards. Living in extreme poverty and straightened means, their daily food was pieces of stale, dry bread which they sometimes moistened with a bit of oil.  St Clare fasted most of the time.  They had undertaken the Franciscan vow of poverty, chastity and humility – which could be maintained and strengthened only through constant and sincere prayer.
Umbria itself is a beautiful place.  The abundant fields of gorgeous sunflowers were such a delightful display; as well as the sprawling valleys, beautiful olive groves and green vegetation.Assisi means ‘City of Peace’ – and indeed, that is what we found. We loved being there. We also undertook visits to other places associated with St Francis, such as  Eremo della Carceri , walking a great distance to the high slopes of Mount Subiaso about 4km from Assisi.  A taxi ride took us to the distant Mount La Verna, Gubio, and Citta` di Castello – which houses the tomb of Blessed Margaret. But when we arrived the church was closed.

Next we moved on to ROME. After leaving behind the peacefulness of Assisi, at first I found it a bit of a shock to the system adjusting to the frenetic atmosphere of Rome. It was a different experience – Rome has its own charm and fast moving energy. Loads of people, cars, scooters and police sirens are heard all the time. So it was indeed a great blessing that we stayed here in a convent giving us a sense of peace and calmness.

Our tour included the ruins of the magnificent Colosseum, the Parthenon, the ancient cobbled path of Appian Way from Roman times, Catacombs, Piazza Chiesa Nuova, Trevi Fountain, the magnificent St Peter’s Basilica, and the Church of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem built by Empress Helena, also known as St Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great.  At the great age of 80 she went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and found the true cross of Jesus’ crucifixion, and brought it back to Rome. It is said that its whereabouts was revealed to Helena in a dream. We viewed relics consisting of a large piece of this cross, two thorns from the crown and a nail driven into the cross that is housed in this church, the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. It had wonderful quiet atmosphere.

 The Vatican museum was next on our list. There is so much to see in this huge complex.  It also contained an unusual spiral staircase.  The Sistine Chapel was different to what I had imagined, i.e. “the creation of Adam” didn’t occupy a whole dome, but instead it was part of a long ceiling with many other paintings. Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while lying on his back for four years!  It is impressive beyond words, totally fascinating – one becoming a bit dizzy staring upwards, or claustrophobic with the masses of people in the same room. In San Petro Square, the St Peter’s cathedral was grand and impressive.


Leaving Rome, SUBIACO was our next destination – an unspoilt jewel of nature in the Aniene valley, and it formed another highlight of our pilgrimage. Saint Benedict, regarded as the pioneer of the monastic order of Benedictine monks, spent most his life here in quiet meditation. His monastery, Sacro Speco, consisted of caves high up in the mountain. On arriving at Subiaco, we walked a very long way uphill to reach the Forresteria Benneditto Santa Scholastica.  It felt like it was both a spiritual and physical tapas, (austerity) – for we walked many kilometres in the blazing heat to get there.
When the time came to leave, to put it mildly, it was difficult to leave Subiaco.Subiaco is a delightful place – the splendour of the forests, the majestic cliffs, beautiful waterfall and lake with its clear and refreshing water. The prevailing silence in this area was so welcoming, easily ushering one into a meditative state. There are also ruins of Emperor Nero’s palace. We had no choice but to extend our stay as we found it such a meaningful experience to be there. We had precious evening satsang outdoors overlooking the valley – an exquisite sight in the glow of the setting sun. It was almost unreal.  It was certainly Divine.
Finally we made our way back to Rome to catch the flight home. The outer pilgrimage may have come to an end, but the inner pilgrimage continues. The impact of this glorious experience and what has been absorbed helps one to grow spiritually.

So with heavy hearts we moved on to  SAN GIOVANNI RONTONDO  to ‘meet’ another saint, but one of more recent times, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, who lived from May 1887-1968. He also received bleeding stigmata until his death. This is another special place where we experienced a sanctified peacefulness. There is a large unusual church built in his honour which houses his tomb. After visiting various sites associated with Padre Pio, we walked the Via Crucis in silent prayer, as a pilgrimage to this extraordinary saint.


Our accommodation in the various convents/monasteries was indeed a wonderful experience. They have strict rules; however it fitted in well with our lifestyle. We enjoyed the quiet, tranquil and sanctified atmosphere immensely.

Whereas we travelled mainly by train and bus, a great deal of our journey was undertaken on foot – which helped to create a true experience of the pilgrims of ancient times, (though they suffered much greater inconvenience).  At times, we experienced tests of weariness, pushing tolerance levels, watching the mind and questioning oneself.  It increased our self-awareness and self-discovery.

A great sense of gratitude was experienced by all of us for having been afforded this wonderful opportunity for this pilgrimage, and to have walked, in a sense, in the footsteps of the great saints. We felt so blessed learning more about them, their sacrifices, their strengths, their pain and hardships, and their resolute striving to be united with their Creator. It accentuates what special souls they were and how blessed our spiritual world is to have had them pass through. The true spiritual domain knows no divisions and labels; hence anyone irrespective of their faith tradition can feel greatly inspired and motivated by these great souls and attain to greater spiritual heights.

It’s marvellous how amazing a journey can turn out with an open mind, welcoming spirit and devotion linked to the Divine. A journey has the capacity to transcend into a truly spiritual experience that touches the heart and expands the being with more Light and Love.


Rashidah Hargey is a registered Bowen therapist based in Rondebosch East. In 2006 she started on the path of Sivananda Integral Yoga and has found it a life-changing experience. She has since become a yoga instructor and teaches Hatha yoga at Ananda Kutir Ashrama and Yoga Salaam. Being the eternal student and believing that all paths of spiritual teachings lead to the One Source, encourages religious tolerance and understanding. She embraces and promotes living more consciously with mindfulness and continued self-observation to nurture the spiritual Self and feeling a greater connectedness to the Ultimate Source. |
One Comment leave one →
  1. William permalink
    August 6, 2012 7:21 pm

    Very uplifting, informative and beautifully written. Thank you.

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