In her new spiritual memoir Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life, Lorraine Ash brings her life experiences, including the stillbirth of her only child, onto inner landscapes—the places where divine insight resides. They are the places, she writes, where we make our own meaning.
Saints Actually Do March In
By Lorraine Ash
On a brutally hot July Saturday I drove my Subaru, laden with the makings of a workshop called The Spiritual Journey of Infant Loss, toward Boyerstown, Pennsylvania. Green farmlands rushed by my windows as I rolled through towns that were half suburban, half rural. My head pounded and, with each mile, my nausea grew greater. I was headed to meet some dozen bereaved parents at an historic bed-and-breakfast and spend the evening with them around a table in a formal Victorian dining room. We would have the inn to ourselves. The group was kind enough to put me up there for the night.
I had looked forward to spending time with the group; I believe in the healing that takes place when kindred spirits share with one another from a place of respect. I believe in stopping the relentless flow of scheduled activities to make such a gathering possible. That night we would show our true colors in spite of the great whitewashing with which the culture paints over our grief.
Yet the flow of my own life was particularly relentless then. The demands of working full time and caregiving and the usual list of duties that faces each of us pressed on me, so much that the week leading up to the gathering had been overscheduled. I hadn’t had a chance to quiet my mind and center myself the night before, as I would have liked. Checking my watch and global positioning system, I saw I was due to meet the group organizer, also a stillbirth mother, in 20 minutes. I’d make it just on time.
To soothe my hot, dizzied head and queasiness I held one hand in front of the air conditioner and then rested it on my forehead. I tried to fill my mind with the words the stillbirth mother had written to me the night before: “Our 5th wedding anniversary is tomorrow and Mary Elizabeth’s due date was yesterday. I’ve been trying to keep myself occupied by cleaning out two garages and working on your visit. What time will you be arriving? I will meet you at the inn to get you checked in. Also, I would like for the two of us to go out to eat before your presentation. We can hit Philly or King of Prussia for an early dinner.”
Ugh. Food. I toyed with the idea of calling to say I was running late, giving myself extra time to pull off the road, get a cola and meditate, just to feel better. Before the idea had finished forming I realized I was tapping the side of my head to alleviate pain and pulling my car off the road to be ill. When the greens of the landscape stopped whooshing by my windows, my gaze settled on a gate and a sign. I’d stopped in front of a shrine to Padre Pio.
I flashed back to my youth when I’d learned about this twentieth-century Italian Capuchin priest. I pictured him in his older years with a bushy white beard, wearing a robe, one hand raised in mid-blessing. The hand was gloved, leaving only his fingers exposed, to cover his stigmata, marks that resemble the wounds of the crucified Jesus and appear supernaturally, it is said, on the bodies of some devout Catholics. Sometimes the wounds even bleed. One day the stigmata appeared on Padre Pio after he said a mass. The saint with the kindly brown eyes was known for conducting very long masses because he would slip into deep contemplations in the middle of the services. His parishioners, taken by his holy demeanor, often sought his counsel. Then pilgrims worldwide sought him out, some saying a few minutes with Padre Pio transformed their lives.
He ate and slept very little, constantly prayed for the souls of purgatory to ascend into heaven, saw the image of Jesus in the poor and the suffering and the sick, and founded a hospital. “Bring God to all those who are sick,” he said. “This will help them more than any other remedy.” Padre Pio was a religious ecstatic his whole life, starting in his boyhood. He also was always sick, though doctors never seemed to know the cause of his physical problems. The saint lived with his afflictions, offering them up for the glory of God.
Padre Pio was said to possess the spiritual gifts of bilocation and miracles. He had the ability to read hearts, levitate, speak in tongues, multiply food, and see angels in bodily form. He is associated with lots of spontaneous healings the world over—before and after his death.
It had been years since I thought of the padre. I always instinctively believed in him and was drawn to the stories of religious ecstatics whose consciousness turned so inward to their divine core that they seemed to lose awareness of what was around them. Given my background, my first experiences with the phenomenon were Catholic, but in later years I recognized the same transformations in stories of Himalayan Hindu saints and Buddhist monks.
In midlife I listened, fascinated, as medical intuitive and spiritual teacher Caroline Myss spoke of how each of us vibrates with a different energy though we can be standing side by side in the same space in the same moment. She described a time she and another woman drove their car into a street riot while traveling somewhere for a spiritual purpose. As other cars were smashed or turned over, the two women rode through unscathed. Padre Pio lived that kind of life. Rarely if ever did he watch television, read newspapers or even leave the monastery in San Giovanni Rotondo. He lived on the earth bodily but his attention was in heavenly realms.
Taught from girlhood to apply the rigor of logic to all phenomena and grounded in practicality, I do not know why I instinctively loved the stories of saints like Padre Pio. Perhaps they reminded me that the world needn’t be a lonely place. The very air, the saints seem to tell us, is filled with God and angels and love and, if we look closely enough, these are the realities that can fill our lungs, our hearts, our lives. But no one else in my family believed in such things. My parents were Catholic but not given in any manner to the spiritual flights of the likes of Padre Pio. I’d always felt alone in my bloodline when it came to appreciating the ecstatics.
But I had learned something new and exciting days before I went to Boyertown as I sat around a kitchen table with my parents. We were discussing an ailment for which my father was then being treated. Somehow the conversation turned toward the healing waters of Saratoga Springs, of which I had happily partaken.
“I love those waters,” I said.
My mother stirred her coffee. “Not for me.”
“People believe in them.” I said the grandmother of a friend of mine consistently had bathed in Saratoga all her life and was now in her late nineties in good health.
“Your grandmother was the same way,” my mother said. My parents exchanged a glance.
“She went to Saratoga?”
My mother put down her spoon. “To Lourdes.”
My grandparents, who I called Nonna and Nonno, were both Americans but they had been born to Italian parents and spent half of every year in Italy visiting relatives. They traveled by boat. My grandmother, who suffered with chronic asthma, did not like flying. Forty-nine years into my life at the time, I didn’t know she’d ever set foot in Lourdes, a town in the foothills of the Pyrenees in France where apparitions of The Virgin Mary were reported to appear to Bernadette Soubirous in the mid-nineteenth century. To this day millions of pilgrims bathe in the famous healing waters there. Apparently my proper, stately grandmother was one of them.
“Go on,” I prodded my mother.
“Nonno took Nonna to Lourdes because she wanted to go. It was important to her,” my mother explained. “But he never wanted to go in so he always waited for her outside, telling her to take however long she needed. She would bathe in the waters and then wear a robe as she walked to the shrine.”
I could hardly picture my grandmother at Lourdes. Her faith and inclinations had been kept hidden from me. “Nonna believed in religious healing?” I asked my parents, incredulously.
“Yes.” My mother tapped her coffee mug.
“So do I.”
My parents looked at each other and then down, as if dejected.
“I know,” they said, simultaneously.
For the first time I didn’t feel alone in my intuitive appreciation for inner states in which the mind and heart do all they can to wrap themselves with the divine, to infuse themselves with it. God is many things, including medicine, as Padre Pio knew. A fragrance is said to have come from the padre’s stigmata wounds, a fragrance by which many have recognized his invisible healing presence at their bedsides. Perhaps my appreciation for saints like Padre Pio helped me accept the angelhood of my daughter quickly. My Victoria Helen lives with the saints.
There on the Pennsylvania road my reverie eventually ended. I lingered in the car to say a prayer to the padre, throw him a kiss and put the car into “drive” before resuming my course. In seconds I realized I felt fine. In fact, I felt fantastic. Five minutes later I was at the inn where the stillbirth mother, who had created the event, was waiting for me.
“How about we go to the Pennsylvania Dutch diner down the street?” she said. “We can walk the mile and talk.” LuAnn radiated strength and love; I liked her immediately.
“Terrific,” I said. “I’m famished. Let’s eat.” The headache did not return. The evening, which drew bereaved parents of children of all ages—and one fabulous nun—was magical.
Saints of all religious persuasions tend to walk less-traveled roads, which may be why they bring such comfort to those who find themselves on difficult life paths. People who give much and are taken for granted. People who toil for the good in anonymity and without support. People who grow sick and have no one to minister to them. People who are broadsided by tragedy and find no sufficient human companionship to comfort them. These are the people the saints visit. These are the people to whom the saints speak in the quiet of their hearts with the miraculous message, “I see you. I understand.”
©2013 Excerpt from Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life. Lorraine Ash. Reprinted with permission. Cape House Books.
An author, journalist, and writing workshop leader, Lorraine Ash has spent thirty years exploring the power of stories. Her new book, Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life, helps people direct their lives inward and find their true value. Learn more about Lorraine Ash and her memoir writing workshops at www.LorraineAsh.com .
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