A Pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca

When I arrived in Bologna, Italy and saw the hilltop cathedral towering over the small town, I asked an elderly woman who was passing by, “What’s that?” She batted her eyelashes and gave me a beatific smile, as if she were talking about a beloved grandchild. In broken English, she said, “This where Madonna di San Luca lives. You go. You walk.”

I learned from asking around that the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca (Santuario della Beata Vergine di San Luca) is a historic pilgrimage site for those devoted to the Madonna. To make a pilgrimage to honor the Madonna, you walk up the hill to pay your respects. When I asked at my hotel how I would make such a journey, I was given instructions to walk to the 25 bus, then transfer at the Stazione to the 33 bus, then exit at Via Saragozza and walk to the Sanctuary from there. Cool. Easy enough.

I woke up early so I could beat the crowds and have some sacred time with the Madonna before the little red tourist train arrived with throngs of tourists who I was warned were more interested in taking selfies with the Madonna than in spending holy time in prayer. Catching the 25 bus and then transferring to the 33 bus was easy. I almost got off at the wrong stop, but a lovely Italian woman, said, “Proximo Stazione,” so I waited until she guided me to get off.

The Pilgrimage

I walked a mile or two on Via Saragozza under a beautiful archway, until I saw a brown historic marker pointing up a road that pointed to the Sanctuary. Following the brown sign, I started walking on the road, which climbed a steep hill and got more and more narrow. I wondered why there was nowhere on the road for pilgrims to walk. I was sure I was about to get run over by a bus or car any minute! I could just see the headlines, “Tourist on Pilgrimage Meets Early Death By Tour Bus.” I figured it wouldn’t be a real pilgrimage unless there was some discomfort involved.

As cars swerved around me on the narrow road, it started to rain, so I trudged up the hill, unprepared for rain, getting wet but appreciating the coolness of the water as my muscles ascended. About an hour up the hill, I still saw no sign of the Sanctuary, and the little brown signs were gone. Had I missed it? And where were the other pilgrims? Was I the only intrepid pilgrim coming out at sunrise in the rain?

I saw an elderly man walking his Golden Retriever in a park, and I stopped to ask if he spoke English. He shook his head. “Santuario Madonna di San Luca?” I pointed up the hill.

He shook his head madly. “No no no. Largo. Largo.” He pointed back down the hill. “Machina.” I said I wanted to walk, to make a pilgrimage, using the universal sign language for walk—marching my two fingers like a hand puppet. He shook his head violently. “No no. Largo Largo.” He pointed back down the hill.

Finally, he pointed to the passenger seat of his car, motioning for me to get in. I looked at the clock. I’m in Italy to teach a workshop with my Italian publisher for my book The Fear Cure, and my publisher was supposed to pick me up at 11 a.m. It was already 8:30 a.m. I figured I’d accept the lift, assuming he would take me to the Sanctuary. But that’s not what happened. He drove me back down the hill I just walked up and pointed to a van that was sitting by the side of the road. He spoke in Italian to the driver, and the driver nodded his head. They motioned for me to get in.

When We Lose the Path

Feeling helpless and lost, I followed instructions. For the next thirty minutes, I sat in the back of the van, wondering why we were sitting on the side of the road for so long. “Santurio Madonna di San Luca?” I asked. The driver nodded. He pointed to his watch. 9 a.m.

Finally, we started driving back up the hill I had just walked. We drove. And we drove. And we drove. The van stopped at bus stops, and I kept trying to get out, but the driver kept saying, “No no.” As we kept driving, mile after mile, further up the hill to scenic overlooks and grand vistas of the surrounding Italian countryside, I suddenly understood why the old man kept telling me it was too far to walk. He wasn’t kidding. It was FAR. Is this how far people usually walked to visit the Madonna? Wow. I was impressed. Although I felt a bit like I was cheating, given my time crunch, I was grateful to have accepted the ride.

Finally, the Sanctuary was in sight. The driver nodded. Yes. Here. I exited the van and approached the Sanctuary with humble gratitude. I thought of the workshop about pilgrimages that I attended at Grace Cathedral with Rupert Sheldrake, how he suggested circling the pilgrimage site three times before entering just to honor the holiness of the shrine. Looking at my watch, I felt regret. It was already 9:30 a.m. I had no cell service in Italy, and there was no Wi-Fi, so I had no way to reach my publisher or ask if it was OK to be late. I didn’t want to disrespect the driver who was coming to Bologna to pick me up and escort me to Rimini. There was no time to walk three times around the sanctuary before entering, but I asked for permission, apologizing for my haste. I also felt regretful that I had missed the opportunity to walk, to pay my respects with my feet. I hoped the Madonna saw my walk to the bus, my two bus rides, my two miles on foot, then my long van ride as a pilgrimage in its own right. It had taken me almost three hours to get the relatively short distance between my hotel and the Sanctuary.

Meeting the Madonna

There were only three people in the Sanctuary when I entered. I was instantly struck by the same feeling I got when I made a pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo, near Santa Fe or when I walked the holy labyrinth at Grace Cathedral. A rush of tears filled my eyes, as I felt the presence of all of the pilgrims who have walked the spiritual path before me and all those who will walk it after me, all the souls yearning to be free, all the humans longing to be closer to God. In that space of deep heart opening, I approached the shrine of the Madonna and fell to my knees, feeling a bit shy in Her presence and apologizing for my shyness.

I grew up in the Methodist Church, so not only was the Madonna not worshiped, I was actually taught that it was sacrilege to worship any God other than the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, Holy Ghost. It wasn’t until decades later, long after I left the church, that I felt the deep grief of having the presence of the Divine Feminine extracted from the Christian faith in which I was raised. Kneeling before the Madonna felt like a homecoming of sorts, but after so many years of neglecting Mother Mary, I felt awkward. For years, I’ve been worshipping the Hindu Goddesses of Tantra without feeling strange at all, but here I was, back with one of the two primary representatives of the feminine in my religious lineage (Mary Magdalene being the other much-defamed and neglected presence of the feminine in the faith of my youth.) and I didn’t quite know how to pray to Her. I could still hear the voices of my Protestant upbringing telling me it was a sin to pray to Mother Mary and that only those “bad Catholics” prayed to idols like that. (I never bought those stories of judgment as a child, but I also never quite resolved the disconnect in my young heart.)

Now here I was, with the clock ticking, having a deep and precious moment with the Madonna and feeling regretful that I was going to have to kneel, light a candle, make an offering, and then . . . way too soon . . . leave. I asked for Her pardon. I promised to return. Kneeling at the pew at the front of the church, I was suddenly surprised to see two priests approach the pulpit and a few nuns entered the sanctuary singing. I was suddenly in the middle of a Catholic mass being delivered in a language I didn’t understand.

Misappropriating the Goddess

All I could understand of the words the two priests spoke was “Signore” this and “Signore” that. I wasn’t sure what they were speaking about, but I assumed they were preaching to a masculine God. I felt insulted on behalf of the Goddess. Why were they only addressing a masculine Presence when we were in the holy shrine of the Madonna? Why not “Signora?” I realized that this was my sign that it was OK to leave. Two men using a masculine pronoun had just taken over the home of the Goddess, and as much as I wanted to stay and commune with the Madonna in private, I felt like She had just given me permission to leave.

I quietly excused myself and made my way to the back of the sanctuary, where I put five euros in an offering box and took a printed card with an image of the Madonna and Child. I promised to take her home and make a space for her on my altar, alongside Kali and Saraswati. I also promised to come back to the Santuario another time, when I could engage more deeply with the Goddess of my own spiritual lineage, whom I have neglected for a long time.

The Way Home

As I exited the church, I saw that there was only one way out—a long Portico guiding the pilgrims out of the church. How had I missed this coming up? The whole thing was covered with messages on the chipped walls. It would have been impossible to miss the way to the shrine, yet I had gotten lost. How had that happened? I learned afterward that the Portico, a covered archway that winds up the hill for 3,796 meters, is the longest portico in the world. Since 1433, this Portico has provided shelter for the tens of thousands of pilgrims that journey to pay their respects to the Madonna every year. Had I know that the Portico guides your way to the Madonna, my journey would have been so much simpler, but instead, I took a pilgrimage of my own—the winding, bus-laden, circuitous route.

I was grateful to have my way back guided by the ancient architecture. I was touched by all the elderly women wearing rosaries huffing and puffing as they climbed stairs and walked uphill. Their presence among the joggers with iPhone headsets using the Portico as a gym seemed a fitting but slightly disturbing marriage of the ancient and the modern. All over Italy, I’ve been haunted and triggered by the intense disrespect I’ve felt among the tourists at very sacred sites, how these sites have become places for narcissistic selfies instead of holy places of prayer. I’ve had to watch my own judgment and remind myself to just be with what is instead of making up stories about how things should be different. But I still get triggered from time to time . . .

Walking back to the bus stop was easy. I followed the Portico until it dead ended . . . right at the spot where I had started walking up the road. Had I walked ten more steps, the path I was on would have forced me to turn left. I would have walked up that hill in thirty minutes under the Portico. But I followed the brown sign to the road just before the pilgrimage path would have made its own left turn. The red van I had taken was sitting right under the archway! Ha! If only someone had told me to get out of the van and cross the street, I would have been able to walk the pilgrimage march under the Portico, and I’d have gotten there an hour earlier! Ouch.

Misinterpreting the Signs

I had to laugh as I walked back to the 33 bus, then fumbled around trying to find the return bus stop for the 25 bus. How often do we take a wrong turn just before the aligned path would have been revealed? How many times do we follow what we think is a clear sign, only to realize in retrospect that it was a false sign, giving untrustworthy guidance that leads us astray? How many times do we fail to trust that if we just keep on going, without letting anything distract us off the path, we will arrive where we’re meant to go, even if it’s not where we intended to wind up?

The hilarity of it all was not lost on me. The other bus riders had a giggle watching me laugh out loud at my adorable lost self. I had to resist the temptation to beat myself up. If only . . . if only . . . But alas, I followed an erroneous sign and got lost. C’est la vie (or however you say that in Italiano). Who knows how things would have been different if I had trekked up the hill. Maybe getting lost made this more of a pilgrimage than if I had gotten it “right” the first time. Maybe I was supposed to meet that sweet, nurturing old man who drove me down the hill or the kind van driver who drove me up it. Maybe I was supposed to arrive just as mass was starting, and if I had arrived an hour earlier, I would have missed the Goddess’s permission to leave when the patriarchy was busy appropriating her gifts. Maybe I was meant to be humbled with my ignorance, having the fierce feminine’s sword slice through my hubris.

Maybe we don’t always get to know why we get lost. Perhaps we’re only meant to witness our lostness with bemused curiosity, humility, and a sweet sense of humor at how adorably human we all are.


A Small Miracle

To my shock, I arrived back at the hotel right at 11 a.m. on the dot. It felt like a subtle wink from the Madonna, a small miracle, that I somehow arrived back at the hotel just exactly in the nick of time. I was not packed, and I was a bit sweaty and rain-sopped, dressed in hiking clothes and not prepared to meet my publisher. But Melania understood when I rushed into the hotel lobby, told her I’d explain later, and ran up the stairs to quickly pack up my things.

And now I am reflecting back upon what happened with immense gratitude. Thank you, Santuario. Thank you, Madonna di San Luca. Thank you, Goddess . . .

I got the message. We will hang out more. I’ll try not to be so shy, now that we’ve had a chance to officially meet. Can we spend more time together? Will you stay with me in my heart?

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