This painting of St. Catherine of Siena was painted in the 17th century by Baldassare Franceschini, and is in the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. (Public Domain)
This painting of St. Catherine of Siena was painted in the 17th century by Baldassare Franceschini, and is in the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. (Public Domain)

The ancient, battered landscapes of the Holy Land and the magnificent basilicas of Rome are places that first come to mind for Catholics considering a pilgrimage.

And yet the church’s rich history of saints and doctors of the church — that is, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, ecclesiastical writers who have greatly benefited the whole church — provide dozens, if not hundreds of places that can grace a traveler’s prayer life and closeness with God. In fact, the question may be how to choose a saint whose instructions on the mystery of faith feels most meaningful. Four of the six saints most recently named doctors of the church have been women. Pilgrimages that include reading the works of these women doctors, and even a journey to where they lived, is worth consideration.

Barb Anderson, a retired pastoral associate at St. Mary Parish in Corvallis, was a pilgrim with a group that she organized with her husband, Deacon Chris Anderson. Benedictine Abbot Peter Eberle was chaplain as the pilgrims visited Assisi, Siena and Rome. “Just the hills alone, the physical rigors, were compelling,” she said of Siena, in the heart of Tuscany.

Many of those traveling with the group hadn’t understood just how important St. Catherine of Siena was, but they witnessed traces of her wherever they went, said Anderson.

She said that St. Catherine of Siena can be tough to understand, with a spirituality very different than what we are accustomed to.

Anderson puts St. Teresa of Avila in that same category of being tough for beginners. “Her spirituality is so heavily mystical that it may need some introduction,” Anderson told the Catholic Sentinel in 2015. That’s not to say Catholics shouldn’t read Sts. Teresa and Catherine’s works, but rather that readers might want to learn about them before opening “Interior Castle,” perhaps St. Teresa’s best-known work.

For pilgrims, St. Teresa’s major shrine, the Convent of the Annunciation in Alba de Tormes, Spain, has the added benefit of being near the Church of St. John of the Cross. He was a poet and mystic who joined St. Teresa’s reform of the church. St. John of the Cross was promoted to doctor of the church in 1926. October is the month to visit nearby Avila. The month is dedicated to St. Teresa.

The next woman saint promoted to doctor comes with no flashing warning signs for lay readers who aren’t steeped in theology. Pope John Paul II named St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “the little flower,” a doctor in 1997. Because of her, Lisieux, in Normandy, has become the second only to Lourdes as France’s most popular pilgrimage destination.

Pilgrims to Lisieux should first read her spiritual memoir, “The Story of a Soul.”

“You’ll understand what was going on at the time, and be prepared for what you see,” said Carol Percin, who coordinates pilgrimages for Oregon Catholic Press. (OCP is publisher of this newspaper.)

She urged pilgrims always learn about the saints featured in a pilgrimage ahead of time, reading biographies and watching films on the saints in order to understand the political and religious conditions of those past times. “Otherwise you can get lost in the modern cityscapes,” she said.

Percin believes in her work organizing pilgrimages, having accompanied so many pilgrims with the OCP tours. At holy sites, she said, “You’re sitting next to people from all over the world, people who are praying in their own languages; it’s powerful.”

St. Hildegard of Bingen’s major shrine, Eibingen Abbey in Germany, which she founded in 1165, is on the Hildegard of Bingen Trail in Bingen, where the route is marked by a sign showing a nun.

“With Hildegard, begin by listening to her music,” advised Miriam Marston, who serves as coordinator for the Institute for Catholic Life and Leadership for the Archdiocese of Portland. “It is ethereal, anointed.”

Marston said listeners should pay close attention to St. Hildegard’s lyrics as well, poetry that can open spiritual doors.

It’s difficult to find a downside to listening to St. Hildegard’s music, watching films about the saints or reading their biographies and spiritual works — even if those activities need not culminate in travel. “The world is full of people who won’t be able to go on pilgrimage,” Anderson noted.

Meaningful pilgrimages of the mind can take place through the pages of a book.

And yet, as Anderson said, “there’s something evocative about being in the actual place. It can be overwhelming at times.”

Another look

In 2015, Barb Anderson led a retreat titled “Praying with Doctors of the Church.” Two of the three doctors she chose were women: St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila — who are two of the four women doctors of the church, out of 36.

Anderson suggests three books for a beginning exploration of the three women doctors of the church whose work needs introduction:

• “The Collected Letters of St. Teresa of Avila,” by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D.  “This book gives you a real sense of her day-to-day life,” Anderson emailed. “It is written by an excellent scholar.”

• “Hildegard Bingen: The Woman of Her Age,” by Fiona Maddocks. “Good basic introduction.”

• “Catherine of Siena; Vision Through a Distant Eye,” by Suzanne Noffke, O.P. “Excellent combination of examining her writing and biography.”