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Madeleine Seymour will never forget what happened twenty-two years ago in her own backyard. Riddled with guilt and hoping to banish haunting nightmares, she travels to Italy with her husband on a pilgrimage. As a history professor, Madeleine is fascinated by the churches they visit in Rome, Orvieto, Milan, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Siena, Cortona, Assisi…and what she learns from the
lives of the martyrs. But can she find peace?
Many years after her baby girl drowned in a wading pool, nightmares of guilt and grief return to haunt history professor Madeleine Seymour, forty-nine. Her old friend and priest, Father Rinaldi, prescribes a pilgrimage through Italy, stopping at selected churches, praying for healing, and keeping a journal. When Father Rinaldi dies of a heart attack while celebrating Holy Communion, the chalice falls and spills on the altar cloth. Madeleine takes this cloth on her journey, a relic-linen of comfort and a metaphor of her pilgrimage.
She travels with husband Jack, sixty-two, a retired wine merchant, who likes to soften life's edges with good food and pleasant surroundings. Can Madeleine quell the demons of her soul with physical pampering or will the healing lie before a fiery altar in a dusky Romanesque abbey? Can she reconcile her worldly life with her spiritual hunger?
Madeleine and Jack visit churches in Rome, Orvieto, Milan, Lake Como, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Assisi, and Siena. In Rome they meet Sister Agnes, an elderly nun who runs an orphanage and convent, the young crippled Elena, and their guide, Brother Cristoforo, a black Franciscan. As they travel they encounter the lives of the early martyrs, and the humility and sacrifice of Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena. They grapple with the great questions of belief: What is truth? Why do we suffer? What happens when we die? What is the relationship of our souls to our bodies?
Chapter notes supplement and document the history portions of this work.
The day was balmy, one of those days when nothing could go wrong,
when the blue skies and the sun on your skin made you happy and
certain. It was Saturday and my clerical job at the bank seemed far away;
I was young and my future stretched before me. There would be many
days like this, I thought, full of sun, play, and children.
Mollie stacked rubber blocks on a pink blanket in a quiet corner of
the back lawn. She could sit up then—she was nearly eight months—and
could see her world, but she couldn’t yet walk. Her crawl still held the
wonder of movement; she wasn’t even scooting. So she was content to sit,
concentrating on the blocks, full of the promise of life.
Our Vancouver apartment was stuffy that warm afternoon, and we
escaped to the crabgrass to try out my son’s new wading pool, his thirdbirthday
present from his father and me. With Mollie nearby and Justin
hovering close, I pumped air into the white plastic. Justin shifted his
weight from foot to foot, raised his hands with impatience, and darted
around the lawn in a frenzy of anticipated joy. I had lathered sunscreen
on my son’s back, arms, legs, and face, and pinned his thrift-shop shorts
together at the waist. I pumped, pushing the handle down slowly and
pulling back up, watching my son’s wiry figure dance across the lawn,
return, stare at the emerging plastic sculpture, and pull his pants higher.
I remember how the moment held me in a trance of contentment—
the sun, the children, the wading pool taking shape as I pumped. There
was also the pleasure of control, the miracle of turning the flat folded
plastic into a pool, a cause for my son’s glee, a mother’s great pleasure.
But where was his father? He said he’d join us, but Charlie
remained inside, reading as usual, devoted to writing the Great
American Novel when he wasn’t sweeping warehouse floors. It had been
six years since immigrating to Canada to escape the Vietnam draft of
‘69; work had been scarce for both of us. We were in dead-end jobs and
barely made ends meet, but he wanted more and retreated into his books
to find a shortcut to success.
I set down the pump, dragged the green rubber hose to the pool,
and let Justin hold it, the water streaming out. His first pool. And Mollie
was so cute sitting there on her blanket. Where was the Brownie camera
I brought from San Francisco? It was in the kitchen next to the phone—I
was sure of it.
The water rose an inch, two inches, three. . . . I turned the wall
spigot off, moving the iron disc counterclockwise. “That’s enough,” I
Justin dropped the hose, looking disappointed. Nevertheless, he
hopped in, and I tossed him his bath toys—the battery-operated tug, the
fishing trawler, the police boat.
Mollie crawled toward us over the grass. I lifted her, sat her in the
water, and watched her slap her hands on the surface as she screamed
with delight. The camera. I needed the camera. Where was Charlie?
“Charlie,” I screamed, “bring the camera!”
I looked at my beautiful children, so safe; there was barely any
water in the pool.
“Watch your sister while I get the camera. I’ll just be a sec.”
Justin nodded and returned to making noises for his boats as they
conducted maneuvers in the mighty sea. Mollie splashed the water and
laughed from somewhere in the back of her throat, a gurgle of happiness.
I ran into the kitchen. The camera wasn’t next to the phone. I
opened drawers and moved stacks of paper littering the dining table.
“Charlie, where’s the camera?” I gave up, suddenly worried, sick with
foreboding, and ran into Justin in the doorway.
“Mama! Mollie fell over.”
My heart pounded as I rushed to the pool. I stared, frozen.
Mollie lay facedown in the water, her blond hair fanning like a halo,
her yellow gingham jumper puffing out.
I pulled her out and laid her on the grass. I put my lips over her tiny
ones and breathed slowly in and out, filled with a terrified knowledge.
“Charlie! Call an ambulance!”
Dear God, this can’t be happening.
A woman tries to exorcise her demons by exploring the ancient roots of her Christian faith in this
heartfelt tale of remorse and redemption.
Middle-aged history professor Madeleine Seymour has an outwardly contented life, but she is still
haunted, decades after the fact, by the death of her young daughter Mollie, who drowned in a plastic pool
when Madeleine was momentarily distracted. Tormented by nightmares of Mollie . . . Madeleine seeks the counsel of her Anglican pastor Father Rinaldi, who sends
Madeleine and her husband Jack on a trip to Italy to its Catholic shrines. Following Rinaldi’s itinerary
around the country, from mighty St. Peter’s basilica to humbler country churches, they take in Catholicism . . . with its miracle
stories and relics and incorruptible remains displayed under glass. Along the way, Madeleine muses on the exploits of the saints, from St.
Francis of Assisi’s reception of the stigmata, to the 13-year-old virgin martyr St. Agnes’ execution for refusing to marry a pagan, to St. Clare’s
success in putting an army of marauding Saracens to flight by holding up the Reserved Sacrament. This might be mere colorful travelogue to
another tourist, but Madeleine takes it very seriously. Alarmed at her growing obsession, a skeptical Jack introduces her to a psychiatrist, who
turns out to be a shallow, condescending secularist who ridicules Madeleine’s “spiritual fantasies.” But as foreign as it is to modern sensibilities . . . Madeleine finds that Catholic lore speaks to her. With its iconography of blood and sacrifice, its stories of suffering and death transmuted into hope and rebirth, it reveals lessons for coping with her long-festering grief and guilt. Balancing spiritual exaltation with psychological realism, Sunderland’s lucid prose makes Madeleine’s journey both gripping and believable.
A moving study of the healing power of religious devotion.
Twenty-two years have passed since Madeleine’s world was devastated by an unimaginable tragedy, the wounds of which continue to cause her psychological anguish. In an effort to heal, her spiritual guide, Father Rinaldi, sends Madeleine and her husband on an exploration of carefully selected churches in Italy. Readers join them on their quest to discover if Madeleine’s excruciating suffering can be transformed by pure love.
Pilgrimage is a story about guilt, forgiveness and belief. Using a compelling fictional story as her vehicle, author Christine Sunderland contemplates deep matters of faith, such as truth, doubt, suffering, miracles, and martyrdom. While Madeleine visits church after church, she searches for healing through spirituality and redemption. “As I walked through the dusty aisles, I prayed this trip would rebaptize me, cleanse and heal me in my own pool of time. I understood why Father sent me here. I needed to desire this, to want this, to be willing to give up my ghosts, just as these catechumens gave up their past, to be reborn. I had to accept God’s grace, his transforming power. Was I willing?”
Sunderland succeeds in engaging readers in Madeleine’s search for inner peace through a neat, concise writing style, effective descriptions, and a touch of shadowy mystery. In this well-edited book, Sunderland seamlessly blends ancient and present day Italy as well as fiction and history. In addition, the author imparts a great deal of Italian religious history in her story without being heavy-handed or overly preachy. Pilgrimage is a satisfying read, one that certain readers will find spiritually nourishing as well.
Although Pilgrimage is a work of inspirational fiction, it also serves well as a travelogue should readers become moved to follow their own journey into the religious history of Italy. The churches explored in this fictional world are quite real indeed. The carefully combed through and clearly summarized history lessons within Pilgrimage would bring dimension to anyone’s trip. Should you care to embark upon your own tour of Italian churches, Sunderland’s book would be something to carry with you on your travels.
In addition to bringing history to life, Sunderland paints a vivid picture of the Italian landscape, particularly the atmosphere, food and wine. For in addition to a dazzling array
of Italian churches, Madeleine and her husband, a wine connoisseur, partake in an extravagant assortment of flavors: cannelloni, curried shrimp, fresh chevre, farfalle con mozzarella, giant meringues, ravioli with Gorgonzola, to name but a few. I dare anyone to read Pilgrimage without swooning a bit at the sumptuous descriptions of the meals. “Our dinner arrived. Green, yellow, and red sweet peppers fanned on a plate with darker slices of eggplant. White filets of fish nestled in beds of mushrooms.” As Madeleine says after she samples her dish, “Wow.” Wow indeed.
If you yearn for more spiritual exploration guided by Christine Sunderland after reading this book, take solace in the fact that it is the first in a trilogy. The second book, Offerings, takes readers on a whole new quest in France!
Quill says: Pilgrimage provides an armchair traveler the opportunity to take a spiritual tour of Italian churches with a history professor as your guide.
Pamela Victor, Feathered Quill Book Reviews
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