Next week we will be back in Italy, the land of saints. Our Ananda community is near Assisi, made famous by St. Francis, Italy’s most beloved saint. Paramhansa Yogananda spoke of him as a “patron saint” for those, like us, who are seeking union with God.
Thirty-five years ago, Devi and I helped establish Ananda’s work in Europe, living for eight months near Lake Como in northern Italy. It was a difficult time on many levels, filled with challenges and tapasya (self-sacrifice). It felt like Italy, with its ancient Catholic traditions, was not ready to accept a yogic path, and was giving us, literally, a cold shoulder — we were in an unheated summer villa during the coldest winter in a hundred years.
Then we visited Assisi. Finally, after months, we felt welcomed, bathed in the universal love of St. Francis. The little winding streets seemed very familiar, as if Italy was finally opening her arms after a long, lonely sojourn. St. Francis, who wanted only to love God and to serve Him with every fiber of his being, was not put off by our yogic path.
Some years later, with two dear friends, we visited the church associated with Italy’s favorite modern saint, Padre Pio. Miracles encircled us during the whole trip. On our way there, driving at dusk through a heavy rain, the lights of the car began to dim; the wipers slowed, and then stopped. We managed to coast into a petrol station, hoping to find a mechanic. But the lone attendant reminded us, with a typical Italian shrug, it was Friday and everyone was gone for the weekend. We would have to find a hotel and wait until Monday. We accepted the news calmly. Being on a holy pilgrimage we were happy to cooperate with God’s grace no matter what form it took.
As we looked around, we were amazed to see that next door was a business specializing in electrical repairs — and it was open. A kindly man agreed to stay late to take a look at the problem. Slogging through the rain, we pushed the car with its dead battery to the shop. Divine Mother, in the form of the obliging mechanic, was able to fix the problem quickly and send us on our way. When you feel that God is near, He will be near.
A second miracle occurred the next day, which we spent visiting the cathedral associated with Padre Pio. Toward evening, seeking silence, we discovered an out-of-the-way choir loft, the very spot where the saint had received the stigmata, the open wounds of Jesus, which he bore for the rest of his life. It was a perfect place to meditate, and, lost in an inner communion, we failed to hear the bell signaling the closing of the church. We did, however, hear the door of the loft being locked. Well, we thought, we’ll just have to stay here and meditate through the night until they open the church in the morning. There are worse fates for yogis.
A few hours later, the doors were opened by a shocked priest who was leading a special tour for some American pilgrims. Seeing our predicament, he invited us to join the group. It was as if Padre Pio wanted to give us our own special tour, showing us all his favorite nooks and crannies. The evening ended with a blessing by the priest, using one of the gloves that still bore the remnants of the great saint’s holy blood.
When we love God, He will play with us — sometimes by giving us the gift of a frigid winter, other times, by coming to us as a guardian angel in overalls, but always by giving us His blessings.