St. Zita's Pilgrimage
In a little village called Bozzanello not far from Lucca was born a child who was called Zita. At the age of twelve she was sent to Lucca to serve in the house of a nobleman, Pagano da Fatinelli by name; in that house and in that service she remained all her life long. She died when she was sixty years old, accounted by all a Saint, and at her death a beautiful unknown star was seen to rise and shine over the town.
Her masters were all her lifetime kind to her, but how could they be unkind to so devoted and obedient, to so perfect a servant?
As she started out one cold morning to Mass, her master, noticing her thin clothing, laid his warm furred mantle over her shoulders. When Zita had arrived at the cathedral door she found there a wretched beggar, so ill, so blue with the cold, that she, forgetting in her compassion that the cloak that kept her warm was not hers to lend, took it off and bade the beggar wear it while she should be within at the service.
When she came out the mendicant was nowhere to be seen; he and the cloak were gone. Greatly troubled, and knowing that she had probably merited a scolding from her master, Zita went home slowly, dreading what was awaiting her there. But before she had reached the house the cloak had been restored to its owner by a youth of tall stature and radiant countenance. To this day the door of the church at which Zita put the mantle on the beggar's back is called the Angel's Door, for no doubt existed in the mind of any but that the beggar was an angel sent to test the heart of Zita, whose compassion was not found wanting.
Then Zita, with a proper sense of the unpleasantness that had been averted, feeling impelled to make a pilgrimage of thanks for her escape from the legitimate expressions of annoyance of her master, determined to go and speak her gratitude in a little chapel at some miles distance, in fact five miles beyond Pisa, which is ten miles from Lucca. This in all would make a fairly considerable journey on foot, during every mile of which she could refresh her sense of indebtedness, and when she had reached the chapel, entreat perhaps for wisdom and courage to brave the dangers of human disfavour which might result should occasion again offer opportunity for winning favour in Heaven.
She set out one spring morning to make her votive pilgrimage, promising to be home betimes. She started accompanied by a friend who had, maybe, some object of her own of thanksgiving or entreaty. But having reached Pisa, the friend, whose energy, endurance, or enthusiasm had come to an end, thought well of remaining with a relative for the day and, rejoining Zita on her homeward journey, covering the distance back to Lucca in her company.
Zita went on her way alone, but her friend's defection had caused some delay. Zita had accompanied her into her relative's house and had there been detained much against her will, so that when she reached the distant chapel night was closing in; the sacristan had locked the doors and gone home, and there was no way of entering. To make matters more trying, not only darkness was falling, but rain in torrents. The wind beat against Zita as she stood wondering what to do. She had come so far that, unable to make up her mind to turn back leaving her thanks unuttered, she kneeled upon the steps and fell to saying her prayers. She prayed so long, pouring out all her devout and innocent heart, that in time, because it was dark and because she had walked far, she dropped forward on to the threshold and went to sleep, the candle which she had brought to offer on the altar of the Blessed Virgin lying unlighted beside her.
In the middle of the night she awoke from peaceful dreams to find the tempest raging round her; the thunder roared, the lightning flashed; floods of rain pelting against the face of the church ran in streams over the worn steps—but Zita herself was warm and dry as she arose, while beside her on the step, near where her head had lain, stood the votive candle, burning bright and serene.
"To thy protection, O most Holy Mother, I owe this favour. Accept the thanks of thine unworthy servant, and continue, I pray thee, thy guardianship on my return through the fearsome night."
She turned her face homeward and made all haste toward Pisa. As she was going through the town and passing the house where she had left her friend, the friend ran out and caught her by the arm:
"Ah, Zita! I have so feared for thee in the storm and the night that I could not sleep, but waited hour after hour listening for thy steps on the stones. Come in, come in and stay with me for the remainder of the night. In the morning we will return to Lucca."
"Nay," said Zita, "the morning must find me in Lucca. My master was kind; he let me leave his house bent upon my own affairs; shall I neglect his, as a return for his kindness?" Bidding her farewell she took leave of her friend.
When she had covered a portion of her road and was passing by the Baths of Lucca, the storm was still unabated. Seeing her pass, a party of merry-makers returning from a late revel invited her to come with them to shelter.
"I may not tarry," answered Zita, "for by sunrise I must be at work in my master's kitchen, ready to labour and serve. Dawn cannot now be far," and she hastened on.
There was still Monte Giuliano to climb and cross. At the summit a hermit at his vigil saw her as she passed over the path of light that streamed from the open door of his hut.
"Come in, my daughter," he called to her; "the night is wild, the forest is dark. Rude men may be abroad to do thee harm. Come in and join in my prayers; come, rest and wait for the light of morning."
"Nay, my father," said Zita, "I pray as I go that my Heavenly Master and His Mother protect me. I must be in my earthly master's house by daybreak. The only danger that threatens me is that I neglect my duty to him if I make not haste."
She disappeared into the black wood. A castle stood between her and the town; at its gate were two sentries who in the angle of a wall had heaped faggots, by the blaze of which they attempted to dry and warm themselves. In gossip and exchange of tales they kept each other heartened during the bleak hours before the dawn. They saw Zita as she flitted into range of the glow of the flame:
"Whither away, maiden?" called one; "approach and hold thy hands to the fire. Tell us thy errand at this unholy hour. Come, take pity upon two mortals near perished for lack of cheer, as we in truth feel pity for thy weariness, which is apparent in thy pallor and faltering steps."
Indeed by this time Zita was worn with her long journey.
"I give you thanks," she said, "but I must be on my way; I have made a pilgrimage this night to a far place, and surely strength will be granted me to return to my work by the first peep of day."
She went on. The storm had ceased, but now her footsteps halted and her spirit flagged. She came at last to a bend in the road where a spring gushing out of a cleft in a rock splashed into a basin hollowed in stone. Exhausted she sank on to the grass beside it, and thinking from her faintness that she might be about to die, she commended her soul to the mercy of God and to the care of His Mother, and breathed a prayer with what seemed to be her last breath. Strangely refreshed by the act, she bent over the spring and drank a long draught, with every drop of which she felt herself to be gaining strength.
When, entirely restored, she lifted her face from the water she found that she was no longer alone: a lady stood by her side, apparently waiting. Thinking that she might wish to drink like herself from the spring, Zita hastily rose to make way for her, but when she withdrew along the road she found that the lady was still by her side. She noticed then that her companion was clad in a white robe bordered with gold, and wore a long blue mantle; also that her head was surrounded with radiance although the night was still dark, only the first suggestion of pallor having spread over the east.
In awed silence she advanced, and when she and her companion had arrived at the gate of the covered bridge spanning the river outside of Lucca, although the guard was not at his post the gate silently opened before her. The same happened when they came to the city gates. No need to rouse the watchman, for again the heavy doors opened noiselessly and admitted the two. They had walked without speaking, but Zita had realized that between her and the Wonderful Lady there was no need for speech. Her heart spoke mutely, knowing itself comprehended, while into her spirit were poured the unuttered but uplifting _words of assurance and refreshment of the Gracious One.
Having arrived at the house of the Fatinelli, Zita ran forward to open the door, and then, turning toward her late fellow traveller, was about to beg her to bless that roof by entering under it, but the Lady was no longer there, and Zita's eyes, peering eagerly in her direction, were dazzled and for the moment blinded by the first shaft of the rising sun.
Then, like the good and faithful servant that she was, she entered her kitchen, wakened the fire, set water upon it to heat, and fell to sweeping, singing as she swept, for her spirit was gay within her, her eyes were alight, and her heart aglow with the wonder of the night's pilgrimage.