Spiritual travel has long been a source of fascination for me. I’ve gotten up at 3:00 a.m. to chant in Buddhist monasteries, lingered over morning coffee with nuns in Iowa, walked part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, splashed myself with holy water in Lourdes, and gathered holy dirt from the floor in Chimayo, New Mexico. In 20 years of experiencing such sites and writing about spiritually oriented travel, I believe there are several reasons why growing numbers of people are interested in this type of journeying:
Spiritual tourism is relatively inexpensive. Sure, you’re going to drop a lot of cash on a trip to Delphi in Greece or Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But almost everyone lives within driving distance of a spiritual retreat of some sort, whether it’s a Roman Catholic abbey, a Buddhist meditation center, or a conference center offering holistic programs. Most religious communities welcome visitors (in fact, Benedictine monks believe that to host a visitor is to welcome Christ himself). Some ask only for a freewill donation, and others will allow you to work in exchange for room and board. Fees, when charged, are generally modest. At a time when many people can’t afford a conventional vacation, a weekend spiritual retreat may still be within reach.
Holy sites are often found in beautiful places. Many retreat centers are situated in lovely corners of the world, from St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, to the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland. Rather than spending a vacation fighting the crowds in a major city, you can recharge your batteries by staying in a rural hideaway where the silence is punctuated only by the gentle chiming of bells.
Spiritual sites are multiplying. Sites like Mecca, Mount Sinai in Egypt, and Bodh Gaya in India still draw legions of pilgrims, but so do a growing number of more unconventional holy sites. St. Paul’s Chapel across from the World Trade Center site in New York is one, along with Martin Luther King Jr.’s tomb in Atlanta. Or travelers may create their own spiritual trip by journeying to the Italian village where their grandparents lived, or by visiting a childhood home left behind at the age of ten.
Spiritual sites appeal to baby boomers. Time’s winged chariot is drawing uncomfortably close to many of us. Pretending like you’re 20 again on a Caribbean beach is one way of dealing with this disconcerting fact-of-life, but so is spending a week in silent meditation. An added bonus is that many retreat centers offer spiritual direction as well as hospitality (think of it as counseling for the soul).
Spiritual sites attract young people. College students have long journeyed to exotic and legendary holy sites, but growing numbers of faith communities are also recognizing the value of sending their young people on a spiritual quest.
It’s not surprising that Americans—who have some of the highest levels of religious belief in the world—want to take their faith on vacation with them. But spiritual travel is actually the world’s oldest form of tourism. Most religions recognize the value of pilgrimage, from Muslims traveling to Mecca and Jews to Jerusalem to Buddhists journeying to the sites associated with Gautama Buddha.
Such trips differ, I think, from ordinary travels. In an era in which it’s easy to step onto a plane and be deposited nearly anywhere in the world, a spiritual pilgrimage is a reminder of the power of journeys taken slowly and deliberately. The object of such a trip is usually not just rest and relaxation (though that may happen), but rather inner growth. It often begins with questions: Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What do I need to hear? (And here’s where I’m going to let you in on a secret: a pilgrimage can be made to any destination, as long as the trip is undertaken mindfully and with a seeker’s heart.)
When the Oglala Sioux visionary Black Elk was ready to go on pilgrimage, even the animals spoke to him. “It is time! It is time!” crows cried as they flew past him, bringing a message that could not be ignored. Perhaps it is time for you to leave on pilgrimage, too?