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Traveling with a sense of passion and wonder


For many of us, the tragic events of Sept. 11 have reduced our desire to travel, especially abroad. In spite of security measures, we feel our enthusiasm dampened. We no longer feel safe away from home, fearing we may be caught in a “holy war” simply because we are American.

Still, travel is an integral part of our human lives today. As Mark Twain reminded us, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. ... Broad, wholesome, charitable views cannot be acquired by vegetating in one’s little corner of the earth.” Travel is a vital tool for educating ourselves about the world. Even more important, travel is crucial for our spiritual wholeness.

Is there a spirituality of travel? How can we tour in such a way as to energize our lives and enhance our spiritual commitments?

I want to suggest that the myth of Parsifal and his Quest for the Holy Grail can frame the basics of a spirituality of travel. In this medieval Christian myth, Parsifal is instructed by his mentor to ask the questions “Whom does the Grail serve?” and “How can I serve others?” In so doing, he will find the Grail, and deliver the infirm Grail King and his kingdom from a curse of sterility. When he quickly chances upon the Grail Castle, however, Parsifal is so overwhelmed by the brilliant riches and dazzling splendor that he completely forgets his mission.

Not recognizing he is in the presence of the sacred, Parsifal wastes years searching for the sacred without success. The knight’s virtues of loyalty, honor and courage do not satisfy him. With a deep pang in his heart, he visits a hermit years later and asks for forgiveness for approaching life the wrong way. The hermit instructs him to return to the Grail Castle, and this time to ask the above question. As he does, the Grail King is healed immediately and the wasteland and its people are revitalized.

To really find the Grail, he has to ask the question of compassion, of how to serve the needs of others. As it turns out, the Grail is not a magical cup, nor knightly glory and fame, but the joy and happiness that comes from ministering to others. Indeed, the Grail is no less than the recognition of the unfailing eternal presence of God all around him.

When we leave home -- near or far, for a few days or weeks -- our experiences in new environments are so exciting and overwhelming that we too refrain from asking about the spiritual significance of our experiences.

As tourists we leave home to escape, get lost, find distractions and amusements. We take vacations to renew family relationships, to rob winter of its sting, to restore our physical and emotional health. We go for comfort and convenience, shopping and souvenirs, peace and quiet. We go to catch up on our reading and revive our flagging energy.

We flock to Las Vegas, to artificial cities such as Disney Land and Disney World to satisfy our need for spectacle and entertainment. We head for vacation resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean to escape our ordinary lives and to find sensory diversions. While our tourist travel may be beneficial and necessary for our well-being, it does not bring us any closer to the Grail.

Like Parsifal, we can re-imagine the way we travel. How can we journey with a sense of passion and wonder? How can we satisfy our heart’s longing for beauty, adventure and intimacy?

We desire to experience the unexpected. A car with Paris license plates pulled up next to the car my wife and I rented to refuel at a gas station in central France. The station owner calmly turned his “Open” sign around to “Closed.” After a heated exchange, the Parisian roared out of the station, honking his horn. As the owner reversed the sign, he confessed that while French people living in the countryside dislike Parisians, they want to treat foreigners very kindly.

Sharing a prize pineapple

We hope to broaden our cultural horizons. In Lithuania my wife and I went to a lake retreat to celebrate Midsummer Night after finishing a month of teaching conversational English to adults. The men and women there were attired in native costumes for games and dancing. After one lady and I won the two-on-two basketball tournament, she posed for pictures with her trophy, a pineapple. She then cut the pineapple into small portions and offered pieces to everyone -- a luxury to people who had never tasted pineapple, fresh or canned, until the Russians left their country in 1989.

We aspire to learn how people in other cultures and religions perceive us. In Havana, we volunteered to paint desks and chairs for the afternoon. To thank us, some young third-grade students sang some Afro-Cuban music. We asked them if they had a message for American children. One brave young girl looked directly at us and said, “We worry about the American children. They live in such a violent society.”

In Cairo, some Muslims in a shared taxicab told us they found Americans to be “lazy and overweight. You don’t get out of cars to post a letter, to drop off money in a bank or even to get food at a restaurant.” They further remarked that we pay extreme attention to our bodies (or none at all), yet our health care is costly and chaotic. We have excellent universities and graduate schools, yet our children are spoiled and badly educated. We are restlessly mobile, yet have no interest in other cultures.

We go to share emotional experiences. Before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, we shared a table in East Berlin with a young soldier and his fiancée. Fearing hidden microphones, they talked in whispers. We followed their advice to go to the top of a hill in West Berlin produced from World War II rubble. There, we saw families looking through a telescope at an apartment building in East Berlin. With tears in their eyes, they waved handkerchiefs to their loved ones who were more than a mile away looking back at them through binoculars.

In search of the sacred

We have to journey as pilgrims, seeking to find the sacred in our everyday experiences and to transform ourselves through deeper union with God, others and the world. As pilgrims we perceive the entire world saturated with the magnificence and splendor of the sacred.

Visiting sacred centers we experience solitude and solidity, permanence and grace. We find spiritual well-being in our multicultural world. In mosques, Muslims all over the world turn toward Mecca for their prayers to Allah, like so many iron filings attracted by a magnet. In mandirs, Hindus invoke the divine presence by reciting mantras and performing ritual gestures. Seeing and being seen by the gods and goddesses in the puja rituals, they participate in divine lila, that is, cosmic play.

In Orthodox churches, the created world is illuminated by the light of divine energy that transforms humans and nature. The icons are windows through which we open ourselves to receive the life-giving force and inspiration of the divine. Reality is transformed. Creation itself radiates divine brilliance. The saints represented on icons illustrate humans sharing the intimate presence of God.

Our favorite destinations to visit nature are often our national parks. There we find revelations of the sacred in rocks, trees and water. At Yosemite, the mountains are stepping stones to heaven, linking the material and the spiritual worlds. At Niagara Falls, the spectacular tumble of waters arouses a free fall of emotions. At such moments we detect the flow of divine grace in the arteries of the natural order.

From the Jewish tradition we learn to detect the presence and power of the sacred in a burning bush, the wind, an earthquake, a peal of thunder and even a still, small voice. With the Psalmist we let out a ritual shout of triumph as divine beauty possesses our whole being: “Sing your joy to God, all the earth.”

From the Hindus we are reminded, “that which in the lightning flashes forth, makes one blink, and say, ‘Wow’ or ‘Ahh’-- those exclamations refer to divinity.” Hindus revere their rivers as sacred and they dot their banks with pilgrimage shrines. To bathe in the holy water of the Ganges is to have impurities washed away by contact with the divine being who stretches from earth to heaven.

Everyday interactions with other humans remind us of the sacred. At the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai a group of elderly ladies bowed to us with hands folded against their breastbones. They made the gesture that says, “I salute the divine consciousness within you.” They offered incense sticks to a Buddha statue poised at the moment of enlightenment.

In Uganda, after our volunteer work at a local hospital, we relaxed on the veranda overlooking the banana fields. Several school girls, all neatly dressed in pink uniforms, stopped near us before heading home down the steep hillside. With no common language, we appreciated each other’s presence in silence for several minutes. My wife poured glasses of ice water for them. The glow in their eyes and their bright smiles exhilarated us. They had never tasted ice water before.

Visiting cities, we recognize that vast panoramas of buildings and public spaces repeat the original creation of order out of chaos. Muslims believe that if cities are what they should be, then they are holy places, where humans live and fulfill their destinies in harmony with one another. Their city fountains are the living springs of water that provide life-giving, spiritual blessings from Allah who constantly refreshes their bodies and renews their inner lives with peace and serenity.

In Zen Buddhist sand gardens, the few large rocks symbolize the world of the infinite in earthly form and awaken our thoughts to seek inner harmony. In Chinese Taoist gardens the subtle currents of unseen energies of the forces of Yin and Yang create a delicate balance.

The proportions of classical monuments infuse us with their sense of permanence and mystery, their aesthetic majesty and magnitude. Overwhelmed by the Taj Mahal, we gasp in amazement at this “teardrop on the cheek of time,” whose minarets, mosque, gate and gardens, are a testament to spousal love and fidelity. Climbing in and out of the kivas at the magnificent cliff dwellings of the Anasazi Indians at Mesa Verde, in Colorado, we feel we are in the presence of a tremendous and fascinating mystery.

In cemeteries we recall that our lives have limits in space and time, and that our joys and sorrows are played out within some greater sacred design. We appreciate that sacred time is embedded in the natural rhythm of life, and that death is not the conclusion of life, but merely an episode in the story of life. In the Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Czech Republic, we felt a palpable connection to those Jewish ancestors who knew and lived by the ancient wisdom of Isaiah that “God will destroy death forever, and wipe tears away from all faces.”

Time is an eternal present

At a burial site in Hawaii, Buddhists have adorned the graves not only with photographs but with rice, oranges and tea, believing that the spirits will absorb the essence of these foods. The spot has been chosen near both mountains and water. Here we recall the Buddha’s teaching that “those who die before they die, do not die when they die.” Time is an eternal present, where moments of birth and moments of death are really the same.

Our travels illumine and amplify what we already know about the sacred. It is not that everything is sacred, but rather that the presence of the sacred permeates our world, lending it coherence, structure, meaning, and vitality.

Parsifal’s travels are dotted with detours and roadblocks. To the pilgrim these hardships are nothing compared to the knowledge and wisdom we gain. With optimism, we find brightness on rainy days. With a sense of humor, we do not let flight cancellations and mechanical failures impede our enjoyment. With a sanguine attitude we can communicate in a language we do not know. With unselfconscious spontaneity we chuckle at hotel rooms with puzzling handles and knobs on the showers and toilets.

Instead of getting frustrated when we get lost, we agree with Kurt Vonnegut that “detours and other glitches are dancing lessons from God.” Instead of becoming bitter at unpleasant surprises, we juggle our perspective and refuse to take ourselves too seriously. Instead of arguing whether to visit a museum or relax in a park, we appreciate our good fortune to have travel companions who share our passion for adventure and have a similar energy level.

While travails often perplex and swallow up tourists, pilgrims realize that we cannot expel ugly surprises without banishing lovely ones as well. Tribulations are the necessary prelude to self-transformation.

Through his travails Parsifal discovers a sense of purpose that centered on dying to his self and opening himself to the world of the sacred. His travels end at the Grail Castle, which is not so much a homecoming to a physical place as to a state within his mature self. The end of his travels is self-transformation.

Our homecoming likewise is to a state of heart. The end -- and the goal -- of our travels is the appropriation of the sacred power we have encountered into our everyday lives. In this way we find fulfillment in our love and achievement in our work. Pilgrims realize that God is transcendent yet closer to us than our jugular veins. We sense the sacred as the unknowable and unnameable mystery within which everything is embraced, sustained and given special meaning and value. Our travels are ultimately voyages of personal discovery that fills us with deep gratitude for life and all that sustains it.

Still, even as we return home, we look forward to our next travel away from home. As Thomas Merton expressed it: “In one sense we are always traveling, traveling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense we have already arrived. We cannot arrive at the perfect possession of God in this life: that is why we are traveling and in darkness. But we already possess God by grace. Therefore, in that sense, we have arrived and are dwelling in the light.”

Len Biallas is professor of religious studies at Quincy University, Quincy, Ill., and author of Pilgrim: A Spirituality of Travel (Franciscan Press).

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002