Spirituality and travel have been linked from the beginning of human history. The oldest spiritual quest that we have an inkling of is ancient man’s quest for the House of the Sun. One can imagine our ancestors seeking this house where the sun must surely have set. How many unsung voyages since that time have been inspired by the setting sun and its ancient choir of steepled light? The eye is drawn relentlessly towards the rising and setting sun, and where the eye wanders with hope and imagination, there goes the soul. It is perhaps no accident that monks and holy men and women of all religions have gone on pilgrimage and journeys of knowledge since the beginning of recorded history.
Buddhism spread from Nepal and India in the third century b.c., at roughly the same time that Alexander the Great surged to the East in the hope of finding the ends of the earth. Who knows what gods or demons drove Alexander? We do know, however, that he was a pupil of Aristotle and that the God Aristotle preached was a God of perfection who drew all things to himself. Alexander sought this perfection on the road of conquest and discovery. Hundreds of years later, Christianity spread throughout the Greco Roman Empire with the injunction to go and teach all nations. Five centuries later Islam rose and spread its message through the ghost footpaths of that same empire. They were all travelers in search of spiritual booty and adventure. They still are.
We don’t often think of the great religions as being promoters of travel but history teaches us that the beginnings of the tourist industry, as we know it today, has its roots in the impulse to make pilgrimage to holy sites, and in the ancient urge that is written into our genes to go forth and explore both the inner and outer terrain of the universe into which we’ve been born.
So where does this leave us today? At the dawn of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in the paradoxical position of being afraid to travel precisely because the religious impulse and the desire to travel are in fact inextricably linked, and in many instances, in conflict, from the Balkans to Israel, Sri Lanka to Tibet, Kashmir to Nigeria, Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, Northern Ireland to Iran. The ancient quest to find the House of the Sun, a metaphor for the search for light, must be reinvested with modern thinking and aspirations. Travel and the right to travel, to move freely as one wishes, goes beyond national boundaries and forms the framework of what might be declared a universal human right. Our notions of national boundaries have come under increased pressure as millions of people seek a better life in countries that promise opportunity or freedom from oppression. Travel has become the metaphor of freedom. It is no accident then that those who oppose freedom seek to restrict travel. One has only to think of the Berlin Wall or the former Soviet Union, which wouldn’t allow maps to be sold in the open market for fear of where its citizens might have wandered or wanted to wander, to the travel restrictions that many governments put on their rural populations.
The spiritual gifts of travel are legion. Who is not made better, humbled, or enlightened by a visit to countries not of their own origin? Whose consciousness is not augmented by hearing the hopes and fears of people raised in foreign cultures? Who cannot learn from the spiritual practices of religions other than their own?
The Spiritual Gifts of Travel seeks to uncover some of the common spiritual pathways that are discovered when human beings approach experience without judgement or prejudice. Travel can take us out of the deadly grip of habit and the narrow focus of culture and cast us upon the great road of spirituality—sometimes whether we wish it or not. Somerset Maugham put it beautifully:
I went looking for adventure and romance, and so I found them…but I found also something I had never expected. I found a new self.
Come with us and walk the road of self-discovery: We’ve gathered here some of our favorite stories of travel and transformation which have appeared in our destination anthologies, thematic anthologies, and other books we’ve published. Kim Chernin, raised in a family of Marxists, discovers spirituality on her knees one winter in rural Ireland. Englishman David Yeadon encounters an old Native American sage on the back roads of Oregon and continues on an irrevocably changed man. Alison Wright has her heart split open while working in one of Mother Theresa’s Calcutta clinics; Leo Banks encounters the deep mystery of the American Southwest in a burning glove by the side of the road. David Abram is stripped naked by the gaze of a condor in the Himalayas, and Dennis Covington encounters a strange and lovely madness in snake worship in Alabama. Laurie Gough encounters the undead on the beaches of a Greek island and Mikkel Aaland is given a quest by a Shinto priest in Japan that takes him all over the world.
Like the story of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, these sudden encounters are all shaped by a hidden light. They are but a few of the remarkable experiences you will read about in The Spiritual Gifts of Travel. Adventure and transformation await. Let us seek, as does Richard Halliburton in his story, “The Garden of Immortality,” our own place in the House of the Sun.
—Sean O’Reilly and James O’Reilly