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
PART ONE: IGNITION
Awakening The Stone — Kim Chernin
A Woman’s Path
We Shall Live Again — David Yeadon
The Way Of The Wanderer
Bola’s Gift — Alison Wright
Searching For The Good Spirit — Leo W. Banks
Travelers’ Tales American Southwest
Ego Te Absolvo — Larry R. Moffitt
Passing Through — Marianne Dresser
The Road Within
PART TWO: HEALING
Walking The Kerry Way — Tim O’Reilly
Travelers’ Tales Ireland
The Devil’s Wind — Kent E. St. John
The Longing — Phil Cousineau
Shalom, Bombay — Fredda Rosen
Travelers’ Tales India
Mission Walk — Jan Haag
A Woman’s World
The Garden Of Immortality — Richard Halliburton
The Royal Road To Romance
PART THREE: MYSTERY
Naxos Nights — Laurie Gough
Travelers’ Tales Greece
Spiritwalker — Hank Wesselman
Travelers’ Tales Hawai’i
Under The Brush Arbor — Dennis Covington
Travelers’ Tales America
In Notre Dame& — Donald W. George
Travelers’ Tales Paris
Rai — James G. Cowan
Travelers’ Tales Australia
PART FOUR: CONSCIOUSNESS
Trinitarian Thoughts — W. Paul Jones
Travelers’ Tales Grand Canyon
Sandbath Resurrection — James D. Houston
Travelers’ Tales Japan
St. Peter’s Black Box — Sean O’Reilly
The Road Within
Moonsong And Martin Luther — Charles Nicholl
Travelers’ Tales Thailand
Chaurikharka — Jan Morris
Travelers’ Tales Nepal
PART FIVE: ENCOUNTER
Restless Ghost — Brett Harris
The Ultimate Journey
A World Without Latkes — Robert Golling Jr.
Food The White Dragon — Mikkel Aaland
The Sword Of Heaven
Stripped Naked — David Abram
The Gift Of Birds
Encounter With A Stranger — Andrew Harvey
The Road Within
Recommended Reading Acknowledgments
Ego Te Absolvo
by Larry R. Moffitt
In Argentina, mimcry proves to be the best defense.
Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.
I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
As it is in many Latin American countries, it is a custom among observant Catholics here to cross themselves whenever they pass a church of their faith. However they are traveling—walking, bus, train, car—they cross themselves as they rumble past. Just the act of watching people do that makes me feel protected, as it must do even more so for those who make the sign.
It’s a fleeting, discreet movement, which though it takes place in a public setting, is not at all a public moment. Up, down, left, right, kiss the back of the thumb.
…in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.
I’m not Catholic and don’t need to be, I think, to feel that my fellow passengers make the sign of the cross for as many reasons as there are people doing it. Maybe deeply held conviction or a parochial school autonomic reflex, or a momentary reconnect with eternity in a life that is otherwise temporal, secular, and self-absorbed—nobody knows. In the darkened back seats of the Avenida Maipú bus at 1:00 a.m., it’s one of the rare human acts utterly without political motivation. A handshake with the unseen God and the faith that He is there to reciprocate.
I spend between two and three hours a day on mass transit to and from the office. It’s a complicated trip from the backwaters of the suburbs of Buenos Aires, hitting the whole sampler of urban public conveyance: bus, train, subway and my own two feet. Occasionally, it’s the commute from hell, but it gives me a lot of time to read and watch faces so I mostly forgive it. Te absolvo.
Among the faces is a dark-haired woman on the subway, early thirties, office worker by her clothes, but not management. A book has her full attention. Her head tilts forward to reveal an area of thinning hair on top near the back that is evolving into a strikingly noticeable bald spot on an otherwise attractive head, face, and body. Men expect to lose their hair. How terrible it must be for a woman.
A man who shares my subway car almost daily (inbound, third car from the end so as to be right by the exit when it stops), has a red birthmark around his eye. It is his further misfortune that the blemish is not dark enough to be an obvious birthmark, which people would notice and then studiously ignore and make no comment about. It’s just red enough to resemble the result of a run-in with a door three days ago. I know it’s permanent because I’ve seen it for months, but strangers who sit next to him say, “Ooo, I see the missus clobbered you a good one.” He gets this a lot, and whatever he thinks, it’s probably way past: What did I ever do to deserve this?
When I round the corner of the stairs heading for the lower level of Retiro Station every morning at 7:21 there are one or two or three young boys asleep on the bare floor next to the wall in this unheated passageway. Sheltered from the wind, but not the cold, the boys have their sweatshirts and dirty jackets pulled as far over their heads as they can get them. What is most jarring is that these are young children, eight, maybe twelve years old and they liveat Retiro Station. They are still asleep at that hour, and commuters hurrying past set food down beside them. But it’s all snack cakes and cookies—coffee break bullshit food at the Twinkies end of the nutrition spectrum.
No matter how many times you see them, it’s not something a person can get used to. And this is nothing. I’ve seen thousands more doorway children (“gamines”) in Colombia and Mexico. There must be zillions in Brazil, where cast-off children live downtown, begging and stealing or selling their bodies. A mini-scandal erupted in Rio de Janeiro a couple of years ago when it was revealed that a businessman’s organization had hired thugs to go through the alleys at night and kill the street children to thin their numbers.
When blessing-counting time rolls around, as it does for all of us now and then, a millisecond on the street in the presence of poverty, is all most of us need to dredge up a sincere “there but for the grace of God.” It’s so easy to find a reason to make the sign of the cross.
Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis tuis, perducat te ad vitam aeternam.
May Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to everlasting life.
My observation is that one or two per bus or train car, and every fourth or fifth taxi driver, will do the sign of the cross. When I first came to Buenos Aires I noticed it, but it took a few weeks for me to associate it with passing a church. There is one spot on my train commute, near the horse track, where I still haven’t been able to locate the church. People swirl their hands across their foreheads and chests as we zip past what looks to me like a small string of establishments that includes a fitness center and a bar. Maybe one used to be there.
I’m sitting on a crowded late night bus from the train station, the final leg of my homeward commute. I never met a Third World country (or “emerging nation” as we like to call ourselves) where the buses aren’t packed solid all the time. It’s easy to see why. Most can’t afford a car. It’s related to why you see so many young people passionately kissing on the park benches, in the grass, leaning against lamp posts on the corner. No car, you live with your parents; the park is the most intimate setting you’ve got. It’s here or cold turkey abstinence. We’re talking extreme heavy passion under the statue of the liberator, José de San Martín. It can be quite an aesthetic experience for the passerby.
The bus is coming up on a small cathedral and I’m playing a game I invented where I try to predict who of those around me will make the sacred gesture. I’m nearly always wrong. I think I’ve guessed right maybe once, and that was a nun so it really doesn’t count. It isn’t always the little old lady or the man put on the social margins by his physical deformity. Often it’s the hunky, young Turk fast-tracking at the firm and the slinky secretary who pay homage to the custom. I have yet to see the sign of the cross made by a couple, a man and woman together, for whatever reason.
Standing in front of me on the last bus of the night is a red-haired man in his twenties. Lean and strong, he hasn’t shaved in four, maybe five days. On his arm is a tattoo of what looks like an oak tree with a big grinning skull imbedded in the trunk. A snake crawls out one of the eye sockets. As we pass under a street lamp, light skims across the man’s bare arm. It’s not an oak tree; it’s a naked woman. Boy am I tired.
He scowls through eyes dark and twisted. He looks over at me in my hoity-toity suit and wimp-ass tie, registering angry confusion. He keeps looking at me and I stare back at him way too long. I’m fascinated and I realize I’m not breaking eye contact as the rules call for. What do I think I’m doing? Larry, are you nuts? You have five children to think of. I look away, but he doesn’t, not for a long time. I’m dead meat.
I would like to say that in the moment of our contact I could sense in his dark recesses, a tiny spark of original humanity, something in there a compassionate man could reach out to and connect with, given enough time. A beautiful thought, and it would be so very Bing Crosby wouldn’t it? Like in the classic Going My Way—jaunty Father O’Malley in black clericals and a straw boater turns a hardened street gang into St. Dominic’s choir. Maybe God was speaking to my heart at that moment. I’m now looking for the humanity in my knuckle-dragging brother, and for the Bing Crosby in me, but it’s a tough sell either way. What would Father O’Malley say to him? Hi there, I guess your mother’s a troglodyte?
The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be anybody human at home. Not even remotely so. To the very core of his bottom corpuscle, he looks like Central Casting’s alienated postal worker, Arlo Guthrie’s “biggest, meanest, mother-raper of them all.”
Then it hits me. I am so totally wrong about people that this guy will probably defy all odds and cross himself when we pass the church. He’s probably a future saint, on his way to donate a kidney. What he’ll probably do is cross himself. And then after that, he’ll come over and kill me for looking at him too long because…well, because this is Argentina.
I’m nearly ready to bet the ranch on it. We pass the church. He doesn’t.
But I do.
I have to say there is something foundationally powerful in the Catholic tradition. Something there for me. I admire their…I don’t know exactly what…the faith they place in faith?
I remember an old woman in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1973, advancing the last hundred meters to the basilica doors on her bare knees. She inched forward a foot or two at a time along a path of sharp stones that cut her legs. She wrung her hands and cried and cried and cried, wailing loudly, fervently. Whatever had broken her heart, the stones had nothing to do with it.
Two small daughters or granddaughters placed a scarf on the ground for her to crawl over. As she passed, they retrieved it and brought it around in front for her to pass over again. The scarf and the hem of her dress quickly became streaked with blood.
She made the sign of the cross.
Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat…
Our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you…
I was a hitchhiker just out of communication grad school, a mochilero with a backpack and jeans. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed but I stopped and watched her anyway. Other people were walking past like this happens every day. I think I may have promised myself that as payment for my intrusion, I would remember what I was seeing. Someday I would tell somebody about this and maybe it would help them.
As it turns out, I am the one helped. My beliefs and life and the teachings of the past twenty-four years liberate me to be as fully one with anyone’s earnest attempt to touch God, in any faith, as my own maturity will allow. My God tells me that before it’s over, everyone of us will be that old woman at least one time. If I want it to be my course, and risk the risk, and set my heart ablaze daily, and toil in the vineyards of the Lord and be about my Father’s business, then I can be her lighted candle. I am free to be all faiths, to make all Gods my God, all people my people. I am unificationist. I make the sign of the cross.
In the process of organizing international conferences and media fact-finding trips, Larry R. Moffitt has visited more than seventy countries in the past two decades. From the Amazon River to North Korea, from Angola and the Mayan jungles of Guatemala to Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, he has mispronounced his way around the world and eaten the unidentifiable. His checkered past has included work as a farmer and beekeeper, short story writer, newsletter editor, stand-up comedian, and bad poet. He is currently a vice president of United Press International. He now lives in Washington, D.C.