Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Spiritual Rest Stop

When I think of my most exotic and memorable travel experiences, I think of moments: climbing awkwardly onto the back of a camel next to the Great Pyramids of Giza; whizzing down the longest zipline in Costa Rica, three hundred feet in the air; my first taste of Amarino gelato in Paris.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
Different in so many ways, what connects each of these moments is that they are moments: they came and went just as quickly as the moments pass when I am dropping off a child at school, or walking the dog around the block, or sitting in my office with a despairing student.  This speaks to a fundamental flaw in the travel experience: however amazing it might be, it doesn’t last.  We always return home, carrying only our artifacts and pictures and imperfect memories.

The transitory nature of the experience, of course, sometimes works in our favor.  The seemingly endless line at the airport does, in fact, end.  When you are stuck in the back of a car, with a driver who only speaks Turkish, in the worst traffic you have ever encountered in Istanbul, you know you will eventually make your way back to the ornate lobby and Turkish wines of your hotel along the Bosphorus.  But this seems like small consolation for the brevity of the moments we wish could stretch forever.

A year ago, ahead of an intensive few months of travel in support of a book I had written, I made a decision to deepen my travel experiences by moving beyond the transitory pleasures of the senses and including at least one spiritual stop.  It didn’t have to be a famous cathedral or temple or monastery; it could be anything that spoke of the irrepressible human search for meaning.  It was easy enough, as I mapped out my plans in each new location, to locate these waystations for a modern pilgrim.

In the city of Amman, Jordan, I asked my driver to take me to a mosque; he accompanied me into the back of the spectacular King Abdullah Mosque, stood with me as I observed, and then turned to guide me back to the car. “No,” I said, “I’d like to kneel and pray for a few minutes.” He laughed first, thinking I was joking, but then guided me up front and left me alone. Those quiet moments I spent on my knees, reflecting on this religion so misunderstood by the West, have lasted longer in my memory than the many meals I savored along the way.

Flannery O'Connor's bedroom in Milledgeville, GA
The front desk clerk at my hotel in Milledgeville, Georgia, gave me a map to the house of Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, and I drove there in my rental car that morning before my afternoon lecture.  In her lovingly preserved home you can see how carefully her bedroom was arranged in order to minimize the amount of walking she had to do from bed to writing desk and back again.  Her crutches lean against the dresser nearby, her help against the lupus that plagued her final years.  Whenever I find myself now with a deadline and a disinclination to write, I think of her dedication to her craft, and her God, and I set myself down and get to work.


In the Orlando airport, with some time on my hands between connecting flights, I spotted a chapel tucked away behind some banks of elevators.  Books from various faiths littered the couch and makeshift altar.  I paged through the prayer intention book, tears welling to my eyes: so many people pausing for a moment in the midst of their journeys to send a short letter to God, requesting safe journeys, cures from illness, or reunions with family and friends. I never felt closer to my fellow travelers.


My spiritual stops never last long; they are moments, and they pass as quickly as the best meal you have ever tasted, the most gorgeous sight you have ever seen, or the most beautiful symphony you have ever heard.  But from each of those stops I have taken something more lasting, a sense of belonging and connection with the other residents of this planet—all of us, in our daily lives and our travels, trying to make the moments last.