Amid economic struggles, interest in spiritual travel is growing. While the accommodations may be barebones, more people are visiting monasteries, meditation centers, retreat houses, and other spiritual sites.
It’s estimated that 300 million travelers worldwide take some sort of religious-oriented trip each year, spending about $18 billion. According to the Travel Industry Association, one in four U.S. travelers has expressed interest in taking a faith-based trip, a number that is expected to continue to grow.
I confess to being one of those spiritual travel junkies. I’ve gotten up at 3 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, prayed at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert, and gathered holy dirt from the floor in Chimayo, New Mexico.
I believe there are several reasons why this form of tourism is growing:
• 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 virtually every American 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, Colo., 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.
• 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.
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.
I think many of us have a yearning for the mystical, even if we can’t quite define what that might be. In these peaceful places removed from the bustle of ordinary life, amid the flicker of candles and aroma of incense, something deep within our souls can be awakened. The older I get, the more such holy sites appeal to me.
As I think back to my most vivid travel experiences, I remember the silvery sound of nuns singing in a church in Santiago de Compostela, a tea ceremony with Buddhist monks in South Korea, and a weekend spent in a tiny hermitage in the woods in Iowa. When I return home from such places, I have more than memories and photographs: inside, there lingers a feeling of tranquility and renewal.
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?
• Saint Leo Abbey near Tampa. This Roman Catholic Benedictine abbey welcomes pilgrims of all faiths to a landscape of woodlands and lakefront. www.saintleoabbey.org ; 352-588-8624.
• Ocmulgee National Monument, Macon, Ga. Temple mounds and a reconstructed ceremonial earth lodge are highlights of this ancient Native American holy site. www.nps.gov/ocmu; 478-752-8257.
• Hope Springs near Peebles, Ohio. Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Hope Springs offers peace, environmental, social justice, and community-building programs. www.hopespringsinstitute.org ; 937-587-2605.
• Abbey of Gethsemani, Trappist, Ky. People who treasure the writings of Thomas Merton find inspiration in this monastery in rural Kentucky where he lived from 1941 until his death in 1968. www.monks.org ; 502-549-3117.
• Bear Butte, Sturgis, S.D. Covered in prayer flags, this small mountain just east of the Black Hills is both a state park and a holy site for tribes that include the Lakota and Cheyenne. www.sdgfp.info/Parks/Regions/NorthernHills/BearButte.htm; 605-347-5240.
• Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, N.M. Set amid the spectacular desert landscape made famous by Georgia O’Keeffe, the Presbyterian-affiliated Ghost Ranch offers a variety of programs and classes. www.ghostranch.org ; 800-821-5145.
• Shasta Abbey Buddhist Monastery, Mt. Shasta, Calif. This Zen monastery near the Oregon border conducts a year-round schedule of retreats, Buddhist ceremonial festivals, and Dharma Talks. www.shastaabbey.org ; 530-926-4208.
• Breitenbush Hot Springs near Detroit, Ore. Hot springs set amid a temperate rain forest await visitors to this non-denominational center. www.breitenbush.com; 503-854-3320.
• Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City. The most visited shrine in North America honors the Virgin of Guadalupe, who appeared to Juan Diego in 1531. www.sancta.org/basilica.html or the Mexico Tourism Board at 800)-44-MEXICO.
• Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Europe’s most famous pilgrimage route leads to the church in northwest Spain where the remains of the apostle St. James are said to lie. This year marks a Holy Year for the route, a designation that will bring an even larger influx of people hiking this storied road. www.spain.info or the Spanish Tourism Board at 305-358-1992.
Lori Erickson is the author of The Joy of Pilgrimage and blogs about spirituality and travel at The Holy Rover (https://holyrover.wordpress.com/).[via Miami Herald]