At the ripe young age of 15, I contracted a chronic affliction: the travel bug, that continual burning desire to go somewhere new, to experience something new. Those who suffer from this affliction know that it is a constant cycle of being in the midst of an expedition or planning the subsequent trip once they return, all set in motion by that first adventure. For me, it was a school program in which a dozen of us students spent two weeks in South Korea. Since then, I have taken every opportunity and resource available to me to travel to a distant land, and, just as virtually every traveler would agree, it is not nearly enough.
There have been several hypotheses as to why this affliction is so virulent and widespread; however, I believe it comes down to the spiritual reawakening one experiences in any type of travel. Whether one is aware of it or not, there is a spiritual aspect to the novelty attached to new places and cultures. In experiencing something new, the traveler is taken out of their comfort zone, out of their routine, and can see life with fresh eyes, appreciating the beauty and complexity surrounding them.
Some may believe travel to be a hindrance to spiritual worship. While we are taken out of our daily routines for new endeavors, it becomes difficult to hold on to the ordinary ones that do contribute to a spiritual awareness. As a Roman Catholic, I am bound by an obligation to attend Mass weekly (and some Holy Days), but while traveling in foreign country, especially one which speaks another language, finding a Mass to attend can be difficult. Sometimes, there are no Masses in English, sometimes, I just cannot find a church at the right times. This is no surprise, and this is why traveling Catholics are excused from this obligation.
But this does not mean that spirituality is absent. Yes, Mass with its liturgical routine can be a space and time to truly get in touch with the spiritual reality. The repetition of prayers and actions every week until it becomes second nature allows the mind to enter deeper into the Mystery of the divine. But it is not the only way.
In his famous quote, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words,” St. Francis of Assisi reminds us that all we do should be offered to God. It is difficult to remember in the ebb and flow of daily life.
Currently, in Washington, DC where I live, the sun sets just after 5:00 in the evening. At that time, I am usually sitting in rush hour traffic, concerned with either the car in front of me, what I will cook for dinner, or some leftover work concern. It is a rare occasion that I take a moment to notice the sky streaked with the beautiful colors of a sunset and even rarer that I take the time to admire the majesty of the world in that moment.
Taken out of rush hour traffic, out of my work and school schedule, out of the mundane tasks of life, I am much more likely to see and appreciate these moments. While spending several days in Reykjavik, Iceland this past summer, I took the time to admire the brilliant orange of the sky as it set beyond the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. The beauty of this experience struck the very core of my soul, leading to a moment in which I could sense something greater, something beyond that I could only behold in awe.
A sunset in Iceland may be no more or less extraordinary a feat than one at home, after all it is the same astronomical reality, but being in a new place, out of my routine and open to novelty, the sunset becomes an opportunity to recognize God’s creation and marvel at His works, which was precisely my approach not so many months ago when I found myself sitting on the rocks with some fellow travelers in the Reykjavik harbor. I savor that experience, and others I recall from my travels, as they remind me of the awe which should be always lurking.
Theologian Rudolf Otto spoke about God as the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a being so awe-full it strikes a person with tremendous fear while drawing them ever closer to itself. He believes that no one who has not experienced a true encounter with God is able to fully understand this sentiment, but he likens it to hearing a masterful song or viewing a majestic piece of art. It seems more likely that these hints of feeling that Otto recognizes are just the presence of God in the beauty of His Creation. This is what strikes me when I take the time to really see, such as when I travel.
Travel offers a unique access to the spiritual realm and in some respects, it is just as, if not more, gratifying. As a Catholic, the sacrifice of the Mass offers the deepest experience of spiritual reality available in this world, but being awed by the sunset, for example, offers the opportunity to share the wonder of the divine across traditional religious boundaries. A person of any faith, and even of no faith, can join together in marveling at this world.
The dialogue of spirituality (one of four distinct dialogues recognized in Catholic teaching) has a distinct place among forms of interreligious dialogue, and you do not have to be a monk or another form of spiritual leader to take part. Daily life offers the opportunity for spiritual reflection, but we are blind to those possibilities for the most part. Being able to travel, to place oneself outside the realm of comfort and familiarity, brings the spiritual nature of life to the fore. In traveling, we are able to go beyond ourselves: we learn about a different land and culture, but we also open ourselves to the divine in new ways appreciating our surroundings.
Photo by Rebecca Cohen. Used with permission.