On the first day of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land a few years ago, our camera broke. Standing on the Mount of the Beatitudes in Galilee with an unresponsive “on switch,” we realized that we would remember this journey not because we had albums of photographs about it, but because we had really paid attention while we were there.Our broken camera became the catalyst to the practice we call “travel presence.” We will travel with a camera again, but we know that this kind of presence is a more reliable companion. It is also what enables us to turn travel into a pilgrimage.
All too often the typical activities of a trip — especially an organized tour with its stops for photo and shopping opportunities — take us out of the present moment to the future, to the time when we are showing our pictures or looking at our souvenirs.
But a pilgrimage is about being present to a place in a deep way. The real journey is the one you take with the eyes of your heart, when you look inward to consider the meaning of your experience to your life of faith. You can travel to a traditional site revered in your religion or you can go back to your hometown for a high school reunion. The heart knows when it is a pilgrimage.
What can you do — camera in hand or not — to be more mindful, engaged, and connected with your heart when you travel? Here are a few approaches we’ve found helpful.
• Prepare for the journey. Just as important as making hotel bookings and gathering maps is stating some intentions for the journey. Why are you going? To pay your respects to an ancestor? To pray where others have prayed before you? To reconnect with nature or history? Commit to a purpose for the trip by sharing your hopes with your family, friends, and traveling companions. Then gather any material you would like to have on hand at your destination — a picture, story, poem, or favorite passage from scripture.
• Keep Notes. Mary Ann was writing in her journal one day when a tour group passed by. A woman exclaimed, “I want to keep a journal too, but I never have time. To write I’d have to miss something.” That is so often true. Many trips are so packed with activities that it’s hard to do the necessary reflecting upon what you are seeing.
One tip to all would-be journal writers: Give up the idea of keeping your trip diary chronological. If you try to keep it orderly, you’ll soon fall behind and end up with a few days recorded in detail and the rest lost in frustration. Practice travel presence by letting your journal just happen. Keep a list of your impressions in the back of your book. Then write about one of them whenever you get a chance, perhaps while sitting in traffic on the bus or when everyone else is shopping.
Making brief notes as you go along helps keep you present. It periodically clears your mind of things you may be struggling not to forget. That way you can be more open to new experiences.
• Participate in present-day life. When you are traveling to a place with a rich past, sometimes that is all you focus on. But presence means being here now. Once in New York City where we live, we were surprised to find a favorite grocery store filled with tourists. “How silly,” we said. “They are seeing a market on their tour.” But then we realized that one of our favorite things to do in a strange place is to visit a market. Our senses come alive as we see the stalls of sweets, touch the unusual fruits and vegetables, and smell the bins of spices. So, on your next trip, experiment with local foods. Have olives and herring for breakfast; get a burrito or shish kebab from a street side stand for lunch. Being engaged through your senses is a good way to stay in the moment.
• Be aware of the other pilgrims. You will rarely be alone at a sacred site, and indeed most travel today means dealing with crowds. Enjoy the company. Watch how others are reacting to a place. A child’s wide eyes at the Grand Canyon are just as holy as a pilgrim’s bowed head in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
• Notice spiritual practices. Finally, during your pilgrimage, practice travel presence by noticing both the diversity and the unity of spiritual practices. Hearing church bells or the call to prayer from a mosque, think about how many religious traditions punctuate the day with specific times for prayer. Ask yourself what cues to prayer you can incorporate into your daily life upon your return. A sure sign that a trip has been a pilgrimage is when you go home with new practices for your continuing spiritual journey.
Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat have been covering contemporary culture and the spiritual renaissance for four decades. They live in New York City. For more about them, visit their website SpiritualityandPractice.com.