Travel as a Spiritual Practice

Somewhere over British ColumbiaTravel is one of my core spiritual practices. Growing up, my parents took my sister and I on at least one vacation a year. It was the 3-week family sojourn to visit friends in New Zealand when I was 8, that left an impression with me great enough to stir a desire to experience more of this world. This desire continually pesters me, calling me out of the norm and into unknown and adventure.

This spiritual practice is distinct from pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a well-known form of soul-searching—a long journey to a significant landmark, shrine, or destination. The traveling spiritual practice that formed in me may well include pilgrimage, albeit they are not one in the same. For example, a pilgrimage of a devout believer bears a holy purpose and spiritual expectations such as the Hajj or walking the El Camino de Santiago. One who practices their spirituality through travel, on the other hand, may not be in any place of particular religious importance nor necessarily seek an audience with the divine.

IMG_2730.JPGFor me this means travel for travel’s sake, seeing the world in an attempt to learn about cultures, grow, and change. Sometimes that is through seeing landscapes from the air or car; sometimes that is lived through conversations with strangers or visiting museums or other places of interest. God or things spiritual may or may not be in my mind or on my lips, and yet the experience as a whole feeds a spiritual hunger.

What sets this apart? People regularly take vacations or travel across country to get from one place to another. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When I plan a vacation, I make sure I experience life and enjoy myself as much as possible. Why spend all my time going to a place because it is “the tourist thing to do” but not what I like? Cruise ships are not my cup of tea, but I have spent a few nights on the solarium deck of a ferry floating through the Inside Passage in Alaska. Twice, I have arranged a layover in Amsterdam long enough for me to hop on the train  and walk around town.  I delight in sunrises and sunsets wherever I am.

In my studies in spirituality I came across a definition for contemplation that has stuck with me: a long loving look at the real. Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt’s essay describes this definition:

The real, reality, is not reducible to some far-off, abstract, intangible God-in-the-sky. Reality is living, pulsing people; reality is fire and ice; reality is the sun setting over the Swiss Alps, a gentle doe streaking through the forest; reality is a ruddy glass of Burgundy, Beethoven’s Mass in D, a child lapping a chocolate ice-cream cone; reality is a striding woman with wind-blown hair; reality is the risen Christ.

These are, of course, things that in his time, his Western culture and his way that are striking.  All true, indeed—now imagine the thoughts, lives, and real contemplations of the near 7 billion people on this planet. This drives my desire to travel and experience the world.

Above all, appreciate the journey and live in the moment; see the world and take a long loving look at the real around you.
alaska panorama


Dormant, not dead

Although this blog has remained without post for awhile, it is not dead.  Life’s circumstances have crept in the way of consistent writing.  The good news is that I have a job; the bad news, of course, is that said job has been busy enough to keep me from writing in this place.

Nevertheless, I am brimming with ideas, and I hope to post about at least one or two of them.  For this job I’ve done a considerable amount of travel in a short amount of time, thus renewing my interest in writing about travel as a form of discernment.

I don’t know when that post will be published.  Sometimes I question whether I should continue with this blog, and I always come back to the desire to write and not care if anyone reads these words.  I do know I still receive many hits for a two and a half year old post containing a poem from Hafiz on loneliness (by far the most popular piece).

That, too, is worth blogging about again.  Loneliness.  Right now I’m in a season of being on my own, and working hard.  Loneliness does accompany me on my work related travel, but I am most grateful for friends and family, though sometimes they are far off.  The loneliness I sometimes feel now is good, because behind it, I feel loved.  This lonelieness is a longing for those I hold dear and whose company I miss.

That post from 2008 highlights a time in my life when loneliness was an emptiness—and yet, as the Hafiz poem suggests, I let it cut me more deep; it fermented and seasoned me.  After that post, I descended even further into a lonely and depressed place, but eventually I emerged.  And here I am, full of life, and yes, still lonely and ever so aware of my need for God.

No,  this blog is not dead.  Even if my posts still are months from each other, and may at times be dormant, it is not dead.  So long as people continue to search and read the Hafiz poem, it will be alive…

An Awakening: How I Found Myself in Tübingen

I wrote the following on ‘changing faith’ four years ago, reflecting on the year I studied at Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, in southwestern Germany. A piece of this was published in the May 2006 issue of The Lutheran, a magazine publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the full text appeared online and I moderated a forum discussion about changing faith). Another post reflecting about what has changed since 2006 and where my faith life is presently will be posted here sometime soon. Until then, enjoy this piece…

An Awakening: How I Found Myself in Tübingen

14 October 2001
I picked up a leaf and started walking. I noticed the leaves as they fell, how some fell straight down to the ground, others fell on top of branches and bushes, and yet still more floated gracefully and gently to the earth. Every leaf that fell to the ground covered the ground and would someday become a part of the earth. This is a cycle, this is a season. My life has changed seasons…

It was a beautiful autumn day when I wrote the leaf meditation–almost two months after I had moved to Tübingen, Germany. Indeed, the entire 11-month journey was a seasonal change in my young adult life and defies any simple description. I could fill pages with stories of travel, study, and culture—but often untold is how Tübingen changed my faith.

As an undergraduate, my dream to study meteorology ended with a failure in calculus. Overwhelmed and depressed, I abandoned meteorology for German and applied to study in Tübingen the following year (2001-2002). With the guidance of a mentor, I began the process of discerning what, if not meteorology, was my vocational calling.

In Tübingen, I attended classes in German and imbibed on local culture. I wrote to family and friends about travel adventures, German culture, and living through September 11 in Germany. Untold, however, are the stories of spiritual soul-searching.

Every day began with several Psalms. Centering myself with breath prayer, I meditated on Scripture and wrote my deepest thoughts in journals. My worship life flourished not inside, but rather outside church walls. I prayerfully walked along the Neckar river and through the forest. The physical act of running became prayer as I visualized Jesus running with me.

This intimate relationship with God (and with myself) nurtured my soul, and cultivated an intense discernment process where I wrestled with a call into ministry. My life had more in common with the mystics than I am often willing to acknowledge. It was truly an awakening.

Reflecting back, I don’t think I would have been as open to deep soul-searching had I not painfully struggled with calculus. Neither would I have had such an intense faith journey without someone to mentor me through.

This journey–now four years ago–lives in me, ever guiding and sustaining my spirit. It has helped me be a light for others as I have engaged in more public forms of faith sharing and ministry. Now a city-dweller in Seattle, my faith is changing again. And I look forward to what this second seasonal change will bring.

Winter Pilgrim

I was first introduced to Annie Dillard’s work in a high school english class on creative writing.  We were assigned to pick an author, read multiple books by that author and assemble a report on said author’s life and work.  Dillard was suggested to me by my teacher; at the time, I had no previous knowledge of her work.

I was mystified from the very beginning of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  Seemingly in one breath she describes intricate details about the minute life of insects, the vastness of the solar system, and ties it to the Divine.  When I read her writing, even though I do not share her passion for stalking insects, I feel akin to her.

For example, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she writes:  “I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly.  I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, ‘Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?’  The poor wretch flees.  I am not making chatter; I meant to change his life.  I seem to posses an organ that others lack, a sort of trivia machine.”

I, too, spit out random facts, that sometimes are timely, and other times quite random and more than the other person really wanted to know.  It’s a quirk, and I absorb knowledge of all sorts, that for some reason or another are stored away until something in the present triggers the memory.

A page later in that same chapter (“Intricacy”), she writes:

The creation is not a study, a roughed-in sketch; it is supremely, meticulously created, created abundantly, extravagantly, and in fine.  Along with intricacy, there is another aspect of creation that has impressed me in the course of my wanderings.  Look again at the horsehair worm, a yard long and thin as a thread, whipping through the duck pond…look at the fruit of an Osage orange tree, big as grapefruit, green convoluted as any human brain…Look, in short, at practically anything—the coot’s feet, the mantis’s face, a banana, the human ear—and see that not only did the creator create everything but that he is apt to create anything.  He’ll stop at nothing.

Here is a woman, living in the present  and extremely fascinated and in touch with the earth around her.  The winter solstice has now come, and in the great Northwestern United States it is a cold and dark season.  I contemplate an intricate world teeming with life and infinite possibilities…even to be found in this winter time.

damp appreciation

Drip drop
goes the rain
hitting the ground
streaming down the drain.

It’s not raining today, but it has rained enough recently in Seattle to force my still hooked on summer attitude to shift toward darkness and dampness—and how to appreciate them.  My heart and soul have barely emerged from the dark night, and now the weather patterns emulate the cold dark feeling I thought I’d left behind.  Time to enter a seasonal appreciation for the night and for the rain…

Writing over Anger with Love

This poem reflects something I need to give and receive in my life now…something I’ve lost beneath blinding rage. It isn’t pretty and I need to release it and grasp on tightly to the love of God.  The poem is a critique of church rules and right ways of doing things. However, the silly lies of anger are written on my walls.  I’ve been here before, recently even.  Something clicked tonight at church, and I breathed in the life-giving breath of God.  I hope love is written on my heart, and that this time it lasts—that God’s graffiti will paint over the anger permanently—I don’t want to sink back into that angry place.


God’s Graffiti

We’ve splashed our rules
all over the sanctuary walls…
so many rules we don’t have time
for dancing…
our graffiti
defiling the house of God.
God’s graffiti is different:
God writes LOVE
upon our hearts.
Some night, let’s sneak in the sanctuary
and paint over the rules
and write God’s graffiti
all over the walls…

— Ann Weems

March Journeys

Quite the adventurer, I have traveled many places in my life, and aspire to continue my worldwide wanderings as long as I am able.  These pictures below are from two adventures during March, the first a semester break trip to Greece in early March 2002 (the 2-month semester break also included travels in Italy, Sweden and Norway) during the year I studied in Germany; the second, a wandering through the UK in March 2007—the picture is from the top of Mt. Snowdon in Wales.

March often is the beginning, or at least the middle of the Christian season of Lent, the 40 days leading to Easter…a time for reflection, discipline, and a whole heap of other traditions.  For me, this lent—these 40 days before I proclaim the resurrection of Christ, are about clearing house, de-cluttering mind and living space.  I am not able to wander as in previous years, but this cleansing is necessary.