As the summer travel season gets under way, this may be a good
time to look at how your vacation can be part of the journey of faith. I’m not
talking about the typical family vacation. Now that my own children are grown,
I’m focusing my comments on adults traveling without kids.
Going on pilgrimage, a trip to a holy place, has always been seen
as a way to draw closer to God. Even a more mundane vacation, when entered into
with the proper spirit, can serve the same purpose.
A pilgrim is a wayfarer with a destination: usually a shrine or
city associated with a great saint whose presence still echoes there. On pilgrimage,
the adventure itself is as important as the destination. One goes away to touch
the infinite and comes back changed by the experience.
T.S. Eliot, near the end of his poem “Little Gidding,” hints at
this transformation by travel: “We shall not cease from exploration/and the
end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/and know the place
for the first time.” In a sense, all journeys are journeys home.
Calendars of the Church year are often round, graphically making
the point that the Church’s cycle of readings takes us on a yearly journey of
faith that always brings us back where we started, but never the same as when
In this same spirit the great Catholic activist and writer Dorothy
Day called her column “On Pilgrimage,” not because it described a physical pilgrimageit
seldom didbut because it was concerned with the pilgrimage of faith.
The Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers picks up this
connection when it calls pilgrimage “a paradigm of the whole life of faith”
as we move ever deeper into the mystery of God.
This kind of travelperhaps to Assisi, Lourdes, Rome or the Holy
Landmay be a once-in-a-lifetime event. It’s not a day at the beach. The primary
purpose of a full-blown religious pilgrimage is the pursuit of holiness, touching
In contrast, we go on vacation for entertainment and relaxation.
But an ordinary holiday trip can still take on a spiritual dimension.
When traveling alone or with your spouse or another adult, you might
turn a vacation into a spiritual journey by following any or all of these suggestions:
Pray Your Vacation
Begin and end and fill your days in between with prayers of
praise and thanksgiving for the wonders of this world that you experience. Whether
you are standing on a huge rock looking out at the turbulent ocean or a mile
below the surface of the earth in a silver mine, as I once was, you will encounter
God’s handiwork. Let that be a starting point for prayer.
As Pope John Paul IIthe most traveled pontiff in historywrote
for the World Day of Tourism 2001, “Travelers in touch with the wonders of creation
perceive the Creator’s presence in their hearts, and they are led to exclaim
with sentiments of deep gratitude, ‘How delightful are all His works, how dazzling
to the eye!’ (Sirach 42:23).”
Without using those precise words, my heart surely poured out that
prayer the July morning I attended Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Barbados.
We could see, hear and smell the Caribbean through the open windows behind the
altar as we worshiped the One who made the land and the sea.
Also, you can pray for those you meet on your journey who are in
need, for they are journeying, too. When I visited Cuba in 1998 with a Church
group, many of the people we met asked for prayers. In particular I remember
a young priest who signed my forehead with the sign of the cross and said, “Pray
for us. We have a lot of work to do.” I have made the people of Cuba part of
my daily prayer ever since.
Experience the Church's Catholicity
Many Catholics seem to think of vacation as a guilt-free time
to sleep in or hit the beach on Sunday morning. But participating in the eucharistic
liturgy and other liturgies away from home can be a wonderful experience both
familiar and strange. When you take part in the services at local churches,
you will experience the diversity of the Catholic Church.
Former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan once lamented that
the Mass began to be celebrated in the vernacular just at the time world travel
became affordable for middle-class Americans. Her point was that Catholics
visiting foreign lands no longer find the Mass in the same language as at home,
as they did when it was always celebrated in Latin.
And yet, the Mass is the same. I have participated
in Masses in Japanese, Flemish, Spanishand even British English in London!
Even when I didn’t understand the language, I always knew where we were in the
familiar Order of the Mass. For example, the realization that those around me
were praying the Lord’s Prayer in their own language always brought me a sense
of comfort and familiarity.
And yet the Massand the Churchis also different in each country
and within each country, as it reflects the local culture. That struck me strongly
one Sunday morning at the Catholic cathedral of Kyoto, Japan, the ancient capital
of a country that has few Catholics. Unexpectedly, but not really surprisingly,
the Japanese bowed to each other instead of shaking hands at the sign of peace.
Kyoto also reminded me that Latin isn’t lost in the universal Church.
Although it was obvious that we weren’t Japanese, the priest had no way to tell
our native language so he said “the Body of Christ” in Latin (“Corpus Christi”)
when he gave us Communion.
Even within the United States, your Sunday worship experience may
be a lot different than what you are used to at home. You may find yourself
praying at a tiny church in Michigan with a priest who uses a remote-control
device to activate a recorded organ. Or you might be participating in a mariachi
Mass at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, where a crypt holds the remains
of the legendary defenders of the Alamo.
If you are vacationing within the United States, it is easy to find the times
and location of a local Mass by calling 1-800-MASS-TIMES or visiting
The Mass is not the only way the Church reflects the local culture,
of course. The art and architecture of churches, chapels and cathedrals always
contain something of the people who built them, while at the same time expressing
a universal faith. The statues and paintings may look more like the people who
created them than they look like you. That’s always an invitation to reflect
on how we, too, tend to see God the Father, and even the saints, in our own
So visiting these worship centers has great spiritual value apart
from liturgy. Stop by, reflect, pray. If the churchyard has a cemetery, stroll
through and reflect on the people buried there who once lived in this community.
They, too, were on a journey of faith. They have completed the journey and gone
home. Yet they remain united with us in the communion of saints.
Learn About Other Religions
Pope John Paul II cited learning about other religions as one
of the blessings of tourism. Perhaps he meant that exposure to other religions
helps us reflect more deeply on our own.
I once stood in a Buddhist cemetery on a hill near Tokyo. Some of
the grave markers above the cremated remains were 1,000 years old. Many of the
newer markers were informally decorated by objects associated with the deceased
person in life, such as a coffee mug or a beer can.
I couldn’t help but reflect on how long Buddhism has been in Japan
and how the Buddhists’ belief in reincarnation makes the meaning of death different
for them than for Christians.
But you don’t have to cross an ocean to learn about a faith that
is foreign to your Catholic perspective. The United States has a rich heritage
of religious diversity. A day trip one summer took me to Kentucky’s Shaker Village,
once home to a celibate religious community with ideals of simplicity, purity
and perfection in their work and themselves to create a heaven on earth.
A close encounter with another religion may cause you to reflect
on similarities with our Catholic faith rather than differences, even across
national boundaries. In a Presbyterian church in Havana, I heard a woman praying
in what seemed to be a familiar rhythm even though I don’t know Spanish. An
American friend leaned over and whispered to me, “That’s the Magnificat!” (Luke
Encounter Other Cultures
In the customs, crafts and art of human beings we see a reflection
of God’s creative activity. We may notice this most readily when the culture
is not our own but from a different community or a different time.
The difference brings out appreciation. The contrast can also cause
us to reflect on and appreciate our own culture. That doesn’t necessarily require
crossing a national border. You may find another culture in a two-hour car drive
within your own state. On the other hand, you can go to Japan or China without
really encountering the culture at all if you stay at a tourist enclave.
What’s important is your mind-set. Don’t go as a tourist, but as
a seeker and an ambassador. Make it a point to eat local foods instead of something
from McDonald’s or another chain; buy local crafts as gifts for the folks back
home instead of made-in-China souvenirs (presuming you aren’t in China).
Tourists can become “agents of dialogue between cultures in order
to build up a civilization of love and peace,” Pope John Paul II wrote. “Tourism
enables people to live for a time among others and learn about their living
conditions, their problems and their religion; it allows travelers peacefully
to recognize other peoples’ legitimate aspirations and to share them.”
The best way to do this is to live with a family for a time, as
my wife and I did for two weeks with friends in Barbados. When we explained
this to a man we met at a Methodist church on the island, he observed, “You
Create Your Own Retreat Experience
You can’t immerse yourself in another culture without becoming
part of the hustle and bustle. And you have to at least check out the mass media
to see how much of it is familiarmade in Americaand how much is different
from what you know. That’s part of experiencing the culture.
But you can also carve out part of your vacation as a little self-directed
retreat. Once again, the pope says it well: “In practice, tourism enables us
to take a break from daily life, work and the obligations which necessarily
bind us.” This is a perfect time to have a media-free period of quiet and renewal
that allows you to sort out the important from the urgent.
Keep a Travel Journal
Even if you don’t normally keep a journal, travel is a great
time to do so. At the end of each day, write and reflect about your experiences.
Ask yourself: How is God speaking to me in this journey? How
have people experienced God in the history, the culture and the geography of
this place? What is God doing here now? How is God moving in my own culture
and in my own life?
You may answer these questions and others that occur to you in the
form of prayers, meditations, letters to and from God and poems. All of these
are good journal material.
One night in Havana, I wrote: “What is God doing in Cuba? God is
being present through the Son, Emmanuel (‘God is with us’), as manifested in
the Body of Christ. I have seen that everywhere I turn on this trip, this sojourn.”
The rough Atlantic coast in the north of Barbados caused me to reflect:
“The power of the ocean with the mighty waves that have been eroding away those
rocks for eons fills me with wonder at the God who made it all and keeps it
Buy a separate journal book for each trip. (That can be a fun part
of pre-trip planning.) Reread these books through the years, as I did when writing
this article. You may find that you agree or disagree with what you thought
when you wrote them, and that is an important discovery.
If formal journal-writing is just too alien to you, try this: Each
day on your trip buy a postcard bearing an image that has particular meaning
for you that day. Write a brief reflection on the back about the experiences
and spiritual insights that you associate with the card. Then mail it to yourself.
Whether you go on a pilgrimage to one of the great holy places of
the Catholic tradition in Europe or a vacation to the beach, any trip can advance
your journey of faith. Don’t take a holiday from God this summer.