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Religious Tours and Spiritual Travel

temple sunsetHave your recent travels left you feeling unfulfilled? Are the Gothic cathedrals that once captured your heart no longer providing the spiritual sustenance they once did? Does the ho-hum sight of yet another Madonna and Child portrait have you crying "What else is there?" and begging for a sign from above? Perhaps it's time to open your heart. You won't be alone.

The global religious travel market is booming, with millions of the faithful, the skeptical or the curious embarking on journeys to the world's most mystically imbued places. Be it a weekend stay at a working Buddhist monastery, an excursion to discover your Native American spirit animal or a two-week living Bible trip with your local congregation, flocks of people are integrating their travel experiences with a spiritual bent.

Is a religious trip right for you?

The Pilgrim: Who's Going?

"Meaningful," "spiritual" and "religious" travel may be little more than modern catch phrases, but travelers have been making pilgrimages throughout history. From time immemorial, religious travel has been about celebrating and solidifying one's faith, by means of fellowship, charity, mindfulness or solitude. In the 16th century, Spanish Jesuits traveled to Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina to establish missions among the native people (though it must be said that their colonial pursuits were ultimately unwelcome; the Jesuits were expelled in the mid-18th century). Buddhist hermits made the journey to spend long periods in caves meditating. As part of coming-of-age rites, many African tribes sent their young males off on "spirit quests"; often painful or frightening, this initiation into adulthood was nonetheless a necessary trip.

Though the stakes might not be as high today -- risking life and limb to cross the Atlantic and set up shop among a potentially hostile people -- religious travel forges on. Modern church/synagogue/mosque group trips are omnipresent, whether in the form of volunteer vacations or visits to holy sites.

Major tour packagers and operators have realized the benefits (read: potential profits) of offering faith-geared tours. Templeton Tours, a Christian tour company, provides land and cruise travel to Alaska, the Caribbean, the Holy Land and more. On the company's cruises, no alcohol is served, the casino is replaced with a Christian bookstore and gospel groups provide evening entertainment. Globus, one of the world's largest tour operators, has a website devoted to faith-based travel, GlobusFaith.com; its itineraries include a "Journey Through the Holy Land" package and a "Footsteps of Apostle Paul" tour, among others.

For travelers who don't consider themselves religious, the reasons for taking a spiritually grounded trip are more broadly academic. Many independent-minded travelers are fascinated by the prospect of exploring the cultural and historical traditions of an ancient place. Even absent true belief, the stunning drip-tower roofs of Angkor Wat or the Aboriginal creation story tied to Australia's Uluru (Ayers Rock) inspire a sense of reverence. And modern tourist infrastructure makes accessing these places -- whatever your purpose -- easier than ever.

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The Vision Quest: Where to Journey

Options are as far ranging as the cosmos, going beyond standard religious destinations such as the Vatican, Jerusalem, Egypt and the Yucatan. While we freely admit there's nothing "standard" about the Pyramids of Giza or the Sistine Chapel, there are many other unique, less traveled destinations in which to conduct your spiritual search. In any place where inhabitants lived spiritual lives, there is an associated tourist industry. What else is available?

Buddhist MonksFor more solitary types who prefer peaceful contemplation in idyllic surroundings over, say, the hustle of Jerusalem's Old City or the dusty masses of Cairo, there are plenty of more quietly reflective options. Many Buddhist monasteries throughout the world -- Asia, Europe and the United States (see resource section below) -- have programs that let travelers lead a monk's life for a day or a week. Spend the morning in meditation, enjoy the traditional midday meal in silence, and then discuss the dharma, nature's underlying order, with fellow monks. Though renouncing all worldly possessions is not required for such stays, the more serious offerings may include long hours of meditation, which can be quite painful on the knees.

If you'd rather take a spiritual journey without bruising your already creaky lower half, try a less rigorous but no less imaginative alternative: the legendary Oberammergau Passion Play. In 1633, so the story goes, villagers of Oberammergau, Germany, were being systemically extinguished by the Black Death. Though cleaning up the dried rat feces may have solved the crisis, the villagers relied instead on anguished cries for mercy, promising that if God spared them from the plague, they would perform a play about the life of Jesus every 10 years. They were saved, and the play lives on. The next performance is in 2020.

Often referred to as the cradle of humankind (Lucy was discovered there, after all), Ethiopia has no shortage of breathtaking religious sites. The country boasts a mysterious set of 11 13th-century monolithic cave churches found in Lalibela, where the Queen of Sheba made her historical home. Many of these stunning churches are still in use. Shrouded in even greater mystery is the Church of St. Mary of Zion, originally built in the fourth century A.D. as perhaps the first church in sub-Saharan Africa. Some believe that the holy Ark of the Covenant is housed in the church -- it was stolen by Menelik, the son of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon -- and to this day a "guardian monk," appointed for life, is the only soul allowed to view the ark. Dubious? Sure, but fascinating nonetheless. Trips to this region of Ethiopia are often included as part of longer travel packages to the African nation (see resource section below).

The sun god, or Tao Jreeku, and his four offspring -- corn, blue deer, peyote and eagle -- are the seminal players in the religion of the Huichol, a group indigenous to Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains. The goal of the shamanistic Huichol religion is to fuse the world of spirit and nature with our own existence, showing that there really is no difference. Despite the group's Mexican origins, the culture and practices of the Huichol have taken on a more international hue, spreading to wherever there is a beautiful natural place befitting of the tribe -- including Alaska. The Dance of the Deer Foundation offers an eight-day summer solstice package in a lodge overlooking Alaska's stunning Inside Passage, including meditation circles and classes on Native American healing practices. The foundation offers other retreats in destinations ranging from Italy to Cape Cod.

The ley lines of the United Kingdom, believed to connect places imbued with significant undercurrents of spiritual resonance, have inspired fascination in travelers for years. Stonehenge is the most famous of the monolithic structures that mark these lines, but there are countless other constructions (stone circles, caves, monoliths) throughout Great Britain. Regardless of whether or not claims about ley lines are pseudoscience, the ancient structures that supposedly link these lines have great historical significance. And walking tours and vacation packages -- such as those from Celtic Trails -- can reveal a great deal about the lives of ancient Brits.

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The Shepherd: Resources

rosary beadsOnce you've got the requisite self-determination, it's time to start planning your pilgrimage. Here are a few references to get you started. Have your own suggestions? Share them on our message boards!

Sacred-Destinations.com is an ecumenical travel website dedicated to the idea that "you don't have to be a believer to recognize that holy places, religious buildings, and sacred art are some of the most beautiful and interesting sights you'll encounter in your travels." The site has guides to more than 1,200 holy sites, relics, art, etc., as well as thousands of photos.

InfoHub.com's "Spiritual Vacations" section is an outstanding resource for spiritual travel ideas.

GlobusFaith.com is the dedicated faith-based travel section for the Globus and Cosmos brands.

Templeton Tours offers Christian cruises and land tours.

TravelJewish.com and MilkandHoneyTours.com offer Jewish tours in a variety of destinations.

IntrepidTravel.com offers various Ethiopia tours that include visits to the cave churches of Lalibela.

Many Buddhist monasteries all over the world allow you to stay (often for free, though a donation is suggested). Here are just a few:

Shasta Abbey, California
Vimutti, New Zealand
Kopan Monastery, Nepal
Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey, United Kingdom

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--written by Dan Askin


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