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Religious Tours and Spiritual Travel

lalibela church ethiopia 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 offspring 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 a bigger travel packages to the African nation (see resource section below).

If you'd rather take a spiritual journey without bruising your already creaky lower half, try a less rigorous -- but no less imaginative -- alternative. Gate 1 Travel is one of several operators offering packages that include tickets to 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.

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. (Note: Though the Huichol people include peyote in their religious rituals, this vacation package won't!)

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.

Write About Your Religious Trip

rosary beads The Shepherd: Resources
Once you've got the requisite self-determination, it's time 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 is an ecumenical travel Web site 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 fascinating sights you'll encounter in your travels." The site has guides to 1,250 holy sites, relics, art, etc., as well as 25,000 photos.

InfoHub's Spiritual Vacation section is an outstanding resource for spiritual travel ideas.

Both Globus and Vacations to Go have dedicated departments for faith-based travel.

Templeton Tours offers Christian cruises and land tours.

TravelJewish.com offers Jewish tours, including day tours and singles trips.

Adventures Abroad offers a 13-day tour in Ethiopia that includes visits to Lalibela's cave churches.

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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