What makes a place spiritual—and how can we benefit from spiritual places? Author Alice Peck dives deep.
Author and editor Alice Peck is drawn to finding the sacred in everyday things. Her latest book is a tribute to the sacred and to the archetypes of the seeker and traveler. Her personal interest in exploration of holy places around the world gives her a unique perspective, one not often found in travel guides.
As an editor, she focuses on creativity, mind, and spirit, collaborating with Zen teachers, Tibetan Buddhist psychotherapists, meditation instructors, novelists, and more.
Her new book, Around the World in 80 Spiritual Places, is reviewed in the July/August 2022 issue of Spirituality & Health.
What are some of your favorite spiritual places—unsung or widely known—that did not make the final list in your book?
When it comes to the unsung and personal, I’d say pretty much any library anywhere, as well as the summer camp in Michigan on Lake Arbutus I attended while growing up and the route my husband, dog, and I walk every morning along the shores of Buttermilk and Red Hook Channel in Brooklyn, New York.
It wasn’t until after the manuscript for Around the World in 80 Spiritual Journeys went to the printer, I realized I should have included Bluff, Utah, named for the cliffs above the spectacularly beautiful San Juan River and gorges. Not only does the landscape strike awe and the pioneer cemetery make you pause, but it’s also where I first heard coyotes under a star-saturated night sky—the experience making me feel a little closer to heaven.
When it comes to widely known places, well … although coming up with 80 seemed like a huge task at first, one could easily find 80 more. I’d have loved to have explored more folk and wayside shrines like the spirit houses in Bangkok, Thailand, and the kandilakia along the roads in Greece, as well as memorials that arise spontaneously to celebrate events and mourn tragedies.
Some of the many places that didn’t make it into the book because I wanted to be sure to span the globe in as equitable a way as possible are the Abbey of Montecasino in Italy where the Rule of Benedict was composed; the Bob Marley Mausoleum near Ocho Rios, Jamaica; the standing stones in Callanish, Scotland, where it’s said at dawn on the summer solstice a being called the “Shining One,” which may refer to a Celtic sun goddess, transverses the neolithic structure; the shrine to Fatima Masumeh in Qom, Iran, and the attendant rituals that have been passed down since the Safavid period; the Kirka Sharif Shrine in Kandahar, Afghanistan, believed to house the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed; Marae Taputapuatea, said to be the sacred center of Polynesia; and the largest Buddhist temple in America, the Watt Munisotaram in Hampton, Minnesota. I could go on ...
How did your personal definition of “spiritual” evolve during your research and the process of writing this book? What did you learn about yourself through writing?
I came to see more clearly that it’s really what you bring to (or how you perceive a place) rather than what the place gives to you. One person’s vacant lot embodying disappointment or missed possibilities can be another person’s meadow filled with wildflowers and connection to nature and perhaps something greater.
It’s also about the process of arriving there. Where is your mind and heart when you’re navigating the parking lot at Lake Louise? Can you extend the feeling of spiritual adventure to the trek up the mountain or waiting for the bus to return home?
What essential criteria should we consider when planning a pilgrimage to our own special places?
I think the main thing would be to leave time to process and absorb the experience—to sit with it and look at the small things like the nature and the details and even feel the tone and not seek just the main event like the sacred sculpture or the astounding architecture or view. I think awe and spiritual connection can often be found in the nuances—the stuff we might not pick up on during our first or even fifth visit to a place.
To you, what makes a location a compelling space for contemplation?
For me, quiet, light, and connection to nature. I’m also always telling my husband how much I love the wind, so I’d add the possibility of breezes as well. If it’s an indoor space, I’m drawn to artwork and lofty ceilings and windows that bring the outdoors in. I’m also moved by places where other seekers or pilgrims have gone before—I think to a degree the spirituality of a place can be cumulative—your holy presence in a location can enrich mine and onward, exponentially, over days or even centuries.
So many spiritual places have deep religious roots and are sacrosanct to local populations. What are your recommendations for travelers who wish to be respectful?
This is so important. Honor the place and the people there and don’t impose your opinions or values. Research the history and the customs before you go. If you don’t want to follow a location’s traditions or dress code—like a head covering, no bare legs, or removing your shoes—or you have a burning desire to play loud music or talk on your phone, I’d suggest you seek out another destination. Don’t go somewhere to change it or to “know better” but rather experience it and see how it can change you (even if it means teaching you what’s not spiritual for you).
You meet yourself 20 years ago. Is she surprised that you’ve written a guide for spiritual destinations?
Not at all. In one way or another this has been something that has interested me for as long as I can remember. When I was very small, I loved playing church and creating little shrines under the dining room table complete with saltines for communion. From high school onward I was checking out different spiritual communities and environments, from ashrams, to monasteries, to different types of gatherings. I’ve always been a big fan of altars created in homes and in the wild. I’d say it’s pretty much been a lifelong interest.
Where are you traveling next?
In the near future, Cape Cod and the pond where my son first learned to swim and love nature, somewhere high on my subjective list of spiritual places. I’m hoping to travel to Java and Bali and especially Borobudur in 2023 to visit some of the sacred destinations I learned about while researching my book and to discover new ones!