Sacred Space Crashing
A Reading List for Respectfully Visiting Spiritual Places
Looking to travel to holy sites? Explore sacred travel etiquette and learn how to make the best of your experience.
“Are you looking for Darth Vader?” I ask, peering out from behind my binoculars. “Yes!” the man nearby exclaims, “Can you see it?”
We’re standing outside the Washington National Cathedral in D.C., staring up at the northwest tower, looking for a gargoyle in the shape of Darth Vader’s head. (Technically, it’s not a gargoyle, which traditionally means a rain spout, but a grotesque, which defines a decorative, fanciful human or animal architectural form.)
You might be wondering how a fearful villain ended up here. Excellent question. In the 1980’s, as the building’s west towers were under construction, the cathedral held a design competition for kids. Christopher Rader’s drawing of Vader won third place, and Darth soon took his place on the exterior. Nearly half a million people a year visit this building, which “seeks to be a catalyst for spiritual harmony in our nation, reconciliation among faiths, and compassion in the world.” From that perspective, reconciling Vader seems to be a stellar place to start.
The Benefits of Spiritual Travel
The visit is another stop on my never-ending pilgrimage to spiritually-charged locations. After an epic trek to Nepal for my 40th birthday, I quickly developed a travel addiction with a very full bucket list: Lourdes, Varanasi, Easter Island, Wittenberg, Uluru, and the list goes on. Sarah Baxter, in her gorgeously illustrated book Spiritual Places (Inspired Traveller’s Guides), describes the experience knowingly:
There are certain places that manage to seep into your soul. They don’t stop at delighting your external senses with their drama or design. No, they have a way of inching further; of permeating your skin and sinking deep, deep down inside; of making you ask new questions about yourself, maybe even about the crux of human existence.
In this way, travel helps me see people as individuals and honor the great diversity of viewpoints on our planet. Globe-trotting helps me understand people and where they are coming from in their opinions and beliefs, creating gaping holes in my stereotypes and generalizations.
I’ve lodged with Lakotas; whirled till I dropped with Sufis; meditated with Buddhists; immersed myself in 12-step meetings; bowed my head reverently in prayer with Catholics; hit the floor solemnly with Muslims; chanted seemingly endless kirtan with Hindus; sung really, really loudly in a Christian mega- church; davened quietly with Jews in a synagogue; and cried entirely too resoundingly in Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. I’ve even paradoxically joined atheists in group prayer. Some places I’ve gone only once, others have become places to which I return for spiritual nourishment. Some I’ve entered with excitement, and others with trepidation, hoping to heal my religious wounds.
Yet, when the pandemic hit, my list went on hold. I parked my Aliner camper in a friend’s tree-filled 10-acre backyard, making her, a bunch of squirrels, and the occasional wandering-by bear my “bubble.” My new pilgrimage was a weekly one-hour drive from my house to hers, and the camper became my church. My summer travel guide? Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice.
It’s an understatement to say the world changed during that summer as our collective awareness sharpened on myriad issues: how much privilege we are often unaware of, the inequity in our medical institutions, and the inner work needed to address racial injustices. (I’d be remiss not to add the potential health risks of creating food out of living animals.)
As I began reconsidering travel, every one of these enlightenments was salient. I also wondered about how the pandemic affected many religious and spiritual communities: Would a location still be open? Would the community welcome outsiders? What health risk might I pose to them? Should I test before I visit?
While I’ve always been careful about researching religious etiquette before visiting a religious building or sacred site, I soon realized that observing the right medical etiquette is required, too. Sacred space crashing had gotten much more complex.
Sarah's Top Book Picks for Spiritual Site Crashing
Here’s my #whatimreading list for wandering back into the world:
Always close at hand is the irreplaceable How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook from Stuart M. Matlins and Arthur J. Magida. I consult this hefty reference before any religious site visit. It contains valuable recommendations for appropriate clothing and simplified overviews for thirty of the world’s religious paths. Although necessarily reductionist, it’s a great place to learn customs that might not be apparent on a sacred location’s website.
I’m also partial to travelogs for learning what not to do. Paul Barach’s irreverent Fighting Monks and Burning Mountains: Misadventures on a Buddhist Pilgrimage had me crying with laughter and pondering my own cultural mistakes while traveling.
Other books inspire me to consider the excitement inherent in modern-day quests for hidden knowledge, such as The Way of the Wild Goose: Three Pilgrimages Following Geese, Stars, and Hunches on the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain. Here, anthropologist Beebe Bahrami explores the enmeshment of pagan symbols and routes underneath the well-known Christian narrative about the Camino, reminding us of the complexity of how spiritual traditions develop.
Travel diaries can disappoint, too. I hauled Brian McLaren’s The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey on my first long jaunt after the pandemic, only to be disappointed. Upon returning home, I compared notes with a friend who visited the Galapagos at the same time, remarkably with the same book and sadly with the same disappointment. Yet, rather than stop at criticizing another writer, I was inspired to see if I could capture the experience of the underwater monastery any better.
A growing edge for me is deepening my ethical sensitivities. I’ve always been careful not to photograph unless given permission and remain silent unless spoken to. Shhhh! People are worshipping there, and that’s easy to forget as a visitor. So, before entering any location, I spend a few minutes in silence, meditation, or prayer. I also consider the intention of my visit and the potential impact on those present. Likewise, I need to be thoughtful about how I integrate what I have experienced there into my life.
I’m not alone in fine-tuning awareness about my actions. In Stealing My Religion: Not Just Any Cultural Appropriation, Liz Bucar, a professor of religion at Northeastern University and a self-professed “repeat offender” of religious appropriation, explores the ways we can all too easily contribute to erasing religious histories and use other people’s religions for our own political, educational, and therapeutic goals. “It is one thing to accept that religious borrowing is part of our contemporary landscape,” she observes. “It is another to ignore the ethical implications of these borrowings.”
As a spiritual eclectic, I’m all too aware that my appreciation might be considered appropriation by another. And that’s why Bucar’s book just made it to the top of my stack.
Planning a trip to a distant location? Read more musings about the ethics of visiting Holy Habitats.