Life is like a maze of doors and they all open from the side you’re on. (Cat Stevens)
When I travel, I always take pictures of doors. Whether colorful or drab, open or closed, doors are always evocative. Doors invite us in or through. They might also shut us out.
It is essential to me to take pictures during travel. Not in an Ugly American always-looking-through-the-viewfinder way, but because photography helps me notice, to see. It helps me be truly present in the moment. My pictures—doors, architectural details, sunlight and shadow—are, for me, sacramental signs of the difference between a trip and a pilgrimage.
One obvious model of traveling-as-pilgrimage is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. The story is “a quest of self-discovery that takes Gilbert to Italy, India and Indonesia.” It is a book that spent nearly four years on the New York Times bestseller list. And of course, there was the movie. I loved the book and the movie, as did (and do) millions of others. So inspirational! So moving! A happy ending! A triumph of the human spirit!
And yet. I wonder if one of the reasons we flock to this kind of thing is precisely because the crisis and the struggle and the quest are somebody else’s problem. By the time we see it, the struggle has been solved, polished, back-lit, and packaged. It is so much easier to experience a quest of self-discovery vicariously in a 2.3-hour chunk than to appreciate and reflect properly on our own struggles. I sort of want to Do Something, but it’s so much trouble and I have errands to run. If I can just read somebody else’s story, maybe I don’t have to work so hard on my own.
Another possibility is that we don’t understand how to live what poet Mary Oliver calls our “wild and precious” lives. Donald Miller has a brilliant take on this in his wonderful book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. He says the secret is both to live a better story and be careful how you edit it.
I’m thinking about these things because I have recently discovered, in a miraculous turn of events, that I will be able to take a three-month sabbatical this late spring. I don’t know if I can embark on a full-on quest for self-discovery, but I am committed to seeking a spiritually value-added experience. Not just a trip, but a pilgrimage. Rick Steves meets Joseph Campbell.
There are many similarities between my opportunity and Liz Gilbert’s: I’ll be away from home for a while. Two of the countries I’m thinking about start with “I” (in my case, Ireland and Israel.) For much of the time I will be traveling alone. There are also some significant differences. I have 25% of the time and maybe .01% of the money available than Liz had. Also: no one is going to make a movie about my journey. [Although, if they do, I would like the part of me to be played by my doppelgänger Annette Bening. Just for the record.]
I am currently collecting advice, ideas, and dreams from others. But it is less important to me to plan “the trip of a lifetime” and more important to think about the journey that is my life. What is my quest? What does my life need? Not just where do I want to go but what do I seek? Although the details are to be determined, the answers will have to do with connection. Connection to the Spirit. Connections with people. Sacred places and thin places. Doors and paths. I won’t have enough time to go all the places I might like, but by God there’s enough time to make it a pilgrimage. Because that is my choice, a posture of the heart.
More Cat Stevens: There’s so much left to know and I’m on the road to find out.