Many of my favorite stories revolve around travel as a plot structure. Travel is an effective outward reflection of a character’s inner journey in fiction. Nonfiction biographies that involve travel are just more interesting. I look to the journeys of everyone from St. Francis to the Peace Pilgrim to Aragorn to St. Paul and see people who were strengthened spiritually by their solo travels.
I don’t know if I consciously expected to find pilgrims with backpacks on trains or in late-night discussions in the hostels, but whatever I expected, I was disappointed. I’ve written about my loneliness while traveling, and it took regaining some spiritual community to realize that the loneliness was in some ways spiritual isolation. Travelers in the kinds of circuits I run tend to be secular humanists who live by the motto, “Live life to the fullest, and do no harm,” at best. They live and let live, so I rarely feel any judgement for my religion and way of living, but I also can’t connect with them in that way.
It didn’t take long for the priest at the small local parish here in Tennessee to pick me out as a new member and take me out to eat after church one day to get to know me. Many of the parishioners, who are overwhelmingly retirees imported from the expensive northern states—we’re in Baptist country, y’all—introduced themselves and began greeting me when they saw me every Sunday. This is odd for me, since I’ve gotten used to ghosting in and out of churches where no one knows who I am, and may not even speak my language. But it’s nice. I didn’t even realize I missed being around like-minded people who know my name.
A friend came to visit and go rafting with me. Other than rafting, we didn’t do many exciting things. Mostly, we talked. And I don’t know about her, but those conversations set currents flowing in my mind and heart that have been almost stagnant for a while. She’s someone I met before she became Christian. I hadn’t seen her in over a year, and the change in her was incredible. The best way I can describe it is she carries the presence of God with her and has an intentional consciousness of him, and her journey is something that inspires mine.
I’ve become more conscious of the spiritual heart-sisters I’ve had the fortune to walk with, even including one here, among the raft guides. When I become frustrated by the spiritual passivity of people around me, I think of them and the men of God I’ve come across. I’ve had two eras in my life of being surrounded by strong Christian community: at an inter-denominational Christian camp where I formed the core of my faith and at my university’s Catholic center. I am now only connected to some of the people from those times of my life through a facebook friendship, but I still draw from edifying articles and words they post. Others I’m closer to, and I try my best to see how many times we can make our paths keep crossing, or think back and reanalyze bright snippets of discussions that seem to stay lodged in my mind.
Another source of spiritual support I’ve only recently come to classify as community is through books and articles. Raft guiding is physically and socially draining, but not intellectually draining in the way school is. Therefore, I’ve had the opportunity to explore spiritual worlds—fictional, biographical, philosophical, biblical—through literature. It’s incredible, the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.
My spiritual community is out there, and it’s vast. More and more, I’m realizing spiritual people who traveled didn’t find God by traveling; they sought God while traveling. And that distinction makes all the difference.