I enjoy being open to spiritual experiences while on the road, and there’s no more spiritual experience than traveling to the developing world. To be with the world’s desperate and downtrodden is to be with Christ. My expertise as a writer and guide, however, is traveling through Europe, which also offers plenty of opportunities to get close to God. Here is my guide to five places in Europe that stoke my spirit.
High in the Alps
As I walk high on a ridge in Switzerland, the Alps strike me as the greatest cathedral in Europe. Ride the rack-railway train from Wilderswil (near Interlaken) up to Schynige Platte, then hike along a ridge to Faulhorn, with its famous mountaintop hotel, and on to the perch called First. As you tightrope along the ridge, lakes stretch all the way to Germany on your left, and on your right is a row of cut-glass peaks—the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. The long, legato tones of an alp horn announce that the helicopter-stocked mountain hut is open, it’s just around the corner—and the coffee-schnapps is on. It’s enough to have even a staid Lutheran raising his hands in praise.
Spain’s Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage Trail
There’s a reason pilgrims have hiked from France to the distant northwest of Spain for more than 1,000 years. Trekking with people of all spiritual stripes—or none at all—across the vast expanses of Spain, it’s easy to be one with nature and get caught up in a private talk with your maker. Everyone’s heading for the same point: the Cathedral of St. James in the city of Santiago de Compostela. And to be there as well-worn and sunburned pilgrims step on the scallop-shell pavement stone in front of the towering cathedral, overwhelmed with jubilation to have reached their personal goal and succeeded in their quest, is a joy in itself.
I have a personal ritual of sitting quietly on the rampart of a ruined castle high above Assisi, the town of St. Francis. I look down at the basilica dedicated to the saint, then into the valley—where a church stands strong in the hazy Italian plain that marks the place where Francis and his “Jugglers of God” started the Franciscan order, bringing the word of God to people in terms all could embrace. Hearing the same birdsong that inspired Francis, and tasting the same simple bread, cheese, and wine of Umbria that sustained him, I calm my 21st-century soul and ponder the message of a saint anyone can love.
St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican
Worshiping upon the tomb of St. Peter under the towering dome of Michelangelo in the vast expanse of the greatest church in Christendom—where incense gives earthly substance to ethereal sunrays—I ponder the centuries of devotion and tradition that have gone into building both this magnificent church and the Catholic faith. Throwing out my Lutheran cynicism, I appreciate it all as a humble and noble quest to better understand and get close to our heavenly Father.
In the wine country of Burgundy, just down the road from Cluny (where the greatest monastic order of the Middle Ages was born), a rough lane leads to the ecumenical monastic community of Taizé. It welcomes all to gather with no regard to culture, language, or denomination. With a perfectly ecumenical embrace, people gather at Taizé to celebrate diversity, tune in to God’s great creation and the family of humankind, and become comfortable with silence, praise, meditation, singing, and simple living. Taizé gets you close to God.
This article appeared in the June 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 6, pages 18-22).
Photos courtesy of Rick Steves