My broken camera became the catalyst to the practice of what I now call "travel presence." I will travel with a camera again, but I also intend to make this kind of presence my more reliable companion.
I was on this pilgrimage to be in the Holy Land. Too often, though, the typical activities of an organized tour, including all the stops for photo and shopping opportunities, take us out of the moment to the future--to the time when we are showing our pictures or looking at our souvenirs and gifts. What, then, did I learn about the practice of travel presence? The following tips are based on travel to the Holy Land, but they apply just as well to any guided tour.
Don't expect to be alone. Many people feel that they need to have some quiet time in a holy place for the experience to be meaningful. This is hard to do on a tour when you are allotted perhaps one-half hour at a site, and the guide talks through most of the visit. This background information is often very valuable, giving you a sense of the history and tradition associated with a place. So listen but also observe. The devotion of other pilgrims may touch you in surprising ways.
On my first visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, I found myself rather taken aback by all the lamps, icons, and other decorations so different from the plain decor of the churches of my Protestant upbringing. But then I noticed a young woman kneeling at the slab of rock where the anointing of Jesus' body after the crucifixion is remembered. She touched the stone with such tenderness, I was pulled right out of my denial and into the presence of my own compassion for Jesus and all the others who suffer today.
In such a place, other pilgrims add to the tapestry of your experience, even if their expressions of devotion are different from your own.
Of course, if you stay in the back of your group, you may have a few minutes of quiet while the others are taking pictures or browsing through the souvenir shop. If you have already read about the significance of a site, you can step out of the range of your guide's voice to be by yourself. Be sure to rendezvous with your group on schedule, however. Nothing spoils the glow of a private moment as quickly as the exasperated looks of others who have had to wait for you.
Make connections. In a city like Jerusalem, it's not difficult to think about the generations that have gone before you and those yet to come. The tour guide's talk is peppered with dates, descriptions of historical events, and explanations of the traditional significance of places you are visiting. Practice presence in each place by remembering the cloud of witnesses that have been there before you and also the silent witnesses that remain. Some of the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane have been carbon dated to the time of Jesus; they were witnesses to his agonized prayers. Put yourself in their place, hear with their ears. Where are the prayers of agony coming from today?
Jerusalem is a city of stone. Israel, in fact, is a stone lover's paradise. The pavement stones in the lower levels of the city have been dated by archaeologists to specific periods. The walls of the churches, mosques, and synagogues have seen parades of pilgrims and too many battles to be counted. As you walk on these ancient paths or touch these solid walls, ask yourself, "What would these particular stones tell me if they could speak?"
Be open to other religious traditions. I traveled to Israel to attend a conference sponsored by Shambhala Publications on spiritual practices in four traditions--Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. After a week at the Sea of Galilee, we drove up to Jerusalem. At Mount Scopus, we got off our buses and gathered to get our first view of the Old City. Two Jewish members of our group offered prayers in Hebrew. A Sufi sheik recited the Fatiha in English and Arabic. We sang responsively as a Catholic monk read Psalm 122, a prayer for the peace of Jerusalem. We greeted the Holy City in the languages and traditional practices of the three faiths that call Jerusalem home.