We were on the road to
Malinalco, Mexico, when we came upon clusters of people of all ages walking
along the highway. It was surprising and mysterious to me. As we passed
families, groups, and individuals, I felt as if I were looking through the car
window into a world I couldn’t begin to comprehend.

Some of the people
carried crosses, some carried flowers, and others carried bags of food and
water. The people seemed intent, and the mood appeared committed but also
content. Their dark faces were made more beautiful in contrast to the freshly
laundered clothing they were wearing, as if dressed for a special occasion.

“Where are they
going?” I asked. It had been miles since the last town, and it was a very small
one. “Where have they all come from? Why?”

“Have you not seen
people making a pilgrimage before?” my guide Raphael asked me.

“They are on the road
to Chalma, a sacred place where there’s a cave with a very special altar. It’s
the second most popular site for pilgrimages in Mexico. Hundreds of years ago,
Native people would go there to honor and request help from Ozteotl.” Ozteotl
was said to have great healing ability and people visited the cave in order to
connect with his power to help and heal them. Since the time of the Spanish,
the cave has been dedicated to St. Michael and is now known as a place where
people travel to be in the presence of God through miracles and experiences of
the Divine. Pilgrims come as an act of devotion, and they make the journey on
foot to show their deep love and commitment to God.

At the time, I didn’t
understand the devotional path, and it made me uncomfortable.

“Do you mean it’s
similar to individuals who are in love saying to their beloved, ‘I’d walk a
hundred miles on broken glass if only you’d be mine?'” I asked Raphael. “Or the
way people will stand in line for three days to buy concert tickets to see
their favorite rock group?”

“Well, in some ways,
yes–it is like that,” Raphael replied. “I think those people say and do those
things because they’ve found a connection to a force that helps them feel loved
and understood. I’ve been to rock concerts like that! Everyone sings along as
if the songs were about their own lives. They like to be understood and heard,
experiencing a state of devotion. I think that the devotion itself feels good for

“The experience is
similar for these pilgrims. Unlike adoring a rock star, the force that they’re
in love with has the power to work miracles in their lives. Their beloved
offers grace and peace. I’ve traveled with pilgrims in the past. Thousands make
the journey every year. Their worship is from the heart, and they want to show
it. They want to feel it. For you and me, we feel God in nature. We’re
comfortable with a faceless God who is expressed in the physical world as a
force beyond ideas and words.”

I agreed and listened

“For these people, God
has a face, and a name. Even the saints have personalities, form, and
preferences. These people feel and need a personal relationship to God. They
call upon Jesus by name. They honor Mother Mary by name, and they pray to the
saints for help by name. Love of God is their path. They’re not unsophisticated
or foolish. I know great professors, scientists, lawyers, doctors, and other
highly educated people who worship in this way. They connect to the Sacred
through love. It’s no better or worse than what we are attracted to on
mountaintops and in the call of the eagle.”

As my practice and
experience have evolved in my life since that day, I’ve developed a very
different relationship to the path of devotion. As my experience of the Sacred
has deepened, I’ve felt compelled to relate to God–The Supreme Force and Divine
Mystery–also as a friend and beloved. It somehow feels incomplete to restrict
my connection to The Sacred to only my mind or body. It’s difficult to focus
the feeling of love for something if it has no personal dimension. To
think of God as Pure Consciousness may be accurate, but it’s awkward. The great
Sufi spiritual teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan once said, “Mysticism without
devotion is like uncooked food; it can never be assimilated.”

Excerpted from Return
to The Sacred

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