How to Turn Any Vacation into a Pilgrimage

You can have a divine experience anywhere you travel by following these eight steps.

Posted in , Aug 13, 2019

A woman on a tropical vacation sailing on a  river in a kayak.

The Camino de Santiago in Spain. Our Lady of Fátima in Portugal. The Via Dolorosa in Israel. Journeying to world-renowned sacred places can leave you forever changed. As Christine Valters Paintner, a Benedictine oblate who lives in Galway, Ireland and leads pilgrimages around the world, points out, God expects us—and even wants us—to go on spiritual adventures. “God calls us regularly to journey, to expand our understanding of the divine presence,” Paintner, who is also the author of The Soul of a Pilgrim, told via email. 

But you don’t have to go to a famous holy site or travel to the ends of the earth to soak up the same benefits of a traditional pilgrimage. You can have a divine experience right in your own backyard! “A pilgrimage can be taken at home, and can be an entirely inner journey too,” Paintner says. “We can choose to bring the heart of a pilgrim to whatever is happening.” 

How exactly? Here’s how to turn any vacation, near or far, into a pilgrimage. 

1. Reflect, pray, and listen. 

Before you go on your journey, get quiet within yourself and ask God to help you with any area you might need guidance on. “Is there a question in your life you’d like to discern?” Paintner says. “Hold onto that as a prayer for your time away. Each day, engage in some kind of simple prayer or ritual to remind yourself that God is in this place waiting to speak to you. Listen closely.” 

2. Take time to wander. 

You might be the kind of traveler who plans every moment of vacation—from the first bite of breakfast to bathroom break number seven! But, don’t underestimate the power of seeing where your intuition takes you. “Wandering is a wonderful practice, to let go of the GPS for awhile and see what you discover in the process,” Paintner says. “Some of my most profound experiences have come from stumbling across a place I wouldn’t have found had I stuck to my own plans for things.” 

3. Embrace discomfort. 

Whether it’s going somewhere where English isn’t the primary language or trying something a little scary (escargot, anyone?), a lot of good can come from getting out of your element. “God is often revealed in those places of feeling lost, “ Paintner says. “One of the great gifts pilgrimage offers is disorienting ourselves and opening ourselves to holy disruption, so we can start to loosen some of our ingrained patterns. Other cultures have so much to reveal to us about those places in our lives that have become constrained with a ‘this is the way things are’ sort of mentality.”

4. Carve out quiet time.  

You might be on a family reunion with 50 cousins, or at a water park with screaming children everywhere, but you can still find peace. Make the most of the mornings before everyone’s up or take walks by yourself, Paintner recommends. “Similarly on a tour, find the spaces in the breaks, or even be willing to 'miss out' on an excursion to give yourself the gift of time to simply be and listen,” she says. “I have embraced long ago that I don't need to see everything and there is tremendous freedom in that. Sometimes the less we see and do, the richer our experience becomes.”  

5. Take a social media vacay. 

It might be tempting to post updates from your travels on Facebook or Instagram. But give yourself a break, at least for a little bit. “Intentionally staying off email and social media is a tremendous gift you can give to yourself, even if just for a few hours each day,” Paintner says. “Technology has many gifts, but is often a tool for distraction. Put an auto-reply on your email and let folks know you won't be responding until you return. Notice what it feels like to not be so connected all the time.” 

6. Put on your photographer cap. 

Like a lot of travelers, you might feel pressure to take photos of all the beautiful sights you encounter. Sometimes it can feel more like work than enjoyment! But seeing life through the lens of a camera can actually be very spiritual, and even contemplative, Paintner says. 

“Leave your camera in your pocket for the first 10 minutes you are in a place and just be there in silence, letting yourself have time to arrive,” she says. “Then look for moments around you that 'shimmer' or call to you in some way. Look with soft eyes and use the camera as a tool for receiving the gift of the moment. The camera should help us to see more deeply, not be a substitute for having the experience itself.”

7. Always keep your eyes open. 

There’s opportunity in any adventure for the wondrous to occur. As long as you listen for God’s still, small voice. “It is all about the intention we bring to the experience,” Paintner says. “Are we walking with our eyes open to how the divine might be speaking to us through our encounters with people and places?”

8. Seek the divine in chaos. 

As wonderful as travel is, it comes with a lot of stress. Busy airports. Long taxi queues. Crowded tourist attractions. Paintner suggests taking a deep breath and asking God what he’s trying to reveal to you in those trying situations. “Feeling like we're not in control is stressful—but let it be part of the adventure,” she says. “How might a flight delay reveal something to you about your own patterns of responding in life? Might you breathe more deeply and remember that God is in the waiting?” 

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