Celebrity picks include Bali Indonesia, the Hopi Mesas in Arizona, and the old city of Jerusalem. Morgan Freeman likes to sail alone in the Caribbean. What is your favorite place on earth? I wondered how our younger son would answer that question. In June he completed his college semester abroad at the University of Lancaster on the west coast of England. He made the most of the opportunity.
During the month-long spring semester break he traveled to York, London, Dublin, Paris, Rome, Florence and Assisi. Through the wonders of modern technology we were treated to slide shows of the photos he took with his digital camera. Without having to leave the comfort of our living room, we saw verdant green landscapes of Ireland in spring, the stained glass of York cathedral, a view from the second story of the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre, and the bell tower of Notre Dame.
He was in Rome and Assisi during Holy Week. On Good Friday he climbed a hill in Assisi carrying a heavy backpack, perhaps walking in the footsteps of a saint inspired by Jesus’ redemptive climb on another hill.
Would he pick Assisi for its rolling hills, or St. Peter’s in Rome, or perhaps the green pastures of Ireland?
I thought about my top candidates and none of them are worldrenowned. I would pick our house’s screened in porch in summer, remembering the warm breeze, the sunshine, the gentle breeze, and the dance of the hummingbirds alighting at the feeder nearby. Or perhaps a nighttime church lit only by the flickering red vigil lights. However, since most churches are locked at night, that experience is rarer than summer in Wisconsin. Or finally, I’d choose a bakery with its inviting aromas and promise of bread and sweets.
What would you pick?
I suspect some would say that our favorite place on earth is home. Yet, sadly for others, the image of home conjures up gut-wrenching memories of screaming, fighting, and chaos, and would be last on the list.
Whatever place we pick, a common theme would have to be the inner experience that comes with the external location. In the final analysis we are not looking for a piece of real estate, but for a feeling. A place like St. Peter’s Basilica or the Caribbean is sought because we hope to find something like peace, joy and a sense of transcendence.
Historically, the purpose of any pilgrimage to a far-off location is to escape the drudgery, anxiety and stress of daily life in order to be emotionally and spiritually renewed. If we travel a thousand miles, our real goal is to move an inch inside ourselves. A change in geography is a good idea only if it can move the deepest part of ourselves.
Through the practice of meditation, prayer, yoga or simply taking the time to go to a quiet room and focus on the rhythm of our breathing, we can make a pilgrimage to that place of calm and peace within. Sometimes recalling the smell of freshly baked bread, a stream in summer, or a flickering candle provides us with a soothing image to free us from the anxiety of everyday life.
An important lesson to teach our children is to help them learn to find that calm and peaceful core within themselves. Once they know it’s there, they will know how to find it when confronted with the pain and unfairness of life.
They can find it best if they have a reliable and knowledgeable tour guide. So dust off that passport and continue your inner pilgrimage.
(Pankratz is a marriage and family therapist at Catholic Charities Milwaukee regional office.)