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Making our connections

‘Ben’ Pink Dandelion

Travel has always borne a cost and yet humanity has been persistently nomadic - movement and journeying have been reliable signifiers of spiritual obedience. 'Ben' Pink Dandelion reflects on how to really be 'away'.


I sometimes feel I have been born to travel, that it is part of my vocation or spiritual calling. Since the age of 14, I have been 'going away' and 'heading off'. This was initially by bicycle but as income allowed, I have travelled by motorcycle, car, aeroplane and ship. I have been fortunate enough to have travelled all around the world to see places, to see people or for work. I have had some of my most important spiritual insights and religious experiences 'on the road'. My first sense of 'God' was aboard a Greyhound Bus in the middle of the night outside St Louis, and so many 'holy moments' - when I have felt that amazing combination of awe, wonder and a love that connects all of humanity - have been while walking through foreign cities. All has felt right in the world; I have felt at one with all and everyone around me. My sense of the authentic has been nurtured by motion. In short, the outward physical journey has frequently fed the inward spiritual one.

In this, I am not unusual. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, for example, are full of people led by God to travel or those who meet God on the road. Prophets have rarely sat still in one place and often part of their call has been to travel.

Pilgrimage has formalized holy travel, and we find millions travelling each year to enhance their faith through visiting particular sites. There is a strong tradition of travelling for God or finding God as we travel. When Thomas Cook began his excursions in July 1841, aided by the new railway technology, he too saw these organized outings as a way of observing the Divine: 'Surely there can be nothing inimical to religion in going abroad to behold the handiwork of the Great Supreme?'. Cook took people out of their home environments and allowed them the pleasure of travel and the pleasure of the destination. He produced detailed handbooks so that they would get the most from their journey, and personally accompanied the groups to make sure all the arrangements went smoothly and to answer questions from the curious. He took them 'elsewhere' to see the glory of God's creation and to expand their knowledge of the world. It was head and heart education.

We still hold on to that romantic ideal and much travel is still sold to us in terms of being away from daily routines and pressures, to see places we have always wanted to visit, to come face to face with the exotic, to relax, to reflect, to learn. We travel to broaden the mind, to literally 'expand our horizons'. Or we may just travel to get to work. Or both.

But, increasingly, we have become the authors of our own leadings, the agents of our own travel. We typically no longer discern when or when not to 'go'.

The relatively new technologies of travel, railway, ship, car and aeroplane, have revolutionized our ability to travel elsewhere and back again. We can get to the other side of the world with less than 24 hours of flying. In the time trains took to get me from Clitheroe to Plymouth, I flew from Manchester to Tel Aviv. It even cost me the same. In the last 60 years, we have all become mobile, a nation of travellers. Planes have replaced trains as the dominant form of long-distance travel and overseas holidays are commonplace. They are often cheaper than ones based in Britain and usually warmer. I was once told there were two kinds of people, those who travelled and those who had spare rooms to put them up in. Nowadays the non-traveller is rare. In 2010, there were four million air passengers a day. The world has become defined by movement.

'Awe and wonder, and the sense of love that connects all humanity' is in danger of being missed altogether. Waking early on an overnight train from Paris to Madrid to see the sun rise over the mountainous backdrop was breath-taking and inspiring: it simply involved looking out of the window, a manoeuvre missed by those plugged into virtual elsewheres. Our overcrowded modes of travel and our mental attempts to circumvent the disease of moving from A to B often foreclose the spiritual elements of the journey.

If the journey becomes the ordeal to complete as quickly as possible, we are not open to the myriad ways that the journey itself can feed our spiritual life. We are suffering from a 'travel sickness' of two kinds. First, it comprises a compulsion to regularly leave our home communities and to disassociate from our neighbours and daily routines. Second, it creates the idea that travel is best seen in terms of hardship and ordeal, an idea I admit that can be regularly affirmed by the experience of present-day travelling. We may maintain an identity as a certain kind of traveller or from a certain culture but we do not nurture community in such settings.

At the same time, our mobile phones, digital cameras and Facebook updates displaying our travel exploits, even as we experience them, lead me to think that while we are 'away' ever more easily, we are increasingly never really away at all. I am concerned about how this segregation and how being tethered by technology limits the potential travel can offer our spiritual life. With whom do we really engage as we travel? Does our moving from one place to another afford the opportunities to know each other in the things that are eternal, to feel the reality that all humanity is connected beyond race, culture and creed?

Certainly, the current ways in which we are so unthinkingly mobile need to change. We are harming the planet, harming our relationships with each other by needing to increasingly disassociate, and internalizing a secular approach to humanity and travel. At the same time, the potential to travel and to learn, both in head and heart ways, from these travels has never been greater. I suggest we can reclaim and rediscover an attitude to travel that builds community, and through that enhances our sense of Spirit at work in our lives and in the world.