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Interesting Journeys, and an Elusive Goal

SACRED ROADS: Adventures From the Pilgrimage Trail; By Nicholas Shrady; Harper San Francisco; $22, 268 pp.


The instinct to worship is closely linked to the impulse to travel. The attempt to approach the divine is often described as a journey. Think of St. Ignatius and his description of the inner ladder that the seeker ascends on the way toward God. It's only natural that inner seekers make their search manifest in outward journeys that we call pilgrimage. Throughout the world, irrespective of creed or culture, humans make pilgrimages to holy sites, traveling thousands of miles in arduous conditions in order to catch a glimpse of a relic, visit the birthplace of a teacher or see the spot where the divine once stood.

It is a rare individual who makes more than a few pilgrimages. Nicholas Shrady is rarer still. So acute is his passion to locate the divine that he went to the ends of the Earth, literally, to walk on the pilgrimage trails of multiple religions. He made a brief trip to Medjugorje, Bosnia, to see the spot where the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to several teenagers in 1981. He voyaged down the Ganges, stopping at the Hindu holy sites that dot the great river on a thousand-mile stretch between the Himalayas and Varanasi. He went to Bihar, the north Indian state that is home to the sacred sites of Buddhism. He walked the 500-mile route from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. He spent months in Jerusalem, and he ventured into Turkish Anatolia to meditate at the shrine of the great Sufi master, Rumi.

Shrady is a vivid writer. The physical contours of these places come alive as he describes them. "I walked into Gangtori," he writes of the town at the headwaters of the Ganges, "in a failing light and a driving snow that obscured the surrounding peaks of the Garhwal Himalayas and reduced the Ganges River, snaking through the gorge below, to a low, scarcely audible murmur." For each location, Shrady provides these visual nuggets, and he then describes his interaction with people he meets along the way. There is the priest who refuses him lodging in Medjugorje; the shepherd who shares his bare concrete hut in the Spanish Pyrenees; the Buddhist nun who puts him up in Bihar; the aging Irish priest who saves him from a severe beating at the hands of an Israeli soldier in what was formerly known as the Occupied Territories; and the Sufi sheik who invites him to a secret, forbidden ritual dance of the whirling dervishes.

Shrady consumes the holy texts of each faith he encounters, poring over the Buddhist Dhammapada, studying the Hindu Upanishads, rereading the Bible and making his way through the immense corpus of Rumi's poetry. He sleeps in hovels, in the alcoves of abandoned churches and vacant temples; he depends on the kindness of priests and monks, kindness which he only occasionally finds; he watches as other pilgrims go about their business; and he reads.

Pilgrimage is a perfect blend of the sublime and mundane. Exalted purpose is neatly juxtaposed with the messy realities of daily life and the pettiness of mankind. Shrady's writing appears neutrally descriptive, yet the overall tone is one of sadness and disappointment. He is constantly let down by human failings, and though he never says so, it is as if he seems to expect pilgrimage to bring out the best in people, when all it does is cast life into sharp relief. The crime that surrounds the shrines in Bihar, the questionable intentions of the visionaries of Medjugorje, the squabbles among Islam, Christianity and Judaism in Jerusalem weigh on his soul, as if they create a barrier standing between him and an experience of the divine.

Shrady can be snippy, as when he tells stories that cast his interlocutors in unflattering light, but he also has moments of generosity, as when he helps a Spanish shepherd build a chimney. Sadly, as he strives to touch the ineffable of the divine, he rarely finds connection with other human beings. He speaks of being a father, yet the words barely register above the gray ennui that he exudes.

The pilgrim's path can be a lonely one, and at the end, Shrady discovers a simple truth that has been expressed time and again in spiritual literature, namely, that you can't find God "out there," in a particular place. As the poet Rumi reminds us, and as Shrady seems to learn at the end of his journeys, looking for God in the world outside can be a fruitless endeavor. Having knocked on so many doors of so many faiths, Shrady is left with the realization that the only door open to him is inside him, and the only door that has been closed is the one leading to his own heart.

Zachary Karabell is a frequent reviewer for The Times' Religion page.

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