When I think back on the trips I've taken, I remember beaches and mountains, palaces and boulevards, green parks and street-front cafes. But for almost everyplace I've visited, there is a place of worship lodged in my mind where I attended a service or simply spent several moments, contemplating how people in foreign (and not so foreign) lands practice religion, and how their beliefs differ from or coincide with mine. Like other travelers, I migrate to churches, temples and mosques for touristic reasons: to see the resting places of great men in Westminster Abbey or the gravity-defying Gothic arches of Chartres Cathedral. Sometimes, when I'm tired and a little lonely, I rest for a while in a quiet pew, eventually taking out my guidebook to plot my next move.
But if a service happens to be going, I stay, as I did one cold winter morning at the little 11th century Church of San Lio in Venice. Hardly as magnificent or historic as the Basilica of San Marco, it receives little mention in guidebooks, and it could use a central heating system. But while I sat there with my mittens on, next to a Venetian dowager in a mink coat, wondering what the sermon, delivered in Italian, was about, I turned my head toward the second altar on the left and got a surprise: a painting by Titian, depicting St. James.
My friend Penny Kaganoff, who is the daughter of a rabbi and a great traveler, attends synagogue wherever she goes--mostly because she's observant, but also because, after touring the glorious Christian churches and cathedrals of Europe, it's important to her to reconnect with her people. She speaks Hebrew, so she understands the prayers and can often communicate with other members of the congregation. Because the Jewish world is small, she sometimes bumps into friends of friends. But even more important is the feeling she gets from worshiping in a place such as the Jewish Quarter of Prague. "Praying in a synagogue that survived the Holocaust and every other tragedy of the Jewish people is very moving," she says.
Every place of worship tells a story, though, such as the stunning roofless mosque of Tin-Mal in the foothills of Morocco's Atlas Mountains. It was founded by a Muslim ascetic named Ibn Tumert and served as the birthplace of the Almohad Dynasty, which eventually swept out of Berber villages in the mountains to conquer parts of Morocco, Spain, Algeria and Libya in the 12th and 13th centuries.
To visit onion-domed St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Church in Sitka, Alaska, is to learn how its 19th century founder, Bishop Innocent, evangelized by kayak among the Native American people (who still make up 90% of the congregation). And the Church of St. Cecilia in the Trastevere section of Rome was built on the site of the home of St. Cecilia, who was martyred in AD 230 after converting her husband, St. Valerian, to Christianity and inventing the organ.
Cecilia is the patron saint of music, and that's another reason I visit churches: to hear voices raised, trumpets sounding and organs booming (often for free). I listened to the "William Tell Overture" at the 17th century Church of San Francisco in Santiago, Chile; Bach's "Air on a G String" at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square; and "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful" sung in French by a chorus of girls in white blouses and red ties at the Church of the Madeleine in central Brussels, which is what finally got me into the Christmas spirit that year.
Houses of worship are cultural showplaces too, where you discover what is important to the people who attend them--for instance, having lots of overdressed bridesmaids at an Italian wedding in Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, on Mott Street in Lower Manhattan. The congregation at the Lutheran Temppeliaukio Church, sunk into a rocky hill in northwestern Helsinki, is much more understated. But they're vigorous when singing the liturgy in Finnish, which I could almost understand because I attended Lutheran Church every Sunday, growing up in suburban St. Louis.
After prayers at the bright white Bangla Sahib Gurdwara, a Sikh temple in central New Delhi, I received Karah Parshad, made of flour, sugar and butter, with the rest of the worshipers, and toured the huge community kitchen, which--as part of the Sikh mandate to feed the hungry--serves meals to 10,000 people a day.
The most unusual service I ever attended was at Nechung Dorje Drayang Ling, a Buddhist temple set amid macadamia groves on the flank of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa. I'd come to the Big Island to stay at a retreat center near the temple, where prayer flags fluttered and it almost always rained (because it lies on the rainy side of the volcano). One morning it poured while I sat with a Tibetan monk in the temple following his sonorous chanting and listening to peacocks shriek on the lawn.
The most beautiful places of worship I know--besides the famous ones, of course--are the Mission San Xavier del Bac, southwest of Tucson, a folkloric baroque marvel with niches full of doll-like saints and plaster cherubs doing acrobatics on the walls; the extraordinary Jain temple complex at Ranakpur, in Rajasthan, India, a huge honeycomb of stone carvings, sacred and profane; and the Orchard Sanctuary at the Hollyhock Retreat Center on Cortes Island off the coast of British Columbia, a nonsectarian place for meditation and prayer, made by gifted local artisans of beach stone and driftwood.
Above all, though, visiting places of worship abroad sometimes provides moments of insight and emotion I can only call transcendent. The Rev. Susan Klein, rector of St. Aidan's Episcopal Church in Malibu, told me about attending a Good Friday service at an Armenian Orthodox church in Jerusalem, listening to the Gospel of St. John chanted in Armenian and watching as a shaft of light struck a flower-laden catafalque at precisely three o'clock, thought to be the hour of Christ's death.
One velvety dark summer night at a vesper service in the amphitheater at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, I saw bats winging out of the rafters as the choir sang "Dona Nobis Pacem," filling me with a sense of peace too deep to describe.
And I do not know why a tour through the simple pine meetinghouse at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass., moved me so. Maybe because the guide explained how joyful Shaker services were, sometimes lasting 20 hours and more, or because she ended the tour by having our group sing a song we all knew: "Simple Gifts," borrowed by Aaron Copland in the Second Movement of "Appalachian Spring."
Though raised in the rather austere tradition of Lutheranism, I light candles in Catholic churches and burn incense at Buddhist temples, thinking of my home and family and sending up little prayers for them. These days, I'm not sure precisely which divinity I'm calling upon, probably the Christian God I know of old. But as Christ says in the Gospel of St. John, "In my Father's house are many mansions," which I take to mean that there is room for all in places of true worship, no matter how far away.