What does it mean to be a secular pilgrim — when you’re not a Christian, but you love churches, history, beauty, and religious symbolism?
In this episode, Howard Kramer talks about some of the most beautiful places to visit in terms of architecture, as well as natural locations, and how sometimes, the most emotionally resonant places, those that inspire awe and wonder, are not the most famous, but those that touch us at a deeper level.
Howard Kramer is the author of The Complete American Pilgrim, The Complete Christian Pilgrim, and The Complete American Military Pilgrim. His extensive site, TheCompletePilgrim.com, contains articles and pictures of some of the world’s greatest sites of religious interest.
- Pilgrimage as a journey of meaning, regardless of religious belief
- The four stages of pilgrimage
- Interesting churches in the USA, chosen for natural beauty, architecture, history, and meaning
- Other places of religious interest
- Recommended travel books
You can find Howard Kramer at TheCompletePilgrim.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Howard Kramer is the author of The Complete American Pilgrim, and his extensive site, thecompletepilgrim.com, contains articles and pictures of some of the world’s greatest sites of religious interest. Welcome, Howard.
Howard: Thank you so much, Joanna.
Jo: I’m thrilled to talk to you today.
What sparked your interest in pilgrimage, and what has been your favorite pilgrimage so far?
Howard: I had the opportunity to live in France as a student, and during the Christmas break, I went to Italy and traveled around, and for the very first time really in my life got to see some of the classic churches and cathedrals of antiquity. I absolutely fell in love with the architecture and the art and the history almost more than the religious aspect of it because I developed a very big fascination with seeing some of these wonderful, beautiful old buildings as far back as the Roman era.
I have a very extensive story about my first trip to Rome. I will not go into it now, but suffice it to say, it ended with me seeing Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican, and it was just an absolutely spectacular event for me even though I’m not Catholic. It was a wonderful thing to see.
I don’t know if I count that as a pilgrimage because that’s not what I set out to do initially, but I do look back on it as one. To date, I’ve been to, I hesitate to say thousands of churches and other religious sites but probably at least 1,000 around the world.
And to date, my favorite pilgrimage, the one that I look back on most fondly was three years ago for the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. I had the honor to attend the 500th-anniversary celebration in Wittenberg, Germany. I got to go celebrate at the church there with the local Lutherans. And it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.
I was supposed to do something akin to that this year. I was supposed to come to England this year in advance of the 400th anniversary of the pilgrim voyage to Massachusetts pilgrims. For those of you in the United Kingdom who don’t know, those are the ship of colonists that sailed in 1620, 400 years ago to the United States.
In the United States, it’s recognized, not just for its historical importance, but for its religious importance. And I was very excited to come over there and visit some churches in England and in the Netherlands, and unfortunately, that got canceled. But that’s something along the lines of what I like to do, visit big churches, especially for big events.
Jo: Fantastic. You and I definitely share an interest in the architecture and the history. I’m not a Christian. My husband’s Jewish, and I’m always dragging him to cathedrals because there’s just something about them. We’re going to get into some of those specifics in a minute.
I did want to ask about the word pilgrim and pilgrimage because neither of us is particularly religious, and yet the word pilgrimage has been associated mainly with religious things. So do you think that has changed? Maybe it’s become more secular or maybe pilgrimage is just a meaningful journey?
Because I see a lot of people now want to do the Camino de Santiago. I recently did the Pilgrim’s Way here in the UK, which is supposedly Catholic, but a lot of people walk it just for interest’s sake.
What do you think about the word pilgrimage and pilgrim in these modern times?
Howard: First of all…that’s something. I’ve been to Canterbury, and I’ve been to the cathedral. I’ve been to the tomb of Thomas Becket, but I didn’t do the walk. Just so you know, I am very jealous. Not to turn the question on you, but how was that journey? Was it really inspirational?
Jo: Yes. There were some fantastic historical places along the route, these amazing historical sections but also these beautiful natural sections, which, of course, have lasted much longer and have been there for countless generations.
But this was for the 850th anniversary of Becket’s martyrdom. So I too wanted to do it, but all the Becket 2020 stuff was also canceled. So, it was great. [You can listen/read This Too Shall Pass: Thoughts from the Pilgrim’s Way here.]
In answer to your question, I would say pilgrimage, especially as we use the word in the 21st century is absolutely not confined to the religious or spiritual spheres.
Pilgrimage, first and foremost, I think, is about personal development and enlightenment, regardless of where you’re going. It can certainly apply to many things besides a Christian visiting Rome or a Muslim visiting Mecca. In my opinion, I think, it depends on your motivation.
For example, if you go to visit Paris, and you’re on vacation in Paris, and you visit the Père Lachaise Cemetery, which is a very famous cemetery in Paris. So you’re just going there to look around and see the sights. I would not consider that a pilgrimage if you just go in there for a visit.
However, if you’re a huge fan of the rock group, ‘The Doors,’ and you spend years listening to their music, and you save up for years to go to Paris just to visit Jim Morrison’s gravesite, that I would say would be a pilgrimage for the fans of Jim Morrison, a pilgrimage for fans of early rock music.
People can make pilgrimages, I think, for all sorts of reasons. I know in the United States, historical sites, such as battlefields and cemeteries are popular. I’m sure cemeteries in the UK and around the world are popular, but in the United States, there’s a whole cottage industry of people visiting battlefields.
A nature lover might save up specifically to go visit a national park or a wildlife reserve. Surfers might save up for years to make a spectacular journey to Hawaii and ride the pipeline. Elvis lovers might make a pilgrimage to Graceland. There are sports lovers in the United States, and I count myself as one, that endeavor to visit different sports stadiums all around the country.
I have a group of friends that I get together with once a year. And every single year, we get together in a different city in the United States and make a deliberate visit to that city specifically to see a baseball game at that local stadium. And I would say since that’s the purpose of the trip, then I would consider that a sports pilgrimage. So, yes, I think, pilgrimage can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.
Some people might say a pilgrimage is really a pilgrimage of the mind. I disagree with that slightly. I think by definition of pilgrimage must involve some sort of a journey.
I think a pilgrimage really involves three stages. One is years of study about a place, desire to go to a place. The second part is the journey itself to get there. And then the third part is the combination of the pilgrimage is the actual arrival at your destination.
Jo: That’s interesting. Actually, I was going to say I would add a fourth stage, which I feel is the reflection on the return because as we’re speaking about my pilgrimage, I have lots and lots of feelings and memories and pictures. I need time to reflect on that pilgrimage in order to make sense of it.
I feel like that period of reflection is something that after a true pilgrimage, whether it’s to Jim Morrison’s grave or something else, is you decide whether or not you have achieved whatever you wanted to achieve, and you’ve found meaning in whatever you’ve done. And perhaps that’s the end of it.
If you’ve visited Jim Morrison’s grave, you’ve done it. Whereas you mentioned the battlefields, for example, or the religious sites. There are other sites. So do you want to do it again, or do you want to make it harder? So, I’m adding the fourth stage, reflection.
Howard: I think that addition is more than fair enough. I would agree with that 100%.
Jo: I want to talk about The Complete American Pilgrim, the book because it’s all religious, right?
Howard: Yes, The Complete American Pilgrim, the first book that I did is strictly religious sites. It’s a mix of Christian and non-Christian. But, yes, all religious.
Jo: What was your definition of a site worth a pilgrimage? It’s so interesting being obviously British European, is that when I think of how a pilgrim is…I was so fascinated to read some of your entries because I do associate it with ancient things. And as much as I love America, you don’t have many ancient buildings, let’s say. I know there are ancient Native American sites.
How did you decide what to put into The Complete American Pilgrim?
Howard: I’ll tell you this, that was actually a really, really hard thing to do. There’s 250 sites in the book. There are at last count I believed to be over 300,000 houses of worship in the United States. So fewer than 1 in 1,000 made it into the book.
And obviously, I haven’t been to all of those, and I’m not even close. I wouldn’t even pretend to try. The vast majority of sites in the book are chosen for historical reasons. A lot of those churches have a great or important or even tragic history associated with them.
My starting point was I looked at what was the oldest stuff. As you said on pilgrimage, you’re looking at ancient things. We don’t have ancient, but we have a lot of churches that are over 300 years old. For us, that’s ancient. Most churches that I found that were built prior to 1650 that are still standing in the United States pretty much got a free pass admitted into the book.
To make sure that every state and territory was represented, the oldest standing church in every state is included in the book. That was just an automatic. That made a little bit of the process easier for me. So there’s at least 50 churches, all the oldest religious sites in every state as a church.
There’s no synagogues or temples or anything. There are some that are pretty old. Some of them where we have very old congregations but the churches are newer, I put those in.
An interesting story, by the way, going back to the pilgrims, the church that the pilgrims founded in the United States, which is considered to be the oldest congregation in the United States, the congregation was actually formed in England, and moved over here en mass to Massachusetts, where they established the church.
The church building that’s there now is actually only about 150 years old, but the cemetery behind it has all the original settlers buried there. So I included that one.
The Old North Church in Boston is another example. That really had no religious importance. It’s a religiously important church, but it’s more of historical importance because of its relevance to the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
So I’m a little bit all over the map in terms of the history, but history was a major, major aspect. Some of the churches were chosen because of their beauty or architectural importance. I took a very good look at prominent architects that have worked, Charles Bulfinch, who was a very famous architect in the 19th centuries, and he designed some of the most phenomenal early American buildings in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Boston. So a couple of his churches. I included Frank Lloyd Wright.
Some of his churches and a synagogue of his are included in the book because of their architectural uniqueness. Then I also throw in some record setters, the largest churches, the tallest churches, the highest churches, and even the smallest church, the smallest recognized house of worship in the United States, and I believe in the world is…just a little shout out to these guys, is the Cross Island Chapel in Upstate New York, which is only big enough for two congregants and one minister and must be accessed by boat.
Jo: That’s wonderful. I love that. That’s super unique. So, let’s get into some of those. My first one is about the most beautiful places because I love taking photos. And you mentioned some architecture there.
What were a couple of the most beautiful places either for architecture or for nature?
Howard: This one, first of all, super tough. If you’ve been to a lot of cathedrals, especially Catholic and Anglican cathedrals, you know how beautiful some of these buildings could be especially on the inside. They can just be overwhelmingly beautiful.
That’s the case in the United States, too. Not so much today anymore, but certainly back in the 18th and 19th centuries, people poured a lot of money into their houses of worship, and they represent some of that beautiful architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries.
But if I had to pick one, the most beautiful church in the United States, in my opinion, or the most beautiful religious site in the United States, in my opinion, is probably Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine, Florida.
I think I’ve got some pictures stashed away. It is a stunningly beautiful building. It was built with money from the Flagler fortune, he’s one of the millionaires who helped to establish the railroads in the United States. He built this absolutely gorgeous church. It’s in St. Augustine, Florida. It’s just stunning. It’s surrounded by palm trees. It’s exotic. And it’s everything you want in a perfect church picture.
If I had to choose what churches had the most magnificent setting of nature, it would be hard to beat the Yosemite Chapel at Yosemite National Park in California.
For some of you viewers who are not familiar with America’s national parks, Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful and photogenic national parks in the United States. The church, it’s a tiny little wedding chapel, and behind it are the mountains. And it’s just jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
I’d have to say for a runner-up, I’d probably choose the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona in the state of Arizona, which is a modern church, but it’s built into the side of a red stone cliff, overlooking the desert. It’s hypnotic to look at. And it’s even better to go up there and to look down out at this giant expanse of desert and mountains in the distance.
Another little one I like is the Wayfarers Chapel, which is basically a glass chapel that’s located in Los Angeles that’s right close to the Pacific Ocean, and it’s surrounded by nature. It overlooks the Pacific, and that gives you a great view while you’re worshiping. I’m trying to think.
A surprisingly large number of my favorite beautiful churches are actually chapels that can be found on college campuses. I particularly like the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Maryland. While I personally don’t go in for modern architecture, I’m not a big modern architecture fan. If you like modern architecture, the Crystal Cathedral in Anaheim, California is wild…it looks like a giant weird origami mirror. It’s crazy to look at but worth a peek if you’re in the area.
Jo: Those are some fantastic places. It’s so interesting. I love Sedona. That color red, that’s one of my favorite colors.
Howard: Have you been to the chapel?
Jo: No, I haven’t. I went in my teens to Sedona, and it was just beautiful. So that image in my mind is quite clear.
I did want to ask about spirituality.
I’ve had some spiritual experiences in places that are beautiful in terms of nature, that awe and wonder like you mentioned Yosemite, but equally, I felt closer to whatever someone might call God in man-made cathedrals.
But sometimes you go in and they’re completely dead, and you just feel like, ‘Oh, this does not feel spiritual in any way.’ And, I think, there are these feelings around places of worship, and maybe it’s something that’s imprinted on the environment because so many people have worshiped there.
I wonder if you know what I mean and if there are any places that you particularly resonated with in that way.
Howard: There definitely are. For all of my love of houses of worship, the truth is that I tend to feel more spiritual in nature, personally. I think I tend to connect more with my spiritual side on when I’m in a beautiful mountain setting. In a really beautiful forest, it will actually get me more in tune. I’m actually a big nature lover. I love going to national parks and such. I will more often than not feel more spiritual outdoors than in most houses of worship.
Now, that said, there are a couple of places where I don’t know if I would say I necessarily feel more spiritual. But there are some places that I’ve been to that have felt so heavy with history, that I have been awed by them. Does that make sense a little bit?
Howard: Some of the places that I’ve been to that I felt really odd…and I’m going to actually take some of this answer outside of the United States. But in the United States, there’s a couple of churches that I feel absolutely odd.
St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., is known as the Church of the Presidents. It made the news a few months back. Like I said, I won’t go into details about that. But the church itself stands right across the street from the White House.
Every President of the United States has worshipped there. And there’s a seat in the back where Abraham Lincoln used to come and worship privately during the Civil War. And I know this is going to sound a little cheesy and cliché, but if you go there, and you sit in that pew, you really, really feel the weight of everything that happened in the 1860s.
I found myself very contemplative there, just awed by what must have gone through his mind in that pew was a big thing.
Another church that’s like that where you really feel that is the 16th Street Baptist Church, which is in Birmingham, Alabama. And this is a traditional African American Baptist Church that became famous in the 1960s for the murder of the four little girls in the church bombing. And it became a major moment in the American Civil Rights Movement.
You go into that church, and it is heavy with sadness even to this day. You go in, and you know that these four little innocent girls were martyred there. To be perfectly honest, and I hope this doesn’t sound cheesy, it’s the only church I’ve ever been into my life where I actually kind of got teared up. I felt it. I stood in that church, and I almost cried.
You go to a church like that, and you feel a connection to something bigger.
You’ll feel this in a lot more places, I think, in Europe. I felt them in more places like Europe. Nothing beats Westminster Abbey. I’m saying that to kiss up a little bit, but honest to God, there is no church in the world I’ve ever been in where I have felt just the complete like everything history in that church. I’m assuming you’ve been there.
Jo: Yes, of course. It’s so interesting because I find Westminster Abbey indeed has that weight of history. But in terms of places that I would say that are awe and wonder for me, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Howard: I was there about 20 years ago and we can always say it’s been still under construction. I think everybody alive today who’s been there could say they were there when it was under construction. But yes, and even back then it was pretty impressive.
Jo: It’s jaw-dropping. And it’s so interesting, this idea of what affects you like you mentioned that place in Alabama. Westminster Abbey to me is about grand occasions, whereas what you’ve talked about there in Alabama, these were not famous children, but the emotional impact of the place and that historical event is what makes that place special.
I definitely think that plays into why we do pilgrimage. The reason we are attracted to any kind of pilgrimage is because it has some kind of emotional resonance with something in who we are, even if we don’t feel particularly religious as we both talked about. I definitely get that.
Howard: It’s a very hard question to answer. Alabama, the church in D.C., Westminster Abbey, that’s where it hits me. And, yes, I see there’s a really big difference between the giant Westminster Abbey with everything that’s happened there over 1,000 years and this tiny little church in Alabama, which is really famous for such a tragic little event. They just both affect me in such different ways but both powerfully.
Jo: So, then you did mention that little chapel that you have to get a boat to.
Is there anything that surprised you or was unusual that people might appreciate?
Howard: I’ve been all over the world. I’ve been to 40 American States. I’ve been to 30 countries. And every trip I’ve ever taken, whatever I anticipate is going to be my favorite thing on the trip is almost never my favorite thing on the trip.
Usually, my favorite thing on the trip is something that I was not expecting. I have been to so many places where the thing that I wasn’t expecting to be as amazing as it was, turns out to be my best memory of a trip.
A few years back, I was up in Eastern Massachusetts with my family. And Eastern Massachusetts, for those of you who don’t know, is one of our oldest states. The place is packed with historical churches, a lot of churches over 300 years old. And I went to places like the Old North Church and a few others.
But the one that really stunned me, probably my single biggest surprise in the United States was a church called the Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts. I think that it’s roughly 250 years old, maybe a little bit older than that.
It’s a beautiful old church. It’s been serving this community. It’s a wonderful old colonial setting. It’s phenomenal. What surprised me about it was that when I was touring this church, the docent of the church was kind enough to tell me, ‘Hey, you want to go see our two treasures?’ I said, ‘What do we got?’ And she said, ‘Well, let’s go up to the bell tower. I said, ‘What’s up in the bell tower?’ She said, ‘One of the last surviving Paul Revere bells.’
Paul Revere was a famous silversmith and bell smith, who fought in the American Revolution. And he’s world-famous as a smith, and he didn’t make many bells. And one of the last survivors that’s still in use was in the bell tower, the belfry. And so, me and my daughter climbed up to the belfry through the trapdoor. And the docent was like, ‘You want to ring the Paul Revere Bell?’ And we’re like, ‘Yes.’
My daughter rang the Paul Revere Bell, which was super exciting for her. She was totally excited. And then they said, ‘Now, would you like to see our other treasure?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes. What else you got?’ He said, ‘Come down to us in the basement.’
Well, in this tiny little church, and Protestant churches don’t typically have this, they actually had a crypt. And buried in that crypt is George Whitfield. He’s just down there. And George Whitfield was one of the founders of the Methodist Church, the global Methodist Church. He was second to John Wesley, who founded the Methodist Church in the United States, which broke off from the Anglican Church. And he came to the United States and helped to get the Methodist Church started over here, but the guy who really quarterbacked, it was a guy by the name of Whitfield. And he is one of the most important theologians in American history.
His bones are just there in the basement. They’re just there. So, from a historical standpoint, that was a great find. That was a wonderful, wonderful place. It’s unfortunate. You can’t just take a train from Boston to get there but one of my biggest surprises…I love burial sites. I love coming across churches that have famous burials. I have a whole list, but I’ll just go a couple of them here.
The United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, two American presidents are buried in their crypt, and nobody ever goes there. They’re just there. The two are John Adams and John Quincy Adams, who are just buried in the crypt there. You go there, the docent will show you. They’ll walk you in.
I got a great picture of myself there. The Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where very few visitors actually go. Washington, D.C. has so many major, major tourist sites that nobody goes to the cathedral. And buried in the cathedral is President Woodrow Wilson and the famous woman who was blind and deaf, Helen Keller.
We went to visit the cathedral to take some pictures. I didn’t even realize that she was buried in the cathedral. I love burials. I love coming to a church and accidentally stumbling on to somebody buried there that I didn’t know was buried there.
Jo: That’s very cool. And I am one of those people. I will always go to the cathedral wherever I turn up. When I was in San Francisco, I went to the Grace Cathedral and I was stunned to find the labyrinth, which is an echo of the Chartres Labyrinth. And the Doors of Paradise, a replica of Ghiberti’s famous doors in the Baptistry of Florence Cathedral, Italy.
Jo: As you say, it’s always very surprising when you go somewhere and you think you’re going for a certain reason and then you find something else.
So, I think, that would be a recommendation for people is just keep an eye out for other things, and what other people find interesting are not necessarily what we find interesting. I’ll pick up a guidebook to a place, and they won’t even mention what else might be there. So that’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
I did also want to ask. Obviously, the USA is primarily Christian. You’ve mentioned a lot of Christian sites.
Are there are other places from other religions in the book?
Howard: There are some other wonderful non-Christian places in the United States, and I do talk a lot about a lot of them. Judaism in the United States can be traced back to the early 17th century. It’s almost as old as Christianity in the United States. There are not nearly as many synagogues, for example, as there are churches, not even close, but there is a rich legacy of architecture, too.
One of my favorite synagogues, probably my all-time favorite synagogue in the United States is the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, which if you go to Los Angeles, and you’re in the area of the temple, it’s in that direction of Hollywood.
It was financed by a lot of the movie moguls of the 1930s. So Louis B. Mayer, the Warner brothers, Irving Fahlberg, all contributed money to its construction. And you can imagine, they not only put the money in, but they basically built the synagogue to look like a movie set. You walk in, and it’s almost magical on the inside. If you’re into synagogue architecture, you’re in Los Angeles, pop by the Wilshire Boulevard Synagogue, an absolute must-see.
There are some great synagogues in San Francisco. There were two synagogues there that were built at the same time that raced to see who could be the most magnificent, which resulted in two magnificent synagogues. Most of the best synagogues in terms of visiting are all going to be found in New York City, which is not surprising, very, very large Jewish population there.
The largest synagogue in the United States, which is Temple Emanu-El, was for a while the largest synagogue in the world, and it is huge. It’s rare to walk into a synagogue and feel like you’re in a cathedral as opposed to a church. And this is a giant, giant building that suits thousands.
The more historic synagogue in New York would be the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, which was a much earlier congregation. It’s a beautiful synagogue. They were connected to a lot of early Jewish activities, including the establishment of the first Jewish seminary in the United States.
And there’s a little trivia point about the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. The cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City is the oldest surviving structure of any kind on the island of Manhattan. It dates back to the early 1600s. The tombstones there are older than any building still standing on the island. So if you want to go to New York and see the oldest thing, that’s it.
There are other religious sites in the United States from other religions. Not quite so many but a couple that I think are worth mentioning. The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temple in Atlanta is breathtaking.
The Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, and the Islamic Center of America in Detroit. They’re all relatively modern buildings but built in traditional architectural styles. And if you’re interested in visiting some spectacular places of other religions, those would be my favorite choices. I also really like the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah. Some people not big fans of it. I actually think it’s a beautiful building.
Jo: I think that’s what’s important as well is the congregation has created is sometimes an interesting way to look at things because, of course, I particularly like gothic cathedrals, which are generally pretty old, and I love that kind of architecture. And yet you mentioned some of the temples are just fascinating.
If you think about how a congregation or a community sees their religious buildings, that can put a different spin on it.
So I love that you’ve mentioned some of these other things. You did say there was something you wanted to circle back to in Europe.
Howard: This is my favorite undiscovered religious site any religion anywhere in the world is the Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris. This is a church that virtually nobody goes to, and it is the greatest undiscovered gem, I think, in the European continent.
The Basilica of Saint-Denis is like their Westminster Abbey. That is where every king and queen in the history of France are buried there. They’re entombed there. And they go back way, way further than Westminster. They go back to Clovis in the 5th century. That was the royal burial church, and there are people that are buried there.
Catherine de’ Medici is buried there. Louis XIV, the Sun King, is buried there. Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette are buried there. It’s kind of a pain to get to. It is right off the subway. You can take one of the metro lines to it, and it is a beautiful church in and of itself.
But when we went there, it was empty. We took the subway up there, the metro up there, we got off, beautiful neighborhood. It’s a wonderful re-gentrifying immigrant neighborhood, great restaurants, very inexpensive. If you go to Paris, you want great food, less money, go to Saint-Denis. It’s a very safe area.
I think it’s intimidating to a lot of people, but it’s a very safe area. You can go into the crypt underneath and see the cave where the sarcophagi are scattered about the giant cave. I’m blown away that they get virtually no tourists. I’m stunned at that.
I wanted to give them a shout out because if you go to Paris, get that onto your itinerary. If you love history, you need to get to that church.
Jo: Right. Paris is a bit like Washington, D.C., in that there are so many places to go. It can be difficult. But, I’ve been a lot to Paris, and I’ve never been there. So I’m putting that on my list for next time.
This is the Books and Travel show. So we like to recommend some books.
Apart from your own books, what are a couple of books you recommend on pilgrimage, American or otherwise?
Howard: There are a ton of books out there. There are books about pilgrimage. There’s a lot of books about people that are writing their own experiences about their pilgrimages, and there are some really great ones. I’m going to highlight three that I really particularly love.
Probably the most famous one, and I really enjoyed this book a lot, was a book called From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple. He started at a place called the Holy Mountain, which is in Athos. It’s in Greece. And he started there.
He traveled through the Middle East, visiting all of these ancient churches of the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches and talking about the Christian communities that are still there. He finishes the pilgrimage in the holy land, a wonderful book. I really enjoyed it.
There’s a great book that I like called The Pilgrim Journey by James Harpur. The book is actually a history of pilgrimage primarily in the Christian tradition; the history of Christian pilgrimage mostly in Europe, why it’s important, what’s the value in it, how pilgrims lived. If you wanted to get a good look at the history itself of taking a pilgrimage, that would be a great book.
But probably my favorite of all that I’ve read, and this brings us back to my trip to Wittenberg, was a book called Here I Walk by Andrew Wilson. Here I Walk is a play on words based on Martin Luther’s famous stance when he said, ‘Here I stand’ when he was on trial by the Catholic Church.
Here I Walk is basically the travelogue of Andrew Wilson and his wife, who physically recreated Martin Luther’s journey on foot from Germany to Rome. And they traced back the traditional route that a pilgrim would have taken in the 16th century to Italy and with all of the churches and monasteries that would have been standing that Martin Luther might have actually stayed at.
He did it in the same time frame in terms of the months of the year, and it was just a really fascinating look at what a pilgrim’s walk might have looked like. I would imagine it would have been very similar to a larger version of what you did taking your trip to Canterbury or what somebody might experience on the Camino to Spain. I’ll say that again, Here I Walk by Andrew Wilson, a very, very good book. He wrote it in the run-up to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Jo: Great. I’ve actually read those first two that you mentioned. So, that was very cool. And it’s so good to add books to our reading list. So that’s exciting. I also want to mention your next book, which is called The Complete American Military Pilgrim. Tell people what they can expect from that.
Howard: This is the third book that I have out. The first one was The Complete American Pilgrim, which was a look at 250 churches and religious sites in the United States. The second one was The Complete Christian Pilgrim, which is 250 Christian specific sites around the world. This is book number three, The Complete American Military Pilgrim.
Now, as much as I do love visiting religious sites, it’s not my only interest.
I love visiting battlefields and aircraft carriers and forts and castles.
It was really always a sideshow to my main trips, but I acquired so much information and so many photos that I decided that I needed to take a break from writing religious-oriented travel books. And I really just wanted to address this.
There’s such an interest in American military history at least in the United States. So I wrote this book called The Complete American Military Pilgrim. It’s the same thing, it’s the same concept, but instead of visiting churches and cathedrals and chapels and synagogues, it’s a guide to battlefields and the military academies and aircraft carriers and battleships and military museums and airfields and all sorts of related things.
And unlike The Complete American Pilgrim, which is exclusively in the United States, The Complete American Military Pilgrim does include sites in Europe and the Far East primarily because we’ve fought several wars in both locations. Obviously, Americans when they go to France that are interested in this thing, they might make a pilgrimage to the Normandy beaches, for example, where the battle of D-Day was fought in 1944. So there’s many sites associated with the battle of D-Day. There’s the Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, the Normandy invasion museum in Bayeux.
There’s a couple of great locations in the United Kingdom including an air museum. Britain has an air museum attached to their national museum, and there’s an entire wing of that museum that’s devoted entirely to the United States air service during World War II.
So, it’ll be a very, very diverse selection of sites of American military interest that are tied to the branches of the military or the battles, and a couple of odd things thrown in on top of that. So, that’s what it is. And I’m hoping that it’s as well-received as my other two books.
Jo: The feeling is perhaps the same that the emotional resonance of visiting military places because in the end, it’s about memento mori, right, remember you will die. And if we’re looking at the historical war monument, or we’re seeing graves or visiting a place of worship, that’s almost the underlying feeling. Do you think that’s the similarity?
Howard: Absolutely. When we were talking earlier about what makes a pilgrimage, I think, there is an underlying idea that most pilgrimages in some ways involve memorializing something. And if you’re going to a church, you’re going to a battlefield or a cemetery, you’re usually doing that in commemoration of something that happened, maybe it’s somebody or some people who died, or maybe it’s in honor of an event that happened.
Jo: That’s certainly what, I think, is important to me when I do these things. I just love to talk to you because I know how much you care about it, too.
Where can people find you and your books and everything you do online?
Howard: Okay. My website is TheCompletePilgrim.com. I have about 1,200 or 1,300 articles on there mostly revolving around religious travel. I cover other aspects too. My three books are available on Amazon.
Jo: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Howard. That was great.