Metaphysical travel-also called sacred travel-is a burgeoning branch of today’s tourist industry. Popular destinations tend to be mysterious places, especially those many of us have difficulty believing could have been constructed by an ordinary human labor force. Egypt’s pyramids, Stonehenge, and Machu Picchu all come to mind. “Whoever constructed them, did so on places that were already places of power on the earth – the acupuncture points of mother Earth, that hold powerful energies,” notes the proprietor of Body and Mind Spirit Journey, a travel outfit based in Sedona, Arizona.
People who sign up for these journeys of recreational self discovery say they do it to connect with the unique spiritual energy or higher knowledge they believe they will find at these universal sacred places. For example, metaphysical travelers seek the accumulated wisdom of the advanced civilization of Atlantis, thought by some to have been secretly deposited on the site of the Great Pyramid of Khufu.
To be effective, metaphysical appointments need to be kept on time-and you must be in the right place. Historians of religion call them hierophanies, or manifestations of the sacred. They can be good, such as the Virgin Mary appearing on the wrinkles of a plate glass window or a weeping statue, or evil, such as the plume of smoke in the shape of a devil that many saw issuing from the destruction of the World Trade Center. Hierophanies can be great crowd pleasers. They invite participation; they evoke a feeling of being connected. Some witnesses feel as if their participation actually helps bring about the event.
One of Mexico’s most popular destinations for acquiring a transcendent fix via hierophany is the Maya Pyramid of Kukulcan (the feathered-serpent god), also known as El Castillo, at Chichen Itza in Yucatan. If you are there on the afternoon of the spring equinox, you can witness, as I have, the shadow of the “descending serpent” cast on the northern balustrade by the northwest corner of the stepped pyramid. A sculpted serpent head at the stairway’s base adds to the drama of the imagery. Every year on March 20 crowds numbering in the tens of thousands fill the vast plaza surrounding the pyramid to witness the spectacle, today presided over by government officials. There are dancers, musicians, groups of meditators, and hosts of sacro-tourists, many of them North Americans and Europeans.
Kukulcan was the Maya god of rejuvenation and his effigy symbolizes the renewal of life. Mircea Eliade, the historian of religion who invented the term hierophany, once wrote that spring is a resurrection of all life. In that cosmic act, all the forces of creation return to their first vigor. Life is wholly reconstituted; everything begins afresh; in short, the primeval act of the creation of the cosmos is repeated, for every regeneration is a new birth, a return to that mythical moment when for the first time a form appeared that was destined to be constantly regenerated.
Long a part of Western history, Gnosticism embraces the idea that higher knowledge, not faith, is the key to salvation and that it can be acquired by ordinary mortals. Between the first and sixth centuries AD, for example, Gnosticism served as a middle ground between paganism and newly emergent Christianity. The Gnostics were a class of sects who believed, unlike their mainstream Christian counterparts, that it was ignorance rather than sin that cut us off from union with the creator. They devoted themselves to what they termed the “search for true knowledge.” Instantly revealed truth, they said, could be found among all civilizations and every faith contained a germ of truth that culminated in Christ.
Contemporary Gnosticism straddles the boundary between science and religion. Often laced with scientific language, this new brand of Gnosticism is built around the basic idea that all existences originate in a higher power that manifests itself by successive emotions that take the form of temporal turning points, or turnovers, of eons. Ecstasy or catastrophe? The prognosis for these stressful times is usually doom, hopefully accompanied by salvation or selfrealization, provided we do the right thing, be in the right place at the right time-connect.