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Travelers Keeping the Faith

For Many, Prayers Follow the Packing

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page B01

Well north of the Capital Beltway, 50 miles beyond Baltimore, where the landscape flanking Interstate 95 turns to a dull repetition of trees and the occasional service island, Our Lady of the Highways stands vigil.

Our Lady is a 20-foot statue of Mary, a shrine erected on the side of the road to watch over the tens of thousands of motorists who pass her way each day. She is a guiding force for many, and she has spawned a group of followers, known as Mary's Travelers, who place themselves and others under the protection of the Virgin Mother for safe travel.

Our Lady of the Highways follows a tradition of symbols of guardians, from St. Christopher to Jesus. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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She is also a reminder of the peril of travel, having been put there by the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales in 1972, four years after they rushed to the scene of a 17-car pileup that claimed the lives of three drivers and injured several others.

"We thought she would be some way to prevent accidents in the future," the Rev. Richard DeLillio said. "If we have the statue, maybe there would be a little bit of light" to reenergize drivers.

Many of the millions of Americans making pilgrimages by land, air or sea to visit family and friends this holiday season will invoke a higher power to ensure their safe arrival. In an age of global positioning devices, explosives-detection machines, air bags and other man-made safety devices, some travelers still turn to the heavens to ensure their safe passage across the earth.

Many Catholics carry an image of St. Christopher, the traditional protector of travelers. Other Christians put a statue of Jesus on their dashboards, while some bless their cars. Jews and Muslims recite traditional prayers. Other worshipers visit airport chaplains, gather in prayer circles or carry religious articles.

"I think individuals always have some degree of anxiety when they move from one place to another," said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College in New York. "The notion that there is a divine force, a presence, that personally watches over one is inherently very comforting."

That's been true for Jonie Lehmann of Montgomery County since she was in an accident about 16 years ago. Lehmann forgot to call her mother before that trip, so her mother wasn't able to put her in what she calls the "white light," a euphemism for a prayer for a family that Lehmann described as "Jewish flaky."

"She didn't want to say, 'Well, it's in God's hands,' because she knew I wouldn't like it if it was too God-dy," said Lehmann, explaining the genesis of the "white light."

Her sole trip without the blessing ended with a totaled car and four people and a cat stranded on the side of the road.

"Ever since then, I always call her and tell her I'm going," Lehmann said. "It's gotten to the point that she calls me when she knows I'm going to be on the road."

For as long as people have had the desire to pack a bag and take a trip, many of them have prayed for their safe arrival.

Bill J. Leonard, dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University, said that before Christians began pilgrimages to the Holy Land in the 3rd and 4th centuries, their communities would follow rituals. A priest would say prayers and spread holy water, and villagers would pray for a safe return. Travelers prayed along the way, and monastic communities served as the "Holiday Inns of the time," Leonard said.

Similar rituals were practiced during the time of the Crusades in the 11th century and for merchants throughout the ages, Leonard said. Later, Catholic explorers, including Columbus, had their ships blessed and doused with holy water before leaving port, and once at sea, rituals included having the youngest and purest boy on the ship say a prayer for safe passage.

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