SACRED ROADS

Adventures From the Pilgrimage Trail

By Nicholas Shrady

HarperSan Francisco. 268 pp. $22

CIRCLING THE SACRED MOUNTAIN

A Spiritual Adventure Through

The Himalayas

By Robert Thurman and Tad Wise

Bantam. 352 pp. $25.95

Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle

If your idea of a spiritual pilgrim is someone unshakeable in his faith -- the dutiful Muslim making the hajj to Mecca or the pious Catholic seeking a miracle cure at Lourdes -- Nicholas Shrady's Sacred Roads may elude your grasp. In the six journeys that compose this travelogue, he approaches spirituality with that rare combination of faculties, a yearning heart and an open, discerning mind. The subtle, low-key explanation he offers for traveling to Hindu India could almost serve as a guidepost for the whole book: "I wasn't necessarily looking for redemption from the Ganges, but rather for a modest insight into the rites and rituals of the world's oldest religion in the hopes that it might lead me, however circuitously, to a deeper understanding of my own tentative and doubt-filled faith."

That faith happens to be Roman Catholicism, and Shrady, an American who now lives in Barcelona with his wife and two sons, comes down hard on a para-Catholic phenomenon whose provenance strikes him as highly doubtful: the Virgin of Medjugorje, Bosnia, an apparition that has allegedly been raining messages on the world via a group of local seers since 1981. What Shrady found there was a district with the strongest possible interest in attesting to the Virgin's authenticity -- the local economy has become dependent on devout travelers in search of ecstasy and miracles -- a home-church pastor who rejects the whole enterprise, and messages of dubious theology.

"In the message of August 25, 1994," Shrady writes, "the Virgin appealed for prayers for the pope's health. All very well and good. But John Paul II then becomes the pontiff `whom I have chosen for these times.' To my knowledge, the Virgin has never had any role in determining the successor of St. Peter; that is in God's hands. In the same message, she offers a special prayer for the `home country' Croatia (not Bosnia) and offers to intercede before her Son `so that the dream that your fathers had may be fulfilled' -- meaning, I assumed, that Medjugorje would be incorporated into Catholic Bosnia and become free at last from the predominantly Muslim Bosnia. This was hardly the sort of intercession I expected from the `Queen of Peace'." It's this refusal to swallow just any old thing put forward by zealots which lends value to Shrady's spiritual epiphanies when they ultimately come to him.

He also traveled the main spiritual routes in the Holy Land; visited two regions of India, the birthplace of both Hinduism and Buddhism; followed the Way of St. James in northern Spain; and went to the old dervish capital, Konya, in Anatolian Turkey. Always he kept out a sharp eye for hypocrisy and intolerance in the guise of religion, and in India he developed a keen distaste for the caste system that is part and parcel of Hinduism.

The "adventures" in his subtitle is no misnomer. In India, as he watched, disturbed but unwilling to interfere, a Hindu who had been ailing for days walked into the Ganges and let himself be drowned. "Who was I to deny him a long-awaited salvation?" Shrady writes. In Konya, he hung around the tomb of the primordial dervish, Rumi, long enough for his reverence to be noticed. He was accosted by a stranger, quizzed briefly, and told to show up at a certain house that evening. On arriving, he was ushered into a clandestine meeting of an underground dervish group (the Turkish government bans dervish practices except for token public performances of the whirling dance). Yet even then, having been granted a privilege withheld from most nonbelievers, Shrady did not "go native." Proselytized by his hosts to move beyond Christianity and embrace Islam (which they held out as a later, more mature monotheism), he threw an apt quote from Rumi back at them. This was the last of his journeys, as well as the last chapter in the book. Later, back in his hotel room, Shrady read some of Rumi's writings and reached a spiritual end point, about which I will say only that it ties up the book affectingly. Sacred Roads is an engaging blend of travel and religious writing, and Nicholas Shrady is a trustworthy guide.

Robert Thurman and Tad Wise, co-authors of Circling the Sacred Mountain, are mentor and pupil, respectively; their religion is Tibetan Buddhism (Thurman, who heads the religion department at Columbia University, is billed as "a personal friend of the Dalai Lama's"). The mountain in question is Kailash, in the Himalayas, reachable only by an arduous trek, "the most magical site on earth, the abode of the father and mother of the world, the gods Shiva and Uma" (this according to Thurman, who writes in alternate sections with Wise). With seven other pilgrims plus local drivers and bearers, Thurman and Wise set out to circle Kailash, an achievement reputed to raise its performers to a transcendent level of spiritual power.

Despite its issuance by a mainstream publisher, Circling the Sacred Mountain is rough going for the non-Buddhist. One stumbling block -- for this reader, anyway -- is the centrality of reincarnation to the authors' creed. Forgive me, Shiva and Uma, but the suggestion that I may have lived previous lives has never struck the faintest chord in me -- maybe it's my own Jesuit education, but I can't imagine how to even begin believing such a thing. Second, many of Thurman's sections are sermons delivered en route or at the mountain. As sermons go, they aren't bad, and every once in a while they even seem inspired. But reading them off-peak (as it were) can be as wearing as listening to sermons in church.

The book comes to life more frequently in Wise's sections. His battles to overcome his womanizing (he writes an amusing account of trying to steer clear of a comely young local woman whose fate, he knows, will be to marry into a family of brothers and serve as their serial wife), his previous quarrels with Thurman (Wise is not a natural-born follower), his vignettes of the byplay among his fellow pilgrims -- all this makes for welcome diversion from Thurman's oratory.

Though I feel ill-equipped to do theological battle, I can't help wondering about one aspect of Thurman's teachings. In a long sermon, he harps on the pitifulness of human egotism and aspiration. No matter how hard we try to reach our goals, he points out, we either taste the ashes of disappointment or find out that, after all, we didn't want what we've attained. "Look at the president of the United States," he says. "You begin to realize the guy has a permanent headache." All this leads up to a suggestion that we try not to pit our ego so greedily against the world, which may be useful advice. But in his emphasis on the futility of striving, Thurman seems to have scanted the uses of glory-seeking. Even if a researcher develops a vaccine mostly to burnish his own fame, the medicine will still save lives.

For believers or those who want to delve deeply into Tibetan Buddhism, Circling the Sacred Mountain may be a godsend. For anyone, agnostic or saint, who is intrigued by the links between travel and spirituality, Sacred Roads is a must.

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.