The Road That Teaches
The Road That Teaches: Lessons in Transformation through Travel
by Valerie Brown
Philadelphia, PA: Quaker Books, 2012
Reviewed by Karen L. Erlichman
The pilgrim’s journey is a metaphor that resonates for many people as they explore faith, God, and spirituality. Encountering the sacred while journeying is a universal human experience, and in The Road That Teaches: Lessons in Transformation through Travel, Valerie Brown invites us to join her in stories of pilgrimage and the extraordinary places, gifts and adventures she has discovered along the way.
The introduction begins: “Every journey is both inward and outward, an opportunity to discover new meaning or encounter the world with fresh eyes. Pilgrimage, a special kind of travel, is a physical, geographical, and spiritual effort, akin to prayer. It is the individual and collective search for the sacred, where the spiritual experience and geography converge” (xiii).
Born to immigrant parents, Brown’s family history includes Jamaican, Cuban, and Chinese Trinidadian roots rich with layers of meaning, hope, and identity. Her own pilgrim’s journey began when she left home at age eighteen, and from the first few pages of the introduction, Brown entices the reader with stories and questions about home, belonging, and identity.
Brown generously shares the tender and resilient aspects of her own personal story along the way. Eventually she became a Quaker, and then she began to study with Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk,teacher, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh. Her travels have taken her to extraordinary, far-reaching geographic locations such as India, Stonehenge, and Machu Picchu, and the last chapter of the book illuminates locations closer to home (New Jersey, USA)—all important locations on the soul’s journey to wholeness.
Each of the six chapters opens with a thematic lesson as well as a quote of inspiration from a variety of sources and faith traditions, extending from the poetry of Mary Oliver to sacred scripture. In addition, the thread of Quaker principles and practices is also woven throughout the book, along with reflection questions for journaling or meditation.
There are beautifully textured descriptions of the cultures, spiritual traditions, and teachings, which feel like snapshots of Brown’s inner and outer journeys. Brown includes a link to actual snapshots in an online gallery of photographs from her journeys. She writes, “The spiritual path, the pilgrim’s path, the path of Light within, is about becoming more of what I am meant to be.… The pilgrim’s path is one of action and presence. It is the path of letting go, showing up, trusting, slowing down, listening, facing fears, learning the pleasure of play, and so much more” (142).
Many people come to spiritual direction with tales of their own pilgrimage journeys, and this book is an extraordinary wellspring of cultural, theological, personal, and universal travel stories. The Road That Teaches is part journal, part spiritual practice, and part travel guide, and includes in the appendices practical resources such as a sample packing list and a list of travelers’ resources (books and websites). Spiritual directors will learn a great deal from this book about a variety of countries, cultures, and spiritual practices, and this book will no doubt be recommended to spiritual directees, retreatants, students, and congregants. Brown has gifted the world with this beautifully written, heartfelt collection. One need not be a world traveler to revel in its rich blessings.
Karen Lee Erlichman, MSS, LCSW, lives in San Francisco, California, USA, where she provides psychotherapy, spiritual direction, supervision, and mentoring. She is a core faculty member in the Spiritual Guidance Program at Sophia University in Palo Alto, California.