When Heather Whitney, a philosophy PhD candidate at NYU, heard of an open spot on a travel excursion to study Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” with the host of her favorite podcast, she jumped at the chance.
“I had never done a retreat before,” said Whitney, who is currently based in New York.
The June trip was planned and hosted by Common Ground, an immersive travel project from Cambridge’s Not Sorry Productions. It was created by Vanessa Zoltan, the executive director of Not Sorry Productions and co-host of the popular “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” podcast, which considers each chapter of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding series as sacred. Zoltan and Stephanie Paulsell, the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School, served as the travel, educational, and spiritual guides to 12 attendees on the weeklong journey.
The London-Sussex excursion was the first of upcoming travel expeditions hosted by Common Ground. Each will be linked to a novel and a rigorous reading or writing practice. Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” brings travelers to Concord this October, while “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro and Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” will prompt journeys to Japan and the North York Moors, England, respectively, in 2019. Lodging and a schedule of activities and meals that tie into the chosen author’s life are included with each intimately capped retreat.
There are guided rituals. There are moments of silence and self-reflection. There are intentions and confessions. There are scholars leading centuries-old practices and meditations. The travelers are considered pilgrims; their journey, a pilgrimage. It is not a traditionally religious experience. But it is a sacred one.
“Religion, in the broad sense, is at the heart of these trips. We are about ritual and rigor,” explained Zoltan. “The trips are about being devoted to something. We choose what we are devoted to, rather than use traditional religious devotional texts. But all of the reading practices we use are either Jewish or Christian. The way we think about walking is rooted in Christian pilgrimage. And I was trained at a Divinity School. But the problem with the word religion is how triggering it is for so many people. So we avoid using it because it understandably hurts people.”
Zoltan, who is also a teaching fellow and proctor at Harvard, devised the interactive travel experience with Liz Slade, London-based co-director of Common Ground Pilgrimages and a consultant working in secular spiritual culture-making. Slade handled the on-the-ground logistical planning, while Zoltan created an educational itinerary that studied Woolf’s novel, as well as her life and career in London and Sussex, England.
“We got to know Woolf better every day,” said Paulsell. “And gathering around a work of art every day can turn a group of strangers into a community very quickly.”
Community should be considered a pillar of Common Ground’s mission, as constant congregation encourages the intimacy of the experience.
“[Zoltan, Paulsell, and I] brought our experiences in understanding how groups come together in religious and non-religious worlds, and worked to create conditions where people felt comfortable to connect and share,” explained Slade. “When traveling as a pilgrimage, it’s not the A to B as a destination that’s important. It’s allowing that [journey] to unlock other ideas while we’re traveling.”
Attendee Katherine Snyder, an English literature teacher in Jacksonville, Fla., was “a bit nervous, going on a random retreat with a bunch of new people.” But on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where the group gave introductions, she soon felt comfortable with the level of emotional openness she would be expected to share with her traveling companions.
“We bonded right away,” Snyder recalled. “It was a beautiful experience, getting to know each other — while getting to know London and an author I’ve always respected and admired.”
The pilgrims spent time at Woolf’s residences of Monk’s House and Tilton House and walked 6 to 10 miles each day through London and the picturesque South Downs National Park. They declared intentions in front of the author’s bust in Tavistock Square — ranging from marital concerns to professional dilemmas — and walked the park where Woolf would sort out her writerly dilemmas.
“Woolf’s diary once said, ‘A new problem like that breaks fresh ground in one’s mind.’ So we asked everyone: What fresh ground do you want to break this week?” explained Paulsell. “Everyone said something really real and honest — and that’s when I knew it was going to be a great week. We had known each other for two hours and people were already raising really interesting questions for themselves and for all of us for the week.”
The classroom time included studying the text through sacred reading practices attendees familiar with Zoltan’s podcast were already familiar. (Nearly all attendees had heard of the program from “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.”) Attendees read Woolf’s novel under the lens of the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina, the Jewish study of PaRDeS, and the medieval act of Florilegium, each meant to give deeper meaning to the text and its connection to life.
While Zoltan remains hesitant to put her travel offerings into the category of wellness tourism, she sees them as a “spiritual” experience. “Honestly, what they are more than anything else is earnest,” she added. “There is no eye-rolling. There is a genuine love of books, chatting, walking, writing, and friendship.”
Friendship runs deep, as Whitney shared details of a WhatsApp group chat with her fellow attendees. The group keeps in touch, celebrating and conversing over the milestones reached after their week of walking and talking. “Two people quit their jobs, people are going through counseling, someone got married last week and I just sent them their wedding gift,” she said.
“I was looking for this kind of connection with other women,” Whitney continued. “We were able to speak in sincere and open ways. When you are traveling with a spouse or family as an adult, you aren’t always open to those intense, meaningful conversations that you have when you travel when you’re young. But we are always looking for that. You never age out of it. We just need to find the right communities.”
For more information on Common Ground’s upcoming Reading and Walking With travel series — visit readingandwalkingwith.com.