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Six sacred spots that call pilgrims around the world

A skeptical traveler discovers the power of place

In her travels over the years in Greece, Egypt, China, and Ireland, Rosemary Mahoney caught incidental glimpses into religious pilgrimages. They filled her with awe and astonishment and a touch of envy. Why was it that she, an Irish Catholic from Boston, the daughter of a beloved and steadfast believer, had never been moved to participate in these dramatic gatherings? What was the nature of faith, "that palpable surge of the soul," that prompted people to make such journeys?

In "The Singular Pilgrim," Mahoney sets out to answer these questions, as observer and participant, in pilgrimages scattered across the globe. The seriousness of her own spiritual inquiry seems to surprise Mahoney - as if she believed that her congenital skepticism should have protected her from the power of such a search. It didn't.

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She begins with the intellectual distance of a writer investigating "real pilgrims" - not people like herself, attached to reason, amused by charlatans and hucksters. And yet, Mahoney is no atheist or even agnostic. Her own faith, while faded and pummeled by doubt, is nevertheless there, in tart and probing dialogue with all she encounters.

She eases into her subject in May 1999 in the English village of Walsingham. Anglican clergy in their dazzling ecclesiastical finery make their annual pilgrimage to a Marian shrine while Protestant militants shout them down for their Romish pomp and idolatrous ways.

Two years later, Mahoney finds herself on a penitential pilgrimage to St. Patrick's Purgatory, an ancient Catholic shrine on a windswept, rainy island in the northern reaches of Ireland. This rigorous pilgrimage, the most demanding in Christendom, requires sleep-deprived, barefoot penitents to perform rigidly prescribed movements and murmur non-stop prayers. "The physical body went about in circles," Mahoney writes, "with frozen feet and stinging eyes, kneeling, moving constantly, like a wind-up toy, while within it the soul percolated, inviting God in, inventing him."

In between Walsingham and St. Patrick's, Mahoney takes in the icy baths at Lourdes, where miraculous cures have been a draw for over a century. She walks the 475-mile medieval pilgrimage across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, the site of the tomb of St. James the Apostle. A crippling case of tendonitis, a bite from a feral cat, and the cant of cranky New Age pilgrims don't deter her from her record pace.

She also takes up brief residence in the sacred city of Varanasi, site of public cremations for Hindus on the banks of the Ganges.

And in the Holy Land, she rows across the Sea of Galilee in an inflatable raft to camp out beneath the Golan Heights. It is a night filled with jitters, even for the brave and adventurous Mahoney. Armed only with a toy plastic BB gun, a knife and a hat she draws deep down over her face, she fortifies herself with a bottle of wine and reflections on Jesus' exorcism of a madman's demons not far from the spot where she's set up camp.

There are other moments of foolhardy bravery that flare surrealistically in Mahoney's travels. On a dark and dank section of the Camino to Santiago, a yellow-eyed ram stops her in her tracks. Caught in a thicket, the frightened animal three times rears up and butts Mahoney as she tries to cut his legs free.

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In Varanasi, on a whim she crosses the Ganges in her rubber boat. It is a heart-stopping moment. Mahoney is aware of the risk, "astonished at every stroke that the boat was still floating, that it remained dry within, that the oarlocks hadn't snapped off, that we were making progress.... We were surviving our own foolishness."

For all the emotional intensity and spiritual probing of this book, it is also full of humor and high adventure. Mahoney's sharp eye for the profane, the worldly, and the foolish intrudes at every turn, often to great comic effect. And her ear for language, whether the Gaelic-influenced cadences of St. Patrick's or the Indian English at Varanasi, gives rise to some hilarious dialogue and vivid portraits.

There are no epiphanies in this book, but the cumulative effect of her six pilgrimages is that Mahoney comes closer to understanding that the doubt and struggle she lives with are not in opposition to faith, but an integral part of it. The one constant among all the pilgrims she met, in fact, was "the shared human struggle to find reason, to confront our natural fears of uncertainty and obscurity" - a search not so different from her own, she comes to realize.

"I am approximately as strange, conventional, fearful, susceptible, and pathetic as the next person," she writes. "I don't look forward to death, and whether I want to admit it or not, I share in the human struggle to find reason." She is richly rewarded for that struggle. Equal parts serious inquiry and irrepressible humor at the human condition, this is a book to be treasured by spiritual seekers and armchair adventurers alike.

Diana Digges is a freelance writer in Boston.