WHAT IT'S ABOUT Bestselling author Bruce Feiler ("The Secrets of Happy Families") explores six famous pilgrimage sites, beginning with a journey to Lourdes by veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan (8 p.m.). That is followed at 9 p.m. by "Shikoku," a 750-mile pilgrimage route that connects 88 temples and shrines that claim connection to Japanese Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi. Subsequent editions go to Jerusalem and Mecca (Dec. 23), Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, and Osun-Osogbo in Nigeria (Dec. 30).
MY SAY Before undertaking this six-part TV pilgrimage, it's not a bad idea to first decide whether you want to spend that much time with your tour guide, whose voice and sensibilities suffuse every frame. I can help you with that: Absolutely. Feiler is the perfect guide, who certainly is up to the task intellectually, but -- of perhaps greater importance -- temperamentally as well. He takes exactly the right approach -- open-minded -- which is evident in "Lourdes" ("Shikoku" was not available for review) and the other programs I sampled, "Hajj" and "Jerusalem."
Feiler's series doesn't explore faith, per se, but rather those who already have faith or are seeking faith. These "sacred journeys" aren't solitary affairs, but communal ones, thronging with people, ideas and emotions -- complicated ones that aren't so easily reduced to single words like "joy" or "desperation" and are shaped by individual life experiences. But there's a shared humanity among those undertaking the journeys, and that also is a focus of Feiler's attention.
As an example, tonight he accompanies a group of grievously wounded vets to Lourdes, just north of France's border with Spain, where a 14-year-old girl said she had seen and spoken with the Virgin Mary in the late 1850s. One of the veterans has lost a jaw, another his sight. They've seen comrades killed in action. Medical science has done what it can for them. Now . . . what about Lourdes?
As Feiler observes, what they're seeking is not entirely clear, even to themselves, but they all seem to sense that "if you have faith or doubt, come here -- bring your questions and perhaps you'll find answers. That, in the end, is the true destination of a sacred journey." In this instance, it's a deeply moving one, too.