"It's all right," says my guide. "A priest says you may touch it."

I'm standing in a 12th-century church located in a cave just outside the town of Lalibela, in Ethiopia's northern highlands, staring at an Ethiopian Orthodox holy book. With equal parts trepidation and reverence, I step forward. Brightly painted images of the Christ child, the Virgin Mary, and assorted saints adorn the left-hand pages; small, hand-scrawled script in Ge'ez, an ancient language still spoken by holy men, fills the right.

Cut from goatskin parchment, the pages are slightly uneven, emitting a faint aroma of incense mixed with the musty odor of sweat and dust. The edges are worn and blackened from daily use by the current priest and his countless predecessors.

In an adjacent room, basin-shaped rocks collect "holy water" dripping from the ceiling, as it has every few minutes of each hour of each day for centuries. Crowns of solid gold and silver rest on handmade rugs. Ornate crosses abound—wooden, silver, brass, and gold—as do "prayer sticks," crutch-like devices that parishioners lean on, since there are no pews.

"Please tell him thank you," I reply, "and may God bless him."

The priest listens to the translation, then turns to me with a polite but serious look, bowing his head slightly. He covers the sacred book with a white cloth and escorts us to the church's doorway.

This unforgettable spiritual experience happened while traveling on business.

Many people whose jobs require travel often journey halfway across the United States or the world, yet rarely venture beyond their hotels. At most, they may take an hour or two to visit a local market to souvenir-hunt for family members. After a few days, the meetings and PowerPoint presentations ...

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