More and more people are stepping away from daily life and onto a pilgrimage path like the Way of Saint James, which goes to Spain's west coast. Germany also offers pilgrims routes and help to meet their different needs.
Spring has finally started, and with it the new pilgrimage season. In the weeks and months ahead, numerous people will start their own meditative journey.
One of the most popular routes is the Way of Saint James ("El Camino de Santiago"), Europe's best known pilgrimage route. The various routes, totaling some 42,000 kilometers (26,100 miles), come from different directions, crossing numerous countries before uniting in one path known as the French Way ("Camino Frances"). This medieval main trade route in northern Spain leads westward from the Pyrenees towards the Atlantic Ocean, where it finally reaches the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela.
That's where the apostle James, a disciple of Christ, is said to be buried. This helped make Santiago de Compostela a popular Christian pilgrimage destination over 1,000 years ago, alongside the cities of Jerusalem and Rome. In 1993 the Spanish part of the Way of Saint James was recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Christian pilgrimage traditions in Europe had nearly fallen into oblivion when a renaissance occurred in the 1970s, followed by even greater interest in the new millennium. While more people have been undertaking Christian pilgrimages, reliable numbers only exist for the Way of Saint James, where a record book is kept in Santiago de Compostela.
If you want to make it into the official statistics, you'll have to walk the last remaining 100 kilometers (or bike 200 kilometers) to the tomb of the apostle James. In 2006, a total of 100,000 pilgrims achieved this goal, whereas in 2013, this number rose to 200,000 and last year it hit 300,000. In 2017, 23,000 Germans were among the crowd, which makes them the third biggest national group after Spaniards and Italians.
What's fueling renewed interest?
"There are more and more virtual worlds, more things that aren't original anymore, more copies of things, and this goes for online, too," said author Raimund Joos. "What's missing is direct contact to the world and to people. And that's exactly what a pilgrimage offers."
The Way of Saint James is an major part of Joos' life, so he knows what he's talking about. He lives in Eichstätt on part of the route that goes through the eastern Bavarian city, and he walks along the path toward Santiago de Compostela, following its scallop shell waymarks, at least three times a year, either as a pilgrim himself, as a tour guide or as the author of travel guides. He has produced a massive amount of literature on the pilgrimage route.
The Way of Saint James — 'El Camino de Santiago' in Spanish — winds its way through the city of Castrojeriz
Joos is convinced that people inherently yearn to go on a pilgrimage: "The desire to extend one's horizons is deeply entrenched in people." That, according to Joss, is even expressed in the term itself. "Originally, pilgrimage meant 'beyond the field.' In early times, a person's world was limited to a village that provided a sense of security. The fields were located around the village, and outside the fields was the forest, where people's world ended," he said.
Individuals who went beyond the fields had to reckon with various dangers looming in the forest, Joos explained, but at the same time, they faced new possibilities. That's why pilgrimages transcend religions, he added, while noting that the major figures of Judaism and Christianity — such as Abraham, Moses and Jesus — served as role models for Christian pilgrims later on in history.
Pilgrimage in Germany
Going on a pilgrimage within Germany is also becoming increasingly popular, notes Oliver Gussmann, who works as a priest for tourists in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, an important tourist destination located on the western Bavarian border. According to him, people are motivated to undertake the journey for various reasons. Some are searching for answers to fundamental questions, while others are pondering about how to rearrange their personal lives. Still others are searching for God, while some are simply trying to free their minds of stress.
"What can be observed right now is that a growing number of people are simply looking to take a step back from the stress of their daily lives and be more present in themselves," said Gussmann, a trained theologian. He added that many people tackle some Bavarian pilgrimage paths that are part of the Way of Saint James, though not all of these people are motivated by Christian belief. Many are also walkers and tourists. But, he said, quite often people who start out as regular hikers become pilgrims on the way.
New pilgrimage center in Bavaria
Reacting to the pilgrimage boom, the Protestant-Lutheran Church of Bavaria founded a unique pilgrimage center in the city of Nuremberg in 2015. It informs pilgrims about the various paths and the equipment they need, as well as providing them with a pilgrim's passport.
Gussmann, who also serves as his church's pilgrimage expert, says it's more important that the center takes the special personal needs of the pilgrims into account, especially those who find themselves in moment of life transition. "Quite often, people who find themselves in crisis — whether they have lost a loved one, their children have left home, they're facing professional decisions, unemployment or retirement — these people go on a pilgrimage in order to contemplate their situation and find themselves again," he said. "That's why counseling experts are available to accompany them, in order to help them make decisions." It is effectively companionship for the heart and mind.
Oriented toward needs and themes
As an example, Gussmann highlights how the Johanniter, a religiously affiliated humanitarian group that takes its name from St. John, offer a project entitled Lacrima. Through the framework of the Nuremberg pilgrimage center, the program provides mourning support for children who have lost a parent or sibling. The center also provides e-bikes and regular bicycles for people who can't walk the pilgrimage path due to medical reasons, he added. Themed pilgrimage programs are also available: "We offer a route of quiet and stillness for people who are looking for relaxation."
The Protestant pilgrimage center not only promotes long-distance pilgrimage paths but also regional meditative ones. These are often circular paths with a specific theme. The spiritual atmosphere of these paths comes out through churches, particular locations or landscapes, crosses or signs containing inscriptions that spur reflection, Gussmann explained. The priest and his team are delighted any time people experiencing these paths find new depth in their lives.
The secret behind a pilgrimage
However, pilgrims often get in their own way when it comes to discovering and personally experiencing the secrets that a pilgrimage holds, pilgrim expert Joos pointed out. "One of these secrets is letting go, of being open to something new," he said.
For a long time, the Way of Saint James has enabled people to leave behind the routine of daily life and instead live simply, be in nature and broaden their horizons. But modernity seems to have increasingly encroached the path. For instance, almost every pilgrim inn along the Camino Frances is equipped with Wi-Fi.
"The pilgrims sit there with their smartphones, watching the news, checking their emails and communicating with their friends back home, but not with other pilgrims. Their feet may be on the path, but their heads haven't left their daily lives," Joos said.
He advises modern pilgrims to make a conscious decision to undertake the Way of Saint James as it should be made: as a place where you let go. "There's a tendency for growing stress during a pilgrimage, although the way is supposed to have exactly the opposite effect."