What makes a journey a pilgrimage? Let’s not open that can of worms! What’s the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim? Now there’s another can of worms! Can everyone really go on a pilgrimage? Well, that’s the can of worms I’m going to open in this article! I can’t promise a definitive answer but here’s some food for thought.
Michelle awaiting the Pilgrims’ Mass after gratefully and humbly arriving in the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela in 2011
I am fortunate to have been able to achieve my goal of walking each step of the Camino Francés twice. I completed my first pilgrimage in 2009 and it was profoundly transformative. My second Camino in 2011 was also positively life-shaping for me. Like many pilgrims I’ve experienced bed bugs, fleas, tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, neuromas, blisters, gastroenteritis and influenza AND I still had the most extraordinarily wonderful time of my life on both Caminos (and would be there again now if I could swing it!). Back at home working as an occupational therapy academic, I became intrigued by the potential to harness the transformative potential of pilgrimage with a range of clients of the health and human services.
Searching the scholarly and popular literature it was clear there is both increasing popular interest and participation in pilgrimage. Importantly, the benefit to health and wellbeing experienced by contemporary pilgrims is increasingly evidence-based. Bearing this international literature in mind, I began to wonder whether participating in pilgrimage (and the experience of being a pilgrim) could be ‘authentically’ available to everyone in our contemporary community. Or was ‘authentic’ pilgrimage restricted to people with health, wealth, time and the capacity to travel independently? My Camino experiences were both walking pilgrimages but is something like ‘walking’ really the key to being a pilgrim? Is there an ‘authentic’ style of pilgrimage or is having an ‘authentic’ pilgrim spirit what is most important to this experience in our contemporary environment?
While each pilgrimage experience is unique and multi-dimensional, the notion of ‘authenticity’ is something most pilgrims have considered and, perhaps, debated in detail. Some people (including some authors in the literature) have very firm views on ‘authentic’ pilgrimage and how to ‘authentically’ achieve the status of pilgrim. My purpose in this article is to show that the range of ‘authentic’ participation makes pilgrimage exceptionally accessible for people with diverse goals, resources and abilities.
I have summarised some of the literature describing the range of participation, including corporeal pilgrimage, pilgrimage through objects, pilgrimage via armchair study and viewing, vicarious pilgrimage including delegation, pilgrimage through imagination and fantasy, cyber-pilgrimage, stationary pilgrimage and, finally, pilgrimage through metaphor. Of course, this range of participation will be no surprise to people immersed in the pilgrimage culture. As an inclusive community of pilgrims, I wonder if there’s potential for us to champion the idea that experiencing the world through those unforgettable ‘Camino eyes’ should be accessible to everyone with an ‘authentic’ pilgrim spirit.
Example of Le Chemin pour Tous: all-terrain wheelchair on the Camino (Via Podiensisnear Cahors, France)
Obviously, we know pilgrimage can be achieved through movement of the person known as corporeal participation. Physically being on pilgrimage can involve human propulsion (for example walking or cycling). In 2009, Luis Gonzalez-Bunstar became the first person in the history of Spain to complete the Camino in a wheelchair using only his own strength (walkaboutfoundation.org). Le Chemin pour Tous (The Camino for All) is an association in France adapting modern technology to enable people with disabilities to experience the Camino. Corporeal pilgrimage can also involve different forms of transportation (for example car, bus or horse).
Pilgrimage through objects
Donativo box in Catedral de Santiago de Compostela
Participation in pilgrimage and experiencing the identity of pilgrim can be achieved through the movement of objects. Most commonly the object is money which is sent to support a pilgrimage that is personally meaningful1. The movement of objects could also involve making garments for, or sending health supplies to, pilgrims and pilgrimage organisations.
In the Confraternity of St James Bulletin, Willson noted from personal experience that armchair pilgrims ‘still have our own way of journeying and (self) discovery’2. Internationally, serious armchair pilgrims identify with a pilgrimage and then commit to studying the meaning, practices and location. These pilgrims participate in their pilgrimage via the internet, books, maps, diaries, films, music, and photographs. Armchair pilgrims can also become active
members of organisations supporting their pilgrimage (like AFotC) even though they may never have a goal to physically go on pilgrimage.
Membership badges evident for various organisations supporting the Camino
‘Vicarious pilgrimage’3 involves delegating the corporeal experience to someone else and then vicariously participating in the journey by asking the corporeal pilgrim to perform rituals. The experience of meaningful co-presence with the corporeal pilgrims is achieved by the vicarious pilgrim through regular reports from the journey, ex-votoes and receiving souvenirs.
The familiar pilgrim’s shadow cast on the Camino
A pilgrim can make their journey in the realm of imagination. While imaginative pilgrimage could involve fantasy landscapes, destinations and beings, it can also be based on a real world experience like the Camino4.
Early morning view over the Pyrenees on Day 1 of Camino Francés
MacWilliams described virtual pilgrimage in cyber-space as ‘booming’ nearly a decade ago5. ‘Virtual pilgrimage’ is an internet neologism for a site on the net where people can simulate a sacred journey for educational, economic and spiritual purposes’5. In 2000, The New York Times reported on Pope John Paul II’s virtual pilgrimage to Ur when he was forced to abandon his corporeal pilgrimage due to political unrest. Being a ‘cyber-pilgrim’6 ‘provides a dynamic multi-media environment for communing with the sacred’5. A group of pilgrims in Seattle completed what they reported to be the first cyber pilgrimage on the Camino in 2011. Caminoteca.com has satellite views of the Camino stages. This website is also an example of the increasing number of companies that ship Camino souvenirs including bookmarks, hip flasks, bracelets, notebooks and badges. At mivela.com you can even SMS or telephone a donation to light a virtual candle in the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela (as well as other pilgrimage sites).
Virtual candles in Catedral de Santiago de Compostela
Stationary pilgrimage is experienced through direct contact with passing pilgrims. A hospitalero on the Camino is a great example of the stationary pilgrim for whom helping each passing pilgrim is a step on their own sacred journey. Notable Camino scholar (and guide) Nancy Frey observed that the ‘pilgrimage expands the options for creative identity shaping not only among pilgrims but also among the many who populate the way’7.
Camino route into the distance on the Meseta
Pilgrimage is ‘a vehicle that propels our movement through the whole slew of metaphors for both life and experience’8. Metaphorical pilgrimage brings deeper meaning to a real world experience of change and adaption in a person’s life.
Evidence of the generosity of locals toward pilgrims near León
Clearly, though debates will always continue, I believe that pilgrimage can be accessible to everyone with an ‘authentic’ pilgrim spirit. I have previously published on the theme of accessible pilgrimage in the Journal of Occupational Science and the British Journal of Occupational Therapy. At present in my PhD studies, I’m scoping definitions and common experiences of contemporary pilgrimage. Ultimately, I’ll be exploring the experience of caring on the Camino. Whether in a formal role (for example as a hospitalero) or in the day-to-day on pilgrimage, all of us have been cared for and have cared for others on the Camino. Certainly, experiencing the different ways we pilgrims cared for each other on the Camino created beautiful memories from my pilgrimages and, back at home, these memories help to sustain my pilgrim spirit.
Evers Rosander E. Going and not going to Porokhane: Mourid women and pilgrimage in Senegal and Spain. In: Coleman S, Walter T, editors. Reframing Pilgrimage: cultures in motion. London: Routledge; 2004. p. 69-90.
Willson H. The armchair pilgrim (p. 8). London: The Confraternity of St James; 2010. p. 8-9.
Costen M. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in medieval Europe (p. 151). In: Reader I, Walter E, editors. Pilgrimage in popular culture. New York: Palgrave; 1993. p. 137-154
Coleman S, Eade J. Introduction: reframing pilgrimage. In: Coleman S, Eade J, editors. Reframing pilgrimage: culture in motion. London: Routledge; 2004. p. 1-25.
Mac Williams M. Virtual pilgrimage on the internet (pp. 316, 316, 319). Religion. 2002;32:315-35.
Coleman S. From England’s Nazareth to Sweden’s Jerusalem: movement, (virtual landscapes) and pilgrimage (p. 49). In: Coleman S, Eade J, editors. Reframing pilgrimage: culture in motion. London: Routledge; 2004. p. 45-68.
Frey, N. Pilgrim stories: On and off the road to Santiago (p. 65). Berkeley: University of California Press; 1998.
Ruf F. Pluralistic pilgrimage: Travel as the quest for the strange (p. 279). Cross Currents. 2009;59:268-282.
Frey, N. (1998). Pilgrim stories: On and off the road to Santiago. Berkeley: University of California Press.