A Pilgrimage to a Sustainable Lifestyle
by Damiaan Messing
In a special issue about pilgrimage and sustainability Jacob’s Staff, the Dutch Santiago Pilgrims Association magazine, published an article about the creation of the Walk of Wisdom. This is a translation and revision of the original article.
My brother Martijn and I were on our way to De Kleine Aarde (The Little Earth) in Boxtel in 2008, where Martijn had just become director. The Little Earth was established after a report by the Club of Rome in 1972, according to which the earth was too small for our collective hunger for resources. As one of the first environmental groups in the Netherlands, De Kleine Aarde went looking for alternative lifestyles.
I told Martijn enthusiastically about my ritual studies lectures, in which a professor with an Old Testament beard challenged his students. Fascinated, Martijn listened to me talk about the enormous potential rituals had according to that professor. People communicate through rituals with gods. Kings get their power transferred through rituals, and whole communities are held together by them. Consider the greenhouse effect, the massive extinction of species, and the immense challenge of living together peacefully with billions of people on one planet. Why don’t we use ritual’s potential to save the world?
Martijn asked me to translate the ideas of Ronald L. Grimes, the ritual studies professor, into The Little Earth’s mission to reduce everyone’s footprint on the planet, the space we occupy in our need for food and raw materials.
I wrote a bachelor’s thesis in which I investigated how a ritual can inspire people across boundaries of culture and religion to a sustainable lifestyle. Grimes’s challenge became the title: “What gesture can save the planet?” [See the last few paragraphs of “Performance is Currency in the Deep World’s Gift Economy“]
A few conclusions: (1) choose natural gestures that suit our shared physicality; (2) look for symbols that have not yet been claimed by a religion, that give room for personal interpretation and carry key values.
To mark the occasion my brother and I, along with Professor Ron, made footprints in clay. Footprints were excellent symbols for a new ritual enacting The Little Earth’s mission. A footprint is the result of a universal and natural gesture: walking. In many cultures, walking leads to pilgrimage, a transition ritual to a new phase of life.
Why, my brother, asked, don’t we develop a pilgrimage through all the countries of the world, a path you can walk anywhere as a transition ritual to a sustainable life?
So it happened. In no time, Martijn put together a project team around me to organize a worldwide “road of passage” to a sustainable lifestyle. We came up with a competition for the most sustainable cities in Europe, among which the pilgrimage route would run. For the most renowned architects we devised a competition to design an earth landmark: a contemporary, secular cathedral as a tribute to the earth. Whoever walked the route would be allowed to make a footprint, confirming a promise to oneself and the world. We chose inspiring world citizens to leave imprints. The idea was to have all these footprints distributed across the physical route—an elongated testimony to the “walk of change,” which humanity had begun and to which everybody was invited.
My associative brain could not stop finding new connections and possibilities. I began to hear this song in my head: “They are coming to take me away haha, hihi, to the funny farm … Haha, hihi!” I couldn’t turn the song off and thought I was going crazy. I almost heard the sirens down the street and saw the men in white overalls… I thought I should stop. I had to. The assignment was too big for me.
I went into therapy and lived part-time in a monastery in North Brabant for a year. I had to relax. There, with the Capuchins in Velp, the idea came back, but differently. Less activist and more contemplative, with space for personal interpretations, space that all good ritual, according to Grimes. includes. The Walk of Change became a Walk of Wisdom.
I remembered a few other conclusions from my thesis: (1) new rituals arise gradually, by way of trial and error; (2) start small, so you have time to learn from experiments; (3) involve people with different sensitivities and skills.
In 2011 Martijn and I started again on a smaller scale, with a start-up foundation and a development phase lasting a few years. The goal was to develop a new pilgrimage route on an existing 85-mile path around Nijmegen, the Netherlands. This pioneering route would become a model for comparable routes in other countries the path would eventually interconnect.
We slowed our pace this time and focused our attention locally. This way we could temporarily shelve our grandiose ambitions without giving them up altogether. Two artists joined the foundation to help with the experiment, and an art dealer became our most important adviser. My practical, creative partner Manja Bente became co-developer.
“Learn from the ritual creativity of traditions, but don’t copy them,” advised Grimes. With that idea in mind, Manja and I walked the Camino de Santiago twice to learn from an age-old pilgrimage tradition. We wanted to learn about the connecting power of the scallop shell and the intimate tangibility of the pilgrim’s passport. Copying those symbols would be disrespectful and mind-numbing. Inspired by Grimes, we were looking for our own authentic forms. The scallop shell evolved into a pin and marker designed by two artists, Huub and Adelheid Kortekaas: a human depicted as a seedling of the earth.
The Camino’s passport became a pilgrim’s shoe lace for the Walk of Wisdom. On the lace pilgrims would hang bird rings with the names of municipalities along the route. Later, we discovered that the outline of our route resembled a flying bird. Serendipity …
We also learned how a pilgrimage should not be done. The last 100 kilometers of the Camino Francés is a trail of litter with side roads full of handkerchiefs and shit. I called it “kaka camino” (in Dutch “kak” means “shit”). In starter packages for the Walk of Wisdom we now provide a garbage bag with the request that walkers leave the route more beautiful than they found it.
Walk of Wisdom
In 2015, after four years of experimentation, we opened the Walk of Wisdom into a practice phase. We brought the experiment into the open, offering our 85-mile route around Nijmegen for everyone to test. We wanted to see how the symbols and rituals we had devised in the development phase would turn out in the practice of pilgrimage.
This phase was completed in 2018. Pilgrims had received our secular alternative for the crowded Camino de Santiago with enthusiasm. In December 2019 we welcomed our five thousandth pilgrim. At the behest of pilgrims the former vice prime-minister of the Netherlands, Jan Terlouw, awarded us a big regional prize. Pilgrims now come from all over the Netherlands and increasingly from Belgium. Recently we were invited to Belgium to explore the possibility of creating a Walk of Wisdom there. It is still a long way to a worldwide pilgrimage, but the start is promising.
We continue to promote sustainability. The symbol made by artists Huub and Adelheid Kortekaas stands for the connection between humanity and the planet.
We give pilgrims a bag to clean up litter and regularly organize actions to do that together. Through the registration fee, we donate money to nature organizations along the route. We set up sponsored runs for conservation projects and hang bird boxes along our trail. We hope to inspire people to adopt a sustainable lifestyle.
Rituals are a lens focused on what is important in life, and according to Grimes their meaning is dynamic and creative. Every church service or pilgrimage is different, and its meaning arises on the spot, depending on the life situation (location, weather, news) or mood of the people present and the circumstances around it.
Anyone who designs rituals should thus practice modesty. Pilgrimage routes work because people give them their own twist. In Dutch we write “the path of your own wisdom” is a subtitle. The story of your ritual is a background story to other stories.
Halfway down the Dutch trail I read this written in a logbook: “I am walking here with a peer of my age (66). He is completely demented, but can walk like no other!” I can imagine those two walking through the landscape, the one not knowing where he is, but merrily doing what he can do well, lovingly guided by the other. What would I say to them about sustainability? Their journey is valuable in itself.
Of late, Grimes’ idea has begun to unnerve me. The problems presented by his challenge to “save the world” with ritualized action have not diminished in ten years. On the contrary, they have multiplied. The world needs more than your own wisdom.
Click the YouTube link to accompany Damiaan and Manja on the Walk of Wisdom.