Life-Changing Experience: The length of the pilgrimage is not everything


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Life changing experience
The length of the pilgrimage route is not everything

If you walk the Way of St. James from Germany, you have up to 2000 kilometers and several months ahead of you. But for many pilgrims it is enough to be on the road for a week. Don’t they then briefly miss the essence of pilgrimage?

The Way of St. James is probably the best-known pilgrimage route. And its individuality distinguishes it from the other pilgrimage routes. “You can design it however you want – and even just walk along it for a week. That’s what makes it so attractive,” says Prof. Klaus Herbers, President of the German St. James’ Society.

The Way of St. James has been booming since the 1990s.

(Photo: Hendrik Schmidt/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa-tmn)

After hesitant beginnings during the Franco dictatorship, the classic Way of St. James through northern Spain, the Camino Francés, experienced a boom again in the 1990s. He was even more popular in 2006 with Hape Kerkeling’s pilgrim bestseller “I’m Gone Then”. After a Corona-related slump, the Germans were again the third strongest pilgrim nation in Santiago de Compostela last summer, according to Herbers. But one thing has changed over the decades: the distance traveled by hikers.

100 or 2000 kilometers

The Way of St. James network is large, many routes lead from Central Europe towards Santiago. “It’s a good 2,000 kilometers from Germany to Santiago, depending on where you start,” says Herbers. A good runner needs three to four months for this. But some “only” want to master the last 100 kilometers and receive the certificate from the pilgrims’ office for it.


The starting point of the Westphalian Way of St. James is the Cathedral of St. Peter in Osnabrück.

(Photo: Friso Gentsch/dpa/dpa-tmn)

Where a pilgrimage begins has actually always been individual. “The idea of ​​a starting point first emerged in the 1980s,” explains Christian Kurrat, a pilgrim researcher from the Fern-Universität in Hagen. “Originally there was no starting point.” The journey to the tomb of the apostle James began at home. “And of course you had to walk back there.”

Bit by bit all the way

Many groups make a pilgrimage for one to two weeks, but always pick up where they left off in the years that follow. They end up going the whole way this way. Herbers also has experience with the “chunks”: “I can only recommend it if you don’t have the time to make a pilgrimage the entire way in one go.” There is no empirical data on why splitting is popular. Pilgrim researcher Kurrat suspects simple reasons: available time, physical abilities and traditional customs.

Traditionally, pilgrimages are associated with forgiveness of sins and penance. And according to Herbers, the confessionals in Santiago de Compostela are very popular at the moment. But unlike the Catholic pilgrimages, such as to Altötting in Upper Bavaria, where you go in processions, you can find solitude on the Way of St. James. And the path is considered independent of the church institution. “The criticism of the church and the many resignations have not harmed the path,” says Herbers.

According to Christian Kurrat, pilgrimages are often associated with ideas that are handed down through books, films or friends. It’s about deceleration, community, originality, experiencing nature, taking a break and creating meaning.

Sustainable change in life

According to Kurrat, pilgrimage is charged with a symbolic meaning, because for many it has triggered a lasting change in life. “The Way of St. James is a popular option for people in crisis and upheaval.”

But the shorter you run it, the less chance there is of feeling a spiritual depth. The journey often turns into a sporting event. “But,” says Klaus Herbers, “perhaps if you’re only on the road for a week, you can also have such experiences.”

There is evidence that the length of the journey has an impact on the experience. “There are many reports in research that on a trip lasting several weeks, the extraordinary experience of pilgrimage has led to a new, contrastive perspective on everyday life at home,” explains Kurrat. To put it more simply: Life at home is seen with different eyes. “The decisive factor here seems to be the community, which forms and grows over several weeks.” However, there is no general recommended length, says Kurrat. And the church doesn’t prescribe anything either.

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