Twelve keys to the pilgrim’s soul

By interviewing 26 pilgrims on their spiritual experiences during their pilgrimage, I could develop twelve keys to the pilgrim’s soul. I did not ask them about facts, such as distances, sleeping places or the weather, but about what they felt had led them to deeper insights on the way. I also asked whether and, if so, in what way they had experienced God or the divine in the course of their journey.

Who is, in my view, a pilgrim?

A pilgrim is someone who journeys to a holy place by his own strength, on foot (or by bike). He (or she!) slows down, goes back to the simple basics of life and opens up to whatever turns up. On the way his experiences condense, he learns to let go; gradually, stillness spreads in his inner being and he watches in wonder what presents itself. Slowly, a feeling of connectedness and trust grows. Through images, symbols and rituals he relates to the Other Reality and, in doing so, he may experience a glimpse of God or the divine.

Pilgrim’s terminology as a way to the pilgrim’s soul?

The pilgrims I interviewed had the courage to be very open with me and so provided me with a treasure trove of pilgrim terminology. It fell into twelve categories, marked by twelve key words. Together they form a bunch of keys that, as it were, give access to the soul of a pilgrim. These may be useful to spiritual directors and/or those who lead pilgrimages.

Keys for pilgrims

Hier führe ich die zwölf Schlüssel auf, die die Seele des Pilgerns ‘meiner’ sechsundzwanzig Pilger aufgeschlossen haben.

1. Slowing down

Slowing down means reducing the pace of life to such an extent that you come closer to a natural human pace of life. Being underway may prove completely different from ordinary life. As ordinary life fades into the distance, you find the time, inner peace and inner space to open up to what comes to you. Slowing down is the opposite of rushing through life at an unnatural pace and finding yourself swayed in all directions by the issues of the day and your busy surroundings.

2. Simplification

By reducing the number of stimuli and through the monotous rhythm of walking, you gradually find yourself going back to basics and getting around to the essence. Your life (temporarily) becomes less complex, you become more attuned to your surroundings, your senses are refreshed and open up to what comes your way. You become more receptive and aware of your dependence.

3. Condensing

As you keep walking, there is more and more room for yourself and reflection about yourself. You find time to contemplate questions and attune to deeper layers within yourself that you are normally too busy to pay attention to. You dwell upon the direction your life has taken so far, contemplating events from the past and coming to terms with them. By doing so, you may gain insights that you would not (yet) have reached otherwise.

4. Letting go

By no longer holding on to your need to control and plan life, you open up to what presents itself in the here and now. You become aware that you cannot have every situation in hand and keep control over everything, and that you do not need to either. Letting go means no longer needing to plan and control everything.

5. Silence

Opening up to silence and being attentive to what comes to you in the silence. As silence grows within you, you no longer seek busyness, noise and entertainment to run away from yourself.

6. Wonder

Wonder is a state of mind marked by receptiveness to the unexpected that comes to you. You become aware of the miracle of creation, the goodness and hospitality of others and how little you need to be happy. You realise that it comes your way as a gift. Living in wonder means that you do not accept everything that happens without further thought.

7. Connectedness

The feeling of being connected in your inmost being with nature, people, yourself and/or God, the Creator. You understand that you are part of a greater whole. Connectedness means that you do not feel separated from everbody and everything around you.

8. Trust

The growing trust in your fellow human beings, the Creator and yourself. You gradually develop a fundamental trust, a profound sense that everything will turn out all right.

9. Imagination

You describe feelings and experiences in terms of images. You turn what you perceive with your senses into images, or what your senses perceive evokes images. You identify with a particular image, specifically biblical or religious imagery, images of nature, or impressions of meetings.

10. Symbols and rituals

Symbols are external features or objects that represent your journey as a pilgrim, whilst rituals are the repeated acts and patterns of behaviour that become a fixed feature of your pilgrimage. Rituals can be secular as well as religious and spiritual, and general as well as specific to a particular pilgrimage. Some pilgrims attach great value to developing their own rituals, which they prepare at home, whilst others go with the flow and see what comes their way. Religious or spiritual rituals represent a connection with the indescribable. An act as small as lighting a candle can prove to be a very important ritual.

11. Meeting God

Glimpsing the divine or God, some time, somewhere on the way or in yourself. The awareness of God being an incomprehensible mystery can be part of this experience as well. It can happen in all kinds of circumstances, some of them mentioned below. The experiences differ from pilgrim to pilgrim, as does their view of God or their understanding of the divine. Despite the big differences in perceiving God or the divine, I will try to list some circumstances in which the interviewed pilgrims felt they touched on the divine or God. The order in which the experiences are listed does not suggest any hierarchy.

People experience the divine:

  • in creation, in nature, in a beautiful landscape
  • in biblical images generated by nature
  • at ‘holy’ places (the pilgrims’ cross Cruz de Ferro, the mountain La Verna, Turin)
  • in chapels, churches, cathedrals and monuments
  • not in the big church
  • in a profound feeling of being at home
  • in the way the light falls into cathedrals and monuments
  • during religious services
  • in the silence
  • in religious images or music
  • in ritual acts: a blessing, the rhythm of prayer, or lighting candles
  • in the knowledge that He accompanies me on my journey
  • in meetings with people
  • in experiencing hospitality
  • in themselves
  • in the awareness that God is an intangible mystery that exceeds human words.
12. Spiritual direction and pilgrimage

The experiences of pilgrims offer many openings for spiritual direction, in particular through the symbolism of the way, the journey through life. On the way, people can sense the divine in very many different ways. This is to an extent a matter of interpretation, but obviously also a matter of finding the language to express the experience. To many people the religious terminology of the traditional churches no longer suffices. When interviewing pilgrims, I noticed that the interview at times added depth to their experiences. Some pilgrims need spirituality laid out before them, as they do not have the words to express it. It is important to find a new language for pilgrims, one with which they can express their deepest feelings and experiences.


The following example offers a striking illustration of the interpretation of events during a pilgrimage. At some point pilgrim Teus felt what he explained as “purely a hand that led me”, but immediately said that this was “of course not an experience of God”.

A pilgrimage makes experiences go deeper. The pilgrim gradually accesses deeper levels in himself. Fundamental questions come up. Spiritual direction before, during and/or after the pilgrimage can help you get more out of the experience. I would not so much suggest I join in with the pilgrimage – I would rather suggest different ways of direction. Only few pilgrims feel a need for spiritual direction before the pilgrimage starts. Some pilgrims correspond with their spiritual director during their pilgrimage. Also, keeping a diary can be a great help to lay down experiences and deal with them. The notes can later be used for further reflection and perhaps spiritual direction. Pilgrim Chris described writing in his diary as ‘religious moments’. In some cases the need for spiritual direction does not manifest itself until after the pilgrimage.

And the walker?

Someone who makes a walk in nature obviously has a different destination than someone who makes a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage also lasts much longer. On the other hand, walking in nature has proven to be a way to get spiritual experiences. Most elements in the description of a pilgrim apply to a greater or lesser extent to walkers as well; only the key words of letting go, connectedness (unless one walks with people one knows) and symbols and rituals play a much less important part.