The first named pilgrim to walk to Santiago de Compostela was Bishop Godescalc of Le Puy, who set out on his walk in AD 951. Many have followed in his footsteps. One of them is Norwegian Eivind Luthen. Now he is fulltime pilgrim – and pilgrims companion in Oslo with a previous career in publishing. But after discovering the value of walking he left traditional working life behind. Today he travels with the least possible in the way of earthly possessions, by the simplest means of communication – walking, biking, or occasionally riding a train -and he is happy with the uncomplicated quality of his present life.
When did you become aware that you were a …” I was born a pilgrim,” he interrupts my question.
But when did you realise it?
“After making a trip to Santiago that was jam-packed with unique experiences and filled with compassion.”
The word pilgrim is derived from Latin, peregrinus, meaning stranger. In the broadest sense of the word, anyone who sets out on a long journey towards a sacred goal is a pilgrim. More and more Norwegians join the pilgrim community of St. Jakob in Oslo – membership has doubled every year in the last years – and together they carry out their journeys. The rediscovery of old pilgrims routes is a fairly recent phenomenon in Europe. Today`s pilgrim walk the same routes, cross the same plains, climb the same peaks, cross the same rivers – sometimes on the same bridges – as their medieval predecessors. And the beautiful monasteries, churches and cathedrals that were built during the golden era of Spanish dominance of the new World following Columbus discoveries are still here –testimony to Spain`s excellence at the reverse alchemy of turning gold into stone. Today the camino across Spain to Santiago is on the Unesco World Heritage list and the number of pilgrims has increased from 3000 in 1987 to 40 000 in 2006.
“We have religious yearnings”, claims Eivind Luthen.
“Just look at what people go to see when they travel on the continent, churches! They love the `theatre of the sacred`”, he says, maintaining that going on a pilgrimage is a religious act. Which is not to say that non-believers don`t also walk. About 40 percent is a blend of cultural, personal and sporting reasons."
Being a pilgrim means entering into a bigger spiritual and cultural context`, you once wrote. How did you experience you first walk?
"Full of joy. I met so many good, reflective people; new doors opened up in a way that I would describe as almost mythological. Of course, there was a lot to do with how I myself encountered the world – the culture, the nature, the people. The road throughout history has been a peaceful community project uniting cultures for a higher end; everyone is on his or her own way towards a common goal. I have travelled all over the world, but I have to say I have never been closer to a real life fairy tale than that first pilgrimage."
Did it change your outlook on life?
"Not really; I would rather say it provided it with more depth and subtlety. I got closer to my own culture, the European Christian culture."
Some tour operators have caught on the popularity of the camino and offer pilgrims the chance to have all their baggage transported by car. Is this something that bothers you?
"No. But I prefer pilgrims to carry their own backpacks if they are all capable of doing so."
What do you consider to be the most important part of your work?
"We create an awareness that the best thing in life are free – or, at least, almost free. We help give people new hope, a new belief in compassion. In August and September I am going to walk from Oslo to Trondheim (650km) with six prisoners serving long sentences. They have been allowed to serve part of their sentence on the road to Trondheim. We are involved in work with people suffering from mental problems; I believe we represent a valuable alternative to existing treatments.”
The story of the remains of St. James, which is the premise of this pilgrimage, is a myth. Still people from all over the world flock to the place where he is supposedly buried.
"It doesn`t really matter if this is a fable or myth. The fact is that more and more people in Europe go on pilgrimages, and these people find it meaningful. This is true whether they are Christians, agnostics or atheists. There are so many dimensions to the road and the walking that everyone will benefit some way or other. A pilgrimage is about more than a certain faith, it`s about a lifestyle and a emphasis on values."
Do you think the world would be a better place if more people were to walk the camino?
"Yes. A pilgrimage makes us kinder, fitter, slimmer, prettier, more humble, more compassionate, more smiling. I doubt that that`s guarantee that any travel agent would be able to match!"
In Norway there is 2000 km (1200 mile) network of pilgrimage routes. In Europe Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain are the countries with the best marked routes. All routes in Europe end in Santiago de Compostela in western Spain.
The Pilgrims` community of St. James, Kirkegt. 34 a. 0153 Oslo. Tel. 22 33 03 11. Pilegrim.no