A writer on the road: Stefan van Dierendonck

In August 2022, writer and former priest Stefan van Dierendonck walked the Walk of Wisdom in seven days. At the end of each day, he sent a ‘pop-up newsletter’ of his day trip to people who had signed up for it. A skeptical, but benevolent reacquaintance with rituals.

Below is Stefan’s first letter. Read them all on his website.

Stefan van Dierendonck
Stefan van Dierendonck, start of Walk of Wisdom

Dear (dear) reader of this pop-up newsletter (WoW),

Here we go. 136 kilometres of hills, forests, rivers and old cultural landscapes around Nijmegen. A contemporary pilgrimage route. That’s what it says on the booklet, that’s what we’re going to do. Under the care, this time, of a symbol that the organization calls the seedling, with a pilgrim’s lace around my neck and the phone and internet off (well, almost, I do want to know how my children are doing). The organization calls it “a brave and soulful attempt to help create the right conditions for wisdom to flourish.” I could use that: more wisdom. That’s what I’m going for.

But can I do it?

I told a friend about my plans, and she immediately exclaimed: ‘I’m not going, I really can’t. Way too long, way too heavy.’ Exactly what I’m afraid of too, honestly. My body isn’t twenty anymore. I’ve never walked so long in a row, no idea if I’ll be able to. In the back of my mind, the fact that I have celiac disease also plays a role: one wrong bite and I can get sick. Do I keep walking? And where can I actually go to the toilet?

It’s a risk, that’s what I mean, to undertake a long journey back to myself on my own. On top of that, for those who don’t know me personally, I have a complicated relationship with everything you can capture under the umbrella word spirituality. It’s like this, very briefly: I was once a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, until I met with so much misery that I resigned. Leaving the church. ‘Disillusioned’ in the words of my therapist. Long story. The fact that I am now participating in a ritual again, a pilgrimage at that, costs me something. That stirs up all kinds of things.

What helps me is that I know that I am neither the first nor the only pilgrim. A good friend preceded me and pointed me to this trip, so I know there are more like me. Looking. Determined to give meaning to life. Kind of. I saw him walking in my mind’s eye, this afternoon, when I was sitting on a bench on the Devil’s Mountain. I am going to follow in his footsteps, in those of so many others. My pilgrim number is 12106, that’s a lot of pastors.

Devil’s Mountain

Last Saturday at half past seven I saw my fellow pilgrims. At the departure ceremony. About twenty fit women and men, a few with backpacks, most of them like me: ready for a journey in stages. Always back to the old nest, because flying out completely is still too much to ask.

Okay, so much for the background information: in the end, of course, it’s all about the walk itself. The scavenger hunt, I dare say now. I don’t know what you think of the word pilgrimage, but I really had it in my head that it would be a kind of meditation, a calm walk. Naive as I am, I thought I just had to follow the signs, simple. In reality, I immediately went wrong after the first street. I turned left at Heaven, instead of going straight. I did find a nice view at the top of the Stevenskerk, by the way, so walking wrong also has its advantages.

St. Steven’s Church

Two streets further I took a wrong turn again and ended up on the Waalkade. Also not the intention, I should have turned somewhere to the Valkhof, but I had missed the nameplate. And so does the seedling. It’s all my fault: I should have taken the booklet, because everything is clearly described in it. What wasn’t there was the first friendly encounter of the day, with a cat sitting on an edge waiting for a pat between the ears. She meowed loudly, pressed her head against the wall and my hand, and though she wore a collar full of charms, I couldn’t find her name. She did pose nicely for a photo.

Nijmegen, lower city

After the Valkhof, I walked down the stairs, under the Waal bridge, where a group of friends or students gathered right in front of me. Four of those big guys in T-shirts and sneakers, all with a bottle in their hand that they popped open before walking into the Ooypoort. That’s the high pedestrian bridge to the Waal beaches, by the way. They made the bridge dance and tremble, and smell of beer. It was eleven o’clock and I walked quietly behind them, until they met the rest of the party somewhere by a tree and I left them with peace of mind. They were enjoying themselves.

Stefan van Dierendonck

Then I pushed open the first gate – I suddenly thought that was a wonderfully beautiful word – and I was finally alone and on my way.

More about Stefan van Dierendonck

Read all reports of Stefan van Dierendonck as a pilgrim: link.
Or visit his website: ‘To facilitate, in some small way, a mutual journey toward meaning (Nick Cave)’. All photos by © Stefan van Dierendonck.
More about walking the Walk of Walk of Wisdom: link.

Stefan van Dierendonck
Writer Stefan van Dierendonck, end of Walk of Walk of Wisdom