“On pilgrimage to a sustainable life” – the Walk of Wisdom in the Jacobstaf

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Pilgrimage and sustainability

In the magazine of Santiago pilgrims – the Jacob’s staff – there is an extensive article by pioneer Damiaan Messing about the origins of the Walk of Walk of Wisdom in a special issue about pilgrimage and sustainability. Download the pdf of the article. Or read it below.

Pilgrimage to sustainability
Volunteers of the Walk of Wisdom clean up the Hatertse Vennen, Marja Hakkoer

Can’t you think of a ritual to inspire people to become sustainable?”

In 2008, my brother Martijn and I were on our way to De Kleine Aarde in Boxtel, where Martijn had just become director. The Little Earth was founded after the report of 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, De Kleine Aarde started looking for alternative lifestyles.

I had told Martijn enthusiastically about my lectures on Ritual Studies, in which a professor with an Old Testament beard challenged his students. Fascinated, Martijn listened to me about the enormous potential that rituals had, according to that professor: people communicate with gods through rituals, kings are given their power through rituals and entire communities are held together by them. Why didn’t we use that potential to save the world? See global warming, the mass extinction of species and the immense challenge of living peacefully with billions of people on one planet?

What gesture can save the world?

Professor Emeritus Ronald L. Grimes

Martijn asked me to translate the ideas of that professor – Ronald L. Grimes – into the mission of De Kleine Aarde to reduce everyone’s footprint on the planet: the space we take up in our need for food and raw materials. The result was a bachelor’s thesis in which I investigated how a ritual can inspire people across the boundaries of culture and religion to adopt a sustainable lifestyle: ‘What gesture can save the planet?’

A few conclusions: (1) choose natural gestures that fit our shared physicality, (2) look for symbols that have not yet been claimed by a religion, that give room for personal interpretation and that still convey certain values.

I found that the earth and footprint from the mission of The Little Earth were excellent as symbols for a new ritual. The footprint is the result of a universal and natural gesture: walking. Walking is reflected in pilgrimages in many cultures as a rite of passage to a new phase of life. The earth has recently come into our collective consciousness as a wondrous, blue orb through photos of space travelers. A beautiful symbol of solidarity that no country or religion can claim.

Why, I suggested to my brother, don’t we develop a pilgrimage through all the countries of the world, which you can walk everywhere as a rite of passage to a sustainable life?

Pilgrimage to sustainability
The Little Earth: a pilgrimage to sustainability

Road to change

And so it happened! In no time at all, Martijn had put together a project team around me to organize a global ‘road of passage’ to a sustainable lifestyle. We came up with a competition for the most sustainable cities in Europe, among which the pilgrimage would run. For the most renowned architects, we had come up with a design competition to design an earth landmark: a contemporary, secular cathedral as a tribute to the earth. Those who had walked the route were allowed to put a footprint as confirmation of a promise to yourself and the world. Inspiring world citizens were the first to put that imprint and then have all the footprints reflected in the physical route. An elongated testimony of the road of change on which humanity had begun and to which everyone was invited.

To the funny farm!

My arm associative head couldn’t stop finding new connections and possibilities. My thoughts didn’t stop until I heard this song: They are coming to take me away haha, hihi, to the funny farm (…) Haha, hihi! I couldn’t turn it off anymore and thought I was going crazy. I almost heard the sirens down the street, saw the men in white overalls… I thought it would be better to stop. I had to. The assignment was too big for me.

I went to therapy and lived part-time in a monastery in North Brabant for a year and a half to relax. There, with the Capuchins in Velp, the idea came back, but in a different way. Less activist and more contemplative, fitting in with the space for one’s own interpretation that a good ritual and therefore pilgrimage offers: a Walk of Wisdom instead of a Walk of Change.

I remembered a few other conclusions from my thesis: (1) new rituals arise gradually, through trial and error (2) start small, then you have space and time to learn from conscious or unconscious experiments, (3) involve people with different sensitivities and skills.

Capuchin Monastery Velp, Walk of Wisdom, by Thomas Hontelez

Walk of Wisdom

In 2011 Martijn and I started again, this time small, with the establishment of a foundation that wanted to develop a new pilgrimage route on an existing path with a development phase of a few years. As a pioneering route, it would become a model for similar routes in other countries and eventually connect them.

So we took our time this time and did it locally; Not immediately focused on big results, without letting go of those big results. There were two artists in the foundation who were going to help with the experiment and an art dealer became our main advisor. My practical and creative partner Manja became a co-developer. Together we walked the camino to Santiago twice to learn from an ancient pilgrim tradition.

Damiaan and Manja at the Ooij
Manja and Damien, opening of the Walk of Wisdom pilgrimage route. Maaike van Helmond

In 2015 we opened the pioneering route: the Walk of Wisdom. A pilgrimage route of 136 kilometers around Nijmegen, which we clearly brought as an experiment. We wanted to see how the symbols and rituals we had devised in the development phase would work out in practice during pilgrimage.

We are expecting our five thousandth pilgrim soon and have already completed the Dutch pioneering phase. Recently, at the invitation of potential partners in Belgium, we made an initial exploration there. It is still a long way to a worldwide pilgrimage route, but the beginning is promising.

Even now, we do our best to promote sustainability. The symbol of artists Huub and Adelheid Kortekaas stands for the connection between man and the world, we give pilgrims a bag to clean up litter and regularly organize actions to do so together. Through the registration fee we save money for nature organizations along the route, we set up one-off sponsor runs and hang nesting boxes for birds spread along the route.

The question is, of course: to what extent do we inspire people to adopt a sustainable lifestyle?

As demented as a door

Rituals are a focus on what’s important in life, but their meaning, according to Grimes, is dynamic and creative. Every church service or pilgrimage is different and its meaning arises on the spot, depending on the situation in life – or even the mood! – of the people present and the circumstances around them – from location to weather or the news in the world.

Anyone who designs rituals therefore needs modesty: the story of your pilgrimage is no more or less than a background story for what the pilgrim himself is doing. Just look at Santiago, how many pilgrims are still intensively engaged with James? Our pilgrimage is no different. For example, I read in a logbook halfway through: I walk here with a peer (66 years old). He is as demented as a door, but he can walk like no other!

I can already see the two of them walking through the landscape, one not knowing where he is, but happy to do what he does well, lovingly guided by the other. What would I gain from them with sustainability? Their journey is valuable in itself.

Our Lady’s Chapel Alverna, Walk of Wisdom, by Marja Hakkoer

Path of Your Own Wisdom

Okay, I accept that pilgrimage routes work because people put their own spin on them. Path of your own wisdom is what we now write in our subtitle. But it does rub off on me.

The problems behind Grimes’ challenge for a gesture “to save the world” haven’t gotten any smaller in a decade. On the contrary. The world needs more than just its own wisdom.

Damien Brass

Inspired by the Camino

Walk of Wisdom symbols
photo: Dolph Cantrijn

Learn from the ritual creativity of traditions, but don’t copy them,’ advised Professor of Ritual Studies Ronald L Grimes. With that idea in mind, Manja and I walked large parts of two caminos. We wanted to learn from 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 shapes.

The scallop evolved into a pin and marker designed by Huub and Adelheid Kortekaas. The pilgrim’s passport became a shoelace – the pilgrim’s lace – on which you collect bird rings with the names of the municipalities on the route. Later, the outline of our route turned out to resemble a bird in flight. Serendipity…


We also learned how not to do it on the last 100 kilometers of the Camino Francés: a trail of litter and side roads full of handkerchiefs and poop. It was like the kaka-camino. In our starter pack we now give a garbage bag with the request to leave the route more beautiful than you find it and we maximize the number of registrations if it becomes too many.