What is a Pilgrim?

The first thing that comes to mind when I ask myself what is a pilgrim is Canterbury Tales and Chaucer’s partying crowd, or of Homer in the Odyssey.

I associate the words pilgrim and pilgrimages as belonging to a bygone era.

Going on a pilgrimage in the middle ages was often the only form of travel that was acceptable, therefore, those seeking adventure could legitimately travel across countries.

It is said that the purpose of pilgrims was veneration, asking for heavenly help or to know God better.  This definition really only fits modern religions where there is one God and not many.  Greeks in the pre-Christian era believed they knew their Gods well – they had human traits, what defined them as Gods were their supernatural powers.

Santiago as a pilgrim

From online sources I find the following definition:

being a pilgrim is commonly known as someone who travels to a foreign land to visit somewhere of religious or historic importance.

But how does that fit with being Spanish and walking the Camino Frances – meaning that you never leave Spain?

The following is my idea of what makes a modern day pilgrim.

Santiago pilgrimagePilgrims have Purpose

I believe the purpose of the journey is important to Pilgrims.  When I first started walking my first Camino I found it difficult to see myself as a pilgrim – though I would be referred as one by locals in Spain as I passed by.

I now see that I was not a pilgrim at the start of my journey.  I had set off to France, then Spain with the purpose of some adventure travel.  I had no commitment at the start to finish the journey, and the tales of St James did not touch me in any way.

As I walked that changed, but not enough to view myself as a pilgrim.  I went back the next year and I did view myself as a pilgrim.  My purpose was different, it was no longer just an adventure, but a journey with a specific goal in mind.

State of Mind

Just walking every day for long distances changed my state of mind.  The internal noise that I live with daily quietened and peace flowed – in a way that in itself is quite incredible as I am not someone known to be in a state of peace – at least back then.

I began to read more about the Camino as I walked.  I learned some of history, I listened to others talk about continuing their journey when they no longer had the yellow arrows to follow, what then?

In retrospect, with the right attitude, I found the Camino as a pilgrimage life changing – something I have written about a few time here already.

Does a Pilgrim need to Travel?

I lived in Ireland for many years and walked frequently in an area south of Dublin called Glendalough – it is beautiful. This is still a pilgrimage site for some.  However, I would find it slightly amusing to think of myself going on a pilgrim to a place that was less than an hour away.

But, again my purpose was hill walking and not spiritual or religious.

Many in Ireland travel west to Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday in July to make a pilgrimage to the top of the mountain; some walk in bare feet.  Apart from those walking in bare feet, it is hard for me to hear someone saying they were on a pilgrimage there – perhaps I need to open my mind a little…

Leaving Behind the Comforts of Home

Often being on a pilgrimage evokes images of living with much less for a period of time.  So what do I or others think about those on the Camino that stay in hotels every night, have their rucksack transported, or even only walk the minimum distance?

My gran used to go to Lourdes on a pilgrimage with the church every few years.  We lived in Glasgow and there would be 40 or so getting on the bus on Monday morning and coming back on Friday – they drove to the south of France and stayed in Lourdes for a couple of nights and then endured 24 hours or so for the drive back home. For my gran, I believe this was more adventure travel even though she had her belief in a God, but I think she used the opportunity to get away for a while.

If she had stated that her purpose was being a pilgrim to Lourdes, even internally, perhaps that would have been different.

Time Taken

It is also believed that a pilgrim is someone who travels a considerable distance in carrying out this goal while leaving behind the comforts of home.

Does this automatically bar anyone living or born in Santiago de Compostela walking the Camino as a pilgrimage?  It is an odd thought isn’t it, leaving home, going to St Jean Pied de Port and walking home as a pilgrimage?

But they are walking a considerable distance and leaving behind the comforts of home.

It is easy for me to see the Camino as a pilgrimage, I travel to a foreign land, I don’t understand the language, I carry all the belonging I need, and eventually I finish at a Holy place after walking for a month.

My Understanding Problem

I believe my problem with the words and idea of pilgrim and pilgrimage is due to not being brought up attending any church.  Atheism to me was not something I had thought much about until I attended NUIM, which is still a catholic university if you study philosophy. One of the results was my atheism becoming quite militant. (And I do think atheists can be spiritual)

However, after walking the Camino the last time I felt a bit more like a pilgrim. I had walked from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela. During that walk, I carried all in my rucksack for just over four weeks. I became ill, and once I had to be treated in hospital, and for my own private reason, it was very important for me to finish – I continued, doctors gave me painkillers in order for me to finish.

sunset at finisterre

So I guess for me being a pilgrim is a state of mind. If I felt like I was on holiday on the Camino, I don’t think I would have felt like a pilgrim. I had a task to do, walk to Santiago, and I was quite focused on that task – while at the same time I believed a result of this pilgrimage is that something about me would change – most likely in my mind.

Many people I spoke to on the Camino were looking for answers to their current problems in life, or a way how to make a decision at their current cross road. I don’t know if it does help in that way, however, it does give a time out and show that life can go on while those problems still exist.

The Journey

The actual travel itself I see now as the pilgrimage, not the arrival.  For me, this is where I connect with people and learn more about myself – my ego and motivations.

There is a certain amount of perseverance required to walk 800 kilometers carrying all that you need on your back.  I believe walking the Camino gave more to me than I have ever given back; one thing it gave was a certain amount of improved confidence.

What a Pilgrim is Not

I had some naive and unrealistic expectations on the Camino. I set out with the idea that everyone, as they were on a pilgrimage, would be kind, patient, and tolerant with others.

I am fond of saying when describing myself, if you take a grumpy guy from Glasgow and put him in Dublin – you are likely to still have a grumpy guy. (This was one of my first big signs that I had to change, not the world)

The last negative I will touch on is some pilgrims expecting everything to be free for them.  I don’t know where this belief comes from, a pilgrimage was never cheap.  In the middle ages, villages would save money just to send one member of the village on the Camino to Santiago.

It is not free, never has been, and likely will never be.

So What is a Pilgrim?

I have really rambled a bit here usually I find it quite easy to write – but answering this question is perhaps fairly simple and that would have meant for a very short post.

I believe if someone says they are a pilgrim on a pilgrimage – then they are.

In addition to that, I don’t care why someone goes on the Camino – like I don’t care why someone why someone may go to therapy – once they are there the motivations may change.

You can read many other opinions on what is a pilgrim here on the forum.

What do you think, tell me below where my thinking can improve, why did you walked the Camino, or what are your thoughts on pilgrimage.

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  1. Brent Smith on August 2, 2017 at 7:37 pm

    Walked the CF in 2013. Reason: to spend more time conversing with God. Partly successful. The 30 days went by too fast. Going back next year from Le Puy to Santiago. Same reason.

  2. Sandra Strydom on August 2, 2017 at 7:47 pm

    The first time I read about the Camino in a local newspaper, my heart bounced and I knew I had to do it. So when I started the Camino in 2012 it was in gratitude for being a Breast Cancer Survivor for 7 yrs. On the pilgrimage I took my hearing aids out, I could hear perfectly. I took my glasses off and only used them for reading. My mind felt clear. The pilgrimage was the journey and appreciation of every step. I had to continue wearing hearing aids once I was home in South Africa, and wear glasses, but the time of “cleansing’which I experienced during my Camino is remembered.

  3. Maria T on August 2, 2017 at 11:09 pm

    It is 15 years since I first started thinking about doing the Camino and it’s now almost 10 months since I completed it (Roncesvalles to Santiago).
    A lapsed Catholic raised in Spain and an Australian resident for over 50 years, the Camino was not about about being a pilgrim or religion for me, although I did visit a lot of churches and some services along the way because I felt it was part of the Camino.
    It did not change my view that whilst I believe in God, he/she/it can be found in everyday life/things without the need for man made labels, structures or dogmas.
    In fact my faith in God strengthened as a result of walking the Camino. Who cannot be moved by the sheer beauty of nature in its many shapes and colours? I found myself constantly catching my breath whilst walking and it wasn’t through lack of fitness! It was the joy of “being”. Being a witness to nature and the peace and quiet of my surroundings.
    Let me add that I walked the Camino on my own, although I did meet a number of other fellow travellers, which was interesting and fun at times. However, I did not want to have my solitude spoilt by having to walk to another’s pace or time frame.
    After having worked since age 16 (I was 68 when walking the Camino), disconnecting from life and business for the nearly 5 weeks it took me to walk the Camino, gave me a chance to breath and be.
    There were no earth shattering revelations, nor incidents, just a sense of calm and achievement and the realisation of how little we need to be at peace with ourselves and the World at large.
    As to what constitutes a pilgrim? The Oxford dictionary defines it as “a person who travels to a sacred place; traveller”. In walking the Camino I reaffirmed my faith in God and myself. To me that is sacred. In which case, then I am definitely a pilgrim.

  4. Jose Piner on August 3, 2017 at 1:25 am

    Very interesting topic and me like you have the same questions about what is a pilgrim or a pilgrimage. I have walked 3 Caminos and planning my 4th, yet I still question myself if I am a pilgrim or just and adventurer. I love to visit churches and monasteries but not for religious purpose but more for the designs and arquitectures.
    At the same time if I am an adventurer why do I keep going back to the Camino and not to other parts of the world.

  5. Catherine Parker on August 3, 2017 at 11:17 am

    I walked the camino from Pamplona to Santiago in 2000. I did not see myself as a pilgrim but as facing a challenge – a mental and physical challenge. However, afterwards I considered I had completed my own ‘pilgrimage’ – a personal mission wherein I learned much about myself. My intention was to use the time to reflect on my then situation (which I tended to not do as I was concentrating on what was going on during the walk – the scenery, the history of the areas, people I met and remain in close contact with still, obstacles I faced, etc.); prove to myself that I could complete the task (which I did, albeit I used the train on two stretches); and learn from the process, which I did without doubt. I learned not only about the geography, nature and history of the land I walked through but also that I was stubborn enough to keep walking, even with the load and bad feet, and that I could not be totally independent but needed others’ help at times and I was able to help others. Importantly the experience reinforced in me that I did not need all the stuff I thought I needed, not even a watch and I still don’t wear one, and I have carried this ideal through ever since. It changed my life in that I am now less likely to plan far ahead; am more spontaneous in what I do; am less ruled by time and routine (apart from professional commitments and necessities); am not interested in trivia or ‘celebrities’; do not worry unduly because as on the camino I discovered a solution may arise and if not, then I could still cope – it would not be the end of me; and I feel grateful for everything I have and my freedom.

  6. Jimmy on August 4, 2017 at 7:43 am

    A very thought provoking article, thank you.

    I first walked the Camino from St Jean Pied de Port in 2012. But I wasn’t sure then (and in fact I am still unsure) if I believed in God or any of that “religious stuff”. Did that make me a pilgrim, or a fraud? Or perhaps just a man going for a walk. I didn’t know, but as I got further along the Way I started noticing changes in myself and by the time I arrived in Santiago with tears in my eyes, I was sure that I was indeed a Pilgrim.

    In 5 days time I will be back, this time on the Del Norte. I am going for personal reasons, but this time I know for sure right from the beginning that I am a Pilgrim.

    You wrote about someone living in Santiago making pilgrimage and this point I find interesting. I think we need to forget about distances or certificates and realise the reasons that people go on Pilgrimage are different. For those people who walk to the tomb of St James for reasons of faith, I think it is fair to say that they are pilgrims even if they live in or near to Santiago. If a person wanted an adventure they might travel to St Jean and walk home from there, stopping at the Cathedral – but a pilgrim walking for religious reasons may not feel the need for an adventure and may simply want to walk to the resting place of the apostle. Aren’t we always told that the medieval pilgrim would have walked from his home, where ever that is. No trains, planes, buses etc… I think that it doesn’t matter if you walk from your home, or if you decided to travel to a “recognised starting point” – if you believe that you are on a pilgrimage, then you are a pilgrim.

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