Reflecting on the “massive renaissance” that walking pilgrimages, such as the Way of St. James, have undergone since the 1980s, Matthew R. Anderson ponders just who is treading these centuries-old Christian paths:
The majority of modern walking pilgrims are not church-goers. Most even shy away from the title “religious”. Yet these pilgrims, many of them catalyzed to action by a milestone birthday, the death of a family member, or the loss of job or spouse, still follow ancient pilgrimage routes and find themselves open to questions of ultimate meaning. The shrines still exist. But most modern pilgrims emphasize the walk more than the arrival, and interior spirituality more than the bones of any saint. In this way, modern walking pilgrims, at least along western routes, are evidence of the religious revolution that swept western societies especially in the 1960s. The result of the “Is God Dead?” movement wasn’t so much that God was dead, but that the traditional churches were. They no longer met the needs of people who were moving from institutional religion to personal spirituality, and from a focus on tradition and culture to practices focused on personal growth.
Today’s spirituality is inner-directed, personal, ecumenical or inter-faith, and less worried about the destination than the voyage. In other words, perfect for a revival of walking pilgrimage. The modern western walking pilgrim doesn’t believe that a saint’s bones will provide a spiritual boon. His or her questions are more basic and existential: what is a good life, and am I living it? What will be my legacy? What is true friendship? Is what I am doing worthwhile?