Kevelaer“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
July 4th 2014, Day 2
As I made my way along the Niers I saw a huge cathedral appearing on the horizon. I was immediately drawn in thoughts about the middle ages where a cathedral like this would really be an import mark to navigate to. For me, now, the cathedral meant food, drinks, people, a bed and internet. I wondered how people 1000 years ago would have felt walking towards a church like this, a real pilgrimage site. They would have had a religious purpose to walk the road I walked now, with my thought on food and drinks. How mundane! But at the same time, seeing my goal, being pulled in thoughts about long gone times, it made me feel like a pilgrim even though my goal is not a religious one.
When walking into town, I saw my imagination went ahead of me. Kevelaer was celebrating the 150th anniversary of their basilica today. So people who would have walked here 1000 years ago would not have seen this tower and would not have felt like I did. The history of the place goes back to only 1641, so me thinking about 1000 years ago was a bit exaggerated. But what pilgrims over the last four centuries would have done, I did as well. I went to the small chapel of Grace that made the place famous and set down near the miraculous image. It was weird to see that the most important place of the town was so small and accessible. Apparently there is no fear of destruction or theft whatsoever. The small copperplate with the image of Mother Mary was in a small chapel on the center of the square. It is so richly decorated with gold and jewelry that it was hard to see what the actual object of devotion was. It was set in a six-angled small chapel surrounded by electric candles and flowers. Behind me the huge Marienbasilika rose majestically into the air while on my left hundreds of candles colored the walls of the ‘Chapel of the Candles’ black. We spoke a lot about this place while still in university. How once a year thousands of motorcyclists would come to this place to pray for all those who were killed in accidents. The thought of having thousands of bikers with leather jackets, beards and ponytails crowding a religious shrine made my imagination ran off with me. I decided I had to check the place out one day or another, but it never came to mind that I might actually walk to it.
History has it that around Christmas 1641 a peddler named Hendrick Busman heart a mysterious call on his way from Weeze to Geldern; ‘’Build me a chapel on this spot.’’ He heard this call two more times in the next days and soon started to build. It would only be a month before Pentecost the next year that his wife would have a revelation about what to put in the chapel; a small copperplate of Our Beloved Lady of Luxemburg as she was revered during the pest outbreak of 1623. On June 1st 1642 the chapel was finished and the coming of pilgrims started to take serious shape immediately. As early as 1643 it was necessary to build a bigger chapel close to it, the Chapel of the Candles.
Upon walking into the chapel, I saw the long history of pilgrimage to this place in all the family coats around the walls. For almost 400 years, groups from all over the world have been bringing candles and shields to this place, its crammed to the roof. Although I came alone and did not set Kevelaer as my final destination, I felt part of this long tradition.
Amongst other things, feeling part of this tradition meant that I was really annoyed by all the people who were dropped off by bus in front of the church and made their way to the altar in an agonizing slow pace. For them being driven around in a big fat bus hopping off at different religious places was a pilgrimage. Spending money in these places would bring them wellbeing and prosperity, or so they think. They might pay a lot of money, but where’s the transformation? What’s the deal of pilgrimage like this? I thought a pilgrimage had to be a walk in which one had nothing and no one else to care for except for oneself and ones relation with the divine. I had the idea that making a pilgrimage was a once in a lifetime experience which marked a certain period in one’s life, dividing it in a ‘before’ and ‘after’. But the trip these people made was different. It was like sightseeing of religious places instead of looking for a personal transformation. I saw advertisements on the church doors inviting people to come on a ‘car pilgrimage’ for those who had a car or a ‘pilgrimage by boat’ for those who were willing to pay a bit more. They would never feel like me when arriving at a place. ‘Too bad for them’ I thought as I pushed myself through the crowds towards the alter. Today it was my chapel.
I checked-in in the Priest house, the place where I would be hosted tonight. It was right on the Kappellenplatz, only 30 meters from the Chapel of Grace. The construction of this building began in 1647 and has been expanded ever since. Today it offers 60 beds and has a great number of conference halls and lecture rooms. As I pushed the heavy oak door open, I was welcomed by a lady behind a desk. She handed me over my key and after a short description of the route to my room I soon found myself making my way through the maze that this house was. Paintings of Popes and Bishops decorated the high, dark walls while the floors were covered with a dark red carpet. For a house this big, it was really weird to feel like I was the only one there. I saw and heard no one. My room was all I could have dreamed for. Two beds, a hot shower, a view of the basilica and wireless internet. I took a shower and washed my socks and t-shirt. I made up a fake address to get my sim-card working and headed back to the square to enjoy some of the celebrations going on.
In the basilica a mass was held to celebrate the anniversary while outside a fanfare was preparing for the feast afterwards. I was unable to follow what was going on inside the church. The echo and the German made it impossible for me to hear what was being said. I sat myself outside, near the Chapel of Grace and awaited the ceremony there. Soon priests and other important-looking persons would appear and start singing and talking about the church. After smoking out the whole square with the incense, they went back inside the church again to finish the mass. Meanwhile the barbeque was fired and the bradwürsten were prepared. It struck me that for this big an event, there were quite few people. Both inside and out the church there were some people, but I did not really see any real engagement. Except when the mass was over and the beer started flowing. Suddenly the square was crammed with people eating sausages thrice as long as the bread they held it with and drinking half liters of beer. People sat themselves at the long tables and filled the church square with talk and laughter. This is where the real bonding effect of religion takes places. The community is not made in the church, but outside of it, when people get together and drink. The fanfare was playing one song after another while they were served the same amounts of beers as the visitors. Their playing didn’t really improve as a result. I joined the crowd for a while but felt uncomfortable and not really welcome. I still had to learn how to engage with strangers, but maybe first I had to learn to engage with myself.
It’s hard to give words to how I felt. On the one hand I felt as if I was fulfilling my lives purpose, doing what I had to do. On the other hand I felt uncomfortable in the role of homeless traveler. Leaving everything behind without knowing what I will find along the way. Missing everyone at home, while at the same time being paralyzed by insecurity so meeting others feels like climbing Mount Everest. The whole day of walking in the beating sun wore me down. I went to bed early and thought about the last two days. It was only yesterday that I had set out on my mission. It could have been two weeks ago. Am I already loosing track of time? I put Tiger balm on my hurting knees and after writing this blog post I fell in a restless sleep.
July 4th 2014: Day 2