Pilgrims: Searching for inner serenity on foot

In light of these experiences, it is natural to attribute a healing effect to the pilgrimage to life’s crises. In the pilgrims’ forums, there are already calls for health insurance to cover the costs. “However, it is still too early to talk about a therapeutic effect of the pilgrimage,” says psychologist Tatiana Schnell, a professor at the University of Innsbruck and at MF University in Oslo. “The search is not finished yet.”

Hajj means engaging in transformation

The fact that psychology has not yet dealt with the mass phenomenon could be due to the traditional fear of contact with religious subjects. When Tatiana Schnell began establishing “Experimental Research on Meaning” in psychology two decades ago, she was warned that this could jeopardize her scientific credibility and her career. In the meantime, empirical research into meaning has gained international recognition.

The first longitudinal psychological study Schnell made the pilgrimage with her student Sarah Bali at her institute in Innsbruck. They recruited 85 potential pilgrims between the ages of 17 and 70 via pilgrim forums on social media and interviewed them beforehand, immediately afterwards and four months after they returned home. On average, they traveled 400 miles (646 kilometers) to Santiago via the Camino de Santiago.

More than half described themselves as having little or no religious faith before the Hajj began. Tatiana Schnell explains: “Even if I am not religious, I have the opportunity to consciously engage in religious rituals, as a tried and tested form that has always existed and I can give up.” One recognizes the pilgrims’ desire to engage in an inner transformation: “I am ready for something different to happen to me along the way.”

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The results of their longitudinal study indicate that this shift is indeed taking place. 59 percent of those surveyed reported gaining clarity about themselves on St James’s Way. “The main effect of the pilgrimage was to complete the meaning,” Schnell says. This occurs when people can experience their lives as “coherent, meaningful, directed, and belonging.” After the pilgrims returned home, this meaning decreased significantly, but it was still much higher than the level they indicated before the Hajj. This effect was particularly evident in the seven percent of those surveyed who, prior to the start of the trip, were in a complete crisis of meaning and felt depressed or anxious, and in some cases had suicidal thoughts. After the pilgrimage, they all stated that they had overcome a crisis of meaning.

Wearing a different identity(Tatiana Schnell, sensory researcher)

Psychologist Tatiana Schnell sees the pilgrimage as an excellent example of a rite of passage. It runs in three phases: thresholding, purification, and integration. At the threshold stage, the pilgrims parted themselves with their apartments, elegant clothes, cars, and equipped with hiking boots, backpacks and staff as pilgrims: “You set a different identity.” There is no social hierarchy for pilgrims, so they often have existential conversations and can detach themselves from their social status. This is followed by the integration stage. “At the end of this rite of passage, people gain the experience: I am a different person!”

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