Ethos Education

The Way: What is the purpose of a pilgrimage?

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Learning Objective:

  • Awareness of the Christian tradition of pilgrimage.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect on a journey they have taken, and the reasons for making long journeys.
  • Analyse a film clip and reflect on different reasons for undertaking a Christian pilgrimage.
  • Understand the historical background to Christian pilgrimage.
  • Analyse a second film clip to reflect upon the place of hardship as part of the pilgrim experience.
  • Reflect upon the significance of pilgrimage as a transformational experience for Christians.
  • Synthesise learning by writing a set of fictitious diary entries by a modern-day Christian pilgrim.


Ask the students to think for a moment about the longest journey they have ever taken. If they know the approximate distance of the journey, so much the better, but it’s fine to simply say ‘London to York’ or whatever it happens to be.

You could turn this into a game by asking the students to pair up and compare answers, the longer journey being the winner. Each winning student is then paired up with another winner and the process repeated until the longest journey in the class is the sole survivor.

Now ask the students to think about the reasons why they undertook those lengthy journeys. Categorise their answers and write down different types of answer – to visit someone, moving house to a different part of the country, going on holiday, etc – on the board as the students give their reasons. Ask the students if there are any other reasons for making journeys that they can think of which aren’t covered by any of the categories, and add new categories to the board.

Explain that in today’s lesson you are going to be thinking about pilgrimages, which are a special kind of journey undertaken for religious reasons, and particularly looking at their place in the Christian faith.


Introduce the clip from the film The Way (Icon, 2011, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online.

The film follows Tom (Martin Sheen), an American doctor whose son Danny (Emilio Estevez) dies while undertaking a pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago. In this scene, Tom is collecting Danny’s belongings from the local police Captain (Tcheky Karyo). Ask the students to pay particular attention to what the Captain says about the Camino.

  • Start time: 0.10.09 (beginning of chapter 2 of the DVD)
  • Stop time: 0.19.52
  • Duration:  9 minutes and 43 seconds

The clip starts with Tom sitting at a desk, the doors opening and two police officers walking in. The first line is the Captain saying, ‘These are Daniel’s belongings.’ It ends with Tom setting off to walk the Camino. The last line is the Captain saying, ‘Tom, this is the way.’

If you prefer a shorter clip, you could stop the film at 0.12.48, after the Captain says, ‘We can also offer a cremation, if that is a more suitable way for you to transport the remains back home.’

Ask the students whether all of those undertaking the Camino seemed to be doing it for religious reasons. Remind them, if necessary, that while the police Captain identifies himself as a believer, he also states that the Camino is walked by people of ‘very different backgrounds, faith and generations’.

Ask the students to summarise the things that various characters say about the Camino in the clip. The Captain describes it as ‘a very personal journey’, and that ‘you walk The Way for yourself, only for yourself’; Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) says that it’s not for everyone, and that he’s doing it to lose weight. Do the students think that prosaic, apparently unspiritual reasons like this are valid reasons for undertaking a pilgrimage?

Ask the students why they think that Tom chooses to walk the Camino?

Explain that the idea of pilgrimage has long had a place in Christian thinking and practice. They were widespread in the middle Ages and can be dated back as far as the 4th Century. Early pilgrimages were usually to places with some connection to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, although later pilgrimages to places associated with one or more of the apostles or to other Christian saints also became common – the end location of the Camino de Santiago is the Cathedral where the remains of St. James, one of Jesus’ apostles, are thought to be located.

The act of pilgrimage can be a reminder to Christians that life is a journey. The Bible describes Christians as ‘pilgrims in the world’, not truly belonging in this world but journeying through it on their way back to God. The act of pilgrimage enables Christians to detach themselves from their everyday lives and focus on the presence of God while travelling. A pilgrimage is a symbolic act, the physical journey both representing and aiding the believer’s spiritual journey.

Medieval pilgrims went on pilgrimages for a number of reasons: as a show of devotion to God; because they were ill and in search of healing from God; because they wanted to do penance and say sorry for something they had done wrong; for the community of being with fellow pilgrims. In The Way Tom’s pilgrimage as an act of mourning for his dead son would have been readily understood by medieval pilgrims.

Introduce the second clip from The Way. Ask the students to pay particular attention to the discussion about the ‘true pilgrim way’.

  • Start time:       1.05.23 (in chapter 7 of the DVD)
  • End time:         1.07.17
  • Clip length:      1 minute and 54 seconds

The clip starts with Tom, Joost, Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) and Jack (James Nesbitt) walking in the dusk. The first line is Joost saying, ‘Oh, man. It’s four and a half hours…’ The clip ends after Jack says, ‘Finally: an American without an opinion. Take a picture.’

Ask the students whose argument they felt greater affinity to, Jack’s view that poverty and suffering is an essential part of the pilgrim experience, or Sarah’s opinion that artificially making the experience harder than it has to be is an act of false pilgrimage. What are the arguments for taking advantage of whatever comforts are available when undertaking a pilgrimage, and what are the arguments for deliberately adding hardship to the journey?

Remind the students about the earlier discussion about different reasons for undertaking a pilgrimage. Explain that later in the film Jack – a travel writer, working on a book about the Camino – is seen speaking into his dictaphone. He says this:

We all have a quest; Sarah’s is clear, Tom’s is becoming clear, but Joost, for whom kindness is an instinct, is further away than ever… Armies march to war; pilgrims march towards a new kind of peace.

To what extent does the idea of marching towards a new kind of peace get to the heart of what pilgrimage represents in the Christian life? Remind the students of the idea that pilgrimage is an acted-out symbol, a physical journey representing a spiritual one. Despite the many different reasons for undertaking a pilgrimage, there is a sense in which all Christian pilgrims seek the same thing: a renewed relationship with God and a new sense of peace with him.

Draw out that although a pilgrimage is usually a journey to a particular special place, the significance of the pilgrimage lies in the journey, rather than the destination. The experience of the journey, and the resulting change experienced by the pilgrim, is central. From a Christian perspective, this experience could be described as a transformational encounter with God, resulting in a new dimension to the pilgrim’s relationship with God.


Ask the students to write an imaginary diary of a modern-day pilgrim. The diary should include entries from several different days (at least five). Entries do not have to be consecutive days; in fact, it’s almost certainly better to include at least one entry from early in the pilgrimage and at least one from the end, in order to show the students understanding of the transformational impact that some pilgrims report as a result of their journey.

The following websites may prove helpful to them in this task.


  • A copy of The Way and the means to play it.
  • Bibles.

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