Pilgrim, find happiness and yourself in the footsteps of St Birgitta

One of the most poignant scenes in film history comes from the masterpiece The Mission, shown on the big screen in 1986. In short, the film is about a slave trader, played by Robert De Niro, who kills his brother and then does penance by dragging a big sack of scrap metal up the muddy mountain slopes of the Iguazu Falls. The scene shows an exhausted De Niro meeting a group of redeemed Guaraní Indians and their Jesuit priest, played by Jeremy Irons. The meeting then leads to De Niro finding the meaning of life.

For some of us, the scene is a fairly good reflection of our picture of a pilgrimage. You should cure and improve, work hard and be confronted by your demons to be blessed at the end destination by some kind of forgiveness by a higher power. It’s no longer quite like that, but the pilgrimage is nonetheless a fascinating, mystical remnant from times gone by that has left a very strong impression on Östergötland.

We packed up the car and set off on a pilgrimage (as it turned out once we found out a bit more about the subject) in the footsteps of St Birgitta from Linköping, via Vreta Convent Church to the St Birgitta Church in Vadstena.

Unfortunately, only ruins remain of the Benedictine convent in Vreta, but with the useful help of the educational information on the site, you can get a clear picture of what the old convent used to look like and what life was like in the convent. The convent was founded circa 1100 and closed in 1582. The convent church remains, and in the summer it is really beautiful here.

We continue towards Vadstena where we have agreed to meet the pilgrimage priest Tomas Wettermark at the Pilgrim Centre. He knows most of what is worth knowing about pilgrim destinations and pilgrimages.

“If you look back at history, you could say that the motivation for the pilgrimages has, at least partly, changed. At the time of St Birgitta (1303-1373), when pilgrimages were already an old phenomenon, the reasons were sometimes, but not always, about a healing journey. You had quite simply done something that wasn’t good and you wanted to make amends through, for example, a physical exertion such as walking to Vadstena. At that time, you could even be sentenced to it as a punishment,” explains Tomas Wettermark.

“Naturally, the reasons then were largely the same as they are today: wanting to explore, time for thought and prayer, and the joy of reaching your destination. Today, thank goodness, the situation is quite different. Of course there are still those who set off on a pilgrimage looking for a cure and healing and to find themselves because of something stupid they have done, but for the vast majority, it is a combination of a spiritual experience and physical exertion.

Could, let’s say, a slightly overweight atheist in his 40s who wants to explore Östergötland also benefit from a pilgrimage?

Absolutely. I believe that all people are pilgrims. That is to say, on their way. And on a journey, whatever the purpose, you get help from what you meet on the way: a beautiful view of Bråviken, Lake Vättern or a billowing field.

Is any previous knowledge or special preparation required to get that little bit extra out of the pilgrimage?

A pilgrimage is about learning along the way, but, of course, if you are going on foot, you can prepare by reading about the route you are going to walk, maybe a portrayal by some previous pilgrim. Then you should start preparing in terms of equipment with a pair of shoes that are not brand new and a rucksack that fits reasonably well on your back. And pack light.

Östergötland has two well-maintained pilgrim routes with Vadstena Convent Church, which has St Birgitta’s reliquary, as the main destination. The best known is Klosterleden Trail, which start by Krokek Convent and continues via Norrköping to the former Söderköping Convent, Askeby Convent, Linköping Cathedral and Convent, Vreta Convent, the convent ruins in Skänninge to Vadstena Convent Church. It then continues to Heliga Hjärtas Convent in Borghamn and Alvastra Convent in Omberg, for those who want to go further. The trail is approximately 270 kilometers in total. It is most common that people walk the stretch between Linköping and Vadstena (approximately 75 km), which takes three or four days, or Alvastra and Vadstena – a stretch of approximately 40 kilometres, which takes two to three days at a slow tempo. Overnight stays are in parish homes or youth hostels along the way.

The second trail, Birgittaleden (85 km), was opened by the Pilgrim Centre as recently as Ascension Day 2011, and it will be extended in 2016 to start in Söderköping and thereby follow the same route as St Birgitta’s relics were carried when she returned home to Östergötland in 1374. From Söderkö- ping, the trail goes via Linköping Cathedral and continues to Vreta Convent and then along Göta Canal to Borensberg, Birgittas Udde, Ulvåsa, Ekebyborna, Motala, and Västra Stenby with the Birgitta Spring, before reaching the final destination of Vadstena Convent Church. Does it sound a lot? Don’t worry, there are no requirements to walk the whole trail to be classed a pilgrim.

“No, no, every place is a destination,” Tomas Wettermark assures us.

“It’s important to remember that every place you decide to reach, whether it is Korpilombolo, Söderköping or Gränna, is a pilgrim destination in itself. What you are constantly looking for is a meeting place between people, and for those who want, a meeting place between man and God. We count all who come here to the destination in Vadstena as pilgrims, whether they have walked or cycled, travelled by car, bus or boat. They have made their way across arable land and fields and maybe across a lake to reach a destination and be reminded that the destination exists. We have a fairly relaxed definition of what a pilgrim is.”

For most of the about 5.000 people that makes the pilgrimage to Vadstena every year the main reason is spiritual enlightenment.

Every year, about five thousand walking pilgrims arrive in Vadstena. The number of pilgrims who choose other modes of transport to visit Vadstena, the Convent Church and the Pilgrim Centre is about 400,000 per year. Many choose to stay overnight at the Pilgrim Centre guest house and take part in its courses, meetings, retreats and walks.

Outside the entrance to the Pilgrim Centre, there is a bunch of about 20 well-used walking sticks left behind by previous pilgrims. We walk on down to the convent church just a few hundred metres towards the shore of Lake Vättern. The church was consecrated in 1430, and its architecture and appearance, according to St Birgitta, come from detailed instructions from Jesus Christ in person, conveyed to St Birgitta via visions. Among other things, Jesus Christ is supposed to have conveyed that the church should not have any murals except those portraying his suffering and less about his Holiness.

The enormous church contains many important objects. First and foremost, the pilgrim destination, St Birgitta’s reliquary, which is protected by armoured glass. After her death in 1373, the remains of St Birgitta were carried in a procession in a wooden coffin from Rome to Vadstena. The reliquary is sacred, as is the coffin in which it was carried, as it had been in contact with Birgitta Birgersdotter, who was canonised by Pope Bonifatius IX, 1391. In 1999, she was elevated to patron saint of Europe.

The convent church has many visitors from Germany and Italy and quite a few Danes and Norwegians. The same applies to Sancta Birgitta Klostermuseum (St Birgitta’s convent museum), which is just 50 metres from the convent church in the old royal palace.

“The convent museum is part of the pilgrim destination in Vadstena, so most pilgrims who visit the convent church also come to us,” explains Markus Lindberg, Head of the Museum.

The museum is newly renovated, and the second floor includes 59 cells that were home to as many nuns who had taken their vows to live the rest their lives in chastity, observance and poverty. We continue to our basic night quarters.

After a good night’s sleep at the Pilgrim Centre, we meet with Tomas Wettermark at breakfast. There is currently a pilgrim course with about 20 participants. I cannot help but ask a few questions that have been bothering me.

If I go on a pilgrimage to get a spiritual experience, but all I can think about is how I’m going to do my fermenting dough, is there a trick to get me on the right track?

Yes there is. We suggest different prayer books, and we have a guidebook for Klosterleden Trail and a small leaflet for Birgittaleden Trail that include suggestions on how to spend your intellectual life during these days. A book of poetry can also add meditation material on the way. But usually, the trail reveals things to you. A lot of good thoughts come into your head or heart and you start processing things and discover that you have a really good dialogue within you. People often start the walk as a physical exertion but end it having found themselves or maybe God.

Okay, and when you have been filled up with all this, how do you process the experience?

When we walk in a group, and we do that quite often, there is usually a priest or deacon who is bound by professional secrecy with whom you can discuss your thoughts.

Has the pilgrimage been modernised at all in the past thousands of years that the phenomenon has existed, or are the roads and the destination the same?

Ha ha, yes and no. You could say that the outer and inner stipulations to long to set off in the footsteps of your ancestors and to do what all the others have done throughout the ages on roads that others have walked to reach these destinations are important things for many of us to this day.

We say our thanks and drive off home. In the car, we find a strange sense of calm. Call it enlightenment, call it insight, call it a longing for home. Robert De Niro would probably have called it peace of mind.


To the website for Pilgrimscentrum


Digital maps over pilgrim trails in Östergötland