Along the Pilgrims way in Oslo, year sixes from all the local schools experience for themselves the 1,000 year-old Pilgrim tradition.
This is the 10th year 12 year olds from Oslo’s east sidewalk the ancient Pilgrims’ way leading to Trondheim also known as the King’s Road. Most of their pupils come from Christian or Muslim backgrounds, and today is special, both the bishop of Oslo and the cultural minister have joined the walk.
‘Children today have little chance to speak of how they understand God. Teachers are nervous of making mistakes, and it often seems safer not to mention the divine at all. In my experience children often appreciate the chance to speak about these mysteries. They really like meeting a real pilgrim and they love to be in nature,’ says the storyteller Georgiana Keable.
This Englishwoman has lived for 21 years in Norway. She is a pioneer in the renaissance of storytelling in England and Norway, and has taught for many years at Oslo University. In 2002 she founded the Storytelling House, whose aim is to give children and adults good story telling and listening experiences. Since 2008 she has walked the old Pilgrims’ way with around 1,000 schoolchildren per year.
‘The pupils have different backgrounds so I have to take care not to offend anyone. But everyone seems very curious about my pilgrim life and likes to take the chance to speak about their ideas of spirituality and often very personal things come up.’
Wandering through the forest Georgiana plays the role of the pilgrim 100%. When they talk to her it’s the pilgrim from the middle ages who answers not the storyteller. She asks a riddle: ‘What is greater than God and worse than the devil? The dead eat it but if we eat it we die?’ One of the children answers ‘Mum!’ Another shouts, ‘Nothing is greater than God!’
That’s the answer. The dead eat nothing every day and if we eat nothing we die.’ answers Georgiana.
It’s usually a Muslim child who answers that riddle. They have been taught that nothing is greater than God. They are also more likely to know about pilgrim traditions.
The relevance of pilgrimage in our time became real for the Georgiana when she walked from Ringebu to Trondheim with her daughter in 2003.
‘At 11 years my daughter hated going on walks. When I got a job as a storyteller walking on the Pilgrims’ way she begged to come on the 250 kilometres walk. No way! I said. But after she had really pleaded with me I agreed she could join us if she promised not to complain or moan. Amazingly she did the entire journey without a word of complaint. When she arrived in Trondheim anasty skin problem she had had for years was gone and her whole life was changed. Only later did I discover that she had been bullied at school but that had also changed.’
It was not until Georgiana moved to Norway that she became interested in pilgrimage. ‘When I saw what the journey had meant for my daughter I really wanted other children to experience this walk.
On the journey Georgiana tells local stories, her colleague Per Jostein Aarsand tells about Olav the Holy and also goes into role as a bandit, and some of the children join him on an ambush. And towards the end Georgiana tells the story of her daughter who was exactly their age when she walked the Pilgrims’ Way.
And then there are the challenges. The pupils often make quite a fuss about walking barefoot, but once the shoes are off, they seldom want to put them on again! It’s as if they are far more connected to the nature around them when their bare feet contact the ground.
Right at the end they walk 15 minutes in silence. ‘It’s quite an extraordinary thing to experience 50, 12 year olds walking in silence, it’s powerful,’ says Georgiana.
Oslo’s bishop Kari Veiteberg joined the walk this year, ‘This kind of work is at the heart of what the church can do. The children learn about pilgrimage, that it’s a real tradition and that there are holy places in this world. It’s amazing that here, just a few minutes from the local tube station, is this story, this history! This walk is also an example of how faith can be experienced through our feet,’ she says.
Oslo’s cultural minister, Rina Marianne Hansen, also joins the walk about half-way. Oslo council has supported the walks this year. ‘This brings our cultural history out into the local population. Many of these pupils don’t have a long family history here in Norway, so this knowledge is important for them in their lives here. This is also a great way to experience the role of faith in our society,’ reflects the cultural minister.
The priest in the local community, Tone Marie Falch thinks this walk is a fantastic way to include local people.
‘Following the footsteps of the old pilgrims clearly appeals to children with all kinds of different religious and cultural backgrounds. They can meet here and share their experiences. This is religious dialogue in practice,’ says the priest, who didn’t need to be asked twice to join the walk.
‘Feel this rock,’ challenges Georgiana. ‘This rock has been a holy place since the bronze age! Long before Christianity, long before Islam, people came here, they lit lamps from animal fat, and gave thanks for all their blessings.’
This article by Olav Solvang originally appeared in the Norwegian newspaper Vårt Land in October 2018.