Once you start paying attention, there are signs of pilgrimage everywhere. On a recent hike on the “Path of the Gods” trail just south of Naples, Italy, we encountered so many.
There were remnants of polytheism. The heads of Roman gods lined the trail from Praiano to the top ridge.
There were shrines to Mary and various Catholic saints. At one cave, candles were lit around Christian symbols in a way that overwhelmed pagan iconography in a kind of spiritual warfare.
Indeed, in a famous hole in a mountain we hiked nearby at Montepertuso, legend has it that the birth of the hole was the work of the Virgin Mary during a clash with the devil, who to demonstrate his strength tried to crumble the mountain but without success. The compassionate Madonna showed him her power by succeeding in the enterprise in which the demon had failed, simply by touching the mountain with her hand. The defeated devil fell down from the mountain falling on the rocks below, where still today, according to the faithful, his footprint imprinted in the stone is visible.
As if to confirm Christianity’s superiority, we soon happened upon a convent. Inside we saw frescoes painted in the sixth century. Pilgrims had signed their names in the guest book.
Near the end, we found a cache of cairn in a dense forest. Usually used to point the correct way on unmarked trails, these stone piles clearly were not meant for navigation. This enormous field of hundreds—maybe even thousands—of stone piles had some more profound significance that reminded me of Iceland. In the Westfjords (the most remote of the five regions in the country), I saw more rock piles than people (about 7,000).
These piles had not been built by Christian or pagan pilgrims. Most of them, I would guess, were constructed by secular people who don’t often attend church services. Our fellow hikers, along with many bloggers, seem deeply inspired by the cairns. They speak of good luck and challenge. As a recent CNN travel article noted, “Pilgrimages aren’t only for the religious. They can be fun and inspiring, challenging yet rewarding and don’t necessarily involve prayer.”
Italy, like many other Western nations, faces declining church attendance. And yet . . . it is hard to find an atheist. Its citizens continue to view the church as an important institution. In Italy the state subsidizes the Catholic church. In Iceland the state does the same; all taxpayers over the age of sixteen pay a church tax called the sóknargjald. The constructs of secularism and the supernatural, as it turns out, are much more complex than we usually think. Everyone is on a search for meaning.
We remembered this hike for days after because of the brutal effects of climbing 1,900 steps at the start of this seven-kilometer route. But we’ll remember it for decades after because of the fascinating relics and people we encountered.