The Walk of Wisdom, A Dialogue with Damiaan Messing and Ron Grimes

Ronald Grimes has been at the forefront of ritual studies research for more than forty years. His research explores the interface of ritual theory, critique, creativity, and practice. Along with running a ritual studies lab for many years, Ron has served as a consultant for theatre and liturgical groups, as well as museums, television, universities and government. His writings, teaching, and workshops have inspired considerable ritual creativity, including the work of Damiaan Messing, creator of the Walk of Wisdom, a 136km pilgrimage route around the city of Njimegen. Recently, Ron has published two pieces on Messing’s work, including this interview, which we reproduce here. Be sure to explore Ron’s blog, at Circling the Deep.

A Dialogue with Damiaan Messing and Ron Grimes

(courtesy Ronald L. Grimes, Circling the Deep)

Ron: Damiaan, the story you tell in a previous post is hopeful, but usually there is a backstory, sometimes, not so hopeful. Is there a backstory?

Damiaan: Although we have a working pilgrimage around Nijmegen, it has not matched my expectations: to inspire to sustainability. My sense is that most people in pilgrimages such as the Walk of Wisdom or the Santiago pilgrimage are preoccupied with their own stories, for which the foundational story is just a foil.

Ron: Yes, self-preoccupation is a problem in many recently invented rituals. What do you think of this idea: The Walk of Wisdom is a ritual, but it has no myth. Maybe the Walk of Wisdom needs a myth, something bigger and more compelling than the story about how you and your brother started this pilgrimage?

Damiaan: What about the myth that we are all part of the same life and planet? (I’d call it truth, but maybe I am just a believer). However, this would change nothing to the underlying structural cause of our highly individualized society. My gloomy sense of the moment is that it will take a disaster or war to shake people out of their personal preoccupations. The powers of our short term consumption and extraction economy are too strong.

Ron: My Dear Young Man Damiaan (Damiaan laughs), probably you are right, but you are more pessimistic than I am. Until World War III arrives, how about designing a myth? Can people do that, design myths? Hmm, is a designed myth a fiction? And a designed ritual, is that also a fiction? You said you were going to an exhibition about Nazi design showing how they used symbols and rituals. “A powerful testimony of the potential of ritual,” you said. Leni Riefenstahl‘s films publicized Nazi ceremonies. Many of her films were about ritual, and, in turn, they inspired or enhanced other rituals. But Heinrich Himmler was the lead ritual designer.

Damiaan: You’re not comparing me to Himmler, are you?

Ron: Certainly not (laughs, joking), but I might compare you with St. Francis. His father was a silk merchant. Suppose St. Francis (before he was a saint) had decided not to design silky shirts and underwear but to design ritual instead. St. Damiaan, Francislike ritual designer (they both laugh).

Damiaan: I lack his innocence. The question you are raising is a good one: how to design a ritual (while waiting on World War III) that does not harm, and changes people’s minds and habits to live sustainably?

Ok, I’ll send you a design next week (laughs again). If not that, in a few years, when I’m on break from the Buddhist monastery.

On a darker note: without disaster or war you’d have to tap into deep instincts to arouse the masses out of a rut. The Nazis tapped into seething resentment and insecurity, which they brilliantly exploited with the help of simple, but powerful rites and symbols, ruthless simplification of stories (which is to say, lies) and a future-oriented nostalgia. Can you use such manipulation for the good? It’s an alley I don’t want to go into.

On a cheerier note, how about a ritual start-up? I’m sure there are billionaires in Silicon Valley who could see the potential for ritual. A planetary rite of passage to a sustainable future, a millions-mighty ritual in which people solemnly declare their allegiance to the earth—a boon for business and a balm for our soul.

My fellow Dutchman, Daan Roosegaarde’s project Waterlicht comes close. Daan could mastermind the project, with our help of course. He works with light, so we could employ him to make a “passage to the light.” People could upload an image of their hand or face to be projected into the sky, you know, Hollywood style. “WaterLight” (the English translation) was mounted at Columbia University, your alma mater, then at Toronto, a city near you. Roosegaarde wrote: “People won’t change because of facts or numbers. But if we can trigger the imagination of a new world, that’s the way to activate people. I don’t believe in utopia, but in protopia; step by step upgrading the world around us. Art is our activator.” So don’t despair, Ron. New hope is coming from present-day geniuses, and it need not be dark.

Ron: I glad you’ve cured me of despair, Damiaan, led me into the light, although I should remind you that you are the one who started with despair about the Walk of Wisdom and Nazi rituals. But I am your mentor-in-tow, so I’ll be waiting for your ritual start-up. Thank you, my friend, for cheering me up, momentarily.

Waterlicht, Toronto