The Icon never becomes a Cocoon.


The veneration of saints – especially Our Lady of Perpetual Help – at wittem (NL) as a testimony to a personalistic faith.


The sanctuary of the Redemptorists in Wittem (the Netherlands) is a popular religious venue. As a ‘stopping place for the soul’, the complex is one of a choice of leisure facilities available in the touristic border region of South Limburg. The trend of combining leisure activities with stillness and contemplation has recently led to a revival in the stream of guests. It is quite possible that an unsuspecting visitor, depending on his or her place of origin and background, may experience feelings of alienation.


The secularised or Protestant Dutchman and the enlightened Catholic of the baby boom generation will react with some scepticism when entering the ‘pantheon’, with Saint Gerard as the central figure of the sanctuary, with Our Mother of Perpetual Help as fearsome adversary and with the many lesser gods, all of which compete with Gerard and Mary for the favour of the visitors.


I sometimes also imagine the reaction of a South European who ends up at Wittem. Being used to the exuberant and the ornate piety of his or her native region, often expressed noisily and physically, he will be surprised at the modesty and aloofness of the kind of worship that he encounters here. For the southerner, the sanctuary of Wittem must breathe an almost Calvinistic atmosphere.


However, the sociologically indicated modern groups are no longer predominant among those that visit Wittem. Instead, the group of ‘post-moderns’ is increasing. They are unprejudiced and receptive with regard to the popular piety they encounter here and blithely drop anchor at this ‘haven for the soul’. These are peripheral Catholics who do not relate appositionally with regard to ecclesiastical authority, but rather eclectically. These are Protestants who are interested in the sensory elements from the Catholic tradition that they lack in their own church. These are the non-religious who ‘patch together’ their own spiritual quilt.


This new open-mindedness also characterises the recent pastoral perspective on popular religiosity and on the veneration of saints and pilgrimage as concrete ways of expressing this. For a long time there were, for example, attempts to curtail devotional overgrowth by embedding it in a correct pastoral-theological and catechetical programme: now things are less compulsive. This has to do with various factors.


Firstly, a dose of historic common sense is involved. It is admitted that some kind of democratic piety has always existed. This piety does not so much feel the need to have a say in ecclesiastical matters, but it does demand the space to experience faith in a familiar way, without having to justify itself theologically. This demand is not expressed in specific programmes, but directly in practices: practices that parasitize on given pastoral structures, without showing any interest in these otherwise. New infrastructures gradually become ingrained through these practices, which in turn conversely contribute to their continuation. In other words: ‘elephant paths’[1] are created. At places of pilgrimage like Wittem, too, this ‘demo-practical’ undercurrent is unstoppable and official paths are traversed by elephant paths.


Secondly, our Dutch culture, and in particular our present era, supports all that is anarchistic and that comes from the heart of ‘the people’ –  support that sometimes spills over in the form of populism.


Strategic approach

However, there is also, and especially a more strategic factor involved – and this brings me to the essence of my argument. Secularisation and the dramatic exodus from the churches has made those who are pastorally anxious, more tolerant towards unverifiable movements and sub-movements –  in our time, especially towards the so-called ‘new spirituality’ or esotericism, in which many church leavers or non-practicing members of the church seek their religious welfare. To avoid missing an alliance with this group of people, the feeling of mistrust for this movement has to be abandoned, according to the pastoral consensus.


However, if one is so accommodating with regard to this so-called ‘new spirituality’- why not be just as accommodating when it comes to the long-existing forms of ‘wild piety’? Is it not the same ‘demo-practical’ passion that is the foundation for both social worlds? Is it not so that popular piety and new spirituality find one another in their individualistic, subjective and affective approach? Are they not extremely similar as far as the emphasis on rituals and so-called ‘primeval symbols’ are concerned? And are not both strongly embedded in ‘daily life’?


A positive answer to the latter questions has resulted in opinion leaders starting to refer to new spirituality as ‘the new popular piety’ – from which, with some good will, the opposite can also be deduced, namely, that popular piety is the esotericism of the past. From a pastoral perspective, it is quite understandable that old and new forms of unverified piety are viewed as an extension of one another. However, the question is whether or not this is intrinsically based on anything. It is this question precisely that is the starting point for the following reflections. On the basis of concrete observations, made at the sanctuary of Wittem, I would like to formulate a critical answer to this question.


Apparent parallels

Let me start with a few observations that seem to point to actual parallels and similarities between the practices centred round the icon of Our Lady of Wittem and the statue of Saint Gerard on the one hand, and actions that are part of the ‘new spirituality’ on the other. Therefore, these are observations that appear to support the thesis that the ‘new spirituality’ is continuously related to popular piety. These concentrate on three characteristics that are presumed to be common to both social worlds: individualism, materialism and the connection to ‘daily life’.



One of the characteristics of the new spirituality that is often mentioned is its individualistic nature. Its subject is not the community, but the individual, who more or less seeks ‘immediate’ access to the higher, the holy, the spiritual. True, this individual perception supposes an institutional embedment – in this sense every individualism is relative – but it joins in rather than that it feels jointly responsible for the preservation and development of the institutional supply. Dutch religion watchers speak in this respect of the ‘solo religious’.


This attitude of parasitizing and consuming appears to always have been inherent to ‘demo-practical’ piety, of which popular piety and the veneration of saints is a part. At the place of pilgrimage at Wittem, too, this individualism seems to be noticeably present. It has become more significant in recent decades due, for example, to the decrease in collectively organised pilgrimages. Despite this decrease, there are still the unceasing few who light a candle, write a prayer intention in the book especially for this purpose or who put prayer notes in a goblet present. The evident modesty of the pilgrims emphasises the individual character of the pilgrimage. Pilgrimage and mindfulness extend a hand to one another in their desire for contemplation. The monastery bookshop at Wittem responds to this desire with its stock of both Christian and esoteric literature.  



If there is one thing that is characteristic of the new spirituality, then it is its materialistic nature. The argument of many ‘new spiritualists’ that they are not ‘etheric’ is in that sense, all too true. Esotericism fetters the spiritual to material objects. It makes use of materialistic metaphors for the sacred (movement, energy, strength). It makes generous use of ‘charged’ objects in its practices. The most popular of these are the so-called ‘primeval symbols’, such as water, light and fire. Furthermore, in the wake of our affective or (to be more precise) ‘aesthetic’ (in the sense of ‘being focused on the senses’) culture[2], a certain design of space is very often applied, in this case, the creation of a pseudo-womb (round shapes, dominance of the colour red, etc.).


At first glance, there are many parallels between the ‘new spirituality’ on the one hand, and the devotion before the altars at Wittem on the other. The communal appears to be present in manifest, material-concrete practices centred round a tangible focal point (at Wittem: the icon of Our Lady and the statue of Saint Gerard). The everlasting ritual of ‘lighting a candle’ especially, unites both worlds. The fact that the bookshop next to the sanctuary does good business in ‘spiritual objects’ makes one suspect that the practices from both worlds are intertwined.


The external mediation, to use a different category, evidently plays an important part in esotericism as well as in the piety of Wittem – whereby portraits or statues also fulfil the role of mediator. The fact that the Mother of God has her very own intimate chapel that is rounded, has deep colours and is bathed in a permanent twilight, qualifies her in particular to satisfy the desire for a sensory experience of warmth and security. The Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help is the focal point of the cocoon, which gives the feeling of being in the womb.


Daily life

The materialism of the practices, that seem to connect ‘new spirituality’ and popular piety at Wittem is, in turn, linked to a great attachment to so-called ‘daily life’. Characteristic of both worlds is that people are often driven by a very concrete desire or need. Sometimes this need is expressed abstractly, for example, when people write in the book of intentions that they are in search of stillness, inner balance or strength. However, this is often initiated by the experience of concrete chaos in daily family life or the work place, or the experience of having uncontrollable problems, fears and concerns that simply become too much for people to cope with. The nearness of the sacred or the sanctified is, in this case, a compensating or stabilising factor. The ‘drawing of energy’ to be able to cope with life is a metaphor that is encountered in both worlds: whether this energy is tapped from oneself through mindfulness practices or by unburdening one’s heart to Our Lady.


In short: by considering what takes place at the sanctuary of Wittem, around the altars of Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Saint Gerard in a certain way, a strong relationship can be perceived between traditional popular piety on the one hand, and the new spirituality on the other. Similarities with regard to certain characteristics (the individualistic and materialistic nature of both social worlds and the strong rooting in daily life) apparently confirm the hypothesis mentioned that esotericism is the new form of popular piety. This is also confirmed in the overflowing of both worlds into one another at Wittem: this can be seen in the type of products available at the bookshop, in particular.


 A more profound view

However, I do wonder whether the above is not perhaps a one-sided and superficial view. Do these common characteristics actually come close to the essence of what happens when the pilgrim stands eye to eye with the statue of Saint Gerard or the copy of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help at the sanctuary of Wittem?


Embedded individualism

To start with, the question arises as to what the individualism of the pilgrim at the foot of the saints’ altars actually entails. By going back to the repertoire of images , actions and words from tradition, the pilgrim does, after all, step out of his or her isolation. He or she endorses the tradition of the ancestors. Pilgrimage is at all times communitarian and ecclesial. Moreover, the pilgrim does not treasure an instrumentalisational and passive relation with the given – like the spiritual consumer of esotericism – but instead reconfirms, resumes and re-creates tradition. Pilgrimage is an ‘iterative’ process of resuming and continuing in a varied and renewed way.[3] The pilgrim is perhaps a soloist (a solo-religious) – but then a soloist that plays an existing repertoire on existing instruments: creative within a given space.


So the Wittem pilgrimage is a jointly-responsible, co-constructive happening that also goes as far as actively enriching the institutional supply. This occurs in an organic way especially, as in the case of the above-mentioned ‘elephant paths’. Pilgrims for example take the initiative themselves to embark on small-scale pilgrimages on foot or by bicycle, or to go on incidental group pilgrimages as a result of an acute need in their intimate circle or on a national or world scale (for example, in the event of the airplane disaster involving flight MH17 in the Ukraine in 2014). To speak in terms of the great Redemptorist-theologian Cardinal Victor Dechamps (1810-1883): the yearning individual seeks from his ‘interior fact’ not only something to hold on to in the ‘exterior fact’ of the church, but also creates new ‘exterior facts’.


The fact that the pilgrim is more than an isolated individual has, moreover, a theological dimension. If we allow ourselves to imagine the spectacle of the pilgrim, standing eye to eye with the statue of St. Gerard or the copy of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, then we see beyond an individual that clings to something with only his own salvation in mind. We are witness to a dialogical process, in which the individual is placed in a fruitful tension with the other. The pilgrim remains an individual, but is, paradoxically spoken, strengthened and confirmed in that individualism especially because he or she is looked at, approached by the other. He or she positions him-/herself in view of the sacred, who is experienced as the face of God that is turned towards him or her. In this way, he or she becomes even more of an individual through, upon and thanks to the Other.


In short: it is indeed through the active embedment in and connection to tradition, and through the dialogical nature of the practices that the pilgrim differentiates himself from the isolated recluse of the new spirituality – not counting the still existing eager participation of many in the liturgical supply of celebrations and processions.


Beyond fetishism

The dialogical aspect of the pilgrimage sheds a different light on the apparent materialism as connecting characteristic of esotericism and popular piety. Of course: a lot has to do with appearance, precisely because the pilgrim engages in traditions and existing ‘repertoires’. The meaning of the material actions, however, differs profoundly from those in the new spirituality. The practices  refer not only to themselves, but are embedded in the dialogical process as sign actions, relation-establishing, communicative gestures.


In turn, objects are not fetishisms that are isolated, that derive their meaning from themselves, but are in themselves neutral ‘midpoints’ that derive their meaning from the intention of those who make use of them. Their ‘strength’ is the strength of communication. For example, a candle does not possess energy, but is a wordless gesture in the dialogue with the Other. Water is not a seemingly homeopathic remedy, but a symbol in the sense of a meeting point in which the other’s world and that of myself  sometimes ‘coincide’ (symballein) for a moment. In short: the thing does not become a god and god does not become a thing – as is the case in the new spirituality. It´s all about the intangible Other – who transcends the (in itself insignificant) object.


The focus in the pilgrimage at Wittem is – in other words – not on the ‘means’ but on the ‘mediator’, not on the object that ‘is of use’, but on the other who has something to offer me. And even if the prayer with the ‘mediator’ seemingly has the nature of a transaction or negotiation: it transcends every instrumentalism, insofar as it is inspired by the awareness of mercy and of the alterity of the mediator. This is especially obvious in the devotion for Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Dominant in this is the face that looks down on us: the pre-eminent possessor of alterity, the pre-eminent revelation of the other or the ‘Thou to whom I become’. A symbiotic relationship, in which the individual’s conatus essendi is the main focus, is impossible in this case: the icon never becomes a cocoon[4].


The Kingdom of God as life’s perspective

If the pilgrim goes beyond his or her isolation and surpasses fetishism in his or her practice, then there is more involved and more at stake than ‘daily life’ in the static sense of the word. This too is not isolated, but put into perspective. Unless we suspect the pilgrims of Wittem of praying absent-mindedly, the formulaic prayers that are uttered do indeed refer to the eschatological horizon that these practices embrace. The Our Father asks of today’s life no more than that which we as day labourers have a right to (‘daily bread’ or ‘today’s bread’) and opens the perspective of the Kingdom of God (‘Your Kingdom come’). And the Ave Maria places the whole prayer under the bode of our final destination (‘the hour of our death’).  Precisely those who position themselves creatively and ‘iteratively’ in the prayer tradition, also expose themselves to this eschatological perspective. This realisation is strengthened again by the metaphor or the path of life and the path tout court, which has become so popular in the prayer texts and preaching at the sanctuary of Wittem. Daily life is not isolated statically, but is like a station in the light of the dynamic movement and direction that are inherent to this path.



 Those at Wittem who look around and have an open mind with regard to the events that take place at the altars of St. Gerard and Our Mother of Perpetual Help, cannot dwell on the conclusion that esotericism is the continuation of popular piety using other means. Certainly, there is a qualitative difference, which can be seen especially in the fact that practices of piety here are pervaded with a personalist/ic Christian view of the person, the view that the human being is not isolated in a world that is not isolated, but is embedded as an individual in a world that relates to others, to the Other and to His Kingdom. Viewed in this way, the veneration for Our Mother of Perpetual Help and St. Gerard is a testimony to this intense, rich in facets, subtle and in every sense uplifting view of the human person, as an inextricable aspect of our faith.



Mr. Eric Corsius (Wittem, Netherlands)

15 August 2015

[1] The ‘elephant path’ is a concept taken from daily life and the movement of people, but it is of course conceived as a metaphor in this case. See:

[2] Cf.  Lipovetsky, G. et J. Serroy, L’esthétisation du monde. Vivre à l’âge du capitalisme artiste. Gallimard, 2013.

[3] The concept of iteration as creative and innovative continuation is a favoured category in the post-structuralist thinking of, among others, J. Derrida.

[4] At this point I make use of categories that the wise listener can trace back to ‘personalist/ic’ philosophers such as M. Buber and Emm. Levinas. For that matter, the icon strongly emphasizes the involvement of Our Lady in the suffering of her Son through the instruments of suffering: an involvement that is pre-eminently ‘personalist/ic’.