This edition of American Iconoclasts looks at the life of Peace Pilgrim.
I first came across the work of Peace Pilgrim when I was given a pamphlet about her life and work by an early, if brief, spiritual teacher I met in the summer of 1998. I still have the pamphlet, though it is now battered and beat up. The teachings housed within its humble stapled pages remain as timeless as ever. The example of Peace Pilgrim is one I have returned to time and again.
Peace liked to walk and she made a life of walking. Of walking and praying, walking and meditating. Walking in peace and spreading a message of peace. She truly walked with the Divine Universal Power -aka "G_D" to some. She was an American mystic whose sole purpose in life was to commune with Divinity, live a life of simplicity, and speak about inner and outer peace with anyone she happened to meet on her travels . And she traveled a lot. For 28 years she traveled back and forth across the United States, spreading her message.
She was born Mildred Lisette Norman on July 18, in Egg Harbor City, NJ, the eldest of three children. After graduating high school she worked as a secretary at Liberty Cut Glass Works in her home town while writing, directing and producing plays for the local Grange.
She did the normal things people usually do in some capacity or other. She continued to work. She fell in love and eloped with a man named Stanley Ryder in 1933. Five years later while hiking in the woods all night, a shift occurred. It was the onset of a fifteen year period of the gradual simplification of her life.
Before this walk she had "discovered that money-making was easy but not satisfying." So she went out one night "out of a feeling of deep seeking for a meaningful way of life," she began walking through the woods.
"And after I had walked almost all night, I came out into a clearing where the moonlight was shining down. And something just motivated me to speak and I found myself saying, 'If you can use me for anything, please use me. Here I am, take all of me, use me as you will, I withhold nothing.' That night, I experienced the complete willingness, without any reservations whatsoever, to give my life to something beyond myself."
She started working for various peace organizations within this time, and became an avid hiker. When her husband enlisted in the army during WWII against her wishes she sought a divorce, which was finalized in 1945. This separation allowed her life path to truly blossom into one of complete unconditional service.
In 1952 she became the first woman to walk the entirety of the Appalachian trail in one season and was gifted with a vision of her becoming "Peace Pilgrim". The next year, after giving away all her possessions, she began her first cross-country pilgrimage. On Jan. 1 she set out from the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, CA., wearing a navy blue tunic with her new name. For the next 28 years she walked all around America, with a few forays into Canada and Central America.
From that point on Peace Pilgrim placed her life in the hands of divine providence and used her life as one of service. One of the things I find so inspirational about her life and pilgrimages was the complete trust and faith she had that she would be taken care.
She was minimalist before it was a buzz word. She didn't have money or possessions and relied on the kindness of strangers to eat, and drink or have a place to sleep. The only things she owned were her pants and tunic, that identified her to strangers and made conversations a little easier when someone approached her. Beyond that she only kept a toothbrush, comb, pen and map.
"I own only what I wear and carry. I just walk until given shelter, fast until given food. I don't even ask; it's given without asking. I tell you, people are good. There's a spark of good in everybody."
She often slept nights out in the wild and would at times be picked up for vagrancy. Every time she ended up in jail she felt it was part of the Creators master plan: there was inevitably someone she shared a cell with who she was able to reach with her words and change the course of that persons life.
By 1964 she had walked 25,000 miles for peace at which time she stopped counting the miles she continued to rack up. Her own words speak the truth of her experience.
"When I started out, my hair had started to turn to silver. My friends thought I was crazy. There was not one word of encouragement from them. They thought I would surely kill myself, walking all over. But that didn’t bother me. I just went ahead and did what I had to do. They didn’t know that with inner peace I felt plugged into the source of universal energy, which never runs out. There was much pressure to compromise my beliefs, but I would not be dissuaded."
Some things don’t seem so difficult, like going without food. I seldom miss more than three to four meals in a row and I never even think about food until it is offered. The most I have gone without food is three days, and then Mother Nature provided my food — apples that had fallen from a tree. I once fasted as a prayer discipline for forty-five days, so I know how long one can go without food. My problem is not how to get enough to eat; it’s how to graciously avoid getting too much. Everyone wants to overfeed me.
Going without sleep would be harder, although I can miss one night’s sleep and I don’t mind. The last time was September of 1977, when I was in a truck stop. I had intended to sleep a little but it was such a busy truck stop that I spent all night talking to truck drivers. The first thing after I went in, a truck driver who’d seen me on television wanted to buy me some food. I sat in a corner booth. Then truck drivers started to arrive, and it was just one wave of truck drivers after another that were standing there and asking me questions and so forth. I actually talked to them all night and I never did get to do any sleeping."
And so she led her life, eventually being asked to speak on radio, at churches, and on campuses. One such speaking engagement proved ever fateful. The woman who walked in every state of the U.S. and most of Canada was getting a ride to give a talk in Knox, Indiana. The car she was in was involved in an automobile accident and it took her life. But her life was not hers to live. She had given it in service, and was now off on her next adventure.
"Those who have overcome self-will and become instruments to do God's work can accomplish tasks which are seemingly impossible, but they experience no feeling of self achievement. I now know myself to be a part of the infinite cosmos, not separate from other souls or God. My illusory self is dead; the real self controls the garment of clay and uses it for God's work."
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.