Updated: Oct 31, 2020
Two years ago, I flew to Aruba to conduct an experiment. For 3 days, I wanted to follow the example of Mildred Lisette Norman, better known as the Peace Pilgrim. In 1953, at age 44, she began criss crossing the country by foot to promote peace. She carried no money and was backed by no organization; she walked until given shelter and fasted until given food. She walked for 28 years having taken a vow to "remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace."
She lived much like the apostles of old whom Christ enjoined to "Carry no purse no knapsack... no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or staff." (Luke 10:4; Matthew 10:10) She walked by faith. She wore a simple tunic with the words "Peace Pilgrim" on the front and "25,000 miles on foot for peace" stenciled on the back. She sold all of her possessions before embarking on her pilgrimage, but lacked nothing- as it is written: And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” (Luke 22:35)
A wandering ascetic walking barefoot in India might not be unusual in 1953- mystics, mendicants, and ascetics are revered in that culture- but a white woman walking the streets and highways of America in 1953 most certainly was. She possessed a fearlessness and faith I deeply respected. I wanted to emulate her if only for an extended weekend.
Aruba is a small island in the Caribbean. The climate is dry and arid. Sunny, clear skies are common year-round. It was the ideal place to replicate a slice of her work. I was in excellent physical condition. I had cycled continents, crossed seas in a kayak, and hiked thousands of miles by foot. I had also fasted up to 14 days, so assumed I was in condition to shoulder the rigors of a long walk. Like Peace Pilgrim, I vowed to walk until given shelter and fast until given food. Unlike her, I shouldered a bag- with my passport, a change of clothes, a journal, cell phone, and snorkeling gear. It was the lightest I had ever traveled.
When the plane landed in Oranjestad, I chose a direction and began my walk. After walking 2 or 3 hours, I decided to rest beachside. It was hot and I wanted to cool off. I stopped a woman and asked for directions. I couldn't speak Papiamento, the creole language of Aruba, but she understood Spanish, Portuguese, and English which I could. She was on her way to work and invited me to stay at her home. It was a token of confirmation. As I had just arrived, however, I declined. I wanted to do more walking. She gave me directions to the beach. I swam and rested. I continued my walk. The sun was high. Soon, I was tired. My feet were sore. I kept walking the perimeter of the island hoping, again, for good fortune- for some kind stranger to offer me shelter or a meal- following Peace Pilgrim's conditions: I could not ask; it had to be given.
As the sun began to set, I searched for a place to rest. I hobbled past an abandoned resort. I followed the path to the beach. "This is perfect," I thought to myself. As soon as I laid down, a swarm of mosquitoes began to circle and feed on me. That was enough to send me scrambling to the nearest hostel. I hadn't lasted a day. She crisscrossed America, Canada, and parts of Mexico for 28 years. How did she do it?
She outlines how she did it. In her book, Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, she clearly explains her path to enlightenment, to fearlessness, to spiritual strength (a free copy of her book is available here).
Fifteen years of preparation lay between her decision to promote peace and her first step on January 1, 1953. Her preparations included 4 purifications, 4 relinquishments, and 4 preparations. The 4 purifications were: 1. purification of the body, 2. purification of thought, 3. purification of desire, and 4. purification of motive. To purify the body, she adopted a vegetarian diet, exercised daily (she was the first woman to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail, a distance of 2,200 miles), prioritized sleep, and spend time outdoors. She avoided sugar, caffeine, drugs, and alcohol. On purification of thought she wrote: "If you realize how powerful thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought." Purification of desire centered on service. Purification of motive demanded ruthless self-examination. She learned to identify and reject self-seeking motives or motives whose end was self-glorification. She was motivated by love, to walk for peace. My motivation to walk was to test my mettle. It was self-centered.
She listed 4 relinquishments: 1. relinquishment of self-will, 2. relinquishment of feelings of separateness, 3. relinquishment of attachments, and 4. relinquishment of negative feelings. To relinquish self-will required subordinating ego to one's higher nature which consisted of doing those good deeds one felt inspired to do and refraining from doing those things which conscience advised against. Relinquishment of attachments included not only possessions and possessiveness but negative habits. Relinquishment of negative feelings and feelings of isolation and separateness followed.
The 4 preparations included: 1. simplification, 2. harmony with natural laws, 3. a right attitude toward life, and 4. the discovery of one's purpose. Adopting a right attitude required radical responsibility and accountability. It was the practice of facing life squarely- without blaming, without excuses- and getting "beneath the surface where verities and realities are to be found." She adopted a meaningful attitude toward problems, which she reframed as opportunities- which included arrests, storms and other dangers.
The steps she outlines to inner peace are clear and logical. While her lifestyle was unusual- challenging convention and introducing new dimensions of what is possible- her philosophy is imminently sensible and the path to peace she details is available for all who wish to do their inner work.
Her message is both timeless and timely. She relinquished willingly what many fear to lose- their illusions, their possessions, their prejudices, their attachments. As the false structures begin to unravel, those who put their faith in illusions are disquieted, unsettled, threatened, afraid. She offers a message of hope and points the way from darkness to light. She is proof that one does not need money, possessions, titles, or conformity to live a rich, joyous, and harmonious life.