The world has seen many saints come and go. But by any measure the saint that the world came to know as “Peace Pilgrim”, was truly a shining star in the galaxy of saints that this world has so far produced.
Her life embodied her message. She had nothing new to say, all she did was to honestly put into practice the spiritual truths that we all know very well. Here is what she said, “As I lived according to the highest light I had, I discovered that other light was given; that I opened myself to receiving more light as I lived the light I had.” It was truly a simple message that challenges each one of us. If this simple woman from a poor family was able to stay away from all dogma and live according to core spiritual truths that we all know, and by doing so she could attain great spiritual heights, then why not us?
Outwardly the story of Peace Pilgrim’s life seems to be about a woman who walked the length and breadth of USA to promote peace. She did it 7 times for 28 years and walked more than 45,000 miles in all. That she did so alone, without any organization backing her, and without a penny in her pocket, was in itself a great achievement. But her real story is about the inner peace that she embodied. Her message was about the love and joy that her inner transformation gave her, and that which she wanted all of us to have. She said, “When love fills your life all limitations are gone!”
She walked for us. She was already a spiritually advanced being in 1953, at age 44, when she adopted the name “Peace Pilgrim” and began her first cross-country walk. She walked because she wanted to meet as many people as possible and communicate to them that it was possible to find inner peace. She believed that if enough amongst us found inner peace then in her words, “the world would enter a period of peace and richness of life beyond our wildest dreams.”
The story of this remarkable saint starts in 1908 when she is born as Mildred Norman on a small poultry farm in New Jersey. She was the oldest of three children born to Josephine and Ernest Norman. Mildred grew in a loving close-knit family. The family considered themselves to be “free thinkers” who practiced no religion nor belonged to any church. This was indeed fortunate because it allowed Mildred to grow up in an environment where she could question everything and yet learn the key spiritual truths of her faith. She was a strong-willed child who was such a quick learner that she could become proficient in playing piano after just 6 months of lessons. Academically she maintained the highest grades in high school and because of this she headed the debate team and became an excellent public speaker.
When she was a senior in high school she began wrestling with the question, “What is God?” She went about asking everybody but never got an answer that satisfied her. So she tried another approach, something that would set the course of her life, she took her dog and went out for a long walk and pondered deeply on the question. She then went to bed and slept over it. In the morning she had an answer, though it was still in nascent form and the picture was not fully clear. She realized that everything that is beyond our capacity to collectively comprehend, we humans lump it together and call it God. She then looked around and saw a tree and realized that that was God as it had a creative force that was beyond human capacity. Then she looked up and saw stars in the sky and knew that that also had to be God. She later said, “Intellectually I touched God many times as truth and emotionally I touched God as love. I touched God as goodness. I touched God as kindness. It came to me that God is a creative force, a motivating power, an over-all intelligence, an ever-present, all pervading spirit-which binds everything in the universe together and gives life to everything. That bought God close. I could not be where God is not. You are within God. God is within you.”
This was a turning point for her. She had come up with deep insights on her own simply by taking a long solitary walk in nature. Throughout her life she would use this method to make spiritual progress. Two things separated Mildred from the rest of us. The first was that she was prepared to look for answers herself. The second was that she was prepared to change her life and live according to the Truths she discovered.
The insight about God, bought about an inner transformation in Mildred. Shortly after her school days she found herself with a group of friends and was offered alcohol and tobacco. Resisting the pressure for conformity she declined by saying, “Look, life is a series of choices, but I have the right to make my choices, too. And I have chosen freedom.”
Of-course her spiritual journey was not straightforward and there were many ups and downs. As a young adult she led an active social life, dating, partying, wearing makeup, and buying expensive clothes. 1n 1933 at the age of 25 she eloped and married Stanley Ryder, a businessman, who the family did not approve. Unfortunately the marriage was doomed to fail. He wanted a housewife and children. Mildred had no interest in being tied down. He liked to drink, she did not. He believed in war, she vehemently opposed it. They steadily grew apart.
During this period she gained two major insights: One was that making money was easy. The second insight was that making money and spending it foolishly was completely meaningless. But she did not yet know how to live her life meaningfully. Like most of us she struggled to put her spiritual insights into practice. In addition, she could not reconcile the fact that while she lived a life of relative plenty there were people in the world who were starving and had nothing. One night, in 1938, to find out the answers to the spiritual turmoil within, she went out on a walk. She walked all night through the woods. Then she came upon a moonlight glade and prayed. She later describes her experience:
“I felt a complete willingness, without any reservations, to give my life – to dedicate my life – to service. “If you can use me for anything, please use me!” I prayed to God. “Here I am- take all of me; use me as you will. I withhold nothing.” Then a great peace came over me. I experienced a complete willingness without reservations whatsoever, to give my life to something beyond my self.”
This was a transformative experience for her and a major milestone in her life. Her next big discovery came not long after her long walk in the woods. She suddenly realized that we all have two opposing tendencies: We have a self-centered nature and a God-centered nature. She called these as “the lower self” and “the higher self.” She later explained these insights: “Your lower self sees things from the viewpoint of your physical well-being only. Your higher self considers your psychological or spiritual well being. Your lower self sees you as the center of the universe, your higher self sees you as cell in the body of humanity. When you are governed by your lower self you are selfish and materialistic, but insofar as you follow the promptings of your higher self you will see things realistically and find harmony with yourself and others. The body, mind and emotions are instruments which can be used by either the self-centered nature or the God-centered nature. The self-centered nature uses these instruments, yet it is never fully able to control them, so there is a constant struggle. They can only be fully controlled by the God-centered nature. When the God-centered nature takes over, you have found inner peace.”
This insight was useful to understand where the inner struggle came from. She now also understood the role of free will in our lives. She said that free will allows us to choose between living according to the wishes of the lower self or living according to the wishes of the higher self. The next 15 years became her years for preparation. This was when she learned to give complete control to her “God center.” (For more details please see: Steps Toward Inner Peace) Her first big move in this direction came in 1942 when her husband got drafted into World War II. She opposed war and asked her husband to become a conscientious objector. He refused and as a result she declined to meet him or see him. Finally he met another woman in Europe and in 1946 the divorce was finalized.
She realized that in order to conform to the wishes of her “God-center” she had to let-go of all attachments. This was because all her attachments came from her “lower-self”. She also realized that all her wants came from her “lower self” so she had to live at the level of needs and not at the level of her wants. She completely changed her life to live according to her beliefs. She gave up all unnecessary possessions and reduced her wardrobe to just two dresses and one pair of shoes. She learnt to live at just $10 per week. Her life was restructured to “live to give instead of living to get”. About this period of her life she later said, “It took the living quite awhile to catch up with the believing, but it finally did. And when it did, a progress began which never ended. As I lived up to the highest light I had, higher and higher light came to me.”
As she changed her life to conform to her beliefs she made steady spiritual progress with many ups and downs, but finally she came to a wonderful experience that she describes as “mountaintop-experience” as follows:
“That came when I was out walking in the early morning. All of a sudden I felt very uplifted, more uplifted than I had ever been. I remember I knew timelessness and spacelessness and lightness. I did not seem to be walking on the earth. There were no people or even animals around, but every flower, every bush, every tree seemed to wear a halo. There was a light emanation around everything and flecks of gold fell like slanted rain through the air.”
Formerly she used to feel oneness with all humans. But now she felt oneness with everything: Oneness with all creatures, oneness with the air and water, and oneness with all of creation. Soon she figured out how she could return to this “mountaintop-experience” and stay there as long as she pleased, slipping out only occasionally.
Not long after this experience she got the inspiration for her mission in life as she sat high upon a hill overlooking rural New England. She describes her vision as follows:
“I saw, in my mind’s eye, myself walking along and wearing the garb of my mission….I saw a map of the United States with the large cities marked, and it was as though someone had taken a colored crayon and marked a zigzag line across, coast to coast and border to border, from Los Angeles to New York City. I knew what I was to do. And that was a vision of my first year’s pilgrimage route in 1953!”
Mildred now knew how she was going to spend the rest of her life. She would be now entering into a new phase of life that would demand the in ultimate physical endurance and spiritual strength. Would she be up to it? Could a simple woman walking all over the country make a difference?
The story continues: A Test Of A Pilgrim.
Credits:This has been written by Raj Shah and edited by Ketna Shah.
Peace Pilgrim Web Site
On NPR: Peace Pilgrim’s 28-Year Walk For ‘A Meaningful Way Of Life’