“Everyday Pilgrims” by Jolie Olivetti – September 30, 2018
Ten years ago, I had a rough year that I wanted to put behind me.Like so far behind me it would be across the state of Massachusetts.
So I shaved my head and got on my bicycle in Boston, and biked to Great Barrington.
It was my first time camping alone and I felt fragile and anxious. I recall my first evening by myself, crouched in the tent with my headlamp, pouring over a bike map, despairing that I could not seem to plot a route, all the lines swimming like squiggles before my eyes.
On this map I had, there were pink lines that noted roads not considered ideal for biking, there were bold lines to show highways where bikes are simply not permitted, and green lines that were best bike routes.
I kept trying to link the green lines, but I couldn’t find a course that would take me where I needed to go.
I was desperate for a clear path to be laid out before me.
I felt stranded and helpless. I couldn’t breathe in the tent.
I unzipped the door and toppled out, making something of a spectacle of myself to the family roasting marshmallows in the campsite next to mine. I had been avoiding them before, feeling oddly ashamed to be traveling alone, as if they would shun me for being a weirdo biking across Massachusetts by myself.
After bursting out of my tent they all turned to look at me and I had no choice but to wave.
We got to chatting. They were certainly not weirded out by my mode of travel;
instead, they offered me a spot around the campfire and asked me about bike touring – aren’t the hills hard? Are you scared of the dogs? I relaxed, enjoying their company and hospitality.
Later, back inside my tent and full of s’mores, I saw my map in a whole new light. The green lines were no longer the only option. Suddenly the map was covered in potential routes. In my earlier desperation for the green lines to intersectand form one clear way forward, I had completely missed the fact that there were also gray lines covering the map, lines that represented other roads, other possible routes, perfectly acceptable for cycling.
Immediately the landscape shifted from inhospitable to abundant, from lonely to exciting and ripe for exploration. You could say I had just been misreading the map, and needed to look at the map key more closely.
But really I couldn’t see all the possibilities it offered me until I embraced my choice to travel alone and opened myself up to adventure.
Sure it’s unpredictable and potentially dangerous to travel solo, especially as a woman, but life is unpredictable and potentially dangerous, and we just move through everything as best we can.
During the first day of that bike trip I had been running away, trying to shake off a bad year. After my night alone I instead found myself comfortable in my own company and reveling in the unknown road ahead.
I had another revelation on this bike trip. I kept ending up on dirt roads. It was excruciating, bumping up and down, in my exhausted brain during that first day all I could think was, god help me I’m wasting all this energy bumping up and down rather than moving smoothly forward!
After that epiphany with the map, I found myself on a dirt road the next day and it dawned on me: it’s OK to bump up and down a little bit.
Why am even I doing this at all? To get there as fast as possible? Or to be here, enjoying the ride? I can take my time. My bike isn’t going to break because of some gravel. Just like when the gray lines on the map suddenly revealed themselves to me as potential routes, dirt paths were suddenly a fun challenge, na chance to get way off the beaten track, to go where no car could go.
We said together in our chalice lighting this morning: “we make the road by walking” – or rolling, or crawling, or however we move in the world. And, I would add, sometimes the road makes us. Not only did I to make my road by forging my own route across the state, but also I had to let the journey reveal something about myself to me. For this reason I think of my bike ride across Massachusetts as a pilgrimage. I learned how to be present, I got in touch with the source of my strength, my creativity, I opened myself up to hospitality and adventure. I made the road, and the road made me.
My most heartfelt and spontaneous prayers usually come to me when I’m on an airplane that’s about to take off.I noticed this a couple months ago, when I was on an airplane for the first time in more than 2 years. I caught myself as the engines got louder on the runway, getting very quiet and focusing very intently out the window and thinking abouthow grateful I am to the earth for taking care of me and my family, and how much I love Boston, the city where I live and where my first child was just born last year, and how I hope everyone in the airplane arrives to our destination safely.
It was a powerful moment, a mixture of intense peace and deep pleading urgency, a kind of aching in my heart. I took a breath afterwards and realized, oh, that was praying!
I’m telling you about prayer in this sermon about pilgrimage, because prayer is linked to pilgrimage. To be a pilgrim is to move prayerfully through the world, to be in search of something, pay homage to something. It’s a journey with heavy purpose. Just like when we pray, as pilgrims, we strive to connect with the source of all, to be fully present to the yearnings of our hearts and the wonder of the world.
I witnessed pilgrimage when I visited Mexico City a few years ago, on a travel seminar during divinity school. We were learning about Our Lady of Guadalupe, an apparition of the Virgin Mary that came to a Nahuatl man named Juan Diego in 1531. We went to Tepeyac, the hill in Mexico City where the Lady first asked Juan Diego too build a chapel in her honor. Tepeyac is now a major pilgrimage site, with historic and modern cathedrals, monuments, frescoes, reliquaries, chapels, and more covering this holy hill.
It’s astonishingly beautiful – the old buildings, bright pink and red flowers, the view of the city, the steep tiled steps up to the tippy top where the original church is said to have been built.
Huge crowds climb the hill to visit the place every day, attend masses, light novenas, pray. There are prayer services for people struggling with addiction and other illnesses, for migrants or the families of migrants. I saw people traveling alone and in huge groups, I saw nuns, families, babies, great-grandparents.
Standing on the cobblestones in front of the main cathedral, I saw a man crossing the huge courtyard on his knees, crying. He must have come a very long way, as many do, traveling on foot from across Mexico and beyond to approach the holy relic – Juan Diego’s cloak that bears the image of the Lady of Guadalupe, one of the miracles of this apparition.
A small group, perhaps his wife and children or other relations, flanked this man and followed him, walking slowly to match his pace on his knees. He wept and held a rose.
I do not know anything about this man and his pilgrimage. Was he there in search of a blessing? To pray for something? Out of pure devotion? What I do know is what he taught me: sometimes, life brings you to your knees. The journey is hard, humbling, but we are not alone, and we carry roses as we go.
One night in 1938, a woman named Mildred Lisette Norman went on a long walk in the woods all night long. Born in 1908 in New Jersey, Mildred worked as a secretary near her hometown. That night she walked in the woods was a turning point for her. She began to simplify her life, and she started working for peace organizations.
When she was almost 50 years old, she relinquished all her possessions, donned a pair of sneakers and a blue tunic stitched with her new name: Peace Pilgrim, and began walking across the country to spread her message of peace.
By 1964 she had walked 25,000 miles.
She stopped counting miles and instead counted sneakers – she went through 29 pairs over the next 17 years of walking, on six and a half different coast-to-coast pilgrimages for peace. She didn’t just walk, she also wrote extensively and taught and all over the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, encouraging people to consider simplicity and inner peace as part of fostering world peace.
Peace Pilgrim’s endless walking might seem bizarre, maybe even a little ineffectual. What can one kind, penniless woman walking across the country possibly have to do with disarmament?
I saw her tunic and sneakers on display several years ago at the Peace Abbey in Sherborn, a place that which many of you may have been familiar with: a center for various endeavors like administrating a national registry of conscientious objectors and memorializing peace advocates. Sadly, peace is not always a lucrative undertaking; since my visit several years ago,
The Peace Abbey had to be sold and is now luxury condos. This brings me back to my point about Peace Pilgrim.
Sometimes the call for peace and simplicity comes across as a whisper in what may seem like a firestorm of militarism and profit.
It’s overwhelming and hard to know what to do.
But we needn’t all transform ourselves into pilgrims for the rest of our lives, put on a blue tunic and walk for tens of thousands of miles if we believe in peace.
As Peace Pilgrim wrote, “Live in the present. Do the things that need to be done. Do all the good you can each day. The future will unfold.”
I shared Linda Hogan’s poem about the river’s journey as our reading today because we are on a journey throughout our lives, not just if we set out in pilgrimage. The poem reads, “The mouth of the river may be beautiful.
It doesn’t remember the womb of its beginning.
It doesn’t look back to where it’s been or wonder who ahead of it polished the rough stones.”
This poem echoes Peace Pilgrim’s words about living in the present, and describes the tension between being present and looking ahead or looking back, between flowing and resisting the journey.
Our existence is like this, one moment we rush freely onwards, the next, we feel like we are straddling a horse that gallops underneath us though we wish we could just stay put.
We are the poet, watching the water crest and describing its journey, and we are also the river itself –
we have issued forth from some mysterious source and we pray we are headed to a beautiful end, but really we know nothing of either. Earlier I said my most sincere prayers arrive when I’m on an airplane.
That’s only partially true.
I have also prayed quite fervently as a hospital chaplain, sitting with patients and their family members, thinking about what we love most, yearning for comfort and healing or for a peaceful transition out of this world.
It is my work as a chaplain that has shown me that we are all pilgrims moving through life, searching for connection and a chance to honor that which we hold most dear along the way.
As a traveler on an airplane, riding my bike alone, or sitting with sick people in the hospital, I have felt like a pilgrim, surrendering to the preciousness and precariousness of life.
To be a pilgrim is to imagine that the world is not primarily inhospitable, stingy, and violent, but rather, that the world is generous, loving, and that it holds the possibility of peace.
My prayer for all of us is that we may find moments when we know this to be true,moments of presence and connection even amidst the busy-ness of our everyday lives. That, even though we may not be able to take a pilgrimage to a holy site or run off to the sea with our pirate mothers like Sailor Sam,
I pray that we may from time to time find ourselves connected with the bigness and unending wonder of this beautiful world, that from time to time, we may feel like we are everyday pilgrims.