Lessons from a Modern Mystic

modern mystic

The first time I saw Peace she was striding through the large arch that framed the entrance to the Theosophical Society. I watched her from a grove of trees some distance away and found myself startled by the way she seemed to fill the space that would ordinarily dwarf a large man. It was the spring of 1976. I knew she was the one I had been longing to find. I stood behind the trees, heart swelling, unable to move or greet her.

That evening she spoke to a small intimate group in the formal oak library. Her silver hair was caught up in a ponytail that bounced to the animated rhythm of her words. Obviously a senior, her shining face was creased with wrinkles. When asked her age she said she had long ago put age aside. “I am ageless and in radiant health.” Her energy was vibrant. She talked about the whole peace picture, “peace among nations, peace between groups and individuals, peace with the environment and that very important inner peace, with is where peace begins.”

Subsequently she began talking about a period in her life that she called her spiritual growing up. There were hills and valleys and in the midst of the struggle there came a mountain top experience, the first glimpse of what the life of inner peace was like.” And then she spoke about an illumination experience. “It came when I was out walking one early morning. 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.” Tears stung my eyes as she gave confirmation to what I had experienced in the forest. Everything else disappeared and I was alone in the audience as Peace spoke. “The most important part of it was the realization of the oneness of all creation. The creatures that walk the earth and the growing things of the earth. The air, the water, the earth itself. A oneness with that which permeates all and binds all together and gives life to all. A oneness with what many would call God.”

I was in my late 20’s when I met Peace Pilgrim. In the weeks she spent at the Theosophical Society she had speaking engagements every day around Wheaton and Chicago. I was present at all of them. It was the beginning of a relationship in which she became my beloved friend, teacher and mentor until her death.

In the ensuing years she has been called by many a contemporary saint. Greg Fitzgerald met her as an unexpected guest speaker at his psychology class in 1974. His immediate reaction, was “oh no, a bag lady!” After three to five minutes of listening to her “…my jaw dropped to the floor. The peaceful energy that was coming from her was nothing like I had ever experienced before…The universe has finally introduced me to a TRUE saint!”

Robert Walsh, a professor of psychiatry at U.C. Irvine, described her as “a woman who experienced enlightenment and then single-mindedly dedicated her life to sharing with the world the peace she had found.” I see Peace Pilgrim as an enlightened mystic, a delightfully dynamic idealist fully living her beliefs and driven by an unshakeable inner peace and wisdom.”

From my first introduction I was struck by Peace’s simple profundity. Her words brought deepening clarity to principles I wanted to believe in but hadn’t fully comprehended. She spoke unselfconsciously, completely absorbed in relating her story. She had taken the name Peace Pilgrim in 1952, when she started out as a pilgrim, vowing to walk until mankind learned the ways of peace.

When I met Peace she had been crisscrossing the country on foot for more than two decades, counting more than 25,000 miles in the first ten years. She called it her retirement project. She had started out with great determination and courage during the McCarthy era, when war was raging in Korea and congressional committees considered people guilty until proven innocent. It was a time when there was a great deal of fear and it was safest to be apathetic.

Peace talked about what she called the whole peace picture, “peace among nations, peace between groups and individuals, peace with the environment, and that very important inner peace, which is where peace begins.” She saw the situation in the world around us as a reflection of the collective situation. “In the final analysis, only as we become more peaceful people will we find ourselves living in a more peaceful world.”

With so much conflict and division in the current world situation, her message has never seemed more relevant. She lived her life as an example of what is possible. Her pilgrimage was not a crusade, but a gentle journey of prayer and example. She taught that the Golden Rule and other expressions of the same principle are clear and exacting. They are rules that govern human conduct and they apply as rigidly as the law of gravity. When we disregard these laws in any walk of life, chaos results. “Through obedience to these laws this world of ours will enter a period of peace and richness of life beyond our fondest dreams.”

Peace is not a political issue she would say, but rather it is a universal principle. On the other end of the spectrum, violence or war, no matter how it is provoked, cannot be perceived as a universal principle. It is a destructive force that brings chaos and destruction in its wake. We might rationalize “an eye for an eye” but as Gandhi put it, we are left with a world that is blind. Peace’s message is profound in its simplicity: “This is the way of peace: overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth and hatred with love.”

Cheryl with Peace Pilgrim

peace pilgrim

Cheryl Canfield, CCHT, 2023