April 26, 2015
FATHER JIM GOWER
Some years ago now, on one of our many trips to Bar Harbor, Anne and I learned that a semi-retired priest that we knew was filling in at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Ellsworth. His name was Father Jim Gower, and we had met him through the activities of Pax Christi, the Catholic Peace Fellowship, whose name means, “the Peace of Christ.” Father Jim was known throughout the Diocese of Maine for his work for peace, and we had been inspired by him over the years. So we decided that particular weekend to attend Mass at St. Joseph’s Church so we could greet him and catch up. He celebrated Mass in his usual personal way, spoke in the homily about the importance of peace and greeted everyone in his usual jovial manner. We hung back until we could talk to him alone. We chatted, brought him up to date on what we were doing and he filled us in on what he was doing in his semi-retirement. And then he said something remarkable: “In the end,” he said, as he gestured all around him, “it all comes down to peace. That is why Christ came and that is what God wants.”
I was stunned, and his words have stuck in my mind ever since. Anne and I had both tried to promote the cause of peace in various ways, through our church communities (Most Holy Trinity and Second Congregational) and in other ways. We took to heart the beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers…” Anne had done more than I, traveling to Nicaragua as a Witness for Peace during the war there, and helping to coordinate a Pax Christi chapter in Biddeford and Saco. But here was this faithful priest, nearing the end of his ministry, and he was saying the peacemaking was not an adjunct to the Christian faith. It was the Christian faith.
I will confess to you now that I am a “hero wannabe.” Not a hero worshipper, because I worship God alone. But a hero wannabe. As a child I wanted to be a cowboy, because they were the TV heroes of my day. As a matter of fact, there is a photograph of me at age 6 dressed in a cowboy shirt, with a cowboy hat and a holster and a cap pistol. Unfortunately for me, that picture has survived all these years, and someone I know very well has been known to bring it out from time to time. Once she had it blown up and put it on an easel for a surprise birthday party at my place of employment. As a teenager, I was reading the adventures of Bond – James Bond – instead of my class assignments. I definitely had a Walter Mitty kind of personality, living in my imagination.
As an adult, I gradually began to change the kind of people I thought of as heroes. I was drawn to women and men who lived lives of dedication and did their best to make the world a better place. I set a high bar. In addition to Jesus, I looked up to people like…
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Saint Frances of Assisi,
Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador,
Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa,
Mother Teresa of Calcutta,
and others. They inspired me. Their example also chastened me, because they seemed so exalted and, in my own mind, I seemed so lowly and so unproductive in my own contributions to the world. That was the down side of having my heroes. I had to learn that I didn’t need to be them to learn from them and to do what I can, in the time I have, where I am. I am still learning that.
So I want you to keep that in mind and not feel intimidated while I tell you about one more hero of mine. I am not her. I am not going to do what she did. But after I tell you a little bit about her, I am going to ask you to reflect with me on what we can learn from her as we walk our own paths.
Mildred Lisette Norman, was born in 1908 on a small poultry farm in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey. As her biographer, Marta Daniels, writes, “She was the oldest of three children born to Josephine Marie (Rauch) and Ernest Norman. The family was poor, but well respected in the farming community their ancestors had helped to found as a German immigrant agricultural settlement in 1855. The Norman ancestors who fled Germany for America in the mid-19th century [did so] to escape conflict and militarism [back home].
“Mildred Norman grew up in a loving, close-knit family of nine, including six adults….Her father, a carpenter/contractor, and her mother, a homemaker, instilled a strong peace ethic in their children, encouraging discussion of social and political issues and pursuit of moral questions. The family considered themselves ‘free thinkers’ who sought answers through reason and logic. They practiced no religion, did not belong to a church, and did not provide formal religious training to their children.”
Mildred was a bright student. In school she took a business course of study and after graduation she worked in several different secretarial jobs. She was very successful and lived an active social life. In 1933 she married a businessman named Stanley Ryder (they eloped). As Marta Daniels notes, “The marriage was fractious from the start, with a strong clash of wills, styles and goals. Stanley wanted a housewife and children; Mildred did not. He liked to drink; Mildred did not. Stanley believed in war, Mildred did not. With each passing year, the couple grew further and further apart.” Eventually, Stanley was drafted into the Army and went to fight in Europe. After the war, he met a European woman and sued Mildred for divorce. The marriage was over.
Through these experiences, Mildred learned that, with her skills and work ethic, she had a talent for making money, even in the midst of the Depression. She also learned that spending her money foolishly was also easy for her. She thought that there must be more to live for than that. But what was it?
The first part of the answer came in 1938 during a long walk in the woods at night. In her own words, she wrote,
“’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 as you will; 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 myself.’”
Mildred felt a profound sense of relief, but how that would play out she did not yet know.
Mildred went through what she later described as a series of stages toward achieving complete inner peace. She worked, she studied, she prayed, she even became, in 1952, the first woman to through-hike the entire Appalachian Trail. It was on this pilgrimage that her calling came to her in a vision: she would become a pilgrim, walking cross-country for peace. The following year, on January 1, 1953, Mildred Lisette Norman Ryder officially changed her name to Peace Pilgrim and she set out on her first cross-country walk.
It is useful for us to remember the state the world was in at that point in time. At the time she set out, I was 5 ½ years old. The world was still recovering from the carnage of the Second World War. That conflagration had left the world divided between two superpowers: The United States and the Soviet Union. The atomic bomb was a reality and both sides had it. The nuclear arms race had begun. It looked like we were hurtling toward disaster. Anne and I are old enough to remember having drills in school to get under our desks in case there was a nuclear attack, as if that would help. Nobody knew what would happen. As Peace Pilgrim later wrote:
“’I realized in 1952 that was the proper time for a pilgrimage to step forth. The war in Korea was raging and the McCarthy era was at its height. There was great fear at that time and it was safest to be apathetic. Yet, it was most certainly a time for a pilgrim to step forward, because a pilgrim’s job is to rouse people from apathy and make them think….’”
It turned out to be a long journey. As Marta Daniels writes, “She walked for the next 28 years, weaving back and forth across the country, making trips into neighboring countries. From the start, her life on the road – walking, talking, eating, sleeping – was undertaken as a reverent, loving prayer, integrating what she believed were the important things of living, into a penniless, simple, committed existence of love and service.” She walked until given shelter, fasted until given food, accepted hospitality as it was offered and talked to anyone who would listen, talked to them about the love of God and the need for peace. She died in 1981, leaving behind a shining example for us to contemplate.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM HER STORY
So, as I said earlier, we have in this woman, who was both ordinary and exceptional, an example of someone who found God, made herself available to God, was given a vocation and lived it to the fullest. I read and re-read her book and I cringe as my life seems so shallow in comparison. How am I to find something here that I can use? Here is how I try to go about it.
WALKING THROUGH LIFE
I start with the proposition that I am on a pilgrimage, too, that each of us is on a pilgrimage that is all our own. On my pilgrimage, I am walking along the roads of life, figuratively, not literally. The roads of my life will be different from the roads of your life, different from the roads of Peace Pilgrim’s life. But I am walking along the roads of my life on a pilgrimage. The roads of my life have taken me through family life in my childhood and adolescence, through the education I was privileged to have, through marriage, parenthood, divorce and remarriage, through careers in public education, ministry and elder services and volunteer management, and into retirement and becoming a volunteer in my own right. As I have traveled these roads I have had the opportunity to be a pilgrim of peace. Looking back, I think I have been a pilgrim of peace sometimes, and other times not. But I am still on the road, I am still a pilgrim, I will have more opportunities to be a peacemaker. With God’s help, I can still be of use. I believe the same is true for each of us. How might that work?
When the word “peace” comes us, the tendency seems to be to think first of world peace. Since world peace is such a complicated matter, thinking of it first can induce a sense of discouragement. But Peace Pilgrim was very firm in her belief that being a peace maker in the wider world is a series of steps. I think of it as a bull’s-eye, like one used for archery practice. The small solid circle in the center is me, as an individual. According to Peace Pilgrim, the work of peacemaking has to start there, within each individual. For me, it involves looking inside, looking honestly at those things within me that disturb me, that make me angry, that cause me to be in conflict inside myself and with others, and to lift these things to God and to ask for help in overcoming these conflicts and making whatever changes in my life are needed to remove them. It is hard but necessary work.
Then, from that basis, Peace Pilgrim would say, a pilgrim can spread that inner peace outward to touch others.
PEACE IN THE FAMILY
The next concentric circle to the center for me would be my family. Someone once said, “Every happy family is the same. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The truth is, though, that even happy families can have conflict within them. It is not the presence or absence of conflict that is critical; it is how conflict is dealt with that is crucial. In my family of origin, the prevailing mode of dealing with conflict was to not address it, but instead to sweep it under the rug. In the long run, that doesn’t work. I have trouble dealing with conflict to this day because of what I learned as a child. A peacemaker, however, can be a resource in a family to help family members talk about and address conflicts and find solutions. How can I be a peacemaker in my family?
PEACE IN THE CHURCH
Or perhaps I can be a pilgrim of peace in the church. I have to tell you that I have been impressed so far with the openness and peacemaking that take place within Union Church. Things seem to get worked out in a peaceful, productive way. But, realistically, I am sure that some people feel some sense of conflict here, just like they would in any association that brings human beings together. Are there conflicts that are simmering under the surface? Is there a role for me to play in helping find ways to resolve them?
PEACE IN THE COMMUNITY
I think it is fair to assume that there is some conflict within any community where we happen to live. Again, as human beings, we are going to have different ideas about how things should be, and this can lead to conflicting goals, or conflicting solutions, or conflicting ambitions. I met a man at a birthday party recently who works for a local government. He was amazed that I knew about the political conflicts within that local government. Most people don’t pay attention, he said, and there is a need for more people to get involved in local government to help find new solutions. He didn’t persuade me to run for office, at least not yet, but he did point out the role available for pilgrims of peace to make things better.
PEACE IN THE COUNTRY
There is a need for pilgrims of peace in the country. I first became interested in politics and social issues when I was still an adolescent. In all the time since then, I have never seen the public debate as vicious as it is today. All too often, common sense and reason seem to have been taken out of the equation. I look around in vain for the voices and candidates who can restore the civil discourse and help our country move forward, but the forces of the media explosion and money in politics seem to make that very difficult. In spite of that, however, I must not give up hope. Pilgrims of peace are needed to help turn things around. When talking about the country, it may seem too overwhelming to contemplate. But I must. Peacemakers are needed. What positive forces, noble causes and good people can I support, with finances, time or participation? These are questions that are important to ask.
PEACE IN THE WORLD
And finally, there is peace in the world. Talk about overwhelming. Not only are nations fighting with nations, but terrorists are wreaking senseless violence on people all over the world. I still watch the news, because I think it is important to keep up, but it sickens me and challenges my faith and sometimes makes it hard for me to pray. In spite of that, though, it is important that the cause of peace be pursued. I can raise my voice for the cause of peace. I can speak out for peace. I can tell my elected representatives that I care about peace. I can support charities that work for peace. I can pray for peace. It is only when there is an outcry for peace that peace will come. Can I be a pilgrim for peace on a planetary scale?
OUR MANY STEPS – DO LITTLE THINGS WITH GREAT LOVE
Our friend Michael Chase stated in his first book that it was important for each of us to ask ourselves the question, “Am I being kind?” A parallel question might be, “Am I sowing the seeds of peace?” I have outlined some things that I think about. This is not a prescription, but maybe some of them resonate with you. None of us can do everything. But each of us can do something, and together we can do lots of things.
Mother Teresa said that we while we can’t do everything, it is important to do the little things we can with great love. To me, that includes being a pilgrim for peace. There is much to be done and I can’t do it all. But as I walk along the roads of my life, I pray that I can walk those roads for peace, cultivating peace within myself, and sharing peace with all I meet and in the world as a whole. That is the hope that I take from the witness of Mildred Lissette Norman Ryder, Peace Pilgrim.