Lessons for Our Times from a Modern Mystic

In 1975, I was married to a Vietnam veteran and raising a young daughter. Stories of the atrocities that had taken place in Vietnam came home with the physically and psychologically wounded young men and took a toll on my generation. In the aftermath of the war we struggled with our inner battles, trying yet failing to reconcile the atrocities of war with a deeper sense that humankind was intended for something better.

Like so many others I was struggling for direction and a way to find more meaning in life. And then I met a woman who would become my beloved friend, teacher, and mentor until her death five years later. In the ensuing years she has been called by many a contemporary 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.” To me, the woman who called herself Peace Pilgrim was a mystic, a delightfully dynamic idealist fully living her beliefs and driven by an unshakeable inner connection and wisdom.

From my first introduction I was struck by her simple profundity. Her words brought deepening clarity to principles I wanted to believe in but didn't fully comprehend. Peace spoke unselfconsciously, completely absorbed in relating her story. She had taken on 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 be finding ourselves living in a more peaceful world.”

The lesson of problems in our lives, Peace told us, was to push us toward obedience to universal laws of harmony and compassion, which are exact and unchangeable. We have the free will to obey them or disobey them. Obedience will bring harmony, disobedience will bring more problems. Likewise, when societies get out of harmony problems develop within the society. The purpose of these collective problems is to push the whole society toward harmony.

With so much conflict and division in the current world situation, her message has never seemed more relevant. It is simple and clear: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love. “There is nothing new in the message,” she would say, “the Golden Rule would do as well. The key word for our time is practice.”

She lived her life as an example of what is possible. Her pilgrimage was not a crusade, which connotes violence, 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 Pilgrim pointed that out peace is not a political issue. She talked about it as 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. As I read over the three peace petitions that Peace carried with her to gather signatures in the 1950's I think how appropriate, with the substitution of changing places and people, they are once again. The first called for an immediate peace in Korea. The second, directed to the President and congressional leaders, requested the installation of a Peace Department. The third was a plea to world leaders and the United Nations for world disarmament and reconstruction.

Peace's simple message was really just that the way of peace is the way of love. Love is the greatest power on earth. Her words speak through time:

There is such a great need for constructive peace action. We live at a crisis period in human affairs. Those of us who are living today face a very momentous decision, for the tide of world affairs now drifts in the direction of war and destruction. Those who wish to choose peace must act meaningfully for peace and become a part of the stirring and awakening which has begun and is accelerating. And help to accelerate it sufficiently to turn the tide. Ultimate peace begins within; when we find peace within there will be no more conflict, no more occasion for war. If this is the peace you seek, purify your body by sensible living habits, purify your mind by expelling all negative thoughts, purify your motives by casting out any ideas of greed or self-glorification and by seeking to serve your fellow human beings. Desire to know and do God's will for you, and inspire others to do likewise. Some will prefer to work on an interim peace—a setting up of mechanisms to resolve conflicts in a world where conflicts still exist. If this is the peace you seek, work on a world scale for world disarmament and reconstruction, for world thinking which will place the welfare of the human family above the welfare of any nation. work on a national scale for changing the function of the so-called Defense Department from destruction to construction. So much constructive work is needed among the less fortunate peoples in the world, and for the adjustment of our economy to a peacetime situation. Of course you can work on inner peace and world peace at the same time. A few really dedicated people can offset the ill effects of masses of out-of-harmony people, so we who work for peace must not falter. We must continue to pray for peace and to act for peace in whatever way we can, we must continue to speak for peace and to live the way of peace; to inspire others, we must continue to think of peace and know that peace is possible. What we dwell upon we help to bring into manifestation.