Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Last fall I was driving along a country road when I noticed an apparition in faded blue truckin' along the side of the road. Normally my curiosity would have demanded I stop and inquire just what was happening but I was running late for an appointment. I had to go along without stopping but wondered several times in the days afterward " who was that cat ? " Did I really see that or was it one of the acid flashbacks the government always promised me but never paid off on ? Several days later I read a story in the local newspaper reassuring me that I did still maintain my tenuous hold on reality. It was written by my friend Colleen Nelson, an illustrator, artist and free lance writer. I have never been accused of being overly religious but I do like to think I have a spiritual sense that recognizes and embraces the good that exists. My philosophy is that any one that practices love and gentleness has my support. It is nice to know something of the story of Pilgrim George, a good soul who walks the walk. The story Colleen wrote follows:
Drivers on their way to work on Tuesday morning might have spotted a tall, robed figure striding through Rogersville, on State Route 18- 21. The details of his dress were startling against the backdrop of Victorian houses, casual American dressers and passing vehicles – hooded robe, wooden staff and thick sandals keeping a steady pace. Curiosity won out over being late for work for one West Greene resident, who found the nearest place to turn around and drive back to find out what the heck Gandalf was doing out here in the boonies, snowy beard flowing, walking like he had some special place to go. Meet Pilgrim George, not of Middle Earth, but of this earth, just passing through, as he has for more than 30 years. He had left the highway and was sitting in the flowery grasses beside the creek, drinking water from a plastic bottle and being entertained by a young gray tabby cat who was delighted to find a fellow sojourner taking his ease in the natural world. "Yes," he admitted, eyes twinkling in an open, friendly face that was weathered and tan. His glasses were held in place with tape, but the big icon around his neck glistened with gold leaf and there was a wide embossed cross at the top of the staff beside him. A rosary encircled one wrist. "I’m a pilgrim. I left Cameron, West Virginia this morning and I’m on my way to Uniontown." After more than 30 years of making the road his home, from here to Jerusalem and back, Byzantine Catholic church deacon George Florien Walter knows a thing or two about the kindness of strangers. He doesn’t carry money or food, just water and a tent. His pouches and bags contain day-to-day necessities, including needle and thread for on-the-road repairs. His sandals are made of pieces of tire tread, bolts and wire he finds along the berm. The bottom of his wooden staff is shod in tread as well, neatly tied and tacked. On the road, those who are intrigued enough to say hello sometimes supply lifts to the next town and even breakfast at McDonalds. Passersby offer meals and showers, reporters write stories about his travels and those who ask are blessed. "For four months of the year I walk hundreds of miles. The rest of the time I’m a poustinik, a hermit ". His yearly pilgrimage will end at Mount. St. Macrina, near Uniontown. Thousands of Byzantine Catholics from all over America have gathered here for 74 years for a Labor Day weekend of prayer, teachings, fellowship and good food. Walter shouldered his pack and took up the staff the first week of May to visit shrines and celebrate holy days in the states he visited. For many, this chance meeting takes on a religious significance that reaffirms their own faith. Pilgrimages are part of all religions, and as such reflect the universal need to seek a conversion experience – a journey that brings a life change. For thousands of years, the faithful have made the journey on foot to holy places or shrines of special significance. The experience of walking great distances teaches that the way of getting there was just as important as the destination. For Walter, 67, his pilgrimage of faith is a global love affair. He has walked through 41 countries, starting with a pilgrimage from Barcelona to Jerusalem 38 years ago at age 29. He has logged more than thirty eight thousand miles, once traveling up to 30 miles a day, now down to a sage 10 to 12 miles through the heat and sudden showers of May through September weather. The tradition of traveling on foot is preserved at Mount St. Macrina and is honored by the many processions that take place this weekend. Ceremonies are accompanied by the singing of prayers and brightened by pilgrims like Walter, who put on the vestments of antiquity and poverty and walk their connection with divinity. "I’m living the life God intended for me," Walter said simply as he got in the passengers seat and headed to town with his new benefactor, who dropped him off at Bowlby Library and gave him directions to St. Anns Church on High Street. It was just another blessedly giving and receiving kind of day in the life of Pilgrim George.