Posted September 17, 2012:
Pilgrim George

by Paulette Curran.

Pilgrim George came to Madonna House recently; he was a most unusual visitor. For one thing, he walked here. His appearance, too, was unusual. Bearded and wearing a robe made of large denim patches, he arrived carrying a staff topped with a cross and a few small bells.

Pilgrim George is a pilgrim—much like the kind you read about in Russian literature, the kind our foundress Catherine Doherty used to tell us about, the kind that walked the roads of old Russia. And he’s been at it for a long time.

Now 71 years old, Pilgrim George has been pilgrimaging for 42 years. He has walked 40,000 miles (64,400 km.) across 41 countries.

In this day and age, his is almost a unique vocation. He knows of only two others in the entire world, and for at least one of them, it has not been a lifelong vocation.

This was Pilgrim George’s third visit to MH Combermere, and this time, he stayed with us for nine days. He was a quiet, joyful presence, working all day with the men, fully taking part in our life.

When he left, he walked to Ottawa. Madonna House was part of this year’s Canadian pilgrimage, which includes St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal and the Canadian Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario.

Born in Hampton, Pennsylvania in 1941, George Walter had an ordinary childhood for that time: Catholic parents, Catholic neighborhood, Catholic school. As a child, he never heard of pilgrims.

Feeling drawn to the priesthood, he attended a seminary high school, and counting that time, he was in seminary for twelve years.

He was ordained a deacon, but on the brink of ordination, he decided not to become a priest, at least not at that time. He knew something was missing in his life, and he felt he could not go on. How could he lead people to God when he felt confused and empty? How could he be a priest when he had never experienced God?

His bishop suggested he take a year’s leave of absence and go on a pilgrimage.

So he headed for California, and after a time of drifting around in the counter-culture of the ‘60s, he ended up in the Colorado mountains—sleeping there in the open air. (It was August, and the weather was very mild.)

He was desperately searching for God, and one day, God came through with a tremendous grace which penetrated the darkness.

George’s heart cried out: "Man did not make these mountains. God did. God planted these trees and painted the sky. And the God who made the mountains made me. I’m not here because of my parents. I am not an accident. I’m here because I have a loving Father who created me. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

This was the first time God was real for him. Before that, God was someone he’d read about in books, someone others had told him about. Now he had experienced him for himself. Now he knew that life had a purpose and that purpose was to return to his Father in heaven.

"How?" he asked. The answer came, "Jesus is the way."

How would he come to know Jesus? This answer took longer to come, but it too, came: by pilgrimaging to Jerusalem where Jesus was born and lived, not by flying, but by walking.

So two years later, in 1970, George made his first pilgrimage: from Barcelona, Spain, to Jerusalem, a distance of about 4,000 miles (6,441 km.). It took him one year.

During that time, he read the Gospel of Luke. He had read it before, but this time, it came alive. Jesus became for him, not just a historical person but someone alive in his heart.

And he learned that Jesus wanted him to do more than just believe. He wanted him to give him his heart, to trust him, and to let him lead and guide him.

The pilgrimage also taught George to walk in faith, for throughout it, God always provided for his needs. Though he had brought on the trip almost nothing, he was never in want. He started the pilgrimage with $150 and when he finished, he had $10 left.

In Jerusalem, he walked to the various places where Jesus had been, and he prayed to know what to do next. The word of God came to him: "This pilgrimage is over, but you will be a pilgrim for the rest of your life. You will be a pilgrim in the desert of the city of men."

But it took a time of further searching before the way became clear.

In 1974, he moved into a tiny hut that belonged to his home parish in Pennsylvania. There he spent four days a week in prayer and three days working for the parish.

In 1975, he came across Catherine Doherty’s book, Poustinia, and discovered that that particular type of life was what he had already been living.

He had, in fact, a double vocation: pilgrimage and poustinia. He walks in the summer and lives in poustinia in the winter.

After the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the next one was to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Then from there, he was moved to walk to California. His heart was drawn to Russia, but it was not possible to enter that country at that time. God made it clear that he was to stay in Monterey, California, for three years, and His hand was in the timing.

At the end of those three years, Pilgrim George walked to Anchorage, Alaska. Shortly before he arrived, Communism fell and the door was opened for him to go to Russia.

Members of a United Church parish in Anchorage, Alaska, paid his plane fare to Magadan, from which he walked to Irkutsk, a journey of about 3,000 miles (4,830 km.).

The people he encountered along the way understood his vocation. They told him they had heard of pilgrims, but in Communist Russia, they had never seen one. They were amazed that the first pilgrim they met was an American!

But Russia was not his only goal. In response to the Pope’s invitation to everyone to pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the year 2000, the Jubilee Year, Pilgrim George was on his way to Jerusalem.

He arrived in Europe well before the Jubilee Year. So he took a detour—a detour of approximately 6,000 miles (9,662 km.)—visiting Marian shrines throughout Europe.

On August 15, 1999, he arrived in Jerusalem—eight years after he had left Anchorage.

Pilgrim George, not surprisingly, is often asked, "Where are you going?" He answers, "to heaven."

This answer probably surprises most people, but, in truth, a pilgrim, by his very existence, points to a reality beyond this earth.

For a pilgrim possesses only the most minimal material things and, like the Son of God, he has nowhere to lay his head. Most of the time, he does not know where his next meal will come from. Where is his security, what is the source of his peace, if not in something beyond this world?

Though almost none of us is called to literally live that way of life, an encounter with a pilgrim reveals the essence of what we are called to: to put our security in God.

Living in radical poverty and facing danger every day, the pilgrim is a witness that trusting in God for all we need is possible. And his joy is a witness to the freedom this trust brings.

A pilgrim is an icon of freedom. A pilgrim is an icon of Christ.

It was a great blessing and grace to have Pilgrim George with us for a few days.


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