Source: Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America (ROCOR)
In our world bursting with distraction and ever-increasing darkness, the Lord plainly defines the path of eternal life: self-denial, taking up one’s Cross, and following Christ. Rarely are we able to do so literally.
From September 4-7, 45 pilgrims walked from Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan in a 22-mile, two-day Cross Procession to St. Vladimir Russian Orthodox Church in Ann Arbor. The Youth Committee of the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America sponsored the pilgrimage with the blessing of His Grace, Bishop Peter, the diocesan administrator. Parishioners of St. Vladimir’s parish provided the necessary support to make it a reality. For all who participated, it was an utterly unique, remarkably intense, spiritual experience – a concentrated dose of living out the Lord’s command with each step taken.
The Labor Day holiday marks the last hurrah of summer for most Americans, a weekend to be measured by burgers, beer and comfortable self-indulgence. The diet of the pilgrims was of a different sort: active and sustained prayer spiced with blisters and sore muscles which humbled their bodies yet inspired their souls.
This extraordinary journey bore spiritual fruit due in part to the intercession of its Heavenly patron, St. Peter, metropolitan of Kiev and Moscow. Sunday, September 6 was the feast day of both St. Peter and the wonder-working icon of the Theotokos which he painted. Various pilgrims carried both icons the entire route. This year also marks 700 years since St. Peter officially moved the seat of the Russian Church to Moscow.
Pilgrims from Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky and New York joined a large group of faithful from Michigan on Friday, September 4 at Holy Dormition Monastery. Abbess Gabriella graciously welcomed everyone, who enjoyed the generous accommodations of the monastery guesthouse. Fr. Daniel Marshall, DCMA Youth Committee chairman and rector of St. George parish in Cincinnati, Ohio served the moleben before the Start of Any Good Work, concluding with a prayer to St. Peter. Fr. Gregory Joyce, diocesan secretary and rector of the host St. Vladimir parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan, then greeted pilgrims. He reviewed safety procedures, which called for a tight procession both preceded and followed by vans carrying water, snacks, and first aid, as well as the pilgrims’ tents, sleeping bags, and suitcases. Saturday morning began with a prayerful Liturgy sung by the monastery sisters and a tasty monastery trapeza. Many of the pilgrims confessed and communed.
God provided a downpour to bless the start of the procession; steady showers continued for the next four hours. Undeterred by the weather, the pilgrims set out while singing the prayerful refrains: “O Most-Holy Theotokos, save us!”, “O holy hierarch father Peter, pray to God for us!”, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit”, “Both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
These prayers continued for more than 70% of the walk, echoing in English and Slavonic along the rural roads of southern Michigan. As the day wore on and rain gave way to 88° F and 95% humidity, the character of these refrains changed from intentional to necessary: without them, the walking became a chore; with them, Grace enlivened the pilgrims – Grace sufficient to overcome fatigue, to assist in carrying heavy banners or icons, and to mask the discomfort of feet trudging along in rain-soaked shoes and socks.
The Grace of these prayers, sent up in praise of The Creator, likewise animated His creation. During one of the more difficult periods on Saturday, a distant troika of grand horses raised their heads and galloped across their pasture to trot alongside the pilgrims, as if joining in the common praise of the Lord. Shortly thereafter, three cows and then three more horses did the same. Clearly enamored with the spirit of the procession, they all walked beside us to the last possible moment. When a single donkey then joined in, the Lord’s triumphal procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday involuntarily came to mind: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Indeed!
This abundant Grace, provided by the spiritual aid of St. Peter and the Lord’s Most-Pure Mother, ensured that all the pilgrims safely arrived at the Waterloo Farm Museum shortly before sunset, having carried their Crosses for more than eight hours. Pilgrims quickly assembled their tents and then dined on a meal prepared under the direction of St. Vladimir parish head sister, Leta Nikulshina. Pilgrims whose feet had become blistered or had other physical difficulties were well attended to by Svetlana Sokolova, a parishioner of St. Vladimir’s. An historic hay barn, with its tall doors thrown open, provided the venue for an open-air service. While legs stiffened, hymns to the Resurrected Lord and St. Peter rose through the air, chanted by Subdeacon Methodius Chwastek and Reader Alexander Rusakov, along with a volunteer choir.
Sunday morning’s Divine Liturgy nourished the pilgrims with a special Grace. Without iconostasis, standing in a simple, century-old barn made largely of hand-hewn boards, this gathering of the faithful called to mind the early Christians. We had walked here – eight hours through rain and heat – and though a car could travel that distance in 20 minutes, we had gotten to a place no vehicle could reach. As the morning sun illumined the altar table and warmed the Gifts, the prayers of the faithful mixed with a chorus of birds. When the communion verse was finished, a reverent, comfortable silence fell upon all. As the priest communed and the faithful watched, we experienced our true destination: The Lord was there to sustain us all. Humbled by sore feet and stiff muscles, yet lifted up by the Grace He bestows upon sinners through the prayers of His-Most Pure Mother and St. Peter, we tasted… and ate… and it was good.
A number of pilgrims had struggled greatly to reach our destination on Saturday, several had taken ill after our arrival and many awoke with very sore feet Sunday morning. Nineteen miles remained to reach St. Vladimir’s, but the decision was made to shorten the walk to six miles in order that everyone be able to complete it. The vans shuttled the group forward at which point the procession and prayerful refrains resumed. We reached St. Vladimir’s by 6 p.m., giving thanks to God for His great mercy to us sinners!
Tents were pitched in a level grassy field beyond the construction work for the new St. Vladimir church and everyone enjoyed another delicious meal from the parish sisterhood. After evening services, the pilgrims gathered around a campfire, sharing impressions and cementing new friendships. Fr. Gregory led the liturgy Monday morning, at which the faithful once again communed. After assembling for a final meal as a pilgrimage family, a Thanksgiving Moleben was served. Particular thanks is due to Subdeacon Methodius Chwastek, who thoroughly scouted out the pilgrimage route in advance and coordinated the logistics of the procession.
Promising to stay in touch, the faithful went their separate ways. The DCMA Youth Committee plans a similar pilgrimage next year over Labor Day weekend at a different location in the diocese. Said one participant, “That was the best Labor Day I have ever had.”