What does it mean to be a pilgrim? That question animates this Harper’s essay, which profiles Ann Sieben, founder of the Society of Servant Pilgrims, who regularly sets out on months-long walks with no money, no phone, and an enduring faith in the goodness of strangers. Through Sieben’s story, author Lisa Wells considers her own desire to make a journey:
As spring gave way to summer, I began to plan an “assignment” that would justify taking leave of my domestic cloister. Ann was reluctant to participate at first. “On the one hand, a silent pilgrim does the world no good,” she told me early on. “However, I also feel strongly that who I am is unimportant. What I do has to be radiated, but who I am isn’t the thing of it.”
I asked her what “the thing of it” might be.
“Shrouding myself in the shadow of my insignificance in order to arrive wherever the holy spirit directs me — is kind of the thing of it.”
The abrupt appearance and disappearance of the mendicant pilgrim is part of her power. She emerges from a dense wood, in the dark of night, in a snowstorm; or she appears on the horizon in a remote desert; or she’s on your doorstep, with her white hair and glacial eyes, asking for water. Because the experience is singular, it is preserved in the memories of those she meets, never to be dissipated by quotidian updates. Anonymity allows her to become an archetype. The archetype burns in the mind, numinous, and the encounter goes on unfolding after she leaves. That was the hope, anyway.
A pilgrimage begins in the heart, Ann says. You must first desire to make a sacred journey, then you must commit to your destination, “because it’s gonna get tough. You have to need to get there.” Cultivating an “openness to uncertainty” is the third component. A pilgrimage can’t be planned to the minute; you have to get out of the way and make room for divine intercession.