Take Your Cross and Follow Me!
Thoughts on the pilgrimage by foot of the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America
In our world, filled with temptations and gathering darkness, the Lord has clearly shown the path to salvation: reject yourself, take your cross and follow Christ. But following this path literally is an opportunity only rarely afforded.
On Septmeber 4-7, 2015, 45 pilgrims formed a procession of the cross for 22 miles from Holy Dormition Convent in Rives Junction, MI, to St Vladimir Church in Ann Arbor. The Chicago and Mid-American Youth Committee of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia organized this pilgrimage with the blessing of His Grace Bishop Peter of Cleveland, Administrator of the Diocese. The parishioners of St Vladimir Church provided the needed support. For all the participants, this event was an utterly unique and surprisingly powerful spiritual experience, following the Lord step by step.
For most Americans, Labor Day means the last celebrations of summer: barbecue, beer and relaxation. These pilgrims chose a different path: active, constant prayer, accompanied by blistered feet and strained muscles which humbled the body but elevated the soul.
This remarkable journey was especially beneficial to the soul due to the heavenly intercession of St Peter, Metropolitan of Kiev and Moscow. Sunday, September 6, was the feast day of St Peter and the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God that he painted. During the entire procession of the cross, the pilgrims took turns carrying this icon. This year also marks the 700th anniversary of the official transfer of the cathedra of the head of the Russian Church to Moscow.
The pilgrims gathered from Illinois, Kentucky and New York, forming a large group of believers in Michigan on Friday, September 4, at Dormition Convent. Its head, Abbess Gabriela, welcomed everyone warmly at the hostel. Priest Daniel Marshall, President of the Youth Committee and Rector of St George Church in Cincinnati, OH, performed a moleben before a good deed and concluded with a prayer to St Peter. Protopriest Gregory Joyce, Secretary of the Diocesan Council and Rector of St Vladimir Church in Ann Arbor, MI, then welcomed the pilgrims. He discussed safety measures for the event, in accordance with which the procession was to continue in a tight formation trailed by minivans carrying water, food and first-aid equipment, as well as tents, sleeping bags and the personal effects of the pilgrims. Saturday morning began with Divine Liturgy, sung by the convent choir, after which a monastic breakfast was offered. Many pilgrims made confession and partook of the Holy Gifts.
The Lord blessed the beginning of the procession with pouring rain, which then lingered for another four hours. Despite the weather, the pilgrims commenced on their way with the singing of “Most-Holy Mother of God, save us!” and “Holy Father Peter, pray to God for us!” as well as “Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen!”
These prayers continued for approximately 70% of the procession in English and Church Slavonic as the pilgrims proceeded along the country roads of Michigan. Later in the day, when the rain was replaced by sweltering heat—88 degrees and 95 percent humidity—without the prayers, it would have been exhausting to continue without them; but the prayers were infused with Divine Grace which overcame exhaustion, helping the pilgrims carry the banners and icons, and imparted strength to the rain-soaked faithful.
The grace of the prayers to the Holy Trinity even touched His Creation itself; during one of the most difficult passages on Saturday, a troika of magnificent horses raised their heads and raced across the pasture to trot alongside the pilgrims, seeming to join them in their praises of God. Later, three cows, an later again three horses did the same. Obviously attracted by the spirit of the procession of the cross, they walked beside as far as they could to the ends of their pastures. Even a mule joined the pilgrims, and one could not but think of the Lord triumphant entrance into Jerusalem on the back of an ass on what we now call Palm Sunday: Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord. Amen!
With this abundant Grace, granted through the intercession of the Mother of God and St Peter, the pilgrims all safely reached the Waterloo Farm Museum before dusk, having walked for over eight hours. They quickly set up tents and began dinner, prepared by Leta Nikulshina, head of the sisterhood of St Vladimir Church. The pilgrims, feet blistering and suffering other ailments, were tended to by Svetlana Sokolova of St Vladimir Church. The historic hay barn with doors flung wide open became the site of a divine service under the open skies. Despite the aching feet, prayers resounded praising the Resurrected Lord and St Peter, intoned by Subdeacon Methodius Cvastek and Reader Alexander Rusakov along with a volunteer chorus.
Sunday Liturgy was especially grace-filled. Lacking an iconostasis, in the century-old barn built of hand-crafted wooden planks, the gathering of faithful was reminiscent of how the first Christians must have worshiped. Walking for eight hours under rain and enveloped by heat, covering a distance an automobile could travel in twenty minutes, the pilgrims found a place it was impossible to reach by vehicle. The morning sun illuminated the altar table and warmed the Holy Gifts, and the choir was accompanied by birdsong. After the pre-Communion prayers, everything fell blissfully silent. Every priest partook of Holy Communion visibly to the faithful, who saw our true predestination: the Lord was among us to nourish us all. Humbled by pains in our feet and strained muscles, but inspired by the Grace of God, granted by the prayers of His Most-Honorable Mother and St Peter, we partook, and ate… and it was good.
Many pilgrims found it difficult to reach the end of Saturday’s leg of the journey, some fell ill, many woke up with feet already aching. Another twelve miles were left to St Vladimir Church, but it was decided to cut the rest of the journey to six miles so that all could complete it. Pilgrims were taken by minivan halfway, after which they resumed their prayer-filled trek. By six in the evening, St Vladimir Church came into sight, and the pilgrims thanked God for His great mercy for us sinners!
Tents were set up on the flat lawn behind the construction site of the new Church of St Vladimir, and everyone dug into a delicious dinner prepared by the parish sisterhood. After evening prayers, the pilgrims gathered at a bonfire, sharing their impressions of the event and forming new friendships. Fr Gregory celebrated Liturgy on Monday morning, where the pilgrims again partook of the Holy Gifts. A final common meal was shared by the pilgrims, followed by a moleben of gratitude.
Special thanks is owed to Subdeacon Methodius, who mapped out the pilgrim’s trek and assumed the organization of the event.
Promising to keep in touch, the pilgrims then all went home. The Youth Committee plans another such pilgrimage next Labor Day in a different diocese. As one of the participants noted: “This was the best Labor Day of my life!”