It’s been said that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step. It is an axiom to which 54-year-old Ann Sieben certainly can attest. The Denver resident has trekked more than 33,000 miles on foot through 48 countries since December 2007.
Sieben is a consecrated layperson and founder of the Society of Servant Pilgrims, an official association of the Christian faithful approved by the Archdiocese of Denver in 2016. One of the group’s main goals is to encourage the ancient tradition of foot pilgrimages to various Catholic holy sites.
“The role of the servant pilgrim is to travel through the world, village to village, by foot, in a demonstration of faith and with the daily effort to engage people and meet them where they are at in their own lives,” Sieben said.
A gradual journey
Sieben’s calling to a life of pilgrimage is what often is called a late vocation. She told Our Sunday Visitor that for 20 years she had a very successful and rewarding career as a nuclear remediation engineer. She was living in Europe when she took a yearlong sabbatical from her job.
“I was curious about the well-known pilgrim route of the Camino de Santiago (‘Way of St. James’),” she said. “It only took me 11 days of walking from Leon to Santiago (Spain), and I was hooked. I turned around, obtained proper equipment and went to London to begin a winter pilgrimage along the famed Via Francienga.”
She continued: “After three months, I arrived in Rome during Holy Week and was absorbed by the whole experience. I was hesitant to return to my profession. With no family obligations, one pilgrimage led to another and then another, and the idea of returning to my job was even more unattractive.”
She added that true confirmation on this new life came some time after. She was in Jerusalem in the Upper Room, traditionally believed to be the site of the Last Supper.
“I was alone and had an experience of sheer grace with a profound sense of clarity that I am a pilgrim and will always be a pilgrim as a servant of God and not as a tourist, nor a vagabond,” she said. “The call was clear to go into the world and encounter individuals and greet them in peace. When the Holy Spirit directs you, you can’t say no.”
A rule of life
Sieben is adamant that she walks as a pilgrim of the Church and not as a Catholic tourist. She describes herself as a mendicant pilgrim who relies on the goodness of others to survive day in and day out. She carries no money, GPS or phone. Her livelihood is in a small backpack.
“A pilgrim ought to strive for a journey of profound — even supernatural — meaning,” she said. “A pilgrimage is a time of intense focus and conviction. It has a specific time period and destination. I am not touring a region by foot.”
She added that every day is a new day while on pilgrimage. She rises early for Mass, if possible, and heads out uttering the words, “Here I am, Lord, a humble pilgrim at your service.”
She tries to avoid roads when possible and listens to the locals to get the lay of the land and an idea of where to stay at night. A typical day’s walk is 25-30 miles.
“My day is spent in movable contemplation,” Sieben said.
As evening closes in, she presents herself on the doorsteps of a parish rectory, a private house, a monastery or a nearby schoolhouse. She said that often the key to finding a place to stay is her “passport” — a piece of card stock that is stamped and signed by people she’s stayed with along the way.
“It gives me validity. It’s an equalizer as it shows people that I am really a pilgrim and not a wackadoodle roaming around. I can show them that I stayed here and there over the last week and the local bishop signed off on it, for instance.”
Sieben said that a pilgrim passport is nothing new. It goes back to the ninth century, when pilgrims would receive a seal of red wax on a strip of paper from a priest or bishop as a sign of approval for a pilgrimage.
Having stayed the night in 48 countries, Sieben has a plethora of great stories. Oftentimes, her arrival in town is the cause for widespread celebration.
“My appearance in town often prompts an impromptu party with villagers, soldiers or monastics, for instance,” she shared. “People are called to meet me, touch me and hug me. Sometimes they come with prayer intentions or ask for advice or news from the world. It is so often a tender experience to be a part of. I don’t actively preach or evangelize. I’m present to meet the neighbors of the world and, in doing so, demonstrate faith.”
Walk with the saints
While Sieben has crossed the barren deserts of Egypt and the steep, snowy mountains of Europe, she said she’s never feared for her life. That is not to say that her life has not been in jeopardy.
“The greatest dangers I’ve encountered have been with wild animals such as crocodiles and savage canines, as well as men with guns such as narcotraficantes and paramilitary types,” she said. “With a firm attitude that my last pilgrimage will end in heaven, I certainly practice prudence on these journeys, but there is really nothing to be afraid of.”
She said that while she walks alone most of the time, the saints are her constant companions. In fact, most of her pilgrimages are centered around a “saintly” destination such as a shrine or significant church or cathedral.
“My steadfast personal pilgrim saint has been St. Jerome, the pious thinker,” Sieben added. “I am often calling upon his savvy creativity as I have to figure things out on the go. While he wasn’t exactly a pilgrim, he walked to many of the places where I’ve walked in Egypt and the Holy Land.”
The road ahead
As a recognized Church society, Sieben has had to draw up some guidelines and rules related to the Society of Servant Pilgrims. She has defined three categories of pilgrims. First is the companion pilgrim who travels with a pilgrim leader (Sieben) as their guide helping with the route and accommodations. In the spring of this year, Sieben led two companions 335 miles from Mound City, Kansas, to St. Charles, Missouri, in honor of the bicentennial of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who arrived in America in 1818.
Next is the sabbatical pilgrim, who is able to take time off and go on a long pilgrimage alone to fulfill a stated objective. While there has been interest, Sieben has yet to have someone in this category, as scheduling such time off is a big obstacle for most people. Finally, there is the mendicant pilgrim who is consecrated and dedicated to the society for life. So far there is only one — Sieben.
The society also has four pillars: Be a pilgrim, help other pilgrims, talk about pilgrimage and live a devout Catholic life. She explained that this has translated into a schedule where she walks on her own from Nov. 1 until Easter and then does some companion pilgrimages in the spring and fall. In her off-season at home in Denver, she studies languages and cultures, gives talks, repairs equipment and checks in with the archbishop.
She knows her calling is not for everyone, but she is certain that her pilgrim lifestyle is a meaningful contribution to the life of the Church.
“The manner in which I approach pilgrimage is pretty much taken from the words of Jesus,” she explained. “I have abandoned my life so that I can be unencumbered and focused on God and neighbor. I’m one pilgrim, and I’ve encountered at least 100,000 people around the world in 10 years with words of peace, hope and encouragement. That’s significant. The words of Jesus are not just words, they’re messages for living life that apply to all of us.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from Missouri.