Interviewsand Articles


Pilgrim - A Conversation with Petra Wolf

by Richard Whittaker, Jul 2, 2019



photo - R. Whittaker

A chance invitation to Ratna Ling, the Nyimgma Institute’s Conference Center in Northern California came my way (May 2019). Would I be interested in participating in an intimate circle with some of the staff people, and could I give Chris Johnnidis a ride, too? Pavi and Viral Mehta of ServiceSpace would be anchoring the circle. I jumped at the opportunity.
     The drive up U.S. Hightway 1 on a splendid Sunday morning was spectacular. Arriving finally, high along a ridge overlooking the Pacific, I was startled by the beauty of the conference center. Chris and I were met warmly and led to a large room where we took places in the circle.
     Pavi opened with a couple of minutes of silence. And for the next two hours we all participated in the process of authentic sharing. As I listened, I was struck by the sensitivity of each person, most of whom were strangers to me. In the atmosphere of warmth and acceptance that developed, one was touched again and again. But it was one sentence, said in an off-hand way, that led to the following interview.
     “My name is Petra Wolf…” She spoke in a very direct way, without embellishment. Was the accent German?  I listened and then, in a longer sentence, did she say “when I walked across the country”? I wasn’t sure I’d heard it correctly, but I’d wait until after the circle to find out.
     Yes. That’s what she’d said, and it didn’t take me long to ask Petra if she’d be willing to be interviewed. What I didn’t expect was that just a few days later, I’d get a call from Pavi telling me Petra was coming to visit them. Would I like to come over and do the interview? And so the whole thing happened as if it was meant to be.
     At Pavi and Viral’s place, as we were chatting before I began recording, the subject of speaking a foreign language came up. I remarked that often the English phrases conjured by non-native speakers have a special charm. Petra shared an example of her own. She’d met an American while walking the Camino de Santiago. They’d begun getting to know each other. And then a moment came when... Well, we pick it up there. —Richard Whittaker

Petra Wolf:   When I realized that this could be my husband. That was when he took off his beard (shaved) and I said, “Now I see you for the first time with my woman’s eyes and not with my pilgrim’s eyes.” My friend, Renate, said, “No American would say that.”
works:   That’s right, probably not. That’s beautiful, though and very descriptive. Now we just met Sunday at Ratna Ling, so could we begin with you saying a little about your relationship with Ratna Ling—how did it happen and how long have you been connected?

Petra:   My connection is through Renate who I know almost 30 years. She came in contact with the Nyingma Institute ten years ago. I came the first time in 2011, but only for a short visit. I came to visit her also after my husband died to have some time there and do some work, and be connected through work and service. This time Renate said, “Perhaps you come over and we can be together for a while and you can get back to working.” I hadn’t worked for 15 years.
     Just before I came to Ratna Ling, I was in Esalen. I did a residential program there for four weeks. The workshop was about a journey of inspired leadership, your own leadership. I have to find my own passion. After Michael died, I had no idea where I’m going, what’s my next step.

works:   And when did your husband die?

Petra:   Last year in June. So eleven months ago.

works:   You say you hadn’t worked in 15 years. Would you say something about this part of your story?

Petra:   Work is perhaps not the right word, but I have to find a way to make a living for myself because Michael died. Before that, I didn’t have to work because we decided to do other things and to be together for life. Actually, before I even met him in 2002, I quit my job as an environmental engineer.

works:   Okay. Now how long have you been at Ratna Ling?

Petra:   This was only 18 days.

works:   What’s it been like for you?  
Petra:   I was pretty much busy with the book wrapping—the ancient books of the Buddha [republished by the Nyingma Institute]—and preparing them to make their way back to Bodh Gaya or India or Nepal, to be used by the monks. I was part of that.
works:   Did you practice any particular meditation at Ratna Ling?
Petra:   I do my own practice. I was in India for two-and-a-half years, and before that, I started meditation. So I do my own practice. But I joined Kum Nye classes there. They call it Tibetan yoga.

works:   I see. Now your husband has been gone 11 months. This is a big thing. Would you mind telling me a little about how you met him?

Petra:   I met my husband in 2003 on the Camino de Santiago, but my pilgrim’s life started in 2001.  
works:   Tell us something about that beginning.

Petra:   I lived in Constance, Germany, at Lake Constance, where in the Middle Ages the pilgrims collected and walked together to Santiago de Compostella. It’s about 1500 miles from Constance. I did meditation there regularly in the morning. It was in wintertime when I had this inner call: Now is the time. Go on the path.
     So I thought, “Okay. Perhaps I can do it in April when it’s warmer.” But this call was so strong, and things happened that made me start in December 2001. At that time, I was still working as an environmental engineer, but I wanted to follow this call, so I started December 27th. I walked only for 12 days to start my journey as a pilgrim.

works:   The 12 days was to get a taste?

Petra:   Yes. And during these 12 days, I decided, pretty much, I’d walk it to the end. So I did another 10 days in February. Then I thought, okay, I’ll spend three weeks. By the end of May, I’d spent all six weeks of my vacation time to follow this call. By that time, I was in Le Puy-en-Velay in France.
works:  So, you’d been walking in segments.

Petra:   Yes. And by the time I came to Le Puy-en-Velay, I decided to quit my job as an environmental engineer. I’d gained so much trust in the universe that everything would be provided.

works:   Oh, my.
Petra:   All these little happenings showed me that everything was coming into my life when I was open and when I put myself on this pilgrimage route, which is 1,200 years old, where so many people walked before me and will walk after me. It’s quite an energy there that feeds this path. And that’s where I met my husband, in Spain.

works:   How did that happen?
Petra:   That was an interesting thing, because there are many paths that feed into a main path that goes to Santiago. In a town called Puente de la Reina, two caminos come together. An interesting metaphor is that my husband’s camino (from the United States), and my life path came together. So, that’s where we met. And the first sentence, when we met was, “Do you have a match?” I was looking for a match to light the stove.

works:   Do you have a match?

Petra:   Do you have a match? Yeah. Usually the pilgrims ask each other questions: Why are you doing it? Where are you coming from? How long are you on the road? Those are the first questions. And then as you keep walking you keep meeting each other again without planning because you are walking around the same speed. Or if you do not meet the next day, it could be that you meet again in two or three days. That’s how we got to know each other. We met each other on and off, and at the end, it was clear that we would meet again. He came and visited me in Constance, in Germany.

works:   All the way from the U.S.?

Petra:   No. Before he went back to the United States, he called me. I sent him an email and said, “I would like to have another dinner with you.” So he came, and this was in 2003. With this camino, my whole life changed—and Michael’s life, also. Through our meeting, both our lives changed.
     We started walking together. We traveled to India. Our honeymoon was on our way to India. We went on a container ship. He asked me one morning, “When you could do something really of your interest, what would you want to do? What is that?”
     I said, “Really, what I want to do is go to India by boat.” I wanted to experience the slow movement to get to a different country like in the old times, not like in an airplane. So I Googled “to India by boat” and found a container ship. So, then we went down to Southern Italy and got on the boat to India.

works:   What was Michael’s reaction?

Petra:   He liked it. He was an adventurer. He was also a pilgrim; he was curious.

works:   Say a little bit about his background.

Petra:   He was 20 years older than me. He first studied to be a Catholic priest. Then he changed his opinion about that. He went into the Army and served for four years. He was stationed in Ethiopia for two and a half years, and he traveled East Africa in the ‘60s.

works:   When he turned away from Catholicism, did he find something else?

Petra:   Yes. For him it was, “We are all one”—more in the direction of Vedanta and non-duality.

works:   So, tell me about that trip. I’m guessing it was very rich for both of you.

Petra:   First of all, you are three weeks on a boat with 20 people. Our thing was to be together, do our yoga and meditation practice, walk around the boat, like ten kilometers each day. The boat is pretty long. We walked 5 kilometers in the morning and 5 in the evening.

works:   That gives me an amazing image of a container ship all loaded with these big, steel boxes.    
Petra:   Yeah, 2,500. It was small compared to today. Today a boat can have 7,000 containers.  
works:   Okay. What was it like for you?

Petra:   It was a wonderful time to be together those three weeks. The ocean is different every day, and you have the slow movement of coming from one continent to a different continent. That was the excitement for me, to be really slow moving.

works:   Is that the first time you’d been in a situation like that for an extended period of time, where you were at an ancient pace of life?
Petra:   Yes. Yes. And it’s interesting that these container ships still go the same speed they did 100 and 200 years ago. But walking is also an ancient pace of life. What was also interesting is that there are still problems with pirates.

works:   Did you have any encounters?

Petra:   No, but in certain areas, there are pirates. This sounds a little bit ancient, you know—pirates.

works:   Yes. What was it like being on this ship, which is an embodiment of the current world situation with oil and the shipment of all these goods? As an environmental scientist, there must have been interesting impressions for you.

Petra:   We talked with the captain and with the first engineer. It’s increasing, the amount of goods that are circling around the world. That’s the opposite of what you really want as an environmental engineer. The goods are moving thousands and thousands of kilometers from one place to another place. You want local products; that’s what you want as an environmental engineer. This boat had a route from Europe to India and back to Europe.   
works:   Have you made peace with yourself as an environmental engineer given the very scary things we’re facing in terms of the whole environmental reality?

Petra:   You know, Richard, this is the same from when I started studying to be an environmental engineer. I was 22 years old, and I studied in Berlin. In my first life, I was a hairdresser, so I had to go to the university to become an environmental engineer. I wanted to “save the world.” I had a big motivation to do good for the world.

works:   Where did that sense of responsibility come from, do you think?

Petra:   I think this is an old, old—this gives me tears—an old, old reason.

works:   A deep reason.

Petra:   Yes, it’s a deep reason to do good for the world. It’s something that you want to do.

works:   It’s a natural impulse, I think, if you’re still a human.

Petra:   That’s what it is. When I was working as an environmental engineer, I studied to develop ecological products. I looked at product lines, the development process, to see what kind of resources were being used, how much electricity, what goes out, the waste, and how you can recycle it or not recycle it, and so on. At one point, it became clear that my path ended there, because it was clear that one could not really change the situation with technical improvements. You have to change the awareness of society to save our environment.
     With all the people I worked with in companies, the limitation was money. As long as something made money, it was okay. But if you wanted to do more, it was not okay. So, I felt that there is a spiritual need for change. You can only change something when something in the awareness of the people that work with the goods and live with the goods is changing. So, I was searching for how I could combine my work with spirituality. I could not find a way. I mean, I took some classes with Joanna Macy. She combined ecology with a Buddhist perspective, but not actually in the practical situation in industrial companies.
     You can talk about ecologically what should happen and spiritually what should happen—deep ecology—but how can we really put it into action? I used to ask people, “How many meters of clothesline do you own?” Because you don’t need a dryer here in California. You don’t need a dryer in New Mexico. How many meters of clothesline do you have, Richard? Zero?

works:   Yes, zero. I’m afraid so.

Petra:   A clothesline is the ecologically good option to dry clothes. We have free sunshine, but you need people who are aware. Sure, you have to produce the clothesline. You have to bring the clothesline to the people, but compared to a dryer that needs electricity, and producing the dryer, and the waste of a dryer? That’s a simple example.
     So, I was frustrated and said good-bye to that job. I realized that bringing this awareness to the people was my job. I’m not sure if I should go back, or not. Right now, I’m on the path of saying I go into service. Perhaps I can combine the spiritual paths I have walked better in the field of environmental engineering. I am not sure.

works:   The question you pose is truly a major one, isn’t it? How is it possible to raise the awareness of people, so that they actually begin to feel something.

Petra:   I mean, people said in the year 2000 that there was an enormous shift coming in our consciousness—the human race becoming aware that we are one with the ecosystems. We are not separate. We are connected, and this connection is deep and wide. So, this saying that the butterfly, when it flies in Asia has an influence on something in Germany, that’s true. I mean this is only a picture, but it’s the truth.

works:   Yes.
Petra:   When I started studying in 1986, it was clear that climate change was happening. Now we are 30 years later, and it’s still “not happening, officially.” I mean, some people do not see that it’s happening. So, I stopped being an environmental engineer and walked a totally different path. I became a pilgrim.
works:   Would you say that you’re still on the pilgrim path?     

Petra:   I can say I did three major Christian pilgrimage destinations. To Santiago, that was the first one; to Rome, that was the second one; and then to Jerusalem. That was the last, the biggest one. We walked across America and then flew from New York to Lisbon and walked to Jerusalem.

works:  If you think about each of your pilgrimages what comes to you as some of the most important, or memorable, parts you would want to share?

Petra:   I think the first one, for sure, was that I realized I could not stay in my job as an environmental engineer. And then I met my husband; those were two major things.
     I met my husband and we started walking together. And every time you go on a pilgrimage, you are on a search. Sometimes you don’t know what you are searching for, but it will develop. On your walk, it will show up—what’s the answer for your search, if you keep going.

works:   It’s beautiful that you said that, because people sometimes think they have to have the answers before they start.
Petra:   No, you cannot. It will show up along the way, and you don’t know what the answer is. That’s the surprise. The hero’s journey comes in from Joseph Campbell. It’s an old Native American tradition. You go out, you go on a search, you get an answer. And you have to re-integrate it into your life—and even bring it back to the community.

works:   And serve, right? Because of what you’ve been given.

Petra:   Yes. You serve the community with your insights. So the second pilgrimage was to Rome. And we decided to move to the United States during our walk to Rome.    
works:   And where did that one begin?

Petra:   From Germany. We walked over the Alps to Rome in 64 days. It was a short one, and the decision was made: yes, our time in Germany is over. We are moving to California. That was also an old dream of ours. This pilgrimage gave us the answer: okay, trust and go there. In Germany we lived in a wonderful house on a lake, in the foothills of the Alps. Everybody in this village said, “Why are you moving? You are living in such a wonderful place. This cannot be!” It was the garden house of someone of royalty. Everyone wants to live in such a house. You can swim in the private lake in front of it. Who wants to move from there? We lived there two-and-a-half years, but our call was to go somewhere else, to California. You get this call sometimes, and it’s not an easy decision.

works:   It sounds incredible.

Petra:   Yes. Why would you want to leave and go somewhere where you don’t know anything or anybody. So, the pilgrimage teaches you in a different way. Each day you have a different front yard and a different backyard. In a pilgrimage, you keep moving. You’re not getting stuck in one moment.   
works:   It’s alive.

Petra:   Yes. It’s steady change. You cannot hold onto the situation from yesterday. It’s nice. You meet many people on these pilgrimages. You meet, you encounter, you exchange, you open your heart, you laugh together. You inspire somebody, and they inspire you; they give you energy, and you move on.

works:   That’s beautiful.

Petra:   And the third walk to Jerusalem was when we were living in California.
works:   What part?

Petra:   Central California, Paso Robles, near San Luis Obispo. We ended up there. We had this pilgrim attitude when we came to Cayucos. We said, “Wow, this looks like a wonderful place to be.” So, we stopped and said, “This will be our home for now.” We found a vacation rental and decided to move to Paso Robles, which wasn’t far away. Then we wanted to teach about pilgrimage—how important pilgrimage is, and how important walking is. Our webpage was called Walking With Awareness. We wanted to teach people how walking helps you be more aware of your surroundings and thought this could help people grow in awareness. But people were not so excited about it.

works:   It wasn’t resonating with the local population.

Petra:   Exactly. It wasn’t resonating. But a seed had been placed on our walk to Rome. A nun in a monastery asked us, “Are you going to Jerusalem?”
I said, “No, we’re going to Rome.”
     And she said, “But Rome is only a stop on the way to Jerusalem.”
     So, she gave us the seed for the next pilgrimage, really, to go to Jerusalem. So, this seed was there, and then we met a person in California who had walked across America. That inspired us to want to walk and see who we were after two years of walking. We had the walking experience of one month, two months, three months. So who would we be when we are walking for two years?
     So, we put everything in storage, and Michael said, “You know, Petra, we’re walking across America, so when we get to New York, why don’t we go to Europe and keep walking to Jerusalem?” We wanted to show that you can start a pilgrimage at your own door. There are many people who fly from the U.S. to Europe to start their pilgrimage there, right? But they can start their pilgrimage right here at their own door.

works:   That’s true.

Petra:   This was interesting to say, “starting at your own door.” People in the United States are so friendly and so open. While we were walking, people would say, “Oh, my God, what are they doing?” And we would start talking. I think that people in the U.S. still have a feeling of walking from the east to the west. They came on foot or in wagons from the East Coast to the West Coast. But we walked from the West Coast to the East Coast. That was walking back in history, because you have more and more history when you go east. And we walked the old trails.

works:   Your husband Michael, sounds like a wonderful, adventurous guy.
Petra:   We were really a match. Yes, he was an adventurous guy. It was every time, a match thing. The sentence, “Do you have a match?” was our theme of connection; we were matching each other. And one time, we had some fun. Once, with people we met, I said, “Do you know the company This is the company we own.” I joked and said we met through the sentence, “Do you have a match?” and we created the company

works:   That’s good. And how long did it take to walk across the U.S.?

Petra:   Eleven months. Not long when you compare it to your lifetime.

works:   But it’s a lot in today’s world where five minutes can seem like a long time. I mean everything is so speeded up.

Petra:   You are right, when I think about it. But time is precious. In one situation, we met a young girl— maybe 14—in Illinois. We had a flag that said Walking East—California to Jerusalem. We told her we had walked from California. She said, “I didn’t know you could do that.”
     I’m saying this person grew up with cars and perhaps not even bicycling. Then she had somebody in her face saying, “I came from California on foot,” and she was startled. At one point, Michael called us the ambassadors of dreams, and every time we met people, it was like this short exchange: “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” Then the people, all of a sudden, started thinking about their own call. It was really like we were activating this spark. And we were energized while meeting them, and they were energized.
     There was one guy, also in Illinois, we met in the morning. We were up early on the road; it was six o’clock in the morning and he saw our flag, Walking East from California to Jerusalem. He says, “Can I invite you for breakfast? I have to ask you some questions.”
     So, we go into the Starbucks. He buys us breakfast, and we start talking. He says, “You know what? My heart is really beating for California. I’m sitting here in Illinois, but I really want to go back to California, but my family…” You know, all these “buts.”
     So, we were talking and he said, “You know, I actually have to go back.”
     Michael said, it came to him, “When you hear this call, go. You go step-by-step. It’s like an eagle. He’s jumping out of his nest and spreading his wings, but it takes a while until he really gets flight speed. He has to trust that somehow the air is under his wings.”
     A year later, we got an email from the guy telling us he moved to California and was happy.  On the pilgrimage we were on, people tell you the story that’s really important for them. They even give you things to take along to Jerusalem, money to put in the wall.

works:   I see. You’re carrying something of their spirit with you.

Petra:   Yes. They give you prayers. So, you’re connected to all these people you meet. And in Jerusalem, we took care of all these wishes and what they wanted us to do. We sent postcards telling them we did it. We gave thanks to all the people that supported us on the way, and that’s the finish of each pilgrimage. You thank all the people who supported you on this way.

Pavi Mehta:   Petra, I think your pilgrim story is also such a deep love story, too. I was really struck by the story you told of Casablanca. Could you share that?

Petra:   Yes, exactly. It’s interesting that you don’t always know immediately that an encounter is a good support. Sometimes, the support you get is not what you expect. It’s only after a while, you realize it was really an angel that helped you in the right direction.
This was when Michael and I were a second time in Finisterre in Spain. We had this dream to go to Casablanca. We were staying in a pensione, and our bus was going back to Santiago at 3 p.m. We asked the woman who was the owner of the pensione, “Can we stay here a few hours past check out so we can catch the bus?” She noticed that we had used the kitchen and said something strange. “You used the kitchen! That was not allowed! You cannot stay one more minute longer!” And she stood there and watched us pack our stuff. It was about noon. So, we left and sat on a bench. We were both feeling “What happened there?”
     I said to Michael, “I don’t want to leave Finisterre, this place that I really love, like a dog with his tail between the legs. We can’t leave like this. And I saw a house across the bay where we knew the owner. We went over there and the owner said, “You can move in and try it. If you don’t like it after two days, you can leave. So, we moved into the house. In Spain, sometimes they give names to houses, and this house was named Maison Blanche. In Spanish, that’s casa blanca. We discovered that our Casablanca was really this casa blanca, not the one in Morocco—and in that casa blanca, we decided to get married. So, the person who ran us off was helping in a different way.

works:   That’s just a great story, Petra.

Petra:   I have another example, Richard. On my first pilgrimage to Santiago, I started to get a lot of foot pain. I was praying, “Please God, take my pain away.” And I was honestly praying. It was my deepest heart-wish to do this pilgrimage and follow this call. So, one night, I got a dream that said the really important things are happening in Spain. I was in France. So I had to work with this dream. “Do I move on to Spain? The really important things are happening in Spain.” It’s saying France is not that important. Move on. But also, the pilgrims around me say, “You have to walk each step. You cannot take a bus and move on.”
     But the truth is that you have to follow your inner call—what’s your own truth, not the rules. So, I had to go against this whole rule that you walk every step. So one day I decided I’d take a bus to the French border of Spain. So, I went to St. Jean Pied de Port and walked across the Pyrenees. And that was the route that synchronized Michael and me.
     We stayed in the same hostel that day, but we didn’t meet until three days later. So, the lesson was that every pain you encounter in your life, it’s not always a bad pain. It can be a pain that moves you to do something more important and enriching—and it’s the truth.

works:   Wow, that’s another beautiful story.

Petra:   And the foot pain was gone after that.

works:   That’s amazing. And it’s so interesting that you obviously pay attention to your dreams.

Petra:   I have a good connection to my dreams, yes. I’ll tell you one dream. I couldn’t speak English very well. It was in 1997, and I had a telephone call with Renate [a best friend who was also at Ratna Ling when I met Petra]. I told her, “I really need to find somebody who has money—you know, this dream of somebody taking care of you. And I got a dream that night, and it was in English. The dream was that if you can feel the wind that the windmill makes when it turns around itself, the little wind, then you are rich.     
     So, I called Renate the next morning and told her I had an English dream and I understood what it meant. I think it was the call from India and the United States at the same time—because it’s the little wind, you know; it’s the consciousness, it’s the love. When you can feel this little wind, then you are rich. It’s not when you have the money. That was 1997, long before I went to India or met my American husband Mike.
     On the third pilgrimage, I thought I’d arrive in Jerusalem strong and tall, walking all the way. But I also had the feeling that I wanted to be in Jerusalem on Christmas, and at that time it was October. Michael says, “Petra, we can never be in Jerusalem on Christmas.”
     I said, “I know, but I have the feeling I want to be in Jerusalem on Christmas.” And on the 27th of October, I broke my leg in the Italian Alps. I didn’t want to have a broken leg. I knew it meant I had to learn walking again, and this journey was at the end.
     My mother said, “Come home and heal.” But I didn’t want that. I wanted to finish my journey to Jerusalem, but in a different way—to adapt to the situation. As a pilgrim, what you do is adapt to different situations each day. So, how do you adapt to having a broken leg and you want to arrive in Jerusalem as a pilgrim? You made your vows. You want to arrive in Jerusalem.

works:   That’s right.

Petra:   So, we stayed first in a hotel. I had a pin in my leg, and I could walk a few meters with some crutches. Then we went to a monastery. I said, “This is a wonderful place. I can start training for one mile a day,” you know, along the beach. Then online, I found a company that made bus journeys from Cairo into the Promised Land. So, we said I needed to get stronger in order to be on a bus journey from Cairo to Jerusalem.
     So, we went to Ischia, a place with hot springs. I knew water would help me to heal. We stayed there for two weeks helping me get into shape so I could work with two crutches and do this journey.
     My dream also, was to go one time to Petra. My name is Petra. Michael wanted to go to Petra, and we wanted to go to Mount Sinai, and that was all included in this bus trip. So, we finished the journey on the 25th of December.

works:   How did you get to Cairo?

Petra:   We flew to Cairo from Rome. And we finished our journey and were in Bethlehem on the 25th of December, 2010. And do you know what made me cry was in Bethlehem. As a pilgrim, you have a pilgrim’s passport, where you put all your stamps in—stamps from places where you stopped along the way. When we came out of the church in Bethlehem, there was a woman giving out postcards for Christmas. There was a stamp on it for peace in Palestine and around the world, and that was like the stamp of the 25th of December, 2010. For me, this was the final stamp to get for my pilgrim’s passport. It marked the end of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
     The message of the broken leg was that I have to go on the inner journey. We did all these walks—journeys with destinations like Jerusalem or Rome or Santiago—and the broken leg was the call to go on an inner journey. Inner journey means like meditation, finding the world inside you. We said in the beginning that every pilgrimage gives you an answer to a search that you don’t know about. This was an answer that this time of walking was over.
     We settled down in Santa Fe in a house after this journey to Jerusalem. And this seed of the inner journey was germinating in Santa Fe, which led, finally, to going for two-and-a-half years to India.

Pavi:   Petra, before you go forward in the journey, can you talk about what set you on the pilgrim path in the first place?

Petra:   That’s a really deep and personal story. This starts very early, and it’s all about healing. Your whole life path is about healing. I believe that you choose your parents, where you were born into, and you choose your development. That’s what is confronting you—what you’re choosing. That’s my belief that nobody did it to me; so I chose it.
     I was born in 1964, and my father left when I was nine months old. He had a different person he wanted to be with, not my mother anymore. I know this set the seed to be a seeker, to search for home, to search for where we come from. That’s our journey. We go home.
     So, we come from home, we have some lessons and we go back home. The actual seed was when my father left when I was nine months old. I was searching for him and longing for him. So, I could never express my love for my father because there was no father there. As a child, you want to express your love; it’s the nature of what you want to do.
     When I was 25 years old, I wanted to see my father. We had contact only one time. He stood in front of the door, and I didn’t even know it was my father. When I was 25, I was ready to stand in front of his door and say, “It’s me. It’s your daughter.”
     This is also connected with Renate. It’s interesting, because she moved to Wuppertal in Germany, and I helped her move. I knew my father lived close to Wuppertal and I said, “Wow. This is now the time that I’m going to do this.” I saw myself standing in front of the door saying, “It’s me. I want to talk with you. Why did you leave?” and all these things, and I wanted to get to know him.
     And then I was standing in front of the door. I rang the bell at the address and this young woman opened the door. I thought, “Okay. This could be my half-sister.” And I said, “I want to talk with my father.”
     It turned out this was not the same Wolf. But she said, “Perhaps if you go to the town hall, they might know where your father is.”
     It was a Wednesday afternoon. All the town halls in Germany are closed on Wednesday afternoon. But I got in through the back door and saw a woman working at the computer. I told her my story and she said, “I really cannot tell you where your father moved.” But she was a woman and had a heart, so she checked her computer and told me, “Your father died in 1988.” This was 1992, so he was already four years dead. I was so shocked. I was expecting he was alive. I had the feeling I wanted to go to the German Alps and walk to heal from this shock that I was never going to meet him again. So, I went to the library to find a nice mountain path. I found a book that was telling a story about the Camino de Santiago and the Meseta, a spiritual path on a high plateau in Spain. I thought “spiritual path,” “high plateau,” “Meseta.” I didn’t know what it was, “a spiritual path,” because I was not a spiritual person. That was not a theme in our family. I grew up Catholic, but it was not really spiritual.
     I made a copy of this description of the pilgrim’s path and put it away. Then I had a dream. This was in 1997, five years later. I was telling my father, “You never took care of me. You never did anything for me.” I was really angry, and he was sitting there saying, “Petra, don’t worry about it. I prepared a big inheritance for you.”
     I thought, “My God! I thought perhaps he left me some money. I thought, “Man, I have to get in contact with my half-sister!” So, I called her. That was the first real contact with her, too. She said, “There is no money.”
     Then I wanted to go to the cemetery. I wanted to go to a material place, and I’d learned where his grave was. I had a business meeting in Cologne, and I thought, “This is the day.” But I couldn’t find the gravestone. One time my uncle showed me the gravestone in a movie, and on the back of his gravestone was written, “He will live in his children.” But nothing was there. Then I had another business meeting in Cologne, and I went again to this place.
I felt my father really being there. My inner voice said, “The path goes through my half-sister.” So I contacted her again and asked, “What happened with the grave?”
     She said, “Something really strange happened.” Her mother was psychologically sick, and she took the gravestone off in the middle of the night and destroyed it. She even did something with the ashes.
     In 2000, I was in a spiritual and ecological group in Switzerland. It was a two-year program, and we had one program in Cologne. I said, “I’m ready now to do a ritual where I know the grave is, and I will say ‘I trust you, Father, that you will have prepared a good inheritance for me, and I will take it on.’”
     That was the ritual in October of 2000 in witness of these other people. And in December 2000, I got this inner call: Now is the time. Go on the path. So, it took eight years, from when I wanted to meet my father and found out he was dead. Then I got the information about the Camino de Santiago. It took eight years until I was really prepared to go on the path.  
     So, my father’s gift is really my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, and it’s also meeting Michael, changing my life, going to the United States, and going to India.
     And now I’m sitting here, Richard. Michael has died. I’m now in a situation where I have to find a new way and purpose of living and work. This is another pilgrimage. What is the answer of this opening from the death of Michael? What is my next step? I’m still on the search. I haven’t found the answer yet. But I think what Ratna Ling gave me at the meeting with Pavi and you is the word “service.” I know now that my next step is that I want to be in service of humanity. I mean, we can never make it so easy. There are many rivers flowing, and there’s one big river. So my search goes on.



About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.            


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