This is a first-person account of a wandering pilgrim in rural Russia who wants to fulfil St Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing”. What he comes upon is the ‘Jesus prayer’ and its practice transforms his life.
138 pp. Translated by Gleb Pokrovsky. Published by Darton Longman and Todd. To purchase this book online, go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk
First Narrative: The journey begins. The pilgrim meets his starets . Learning the Jesus prayer. The wisdom of the Philokalia . A summer of prayer. The death of the starets.
Second Narrative: The pilgrim’s journey continues. The prayer takes over. Encounter with the forester. A dream of the starets. A job as church watchman. The Old Believer girl. Arrival in Irkutsk.
Third Narrative: The pilgrim’s story.
Fourth Narrative: Plans for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A visit with a pious family. The blind traveling companion. An accident and its unexpected outcome. Departure for the Holy Land.
Suggestions for further reading
By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my actions a great sinner, and by calling a homeless wanderer of the simplest origins, traveling from place to place. My worldly belongings are a knapsack that contains some bread, and a Bible in my breast pocket. That is all.
On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (1) I went to church to pray at the Liturgy. During the reading of the Epistle of St. Paul to the I Thessalonians, I heard the following words: “Pray without ceasing” (2). The words made an indelible impression on me, and I began to wonder how it was possible to pray unceasingly, since everyone must occupy themselves with other matters as well, in order to make a living and so forth. I looked in the Bible and read for myself what I had heard: that one should “pray without ceasing,” “pray at all times in the Spirit,” (3) and “in all places pray with uplifted hands “(4). I thought about this for quite a while but was unable to understand it.
“What should I do?” I thought. “Where will I find someone who can explain this to me? I will visit some of the churches that are renowned for their excellent preachers, and perhaps there it can be explained to me.” So I went and I heard many good sermons on prayer. But they all dealt with prayer in general: what it is, why it is needed, and what its fruits are. Yet, nothing was said about how to succeed in prayer. There was a sermon on praying in the Spirit and on unceasing prayer, but no mention was made in it about how to attain to such prayer.
Having heard plenty, without acquiring any understanding of how to pray unceasingly, I gave up on such sermons geared to the ordinary parishioner and resolved, with God’s help, to seek an experienced and wise guide who would explain unceasing prayer to me, for I now found myself so irresistibly drawn to learning about it.
I set out and wandered for a long time through-different places, all the while continuing to read my Bible faithfully. Everywhere I went, I looked into the whereabouts of a local spiritual director. Eventually I was told that in a certain village there was a landowner who had lived there for a long time and who spent all his time working out his salvation. He had a chapel in his house, and he never went out, but did nothing but pray continually and read spiritual literature. When I heard this, I gave up walking and began running in order to get to this village. When I arrived there, I found the man in question. “What is it that you require of me?” he asked.
“1 have heard that you are a man of prayer and wisdom. In the name of God, would you please explain to me the meaning of the Apostle’s words ‘Pray without ceasing’ and how one can achieve this? I want to know this, but I have been utterly unable to understand it!”
He was silent for some moments. Then he looked closely at me and said, “Unceasing interior prayer is the constant striving of the spirit toward God. To succeed in this delightful practice, you must beg the Lord more frequently that He teach you how to pray unceasingly. Pray more and ever more earnestly, and the prayer itself will reveal to you how it can become unceasing. This effort will bear fruit in its own time.”
Having said this, he offered me refreshment, gave me money for my journey, and sent me on my way. He did not provide me with an explanation after all.
So I set off again, continuing to think and read and wonder about what the man had told me, and still I could not understand it. Yet, my longing for comprehension was so intense that it kept me awake at night.
When I had covered about twelve miles, I came to a large provincial capital, where I saw a monastery (5). I stopped at the inn and happened to hear that in this monastery there was an exceptionally kind abbot, a prayerful and most hospitable man. I went to see him, and he welcomed me joyfully, sat me down, and offered me refreshment.
“Holy Father,” I said, “I do not need food, but I seek your spiritual guidance on what I must do to save myself.”
“Well now, what must you do to save yourself? Live according to the commandments, pray to God, and you will be saved!”
“I have heard that one should pray unceasingly,” I said, “but I do not know how to do this. I do not even understand what unceasing prayer is. Please explain this to me, Father.”
“1 don’t know, dear brother, how else to advise you. Hmmm, but wait just a moment I do have a little book that will explain it.” He brought me The Spiritual Education of the Interior Man, by St. Dimitri (6). “Here you are,” he said. “Read this page.”
I began to read the following: “Those words of the Apostle ‘pray without ceasing’ should be understood in reference to the prayer of the mind, for the mind can always aspire to God and pray to Him without ceasing.”
“Would you explain to me the means by which the mind can always aspire to God and pray unceasingly, without being distracted?”
‘That requires a great deal of wisdom, except for the one to whom God Himself has granted such a gift,” said the abbot. He offered no further explanation.
I spent the night in the monastery. The next morning I thanked the abbot for his kind hospitality and continued on my journey, without really knowing where I was headed. I grieved over my lack of understanding and comforted myself by reading my Bible. In this way I traveled for five days, keeping to the main roads. Finally, on the evening of the fifth day, an old man who appeared to be some kind of clergyman caught up with me. In answer to my question, he replied that he was a schema monk (7) and lived in a monastery located about six miles off the main road. He invited me to come with him for a visit. “We take in pilgrims,” he said, “and we offer them rest and food in the guesthouse, along with other devout people” (8).
I was reluctant to go with him, so I replied, “My peace of mind does not depend on finding shelter, but rather on obtaining spiritual guidance. I do not need food, for my knapsack is filled with dried bread.”
The monk asked, “What sort of guidance do you seek, and what is it that you don’t understand? Come, dear brother, and visit with us. We have experienced startsi (9) who can nourish you spiritually and set you on the path of truth, in the light of God’s Word and the teachings of the Fathers” (10).
“Well, you see, Father, about a year ago, while at Liturgy (11), I heard the words of the Apostle, exhorting us to ‘pray without ceasing.’ Unable to understand this, I began to read the Bible. There, in several different places, I also encountered this same divine instruction: that we must I pray unceasingly, always and in all places, not only while occupied with I any kind of activity, not only when we are awake, but even while we sleep. ‘I sleep but my heart is awake'(12). This surprised me, and I found I myself unable to understand how this could be done and by what means it could be achieved. A burning desire and curiosity were aroused in I me, and my thoughts dwelt on it day and night. So I began to visit many different churches and to listen to sermons that spoke about prayer. Yet, no matter how many sermons I heard, not one of them provided me with an explanation of how to pray unceasingly. They spoke only of how to prepare oneself for praying, of the fruits of prayer, and so forth; but they did not teach how one is to pray without ceasing and what the nature of this sort of prayer is. I frequently read the Bible to verify what I heard, but I have not yet found the knowledge I seek. I am not at peace with myself and am still quite puzzled by all this.”
The starets made the sign of the cross over himself and began to speak: ‘Thank God, beloved brother, for having awakened in you this irresistible longing to acquire unceasing interior prayer. You must recognize this as the calling of God. Be at peace, and rest assured that until now you have been tested in the cooperation of your will with God’s calling and have been granted to understand that neither the wisdom of this world nor mere superficial curiosity can attain to the divine illumination of unceasing interior prayer. On the contrary, it is the humble, simple heart that attains to such prayer, through poverty of the spirit and a living experience of it. So it is not at all surprising that you heard nothing about the very essence of prayer nor acquired any knowledge on how to achieve its unceasing activity.
‘To tell the truth, although much has been preached on prayer and written about it by various writers, they are better equipped to preach about the elements that constitute prayer than they are about its very essence, because their thoughts are based mostly on speculation and the deliberations of natural reason, rather than on living experience of it. One will offer an exceptional discourse on the necessity of prayer, another on its power and benefits. Yet a third will discuss the means to attaining to perfect prayer: the necessity of applied effort, attentiveness, warmth of heart, purity of thought, reconciliation with one’s enemies, humility, contrition, and so on. But what about prayer itself, and how to learn to pray? To these, the most essential and necessary questions of all, very rarely does one obtain any substantial answers from present-day preachers. Such questions are far more difficult for the understanding to grasp than are all those arguments of theirs that I just mentioned, for they require a mystical insight that goes above and beyond mere academic knowledge. And what is even more pathetic is that the vain, natural wisdom of this world compels one to judge the Divine according to human standards. Many people treat prayer in an inverted way, thinking that it is one’s efforts and the preparatory steps that give rise to prayer, rather than the prayer itself giving birth to good works and all the virtues. In this case, they mistakenly see the fruits and resulting benefits of prayer as the means to its end, thereby denigrating the very power of prayer.
“All this stands in direct contradiction to Holy Scripture, for the Apostle Paul teaches us the following about prayer: ‘I urge therefore that first of all supplications… be made….'(13). Here we see that the Apostle’s first emphasis is on the preeminence of the activity of prayer: ‘I urge therefore that first of all supplications …be made …’ Many good works are required of a Christian, but it is prayer that must come first and foremost, for without prayer no other good work can be performed and one cannot find the way to the Lord. Truth cannot be acquired, the flesh with its passions and lusts cannot be crucified, the heart cannot be filled with the light of Christ and united with Him unless these are preceded by frequent prayer. I say frequent, because the proper way to pray and to attain to perfect prayer lies beyond our abilities. The Apostle Paul says, ‘For we do not know how to pray as we ought’ (14). Consequently, the frequency and regularity of prayer are the only things that lie within our abilities, as the means of attaining to pure prayer, which is the mother of all spiritual blessings. ‘Acquire the mother and she will bear you children,’ says St. Isaac of Syria (15). First learn to pray, and then you will easily perform all good works. This is not obvious to those who lack a living experience of prayer and the knowledge of the mystical teachings of the Fathers, so they say very little about it.”
So engrossed were we in this conversation that without realizing it we had almost reached the monastery.
1. Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: This would be sometime in the winter, in either January or February. When the pilgrim speaks of the Liturgy, he means the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrystostom, the chanted Sunday service combining readings from the Gospel and Epistles, with celebration of the Eucharist – the Eastern Orthodox equivalent of the Roman Catholic Mass.
2. The text comes from St. Paul’s closing exhortations in 1 Thessalonians in verses 11 through 22: “Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. But we beseech you, brethren, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we exhort you brethren, admonish the idle, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (Revised Standard Version).
3. Ephesians 6:18.
4. 1 Timothy 2:8.
5. The nineteenth century was the age of the great Russian literary figures Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. It was a period of spiritual revival in the Russian Orthodox Church. And its second half was a period of radical social reforms. Before 1860, 45 percent of Russia’s people lived in serfdom, a form of slavery, bound to inhabit and work the land on which they were born and bought and sold right along with it. The events portrayed in The Way of a Pilgrim are thought to have taken place during the reign of Tsar Alexander II (1855-1881), who, in 1860, liberated the serfs. There is no evidence of the great social upheaval this great change brought about in the pilgrim’s narrative, which indicates the events were not likely to have happened much after 1860.
5. The pilgrim might have expected to see a monastery in any provincial capital, as well as in any town of size, since many Russian towns and cities actually began their existences as monasteries, the process occurring thus: hermits moved as far as possible away from civilization; communities of monks grew up around the hermits; these communities grew into monasteries. For spiritual and economic reasons, laypeople attached themselves to the monasteries, and towns arose. This model was very prevalent in the settlement of the Russian wilderness.
6. St. Dimitri: Dimitri of Rostov (1651-1709); Russian bishop and prolific spiritual writer. Author of a renowned collection of the lives of the saints.
7. Schema monk: A monk who has taken solemn or final vows, corresponding roughly to “fully professed” in Western monastic systems. In the Russian system, a monk was first a novice, then a ryassaphor – one who wears the cassock-like monastic robe called a ryassa; then a schema monk-one who wears yet another outer garment called the schema, a kind of cape or cloak. Some monks, usually in old age, took another level of particularly solemn vows involving increased fasting and ascetical practices. These monks were said to be tonsured to the “great schema”-by contrast to which ordinary schema monks were identified as “small schema” monks. The system was somewhat different among Greek monastics.
8. The general rule for guests was that they were welcome to enjoy monastic hospitality for three days. Those who stayed on for a fourth day would be expected to join in the monastery’s work, or possibly to join the community as a novice monk.
9. Startsi: Plural of starets, Russian translation of the Greek term geron, “old man.” A senior monk, not necessarily a priest, to whom other monks and laypeople turned for spiritual guidance. This ancient tradition of spiritual eldership had undergone a huge revival by the pilgrim’s time. In the nineteenth century and up until the Russian revolution, charismatic and influential startsi were a feature of Russian life, and their influence was often felt far beyond monastery walls.
10. The Fathers: “Fathers of the Church”: Christian writers characterized by their antiquity, purity of doctrine, or holiness of life, whose words are especially revered by the Orthodox, as well as by some other Christians. There are no official criteria by which a person is judged worthy of the title” Father,” but the term would certainly apply to all the writers anthologized in the Philokalia and cited in The Way of a Pilgrim.
11. The Liturgy: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The principal service of the Orthodox Church, celebrated on Sundays as well as on feast days. It consists of hymns, readings from the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament, and the celebration of the Eucharist and distribution of Communion among the faithful. Though structured somewhat like the Roman Catholic Mass, which is its Western equivalent, it is entirely chanted or sung. Its celebration usually takes around two hours, and most congregants remain standing throughout the service.
12. Song of Songs 5:2.
13. 1 Timothy 2:1.
14. Romans 8:28.
15. St. Isaac of Syria (late seventh century): Bishop of Nineveh; who, like a number of important early Christian writers on prayer, wrote in the now-extinct Syriac language.