The Way of a Pilgrim, by unknown author
Written by an unknown Russian peasant, this book is about a pilgrim’s quest to learn what it means to pray without ceasing. In the Bible, Paul charges the church in Thessalonica to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18]. Similarly, Paul charges the church in Ephesus to “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” [Ephesians 6:18]. Again, Paul tells Timothy that, “In everyplace the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument” [1 Timothy 2:8]. Paul’s instructions about prayer consume the pilgrim’s mind, and he decides to seek wisdom about praying. Along his journey, he reads many books about how to pray, but he is repeatedly disappointed that none of these texts explain how to pray ceaselessly.
While wandering and searching for an answer, the pilgrim meets a holy man who gives him a copy of the Philokalia, which is a fundamental text of Eastern Orthodox churches. It was compiled in 1782 by a monk, and it contains instructions for inner asceticism, as opposed to outward asceticism. Thus, the Philokalia focuses on prayer and the state of the heart, instead of external disciplines like fasting or vigils. In “The Way of a Pilgrim,” our pilgrim learns the Jesus Prayer, per the recommendation of his teacher, and recites this prayer continually. The Jesus Prayer is a simple, one sentence prayer, designed to help people pray.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
After learning the Jesus Prayer, the pilgrim sat and prayed alone for many days. He felt like he was gaining an inner peace, and he felt a constant desire to pray. When he stopped for any reason, he felt naked and uncomfortable. However, the teacher who taught the Jesus Prayer to the pilgrim died, and consequently the pilgrim was forced to travel. Wherever he went, he recited the Jesus Prayer and read the Philokalia, and these provided great comfort to him. Along the way, the pilgrim met many people and had several experiences that confirmed the benefits of constant prayer and never-ceasing communication with Jesus Christ. The one that was most memorable to me was the story of the former-drunkard. In his past life, this man was consumed by alcoholic drinks, and he could not go more than a few moments without alcohol. Recognizing the man’s problem, a friend challenged him to read a chapter of the New Testament before taking a drink. The officer accepted the friend’s challenge, so any time before he began an alcoholic beverage, he would read a chapter of the New Testament, such as the words of Paul or Mark. With time, the man became more interested in the words of Jesus Christ, and less interested in his alcohol, eventually leading to complete abstinence from drinking. The drunkard replaced his alcoholic cravings with a spiritual discipline. I like this story, because we all have bad habits and tendencies that we know we should abolish. I have mine. And the way to rid ourselves of these bad habits is to replace the bad habit with something else. The officer replaced drinking with reading the New Testament. Whenever I am tempted to indulge in my bad behavior, can I instead read a chapter of my current book? I think this is a good solution and worth trying.
Another notable event was that the pilgrim gained abundant wisdom. At one of the villages, he was offered lodging by a priest. While lodging with the priest, people from the village came to the pilgrim to seek wisdom and gain healing. Although the pilgrim was helping the villagers, he felt distracted by their constant needs and clamoring, so he left. In another tale, a woman whom the pilgrim was lodging with, was choking on a bone and had difficulty breathing. During the night, since the town’s doctor could not arrive until the next day, the pilgrim received a dream. In the dream, he was instructed to force the woman to drink some olive oil, because her repulsion to the oil would force her to gag and dislodge the bone stuck in her throat. The pilgrim shared his dream with the woman’s husband, and together they forced the woman to drink the olive oil, and immediately the bone was dislodged and the woman was able to sleep peacefully. The next day, the doctor praised the pilgrim’s immense wisdom. Through constant prayer and constants communication, it appears that the pilgrim received wisdom.
One of the pilgrim’s fellow travelers was a blind, old man. The blind man was equally interested in the Philokalia and the idea of ceaseless prayer. One day, the old man shared a dream with the pilgrim, claiming that the village located at their destination was burning in a great fire. Wary of the man’s vision and the sin of making idolatrous claims, the pilgrim did not believe the old man. After arriving at the village, the pilgrim learned that the village in actuality did burn, and that it burned at the precise time that the old man received his vision. Therefore, the pilgrim concluded that God is greater than any geometric distance. This also agrees with Carl Jung’s synchronicity theory that I read about recently. Simply, time and space are creations that can be manipulated. God created time and space, and therefore he can also take these things away. God can reveal extraordinary things to people who pray and believe in his power. Even concepts that we believe are immutable, such as time and space, can be manipulated by God.
During the pilgrim’s story, we learn that his left arm was maimed as a child. Therefore, the pilgrim could not use his arm and was unemployable. He was married, and received some wealth from his family. However, out of jealousy, his brother burned his house and stole his inheritance. A short time later, the pilgrim’s wife died. To me, his life seems like it was plagued by hardship. He lost everything, much like Job. However, despite his misfortunes, he remained faithful to the Lord. Furthermore, he sought a deeper spiritual understanding and communion than the mediocre believer. By seeking, the pilgrim was able to gain wisdom and share that wisdom with us, via his book.
Another story that stood out to me was the tale about the judge. While attending a ball, the judge became very angry with the valet and hit the boy on the head. The next day, the valet died from the head wound. The judge was haunted by his murderous actions, and he could not find any reprieve from the guilty feelings that haunted his mind. They tortured him constantly. While suffering, he discovered the Word of God. He learned about the grace and forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ, and he vowed to spend the rest of his life in humble devotion to the Lord. Through Christ, the judge was forgiven and his mental horrors ceased. I also liked the part where the judge shared about his dealings with wanderers. Many of the people who travel on the road are fakes, thieves, and drunkards. However, this did not prevent the judge from offering food and shelter to them. By offering lodging and food and warmth, the judge believed that he is able to share the good news of Jesus Christ and provide an example of what it means to love like Christ. Many of the people that leave his home are converted to Christianity, because they are so moved by the judge’s actions. I thought this was encouraging, and it is similar to how I want my life to be structured. I want to be able to provide for the needy, and by doing so, I hope that they see the love of Christ and recognize the grace that he offers.
According to St. Ephraim of Syria, “Good speech is silver but silence is pure gold.” I like this quote. It is fulfilling to listen to words of wisdom from a loved one, or to listen to an eloquent sermon. However, it is even more valuable to gain that wisdom on your own through prayer. There is no replacement for spending personal time with the Lord, and nothing can substitute the wisdom that comes from God. Wisdom from fellow men is silver, but wisdom received directly from God is pure gold. Wisdom from God can only be obtained by praying.