Throwback Thursday: The Way of a Pilgrim

As part of my ongoing attempt to expand my understanding of Christianity I have been reading old books. To find out why I would do such a thing check out my previous post about that very thing.

The Way of a Pilgrim bookWhile not nearly as old as our previous books, The Way of a Pilgrim, is considered a spiritual classic in the Eastern Orthodox Church which makes it different from the works we are used to reading and therefore able to widen our understanding just as well as an old book from within our tradition.

Nobody knows who wrote The Way of a Pilgrim (or even when it was written), but its mention of the Crimean War and some indicators that it was written before the Liberation of the Serfs makes it pretty clear it was written sometime between 1853 and 1861.

The book is different from previous Old Books because it is a narrative rather than a treatise. Broken into four sections called “narratives” it tells the story of a pilgrim as he attempts to understand what the apostle meant by “pray without ceasing.” He discovers a form of prayer called the Jesus Prayer which transforms him. Without knowing the author it is hard to know if it is a real account. Some scholars believe it was written as an allegory of the Christian life by a monk in a monastery on Mount Athos (where it was discovered). Nevertheless, the book has been popular outside of the Eastern Orthodox and is credited with bringing the Jesus Prayer to the west (in part from its importance in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey).

The pilgrim carries with him a collection of the church fathers writings on prayer called the Philokalia. These texts are mentioned often and quoed extensively, so this an old book in side an old book, or as I’ve been calling it O L D C E P T I O N (please click that link).

I'm pretty sure this is how the Pilgrim felt.
I’m pretty sure this is how the Pilgrim felt.

Cultural Context

Because the tradition that brings The Way of a Pilgrim to us is so foreign here in the west, in terms of cultural context it is best to just begin by understanding the Eastern Orthodox Church, also called the Orthodox Catholic Church.

The term Orthodox is Greek for “right belief” (ortho-right or straight dox-belief or opinion) and reflects that their tradition flows more or less unbroken from the earliest church fathers. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Catholic church split over the filoque clause in the Nicene Creed that stated the spirit flowed out of both the Father and the Son. The Roman Catholics believed this to be true while the Orthodox Catholics believed the Spirit flowed only from the Father.

Eastern Christianity is most different from Western Christianity in the absence of the influence of European scholasticism which valued theology asan academic pursuit. For Eastern Christians theology and doctrine are not about acquiring knowledge, but about “theosis,” or union with God.

In On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius wrote, “He was made man that we might be made God.” This is the simplest explanation of theosis. Orthodox Christians hope that the incarnation makes it possible that through imitation of Christ and interior prayer we might become united with the divine.

It is with this desire for theosis and its emphasis on the grace of imitation and interior prayer, that the pilgrim in The Way of a Pilgrim understood Christianity. He is not looking for a way to avoid sinning, but a way to enter union with the divine.

What The Way of a Pilgrim Sees That We Don’t

The primary thing that The Way of a Pilgrim (and the Christian East) see that we in the west do not is the importance of the “Interior Life.”

The pilgrim begins by hearing that he should pray without ceasing and wonders how this would be possible because of the business of life in order to make a living. He is concerned with the exterior life.

As the pilgrim seeks to figure out what it means to pray without ceasing, the first guide he meets clarifies, “Unceasing interior prayer is the continual striving of man’s spirit toward God.” The man does not, as the pilgrim notes, provide him with a real explanation, but does clarify for us what the journey we are all taking along with the pilgrim is, the journey toward God via the interor life.

Chotki, prayer beads used in The Way of a Pilgrim
Chotki, prayer beads used in The Way of a Pilgrim

The second guide, again giving an incomplete answer, reads to him from The Spiritual Education of the Interior Man. We should be beginning to pick up a theme that is finally resolved when the pilgrim meets his precious starets, who says to him “Thank God, beloved brother, for having awakened in you this irresistible longing to acquire unceasing interior prayer.” He goes on to teach him that prayer purifies the external by purifying the internal and helps him to learn how to prayer this interior prayer. He finally has found someone to teach him.

The rest of the book continues this examination of how the pilgrim’s life changes as he begins to focus on the interior life. Speaking of meeting people he says “. . . without exception they all appeared very dear to me, as if they were family . . .”

At one point in the pilgrim’s journey he is robbed by two military deserters who take his books. He finds them and begs them to tell him where his books are and promises he will pay them a small fee if they tell him. Upon finding his books the pilgrim wonders if he should actually pay them the fee, thinking, “They beat you up and robbed you. Besides they’re under arrest, so they couldn’t even spend it.” Ultimately, the pilgrim, decides that Christ taught to love our enemies and so goes to pay them the reward. Upon giving them the small amount of money he says to them, “Repent and pray; Jesus Christ loves man; He will not abandon you!”

As a result of the growing interior prayer the pilgrim treats even his enemies with love. He does not do it out of a sense of obligation to a moral law, but as the result of a heart transformed.

The Way of a Pilgrim teaches another lesson that is very absent, and even opposed, in the west. The value of withdraw from the world. My western protestant evangelical sensibilities often opposed his consistent desire to be alone and away from others. I even drew a frowny face next to a passage where he says “If I happened to meet people, I no longer felt any desire to speak with them; I longed only for solitude, to be alone with my prayer.” This did not seem, as the pilgrim claimed, to be proof of the grace of interior prayer at all.

But as the journey goes on the pilgrim repeatedly encounters people who benefit from his company. He helps a small village by becoming spiritual advisor during a brief stay to oversee the construction of a new church, he saves the life of a woman as a result of a vision he has about her health, he helps a pious family to understand more deeply how to pray and honor God. The book ends with the pilgrim leaving for Jerusalem as a travel companion for an old blind man.

He wants only to be with God. The pilgrim withdraws from the world to be nearer to God and the nearer to God he gets the more God draws the world to the pilgrim.

I think that, in modern evangelical churches especially, we use the great commission often as an excuse to grow our organization (and by extension egos) and become people pleasers. We see the pilgrim and other people who live a life of withdraw and immediately clamor to say “The Great Commission forbids such a life!” but the pilgrim is constantly in a ministry. The difference between the pilgrim’s ministry and my own is that the pilgrim wants to be with God and I want to be used by God. His is far more humble, and thus far more profound. The pilgrim reminds me that my job, first and foremost, is to be with God.

The last, and most important thing The Way of a Pilgrim has to teach us is that this life is possible without being a pilgrim or without being a hermit. This life is possible for us in our everyday life. While this a repeated theme, there is one particularly insightful passage in the fourth narrative.

“Saint Maximus the Confessor interprets daily bread to mean the feeding of the soul with heavenly bread — the Word of God — and the union of the soul with God, through constant remembrance of Him and through the unceasing interior prayer of the heart.”

“Ah! That is a great deed but it is almost impossible for those who live in the world to attain to interior prayer!” exclaimed the master of the house. “We’re lucky when the Lord helps us simply to say our prayers without laziness!”

“Don’t look at it that way, Batyushka. If it were so impossible and overwhelmingly difficult, then God would not have admonished us all to do it. His strength is made perfect also in weakness. Form their own experience the Fathers offer us ways and methods that make it easier to attain to the prayer of the heart . . . .”

. . . . I went to get my Philokalia, found the article by Saint Peter of Damascus in section 3, and read the following: “‘More important than attending to breathing, one must learn to call upon the Name of God at all times, in all places and during all manner of activity. The Apostle says: pray without ceasing; that is, he teaches constant remembrance of God at all times, in all places, and under any circumstances. If you are busy doing something, you must remember the Creator of all things; if you see light, remember HIm who gave it to you.If you look at the sky, the earth, the waters and all that is in the, marvel and glorify the Creator of all. If you are putting your clothes on, remember Him Whose gift they are and thank Him Who provides everything in your life. In short, let every action be an occasion for you always to remember and praise God. And before you know it you are praying unceasingly and your soul will always rejoice in this.’”

That passage is one of the most convicting and encouraging things I have read in a long time. Do I let every action be an occasion to remember and praise God?

What We See That The Way of a Pilgrim Doesn’t

There are two things the pilgrim tells about that scholars and lay people alike have taken issue with in the years since The Way of a Pilgrim has been published.

The first is possibly a literary device if this book truly is an allegory, but nevertheless it is dangerous sine the book purports to be true, and that is the quickness with which the pilgrim obtains unceasing interior prayer.

His starets begins by having him repeat the Jesus prayer 3000 times a day and within two days he was feeling the need to increase it so his starets had him increase to 6000 times a day. With just a week of this he claims

“I was not anxious about anything and paid no heed to any thoughts, no matter how strongly they assailed me. I concentrated only on precisley carrying out the starets’s instructions. And do you know what happned? I became so accustomed to the prayer that when I stopped praying, even for a brief time, I felt as though something were missing, as if I had lost something. When I began to pray again, I was immediately filled with an inner lightness and joy.”

After a week? It may be possible that the tragedies in his life as well as his time as a pilgrim before discovering the Jesus Prayer helped to prepare him for quick reception to interior prayer, but most spiritual advisors tell us that takes years, if not a lifetime to really reach this level of divine union.

It is dangerous for those starting out because they may become discouraged if they do not have such quick results. It also is more dangerous because it might lead to what the Eastern fathers called prelest, or spiritual delusion. Spiritual delusion (warning: oversimplification) is the idea that you are doing right when you are really doing wrong. We might think being able to say the Jesus Prayer 6000 times a day by the end of the week means we have learned to be at union with God when it really only means we are repeating a sentence 6000 times. I’m not saying the Jesus Prayer did not help the pilgrim, but that it might not work so quickly and effectively for us. If we expect it to be a solution instead of a technique, we will undoubtedly fall into prelest.

The Way of a Pilgrim also treats the Jesus Prayer as a talisman at some points. A woman recounts a story of being afraid to travel alone, but knew that while repeating the Jesus Prayer no harm could come to her. The pilgrim asks for a story to be told him “In praise of the blessed power of the Jesus Prayer.” He often focuses too much on the envisioning of the heart right above the left nipple and other such things. In these situations the prayer becomes a superstitious mantra rather than a real longing for God. Any overemphasis on technique or words will lead us astray and, possibly, into prelest.

Why The Way of a Pilgrim Matters

One of the primary reasons to read The Way of a Pilgrim is to understand the spirituality of our brothers and sisters in the East. The Orthodox Catholic church is the second largest Christian denomination in the world (behind the Roman Catholic Church) with almost 300 million adherents. Shouldn’t we know a little about them?

Another reason this book is so valuable is because the world the pilgrim travels in is not much different than our own. He meets a clerk who tells him that all of the miracles he has experienced have naturalistic explanations. He meets people who don’t believe in God, alcoholics, thieves, people who are too busy to pray. In short, he meets the same people we meet everyday.

We are all pilgrims trying to reach a union with God. The Way of a Pilgrim helps us to understand how to live a life of spiritual pilgrimage in the midst of an unbelieving and hostile world.

Did you read with me? What did you think?

Don’t forget to check out what book I’ll be reading next here. I hope you’ll join me in reading and enjoying old books.