I had come across passing references to this spiritual classic at least a few times before I decided to see if I could get it from the library. I assumed the book was primarily didactic in nature, and that the title was metaphorical. So I was surprised, when I started reading it, to discover that it is – apparently – an autobiographical account by a Russian pilgrim of the 19th century.
I say “apparently” because the author is unknown, and some people think that it was written as though it were a pilgrim telling his story, but not by an actual pilgrim. I suppose that is possible, although I would think that a made-up story would be told in a much less disjointed manner, with fewer extraneous details and going off on “rabbit trails.”
But regardless of how the story came to be written down, it is a striking example of applying spiritual teaching to everyday life – in a time and place very different from our own. The pilgrim is a peasant who travels from village to village, occasionally requesting husks of dry bread for his pack, but for the most part seeking nothing but quiet and solitude to pursue communion with God through constant prayer.
He had already been wandering about for some time when he heard, in church one day, the words from 1 Thessalonians 5:17 “Pray without ceasing.” Concerned about how one can obey this command from Scripture, he goes in search of a spiritual teacher to tell him how to do this. Eventually he finds a starets (a spiritual teacher/advisor) who gives him instruction in saying the “Jesus Prayer.” (There are many websites that teach about this prayer; I link to this one because I think he explains things well, and because it was after reading articles at this site that I decided to read The Way of a Pilgrim.)
Much of the book tells about his travels from then on, the people he meets, and the ways God works in his life. He finds such joy and peace in saying the prayer constantly that he is sometimes distressed when circumstances prevent him from getting away alone to say it. It sustains him no matter what is happening to him, even when he receives an undeserved whipping. (He had counseled a runaway girl to go home, but the peasants who found him talking to her were convinced he had seduced her.) He passes along to others he meets the spiritual wisdom he has learned, and hears from other people about the spiritual practices that have transformed their lives.
Only near the end of the book does it become more didactic in nature, as it recounts an extended discussion between the pilgrim, a professor, a priest, and a hermit. It is especially helpful because the professor brings up a variety of objections to the practice of constantly saying the Jesus Prayer, and each of his objections is answered at length. In particular, the professor argues – as would many Evangelicals – that the ceaseless repetition of the prayer amounts to “vain repetition.”
What would be the use if I pray and invoke the Name of God continuously with my tongue only and pay no attention to, and do not understand, what I am saying? That would be nothing but vain repetition. … God does not ask for words, but for an attentive mind and a pure heart. Would it not be better to offer a prayer, be it only a short one, even rarely may be, or only at stated times, but with attention, with zeal and warmth of heart, and with due understanding?
The priest offers this explanation:
Those who have practiced ceaseless prayer assure us that what happens is this: Those who have made up their minds to call without ceasing upon the Name of Jesus Christ or, what is the same thing, to say the Jesus Prayer continuously, at first, of course, find difficulty and have to struggle against sloth. But the longer and the harder they work at it, the more they grow familiar with the task imperceptibly, so that in the end the lips and the tongue acquire such capacity for moving themselves that even without any effort on the individual’s part they themselves act irresistibly and say the prayer voicelessly. … And so it results from this that the mind in its turn begins to yield, to listen to this involuntary action of the lips, and is aroused by it to attention which in the end becomes a source of delight to the heart, and true prayer.
I thought a lot, as I was reading the book, about what place such prayer might have in a Christian’s life. It seemed very appealing to have a prayer bring such delight as it brought to the pilgrim. Yet it hardly seemed right to say a prayer for the purpose of feeling delight. That would be turning prayer into something other than the submission of self to God. It almost seemed like trying to use God for selfish means.
Yet the pilgrim clearly does not become selfish. While he wishes sometimes for greater solitude, he puts other people and their needs first. Is this because his motive in praying was not what it would do for him, but in order to obey a command of Scripture, and because he recognized that as a sinner he needs the grace of God?
I decided to try saying the prayer (not out loud but silently in my head) during times when my thoughts would normally just wander, and especially when they were already wandering into areas of temptation (generally pride or self-pity). For a day or two I allowed virtually no time when I carried on the usual mental conversations with myself or some other imagined person. Whenever those started, I pushed them away by saying the Jesus Prayer over and over.
I found it very effective in terms of controlling my thoughts. But the constant repetition came to feel less like a prayer than just a long string of syllables. I tried varying the words, as there is no fixed form of the prayer. (Most often I use the form “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” But there are countless variations on it.) That worked as long as I focused on what I was saying.
After a while, though, I found that I could think about other things at the same time as repeating it. The pilgrim mentions this, that the prayer seems to be saying itself in the background while he thinks about other things. But for me, the prayer seemed purely mechanical at that point and not a means of directing my mind and heart toward God. I also read someone else’s comment online about using the prayer, and she seemed to indicate that it was important to bring one’s attention to it as prayer in order to use it rightly.
Today I found an article by Bishop Kallistos regarding the flexibility available to us in saying the prayer, so that it may be used either “freely” throughout the day while engaged in other activities, or “formally” during a set time of prayer. I think it is helpful to realize that both are appropriate.
I also gave some thought, as I read the book, to similarities between the pilgrim’s use of the repeated prayer and Eastern forms of meditation and use of mantras. I have read that it is different from using a mantra because the Jesus Prayer is not meaningless syllables but specific content, carefully chosen to express a number of key truths of the Christian faith in a very compact form.
Have you ever tried saying a word over and over until it sounds strange, no longer like a word but just a strange conglomeration of sounds? If I say words so many times that my conscious mind hears them not as words but just a collection of phonemes, what message is going into my subconscious mind? Is it “hearing” that the words do not matter? Or is the repetition drilling the meaning deeper into my mind and heart than I am consciously aware? I don’t know.
It is possible that some of the pilgrim’s sense of delight came from a physiological/psychological phenomenon created by long repetition of a set of sounds, separate from the meaning assigned to those sounds. That doesn’t mean the mental discipline is bad, however. There is probably some value that Western Christians could learn from Eastern practices of mental and physical discipline.
There are a number of different translations and editions of the book, and one thing that was not in the book that I got from the library but did find in Google books is an appendix to one addition. These “Brief Directives for Prayer of the Heart” instruct the modern reader on how to use the Jesus Prayer. I am not certain how much of this I will continue trying to do, but I do see value in the practice.