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Way of the Pilgrim

Author(s): Gleb Pokrovsky

ISBN13: 9780232524758

ISBN10: 0232524750


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  • A classic of Russian spirituality, The Way of a Pilgrim is an account of one man who sets out to learn the prayer of the heart, also known as the Jesus Prayer, and how the practice transforms his existence. Its anonymous author was one of the wandering pilgrims who were a regular feature of the Russian countryside from medieval times until the early 20th century. Through his eyes we are given a charming glimpse into rural life in nineteenth-century Russia, and discover with him the secret of putting into practice St Pauls exhortation to pray without ceasing.

    There are many ways you can read this profound and glorious book that is one of the worlds religious masterpieces. Whatever path you find yourself on, you can revel in it as a spiritual adventure story, the account of a man who searches for the meaning of prayer and mystical truth and finds them on a journey peppered with colourful encounters, visions and those revealing twists of fate of which any sincere seekers life is full. - Andrew Harvey, from the foreword.

    This new illustrated edition contains an abridged version of the text with facing-page annotations explaining names, term~ and references and bringing the text beautifully to life.

    The translator, Gleb Pokrovsky, is a student of religion and spirituality and a writer and editor. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

  • Gleb Pokrovsky

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    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 Gods 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.

    "I 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 Apostles 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 dont 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 dont 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 Gods 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 Gods 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 ones 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 ones 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 Apostles 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.


Way of the Pilgrim

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