How do you pray without ceasing? Do you discuss every little decision you face during the day? Do you give God status updates every minute? Do you shut yourself away from human society altogether, and interact only with God?
The Way of a Pilgrim, a classic of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, is written by a narrator whose name the reader never learns, walking through Russia and Siberia with a knapsack containing his Bible, dry bread, and the Philokalia.
In Greek, philokalia means “love of the beautiful, the good”. The Philokalia is a collection of writings by the Eastern monastic fathers (4th – 15th century).
St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos) and St Makarios of Corinth compiled The Philokalia in the context of a collection of 20 Greek Orthodox monastic communities at Mount Athos (“the Holy Mountain”), Greece.
According to freelance writer Janet Goodrich, the manuscript of The Way of the Pilgrim was preserved by a monk and was first published in 1884. The English edition debuted in the 1930s, and it has remained in print ever since.
The pilgrim’s inner journey begins when he is struck by hearing Paul’s call to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
A starets (“spiritual father”) not only teaches him the Jesus Prayer—”Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me”— but also sparks an actual spiritual revival in 19th century Russia through the popularity of The Way of a Pilgrim.
The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) , who pioneered existentialism and was the author of a number of significant pieces including Notes from Underground (1864), The Idiot (1868), and The Brothers Karamazo (1880) , was among those touched by this spiritual revival.
The story is divided into four narratives and includes the following incidents: the pilgrim meets his spiritual elders, he learns the Jesus prayer, he encounters a forester, he gets a job as church watchman, he plans for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he visits with a pious family, and he departs for the Holy Land.
Although these events are not incredibly dramatic, the inner life of the pilgrim is transformed by the practice of the Jesus prayer and by his readings of the Fathers of the Church in the Philokalia.
At one point, the pilgrim observes, “I spent the entire summer continuously repeating the Jesus prayer. I was very much at peace and often even dreamed that I was saying the prayer. If I happened to meet people during the day, each of them without exception seemed very dear to me, as if they were family, though otherwise I did not concern myself with them much. All thoughts seemed to vanish on their own, and I thought of nothing else but the prayer. My mind was recollected and attentive to it, while at times, and of its own accord, my heart would feel a warmth and a sort of pleasure.”
On this devotional path, the pilgrim comes to a deep appreciation for silence and solitude.
He also experiences what is known in Orthodox circles as “the gift of tears.”
This spiritual classic shows the importance of the heart to a person on the mystical path, alluding again and again to the sensations that come over the pilgrim as he deepens his practice of the Jesus prayer.
This paperback will enable you to ponder some of the essential elements of Eastern Orthodox devotion.
Courtesy Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Tom Grosh IV and Janet Goodrich
From page 25 from Issue 6: ‘Prayer – What does it mean to pray without ceasing?’ of The Record Magazine