The Way of a Pilgrim: Translated by Helen Bacovcin
I once attended a Coptic Orthodox conference on prayer and was first introduced to this book then. Questions, including what it means to pray, how to pray, the conditions needed for prayer, amongst others, permeated my mind. The conference was enlightening and, as I returned back to my normal daily routine, I became consumed with my worldly affairs, with the hurriedness of life, work, and other preoccupations. A few days ago, I found this book sitting on my bookshelf and finally decided to take the time to read it in its entirety. No regrets! This blog serves as a synopsis of what I learned from my reading. I hope that some of you may find it as enlightening and beneficial as I did.
This story was written by an anonymous nineteenth century Russian peasant, who refers to himself as the pilgrim. He sets out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Jerusalem) in search of the answer to the method by which one can pray incessantly and unceasingly. During his journey, he meets a spiritual father, monks, hermits, and many other figures who separately teach him a lesson about the importance of prayer. If you have ever read The Alchemist, this is in some ways a similar story, but with a more religious emphasis. Under the direction of a spiritual father, the pilgrim is introduced to the Philokalia, the writings of the holy Fathers. The Philokalia, which is Greek for “The Love of the Beautiful,” is a collection of spiritual writings from the fourth to the fifteenth century written by the fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In it are the teachings of interior prayer and the meaning of leading a contemplative life.
Why is incessant prayer so important? What are the fruits of such devotion? Said simply, “if you do not constantly walk in the presence of God, with ceaseless prayer, in your heart, you will never have peace from disturbing thoughts and you will always have an inclination toward sin, even in small matters.” Continuous prayer leads to salvation, peace, purity of thought and of the soul, deep love, patience in tribulation, humility, and dispassion (a separation from our worldly passions and an ability to overcome temptation). The constant recital of the Jesus Prayer allows one to be in communion with the Lord. The Jesus Prayer simply states: “My Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”
Those who are not inclined to ceaseless prayer oppose the word of God, do not aspire to a more perfect state of the soul, and often fall into deception or pride. Why is that? This is because the greatness of the prayer is revealed in its parts. When reciting “My Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God,” we proclaim the faith, a statement which in itself contains the short form of the Gospel. The second part, proclaiming “have mercy on me, a sinner,” is a reflection of our humility; it tells a story of our weakness while making a petition to our Lord for mercy. It not only “sets forth a petition for forgiveness, but is a sincere cry of filial love and trust in the mercy of God; it is a cry of a soul humbly aware of its weakness and lack of control in its vigilance over self. It is also a cry for pardon, grace, and strength from God to overcome temptation and to conquer one’s sinful inclinations.” It is a plea to the Lord for self improvement, a reflection of a desire to do His will and to convert our minds and hearts and will to Him alone. How powerful is this?
This interior prayer (ie the incessant prayer) leads to humility, love of God and neighbor, faith and self-renunciation. It convicts us to gain a careful examination of our feelings and actions. With that said, four conditions come to mind in regards to this self examination. The first condition, that is to love God, means to be constantly thinking of Him, in all things, occupations, at all times, and in all places and actions. In loving God, we also keep His commandments, the most striking of which is to love one another. The second condition is to love thy neighbor. The third condition is to have faith. If one were firmly convinced in eternal life, one would be constantly concerned about his/her salvation and strive to live by the Word of God. One would strive to delve deeply into spiritual matters and accept the Holy Gospel with faith into one's heart as the word of God and delight in its lessons so as to gain understanding, wisdom, and truth. The fourth condition is that one would ascribe to humility rather than believing in one's own abilities, to have a modest opinion of one's own rank, status, and importance amongst others.
While we understand the fruits of prayer, it is often difficult to engage in ceaseless devotion and prayer. Our path to prayer is difficult in itself. However, it is by means of these difficulties and tribulations that we are taught to pray fervently. The Holy Fathers say that both the “comfort and difficulty in prayer are good and that no prayer, regardless of how good or poor it is, is ever lost before God. Ease, warmth, and consolation indicate that God is rewarding our struggle in prayer, while heaviness, dejection, and dryness are meant to strengthen and purify the soul and by this means make it humble for the future taste of happiness.” Said differently, there are no conditions for prayer. God does not need a pure heart or an ardent prayer. Even if, at the beginning, the constant repetition seems detached, it is the practice of constancy in prayer that is the most powerful means of attaining perfection of interior prayer and salvation. It is like an exercise for the soul. It is a constant reminder of the remembrance of God in all things by calling on the name of Jesus Christ at all times, in all places, in all occupations, without interruption.
St. Macarius the Great once said, "to pray often is in our will, but to pray truly is a gift of grace." With our free will, we pray ceaselessly, but is it by the Grace of God that our faith is strengthened (as a spiritual gift given by the Holy Spirit), our deeds are purified, our hearts are purified, and even by grace “constancy [in prayer] can bring even careless prayer to perfection. The primary and most conducive method for performing actions leading to salvation and spiritual perfection is constant, uninterrupted prayer, no matter how weak it is.” The lesson learned is that we are not to be disturbed by the impurity or dryness of our prayer, but with patience, we should await the fruit resulting from frequent calling on the name of the Lord. “Prayer will purify itself by repetition.” Once the tongue learns to pray incessantly, then the throat will recognize this act, and the mind will take note of it so that, once it stops, the body and soul miss the consistency of the act. Eventually, with more repetition and by grace, the heart will become accustomed to this interior prayer and no form of exterior distraction can suppress this prayer. Over time, with repetition and consistency, the prayer becomes a true cry of the heart, becoming interiorized “as it were natural for the soul, that it enlightens and nourishes the soul and unites it with God.”
“There is a hidden mystery contained in the simple but frequent calling on the name of the Lord for those who have no knowledge and conviction of its end result.” Ultimately, prayer is an act of outpouring love. It is so dynamic and powerful that you can pray and do what you wish and prayer will bring you to the right and just action. It will purify your thoughts and your actions, it will destroy your passions, it will protect you and sustain you, and it will give you understanding. Regardless of our sinfulness, this should not dissuade us from walking in the presence of God and from interior prayer. But rather, it is our sinfulness that should prompt us to turn quickly towards God.