The Way of a Pilgrim
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The Way of a Pilgrim

Nina A Toumanova, Nina A Toumanova

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eBook - ePub

The Way of a Pilgrim

Nina A Toumanova, Nina A Toumanova

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A homeless wanderer, bearing nothing but a knapsack and Bible, sets off to follow St. Paul's advice to "pray without ceasing" in this classic of world spirituality. Written by an anonymous nineteenth-century Russian peasant, it traces his attempts to achieve a greater intimacy with God by chanting the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me").
Generations of readers—including seekers of all faiths—began their spiritual lives by following the pilgrim's attempts to discipline his mind toward a constant awareness of God's presence as manifested through Christ's mercy. This exploration of the power of prayer offers people everywhere, in every situation, a starting place on a journey to peace, freedom, and salvation. This edition features a brand-new Foreword by Norris J. Chumley, Ph.D., an Emmy Award winning authority on religion and history.

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BY THE GRACE OF GOD I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by calling a homeless rover of the lowest status in life. My possessions comprise but some rusk in a knapsack on my back, and the Holy Bible on my bosom. That is all.
On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, I went to church to hear Mass. The first Epistle of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians was read. In it we are exhorted, among other things, to pray incessantly, and these words engraved themselves upon my mind. I began to ponder whether it is possible to pray without ceasing, since every man must occupy himself with other things needed for his support. I found this text in my Bible and read with my own eyes what I had heard, namely that we must pray incessantly in all places, pray always in spirit, lifting up our hands in devotion. I pondered and pondered and did not know what to think of it.
“What am I to do?” I mused. “Where will I be able to find someone who can explain it to me? I shall go to the churches known for their famous preachers; perhaps there I shall hear something that will enlighten me.” And I went. I heard a great many very good sermons on prayer in general, how one ought to pray, what prayer is and what fruits it bears, but no one said how to succeed in it. There were sermons on spiritual prayer, on incessant prayer, but no one pointed out how it was to be accomplished.
Thus my attendance at the sermons failed to give me what I sought. Therefore, after having heard many of them, I gave them up without acquiring the desired knowledge of incessant prayer. I decided to look, with the help of God, for an experienced and learned man who would talk to me and explain the meaning of incessant prayer since the understanding of it seemed most important to me.
For a long time I went from one place to another, reading my Bible constantly, and inquiring everywhere whether there was not a spiritual teacher or a pious and experienced guide. Finally, I was informed that in a certain village there lived a gentleman who had, for many years, sought the salvation of his soul. He had a chapel in his house, never left the premises and spent his days praying and reading religious books. Upon hearing this I well-nigh ran to that particular village. I got there and went to the owner of the estate.
“What is it that you want?” he asked.
“I was told that you are a pious and intelligent man,” I said. “For the love of God enlighten me in the meaning of the Apostle’s utterance ‘pray incessantly.’ Is it possible for anyone to pray without ceasing? I wish I could know, but I do not seem to understand it at all.”
The gentleman remained silent for a while, looking at me fixedly. Finally he said: “Incessant inner prayer is a continuous longing of the human spirit for God. But in order to succeed in this sweet practice we must pray more and ask God to teach us incessant prayer. Pray more and with fervor. It is prayer itself that will teach you how it can be done without ceasing; however, it will require some time.”
Having said this he ordered that food be brought to me, gave me money for my journey and dismissed me. And in the end he had explained nothing at all.
Once more I set out. I pondered and pondered, read and read, and my thoughts dwelt constantly upon what this man had told me, though I could not understand what he meant. Yet, so ardently did I wish to fathom this question, that I could not sleep at night.
I traveled two hundred versts on foot and reached a large city that was the capital of the province. There I saw a monastery, and at the inn where I stayed I learned that the abbot was a kindly man, at once pious and hospitable. When I went to see him he received me in a friendly fashion, asked me to sit down and offered refreshments.
“Holy Father,” I said, “I do not want any food, but I beg you, enlighten me in spiritual matters. Tell me how I can save my soul.”
“How can you save your soul? Well, live according to the commandments, pray and you will be saved.”
“But it is said that we should pray incessantly. I do not know how this can be done for I cannot even get the meaning of it. Father, I beseech you, explain to me what incessant prayer means.”
“I do not know, dear brother, how to explain it to you! But wait a moment . . . I have a little book that will enlighten you,” He handed me Saint Demetrius’s1 book, called The Spiritual Education of the Inner Man and said: “Here, read this page.”
I read the following statement: “The words of the Apostle ‘pray incessantly’ should be interpreted as referring to the prayer of the mind, for the mind can always be soaring to God and pray without ceasing.”
“But,” I said, “won’t you indicate to me the means by which the mind can always be directed to God without being disturbed in its incessant prayer?”
“This, indeed, is very difficult, unless God Himself bestows upon one such a gift,” answered the abbot, and he offered no further explanations.
I spent the night in his monastery. The following morning I thanked him for his kind hospitality and went on my way, though I did not know myself where I was going. I was saddened by my incapacity to understand and read the Holy Bible for consolation.
In this wise I followed the main road for about five days when, one evening, I was overtaken by an elderly man who looked as though he belonged to the clergy. In reply to my question he answered that he was a monk from a monastery situated some ten versts off the main road and extended to me his invitation.
“In our guesthouse,” he said, “we offer rest, shelter and food to pilgrims and other pious people.” I did not care to go with him and replied that my peace of mind did not depend upon my lodging, but upon finding spiritual guidance. Neither was I concerned about my food, for I had a provision of rusk in my knapsack.
“What kind of spiritual guidance are you seeking? What is it that troubles you?” he asked. “Do come for a short stay, dear brother. We have experienced elders who will guide you and lead you to the true path in the light of the word of God and the teaching of the Holy Fathers.”
I told him what was troubling me. The old man crossed himself and said: “Give thanks to God, my beloved brother, for he has awakened you to the irresistible longing for incessant, inner prayer. Acknowledge in it the voice of our Lord and be calm in the assurance that all that has happened to you hitherto was the testing of the compliance of your own will with the call of God. You have been given the privilege of understanding that the heavenly light of incessant inner prayer is not found in worldly wisdom or in mere striving for outward knowledge. On the contrary, it is attained in poverty of spirit, in active experience and in simplicity of heart. For this reason it is not astonishing that you have not been able to learn anything about the essential work of prayer or to attain the skill by which incessant activity in it is acquired. What is prayer and how does one learn to pray? Though these questions are vital and essential, one gets only rarely a true enlightenment on that subject from contemporary preachers. It is because these questions are more complex than all the arguments they have at their disposal. These questions require not merely academic achievements, but mystical insight. And one of the most lamentable things is the vanity of elementary knowledge that drives people to measure the Divine by a human yardstick. Only too often wrong reasoning is applied to prayer, for many believe that preparatory steps and great virtues lead us to prayer. In fact it is prayer that gives birth to all the virtues and sublime deeds. The fruits and consequences of prayer are wrongly taken for the means of attaining it. This attitude belittles the value of prayer, and it is contrary to the statements of the Holy Scripture. The Apostle Paul says: ‘I desire therefore, first of all, that supplications be made.’ Here the main thing that the Apostle stressed in his words about prayer is that prayer must come before anything else: ‘I desire therefore, first of all’ . . . There are many virtues that are required of a good Christian, but above all else he must pray; for nothing can ever be achieved without prayer. Otherwise he cannot find his way to God, he cannot grasp the truth, he cannot crucify the flesh with all its passions and desires, find the Light of Christ in his heart and be united to our Lord. Frequent prayer must precede all these things before they can be brought about. I say ‘frequent’ because the perfection and the correctness of prayer is beyond our power. ‘For we know not what we should pray for as we ought,’ says the Apostle Paul. Therefore we ought to pray often, to pray at all times, for this alone lies within our power and leads us to purity of prayer, which is the mother of all spiritual good. As Saint Isaac the Syrian says: ‘Win the mother and she will bear you children,’ so must you first of all attain the power of prayer, and then all other virtues will be easily practiced afterward. All this is scarcely mentioned by those who have had no personal experience, but only a superficial knowledge of the most mysterious teaching of the Holy Fathers.”
While he talked to me, we reached the monastery without noticing it. In order that I might not lose contact with this wise elder, and to get further information more quickly, I hastened to say: “Reverend Father, do me a favor: Explain to me what incessant prayer is, and how I am to learn it. As I see, you are deeply versed in all these matters.”
It was with kindness that he granted my request and taking me to his cell, he said: “Come in, I shall give you a book written by the Holy Fathers. With God’s help you may get from it a clear and definite idea of what prayer is.”
As we entered his cell he began to speak again: “The constant inner prayer of Jesus is an unbroken, perpetual calling upon the Divine Name of Jesus with the lips, the mind and the heart, while picturing His lasting presence in one’s imagination and imploring His grace wherever one is, in whatever one does, even while one sleeps. This prayer consists of the following words: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!’ Those who use this prayer constantly are so greatly comforted that they are moved to say it at all times, for they can no longer live without it. And the prayer will keep on ringing in their hearts of its own accord. Now, do you understand what incessant prayer is?”
“Yes, I do, Father. In the Name of God explain to me how to achieve the mastery of it,” I said, feeling overwhelmed with joy.
“You will learn how to master it by reading this book, which is called the Philocalia; it comprises the complete and minute knowledge of incessant inner prayer, as stated by twenty-five Holy Fathers. It is full of great wisdom and is so useful that it is regarded as the first and best guide by all those who seek the contemplative, spiritual life. The reverend Nicephorus said once: ‘It leads one to salvation without labor and sweat.’”
“Is it then loftier and holier than the Bible?” I asked.
“No, it is not, but it sheds light upon the secrets locked up in the Bible that cannot be easily understood by our shallow intelligence. Let me give you an analogy: the largest, the brightest and at the same time the most wonderful of all luminaries is the sun; yet you must protect your eyes in order to examine it, or simply to look at it. For this purpose you use artificial glass, millions and millions of times smaller and darker than the sun. But through this tiny piece of glass you can contemplate the sublime king of all stars with its flamboyant rays. Thus the Holy Scripture is like the resplendent sun, while this book—the Philocalia—may be compared to the piece of glass that permits us to contemplate its lofty magnificence. Now, listen; I shall read you the instructions on incessant prayer as they are given here.”
He opened the book, and after having found the instruction by Saint Simeon the New Theologian, he began to read: “Take a seat in solitude and silence. Bend your head, close your eyes, and breathing softly, in your imagination, look into your own heart. Let your mind, or rather, your thoughts, flow from your head down to your heart and say, while breathing: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ Whisper these words gently, or say them in your mind. Discard all other thoughts. Be serene, persevering and repeat them over and over again.’’
The elder did not limit himself to mere explanations, but made them clear by examples. We read passages of Saint Gregory of Sinai, Saint Callistus and Saint Ignatius2 and he interpreted them to me in his own words. I listened to him attentively, overwhelmed with gladness, and did my best to store every detail in my memory. Thus we stayed up the whole night together and went to Matins without having slept at all.
When the elder dismissed me with his blessings, he told me that while I was learning the ways of prayer I must return and relate to him my experiences in a full and sincere confession; for this work cannot be crowned with success except with the attentive guidance of a teacher.
In the church I felt a burning zeal to practice incessant prayer diligently and asked God to help me. Then I began to ask myself how I could visit the elder for guidance and confession, since it was not permitted to remain in the monastery guesthouse for more than three days, and there were no other houses nearby.
However, I soon discovered a village situated about four versts from the monastery. When I went there in search of living quarters, God led me to the right place. A peasant engaged me for the whole summer to take care of his kitchen garden; he placed at my disposal a hut where I could live by myself. Praise be to God! I came upon a quiet place! I took up my dwelling and began to learn inner prayer in the manner I had been told and went to see my elder from time to time.
Alone in my garden, I practiced incessant prayer for a week as the elder had directed me. In the beginning things went very well. But soon I began to feel tired, lazy and bored. Overcome by drowsiness, I was often distracted by all kinds of thoughts that came upon me like a cloud. I went to see my elder in great anxiety and told him of my plight.
He received me cordially and said: “The kingdom of darkness assails you, my dear brother. To it nothing is worse than a prayer of the heart. And the kingdom of darkness uses every means at its disposal to hold you back and to prevent you from learning prayer. Nevertheless the fiend can do no more than God will permit, no more than is needed for our own good. It seems that your humility needs more testing; it is too soon for you to approach with intemperate zeal the sublime entrance of the heart, lest you fall into spiritual covetousness. Let me read you an instruction from the Philocalia about this case.”
The elder found the teaching of Nicephorus the monk, and began to read: “If after some efforts you do not succeed in reaching the region of the heart in the manner you have been told, do what I am about to tell you, and with the help of God you will find what you are seeking. The faculty of speech is located in the larynx, as you know. Drive backs ...

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