Christopher's Reviews > The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way

The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way by Anonymous
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Jun 07, 09

Read in April, 2005

The anonymous confessions of an early 19th century Russian aestetic to his spiritual adviser, THE WAY OF A PILGRIM is a classic of Orthodox Christian spirituality and contains within its humble account a message accessible to every reader. Far from being a highfaultin' work of theology, its theme is simply the ability of any individual to dwell in the presence of God.

The author of the account speaks of how one day in a sermon he heard St Paul's exhortation to "pray without ceasing", and he wondered how that might be possible. When he asks the question of the abbot of a nearby monastery, the wise old monk introduces the pilgrim to the tradition of the prayer of the heart, or "Jesus prayer". The pilgrim wanders all over Russia, as far as Irkutsk in the east of Siberia. His account gives us an enjoyable account of Russian peasant life of the time. As he journeys about, he reads much of the Philokalia, the classic compendium of mystical writings by Orthodox saints. Essentially, the Jesus prayer is an attempt to come closer to God through ceaseless repetition of the phrase "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." In the initial steps of his prayer life, the pilgrim says this first hundreds and then thousands of times a day. But the Jesus prayer is no mantra, having intrisic value in its, nor is it "vain repetition". Rather, the prayer is meant to guide the Christian into a ceaseless longing for God in his heart. Without that centering in the heart, speaking the words of the prayer is an empty gesture.

The work is an important representation of Orthodoxy to non-Orthodox, and it dispells two popular misconceptions about the Church. One is the accusation made by some Protestants that Orthodoxy is ritualism mediated by a priest, and does not teach a personal relationship by God. You could hardly have a greater relationship with God than calling upon him every waking (and sleeping) hour. The other misconception is that Christianity has no mystical tradition comparable to the East, but THE WAY OF A PILGRIM, once you get past its rather staid prose, will reveal profound teachings on prayer and meditation that the hippest Hindu or Buddhist fads are the palest reflections of.

The book does have a sequel, "A Pilgrim Continues His Way", which is published together with THE WAY OF A PILGRIM in some editions. I have not read this yet, and I say that if you can't find an edition with it, don't worry, as the main text has more than enough to keep you occupied. THE WAY OF A PILGRIM is a common introductory reading recommended by Orthodox priests to inquirers and converts in English-speaking countries, and I can heartily recommend it. I should note however that the Philokalia, to which the author often refers, was written for monastics and is generally considered dangerous to read without the guidance of a spiritual father.
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