St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

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Notes on The Way of a Pilgrim

Written in the first person by an anonymous Russian with few possessions or needs, this book became a classic text in Russia in the 19th century. It did not appear in English until 1930, in the edition translated by R. M. French, sponsored by the Episcopal Book Club, with forward by Bishop Walter Frere, founder of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, England, and Bishop of Truro prior to his death in 1938.
The pilgrimage referred to in the title can be placed in the 1850s by using clues contained within the book itself. It had to have taken place between the the Crimean War mentioned in book four (1853-1856) and 1861, the year that Tsar Alexander II liberated the serfs.
Pilgrimage is a constant theme in Slavic spirituality. The pilgrim is a strannik, or “wanderer” in alternative translation, and always a spiritual seeker.
Elder Amvrosy of the Optino Monastery tells the story of a pilgrim who visited with the spiritual father (starets) Makary, and that this pilgrim was so knowledgeable and fulfilled that Starets Makary simply affirmed his spiritual depth and sent him on his way. Could this have been our anonymous pilgrim? Perhaps, but we will never know for sure, for we have no name and little personal information about him.
The initiative for the author’s pilgrimage came from hearing a priest’s sermon on I Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing.”  Upon hearing this text propounded without satisfactory guidance, the pilgrim starts  off from Kiev, seeking for those who can interpret the text for him.
After his initial searches prove inadequate, because they are either too superficial or too academic, the pilgrim comes to a monastery — presumably Znamensky in Irkutsk, founded 1762.  Irkutsk is near Lake Baikal, just North of the Mongolian border. There he finally meets the starets who is able to guide him in the Jesus prayer.
The starets’ initial advice is this: “Sit down in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.”
As the pilgrim uses the prayer many times daily, he comes to realize God’s presence in his life and throughout the creation. The Jesus prayer reveals to him “the inner secret of the heart.” He focuses on the Presence, yet he is aware of the circumstances of his life and the historical changes taking place around him. But, as was the case with his physical needs, he finds that these things do not matter on an eternal plane. He sees all things, as the old saying goes, sub specie aeternitatis – “from the viewpoint of eternity.”  He attains unto what we call in the eastern tradition apatheia – the ability to detach from unimportant things of life. The work ends with his desire to go to Jerusalem.
For us, The Way of a Pilgrim functions on four levels. On the first level, it is an introduction to the Jesus Prayer, and a call to experience its joy in our lives.
On the second level, it is an expression of the life of the hermit monk and an invitation to join in that life.
On the third level, it is a subtle introduction to the teachings contained in the Philokalia, the classic collection of Orthodox Spirituality. The pilgrim receives a short Russian version of it as a gift. So strewn through the The Way are references to St. Dmitri of Rostov, Athanasius of Athos, St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Peter of Damascus, Nicephorus the Solitary, St. Gregory of Sinai, and others. The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology contains many of these references.
Lastly, The Way invites us to the core pilgrimage, which is to give our hearts to God.

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