A Russian Orthodox Hermit’s Path
Readers of The Way of a Pilgrim quickly discover two levels of narration in this simple and unassuming nineteenth-century religious classic. The first level presents a heartfelt apologia for silent prayer in the Orthodox Christian tradition, namely, the “ceaseless” prayer or the so-called Jesus prayer. Cited as the authority for the Jesus prayer is the Philokalia, a literary collection of writings of the Greek-speaking Church Fathers supporting the tradition of hesychasm. Yet The Way of a Pilgrim does not pursue theological argument. It is imminently practical in its advice to simply start praying.
But if this level of presentation were the only one, The Way of a Pilgrim would not be of interest as more than a classic of spirituality. The second level of narration, which underlies the entire work and arguably is the main reason for the work’s simplicity and attraction, is the literal but subtle presentation of the hermit life. The narrator is a solitary and a wanderer calling himself a pilgrim. The wandering hermit’s example is presented as the model existence for those who would truly lead a spiritual life.
The interplay of these two levels of presentation, always overlapping and concurrent, makes The Way of a Pilgrim a wonderful book: simple, edifying, and of universal spiritual appeal.
The provenance of the book is not clear, as commentator Thomas Hopko notes:
“The origin of this little spiritual classic is in many ways a mystery. No one knows for certain if it is a literally true story written by the narrator, or an account cast in the first person about a particular pilgrim (or perhaps based on several), or even a marvelously creative piece of spiritual fiction intended to propagate a certain understanding of the practice of the Orthodox Christian faith, and the prayer of the heart, particularly the Jesus Prayer.”
The manuscript first appears in a monastery of Mount Athos in the late nineteenth century. This manuscript copy included a distinct postscript or sequel. The postscript is often added to some editions and translations under the title The Pilgrim Continues His Way or the like. The sequel includes a monk of Mt. Athos as a character — often a literary device revealing authorship. As will be shown later, the original may have been preserved by the Mt. Athos monk, who then added a sequel.
Another tradition adds that The Way of a Pilgrim was composed in 1859 (the Crimean War is mentioned in the text). The famous starets Ambrose of Optino told a correspondent that a peasant had once visited the late starets Macarius. The peasant was so advanced in the spiritual life that Macarius was dumbfounded as to what to tell him and simply repeated “Be humble, be humble.” This testimony conforms to the style of the narrative, and the sequel’s mention of starets Ambrose is another clue to the probability that the Mt. Athos copy is genuine, while the sequel was added later.
The Way of a Pilgrim
The Way of a Pilgrim is told in first person narrative but the narrator reveals very little about himself — not even his name. The pilgrim is the universal Everyman, and like the narrator of Piers the Plowman is on a pilgrim’s journey without real destination on earth, a pilgrim journey in which “the way” is itself the whole point.
The book is divided into four sections or chapters in which the narrator tells of his travels and experiences.
The sequel adds three more sections equal in length to the original but is presented in a more stylized setting of conversations. The set presentations of the latter work are made by the pilgrim, a starets, a skhimnik (these latter two being monks advanced in spiritual practice), a hermit, and a professor. This latter work is basically theological exposition, lacking the charm and spontaneity of The Way of a Pilgrim.
Who can fail to be struck by the opening words of The Way of a Pilgrim?
“By the grace of God I am a Christian man, by my actions a great sinner, and by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth who roams from place to place. My worldly goods are a knapsack and some dried bread in it, and a Bible in my breast pocket. And that is all.”
The author first presents the physical circumstances of his life before any theorizing. He has already assessed the material world and does not need it or fit into it in any conventional sense. Twenty-first century observers would scorn his habits and appearance but his contemporaries would have recognized a holy man on the brink between madness and sanctity, for even the narrator himself will tell us of the homeless along the way who are thieves, criminals, drunkards, and madmen.
But nowhere do we sense in the pilgrim’s narrative that he is not fully conscious of himself and of his circumstances. He invites us to recognize how society has formed everyone he encounters, but that only spirituality and not society can redeem them.
The pilgrim recalls how he heard the epistle admonition to “pray ceaselessly.” He has set out to discover how, a kind of Diogenes seeking someone to share insight about this admonition.
“For a long time I wandered through many places,” he tells us, until he discovered a starets who advised him to read the Philokalia in order to learn how to prayer ceaselessly. Later, the pilgrim will have occasion to mention the most influential writers of that collection: St. Simeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory of Sinai, Callistus, Ignatius, John Karpathsky, Gregory of Thessalonika, Innocent, Peter the Damascene, Nicetas Stethatos, Nicephorus the Monk, Gregory Palamas, John Climaticus. But initially, it is the simple advice of the starets that falls live a revelation upon his ears.
“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.”
And that is all. At first the pilgrim repeated the prayer 6,000 times a day, and upon the starets’ advice, increased to 12,000 a few weeks later. Soon, as the starets had suggested, the pilgrim found the prayer at his lips and in his mind every waking hour, as spontaneous and effortless as his breath itself.
(No wonder the historian of religion Huston Smith has called the Jesus Prayer a “Christian mantra,” though some Christians take offense as if the prayer were being equated with a charm or talisman, which, of course, a mantra is not.)
The pilgrim took a job on a farm, close to the starets, but the starets died and the farm work ended with the summer, so the pilgrim decides to move on. “I wandered about for a long time in different districts,” he writes, but eventually he determined to go to Siberia because there, “I should travel in greater silence.”
“I took to walking more by night and chose to spend my days reading the Philokalia sitting down under a tree in the forest. … When I came to a village I asked only for a bag of dried bread and a handful of salt. I filled my bark jar with water and soon set out for another sixty miles or so.”
The pilgrim repeats more than once:
“At times I passed almost the whole day sitting under the trees and carefully reading the Philokalia, from which I gained a surprising amount of knowledge. [From the Philokalia he learned that] true prayer worships in the Spirit, [that] the kingdom of God is within us.”
To the pilgrim, the Jesus Prayer revealed the “inner secret of the heart” and the “knowledge of the speech of all creatures.” We sense that while the Philokalia has taught him the mechanics of prayer and provided the theological framework, it is the wandering hermit life that has brought the pilgrim the physical serenity and the detached independence of mind and heart to become receptive to a higher spirituality. The pilgrim quotes the Gospel passage of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, identifying himself with them as completely dependent on God, so that whatever happens cannot separate him from God.
Typical of the pilgrim’s advice to those he meets on his journeying is a passage such as the following where the pilgrim stays a while with a pious family:
“You should read a book called the Philokalia. There you will find a full and complete study of how to reach the spiritual prayer of Jesus in the mind and heart and taste the sweet fruit of it.”
This experience was one of the more pleasant. The stay was prompted by the children of the family having seen the pilgrim on the road and beckoned him with the call, “Dear little beggar, come along to mother. She likes beggars.” The pilgrim demurs, saying he is not a beggar but a passerby. The children then ask what he has in his bag. The pilgrim tells them bread he eats on the way. By that time the mother of the children has emerged and insists on the pilgrim being their guest. For a week he eats at table with them and enjoys long conversations with her husband.
But the pilgrim was not always so fortunate. Among the difficulties he experienced were two that might befall a homeless wanderer and hermit, in Russia at the time. Once he encountered a wolf, which attacked him but was turned away when he struck the wolf with his prayer beads.
In another incident, the pilgrim advises a young woman who is about to be forced into marriage and is trying to flee her future husband and his cronies. The woman catches up to the pilgrim on the road, and though the pilgrim politely advises her to accept her fate but to pray, for he can do no more, a party of the groom rides up behind them and accuses the pilgrim of trying to seduce the woman and abet her escape. The pilgrim is jailed overnight, released the next morning by the local judge when the charge is dismissed, but is flogged before being let go. Still, the pilgrim does not murmur but construes the whole incident as a lesson from God.
At this point in the narrative, the pilgrim reveals a little about his life. His parents had died in his childhood and he was raised by a grandfather together with his older brother. The older brother was a “madcap” who had pushed the younger brother from a height when the latter was only seven years old, crippling the child’s left arm and making him useless for serious manual labor. The brother only worsened with age. He became a shiftless alcoholic.
When the pilgrim came of age, the grandfather found him a wife, but was unable to assuage the violent and jealous older brother. The pilgrim dearly loved his wife. Sensing his approaching end, the grandfather bequeathed the house to the couple and a thousand rubles, then passed away. The older brother was furious, and in a drunken rage one night burned down the house, leaving the couple penniless. They eked out a subsistence, worsened by the pilgrim’s inability to secure work due to his bad arm. He read to her while she sewed garments for a little money. The wife died of a fever. The pilgrim found himself alone and impoverished.
“Since that time, for the last thirteen years, I have wandered from place to place. I made the rounds of many churches and monasteries but now I am taking to wandering over steppes and fields.”
He has come from Siberia, he says, to Kiev and now decided to travel to Odessa and embark for Jerusalem. It is fitting for a pilgrim, he concludes, especially in his thirty-third year of age.
“I do not know whether God will vouchsafe to let me go to Jerusalem. If it be His will, when the time comes, my sinful bones may be laid to rest there.”
And so ends The Way of the Pilgrim. On the last page, the pilgrim is speaking to a starets, relating his latest adventures and his desire to go to Jerusalem. But, he admits,
“I have already chatted far too much. And the holy fathers call even spiritual talk mere babble if it lasts too long.”
Sequel to The Way of a Pilgrim
The stylized setting and set dialog of the sequel has already been noted. The layers of narrative are confusing, and the tone of the participants in the dialog bristles with an uncomfortable tension as each makes comments refuting the other, sometimes gently, but sometimes with harshness.
For example, the pilgrim relates how at Kiev (this sequel is a year after the original narrative) he determined to make a written confession before departing for Jerusalem. But the priest rebuked him sharply, charging that the pilgrim did not truly love God or neighbor, had no genuine religious belief, and was full of pride and self-love. The pilgrim was “horrified.” He reconciled himself to greater effort. (Readers familiar with the techniques of Zen masters may see analogies, though the differences in cultures makes the pilgrim’s testimony painful, even if it attributed to him.)
Another tense section relates the pilgrim’s encounter with a strong-will raskolnik or “old believer.” The Old Believer defends ritual but lacked spirituality, notes the pilgrim.
Then there is the rarefied encounter with a monk from Mt. Athos.
“He had with him a copy of the Philokalia in Greek, and a book by Isaac the Syrian. We read together and compared the Slavonic translation by Paisy Velichovsky with the Greek original. He declared that it would be impossible to translate from the Greek more accurately and faithfully than how the Philokalia had been turned into Slavonic by Paisy.”
The passage is rather academic and out of character with the original work, as are later passages in this sequel wherein the skhimnik alludes to starets Ambrose and the hermit and professor debate the merits of eremitism, the professor taking a very negative viewpoint. These formal dialogs have value, but they are clearly penned by another hand, not the spontaneous and inspired hand of the author of The Way of a Pilgrim. As suggested above, some editions exclude the sequel because of its rarified tone and the diminished presence of the pilgrim.
The two levels of The Way of a Pilgrim, the prayer method and the life of the wandering hermit, give readers of either disposition entry to fresh approaches to prayer and to eremitism. The authenticity of the homeless wanderer is well sustained by his simplicity of belief and practice. Whether the reader is prompted to incorporate the Philokalia into a short list of religious classics or to count the narrative as a heartfelt testimony of the hermit life, The Way of a Pilgrim has universal appeal. The work complements and extends the traditions of spiritual simplicity while confirming the simplicity and insightfulness of the hermit life.