WAY OF A PILGRIM
I thought you might appreciate some pointers about reading WAY OF A PILGRIM, which we will discuss in class next Tuesday. The book is conventionally divided into two parts, WAY OF A PILGRIM (the first four sections) and THE PILGRIM CONTINUES HIS WAY (the rest of the book). In addition, the book you have contains a REALLY useful selection of readings on prayer. For our purposes, it really does not matter greatly whether you read the first part, or the whole text, since the same themes emerge throughout.
Let me tell you the kind of questions I will be asking, to help guide you through what is a pretty simple book. I WOULD REALLY LIKE PEOPLE TO COME TO CLASS ABLE TO PRODUCE PASSAGES THAT OFFER GOOD ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE KIND OF THEMES MENTIONED HERE.
Did you believe the book as a historical or autobiographical account? Was it really an authentic memoir, or a kind of novel?
Is the book hostile to women? What role do women play in the pilgrim's life and his travels?
Throughout the book, the pilgrim is compared to Jesus himself - why and how?
What is prayer? What is the goal of prayer? How does the tradition describe here differ from standard Western practices?
How does the book tell us to pray? What do you think of these methods?
The pilgrim describes techniques of prayer including special methods of breathing. The assumption is that bodily control and actions must be a part of effective prayer. Why are these themes so important? Do these ideas feature at all in the Western churches? If not, why not? Do these practices also appear in other religions? Which?
Why is the Jesus prayer to be said so many times?
According to the book, what is the power of the prayer?
The book has become one of the spiritual classics of the last century. Why? Why do so many Christians (and others) find so much in it?
Much of the book concerns the pilgrim's encounter with individuals and groups. Tell me one that grabbed your attention, which you thought made a good point.
Why is the Jesus Prayer so important in the Russian church? What does the pilgrim believe it can do?
The pilgrim says at one point that the prayer is in a sense a summary of the whole Bible. What does he mean by this?
How might a Protestant react negatively to the book, and to the prayer? How might someone even think the book is dangerous or destructive, or even "cult-like"?
This book comes out of the Orthodox Church of Russia. What do you learn about the Orthodox churches from this book? What, if anything, do most Americans know about the Orthodox?
Does Orthodoxy strike you as more like Catholicism or Protestantism? Why and how? What looks "Catholic" about the world we see in this book?
How important is formal liturgy to Orthodoxy?
How does the cycle of the religious year feature in the book?
How important is Bible reading to Orthodoxy? How do they read the Bible? Do they read it literally? How do they use the Bible as an aid to meditation and contemplative prayer?
How do the Orthodox feel about intellectual approaches to religion?
What does the book tell us about Russian religion in this period (roughly, the 1860s)?
Why do people go on pilgrimage?
Just why does our pilgrim wander?
Why do upper class people find the pilgrim difficult to understand?
Does the devil feature in the book? Do the pilgrim and his circle believe in the power of the devil?
By way of explanation, I attach a couple of Bible passages that help explain the origins of the Jesus Prayer: how do these help us understand how it is used in the Orthodox Church. The prayer is usually taken to derive from the story of the Pharisee and the Tax collector:
Luke 18: 9-14
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
HOWEVER other bible stories may also be in the background:
Luke 17: 12-14
And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off: And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.
Matt. 20: 29-34
And as they departed from Jericho, a great multitude followed him. And, behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus passed by, cried out, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. And the multitude rebuked them, because they should hold their peace: but they cried the more, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.
And Jesus stood still, and called them, and said, What will ye that I shall do unto you? They say unto him, Lord, that our eyes may be opened. So Jesus had compassion on them, and touched their eyes: and immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed him.
AND JUST TO GIVE THE SPIRIT OF THE PHILOKALIA, I OFFER THE FOLLOWING STORIES:
Abba Joseph of Panephysis said to Abba Lot, "You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire."
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame."
Imagine a sheer, steep crag, with a projecting edge at the top. Now imagine what a person would probably feel if he put his foot on the edge of this precipice and, looking down into the chasm below, saw no solid footing nor anything to hold on to. This is what I think the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity. For here there is nothing it can take hold of, neither place nor time, neither measure nor anything else; our minds cannot approach it. And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is connatural to it, content now to know merely this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things that the soul knows.
—Gregory of Nyssa (d. about 395)
God became man so that men might become gods.
—Athanasius (d. 373)
Speech is the organ of this present world. Silence is a mystery of the world to come.
—Isaac the Syrian (d. about 700)
The brethren asked Abba Agathon, "Amongst all our different activities, Father, which is the virtue that requires the greatest effort?" He answered, "Forgive me, but I think there is no labor greater than praying to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, try to prevent him; for they know that nothing obstructs them so much as prayer to God. In everything else that a man undertakes, if he perseveres, he will attain rest. But in order to pray, a man must struggle to his last breath."
—The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (sixth century)
Think of a man standing at night inside his house, with all the doors closed; and then suppose that he opens a window just at the moment when there is a sudden flash of lightning. Unable to bear its brightness, at once he protects himself by closing his eyes and drawing back from the window.
So it is with the soul that is enclosed in the realm of the senses; if ever she peeps out through the window of the intellect, she is overwhelmed by the brightness, like lightning, of the pledge of the Holy Spirit that is within her. Unable to bear the splendor of unveiled light, at once she is bewildered in her intellect and she draws back entirely upon herself, taking refuge, as in a house, among sensory and human things.
—Simeon the New Theologian (d. 1022)
The further the soul advances, the greater are the adversaries against which it must contend.
Blessed are you, if the struggle grows fierce against you at the time of prayer.
Do not allow your eyes to sleep or your eyelids to slumber until the hour of your death, but labor without ceasing that you may enjoy life without end.
—Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399)
Let all multiplicity be absent from your prayer. A single word was enough for the publican and the prodigal son to receive God's pardon…. Do not try to find exactly the right words for your prayer: how many times does the simple and monotonous stuttering of children draw the attention of their father! Do not launch into long discourses, for if you do, your mind will be dissipated trying to find just the right words. The publican's short sentence moved God to mercy. A single word full of faith saved the thief.—John Climacus (d. 649)