The Way of a Pilgrim

And the Pilgrim Continues His Way

About the Book

This enduring work of Russian spirituality has charmed countless people with its tale of a nineteenth-century peasant's quest for the secret of prayer. Readers follow this anonymous pilgrim as he treks over the Steppes in search of the answer to the one compelling question: How does one pray constantly? Through his journeys, and under the tutelage of a spiritual father, he becomes gradually more open to the promptings of God, and sees joy and plenty wherever he goes. Ultimately, he discovers the different meanings and methods of prayer as he travels to his ultimate destination, Jerusalem.

The Way of a Pilgrim is a humble story ripe for renewed appreciation today. The recent changes in Russia have revealed the great religious traditions of that land, and this work, freshly translated for modern times, is among the finest examples of those centuries-old traditions.
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The Way of a Pilgrim


By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by my calling a homeless wanderer of humblest origin, roaming from place to place. My possessions consist of a knapsack with dry crusts of bread on my back and in my bosom the Holy Bible. This is all!

On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost I came to church to attend the Liturgy and entered just as the epistle was being read. The reading was from Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, which says in part, "Pray constantly." These words made a deep impression on me and I started thinking of how it could be possible for a man to pray without ceasing when the practical necessities of life demand so much attention. I checked my Bible and saw with my own eyes exactly what I had heard, that it is necessary to pray continuously (1 Thess. 5:17); to pray in the Spirit on every possible occasion (Eph. 6:18); in every place to lift your hands reverently in prayer (1 Tim. 2:8). I thought and thought about these words, but no understanding came to me.

What shall I do? I thought. Where can I find a person who will explain this mystery to me? I will go to the various churches where there are good preachers and perhaps I will obtain an explanation from them. And so I went. I heard many very good homilies on prayer, but they were all instructions about prayer in general: what is prayer, the necessity of prayer, and the fruits of prayer, but no one spoke of the way to succeed in prayer. I did hear a sermon on interior prayer and ceaseless prayer but nothing about attaining that form of prayer. Inasmuch as listening to public sermons had not given me any satisfaction, I stopped attending them and decided, with the grace of God, to look for an experienced and learned person who would satisfy my ardent desire and explain ceaseless prayer to me.

For a long time I traveled through various places. I read the Bible and asked for the whereabouts of a spiritual teacher or a devout and experienced director. After some time I heard of a nobleman in a certain village who takes his salvation seriously. I was told that he has a chapel in his home and does not go out but spends all his time praying and reading spiritual books. When I heard this, I ran to the mentioned village and sought out this God-fearing landowner.

"What can I do for you?" he asked me.

"I heard that you are a devout and wise man and I came, in the name of God, to ask you to explain to me the meaning of the words of St. Paul, 'Pray constantly.' How is it possible to pray continuously? I am very eager to know this and cannot in any way comprehend it."

The gentleman was silent for a moment; then he looked at me intently and said, "Ceaseless interior prayer is a continuous aspiration and a yearning of the spirit of man toward God. To succeed in this sweet exercise it is necessary to ask God frequently that He teach you to pray continuously. Pray often and fervently and prayer itself will reveal this mystery to you, how it is possible for it to be continuous, but it takes time."

Having said this, he ordered the servants to give me food; he gave me some money for the road and dismissed me. But he did not explain ceaseless prayer.

Again I went. I thought, I read, and I meditated on the words of the nobleman, but I could not understand. And my desire to understand became so intense that even my sleep was disturbed. I continued my journey for about two hundred versts1 and then found myself in a large provincial city. I saw a monastery. At the inn where I stopped I heard that the Superior of the monastery was very kind, devout, and hospitable to strangers. I went to him. He received me warmly and offered me some refreshments.

"Reverend Father," I said, "I do not need refreshments, but I would like you to give me spiritual advice; I would like to know how to work out my salvation."

"Work out your salvation? Well, keep the commandments and pray to God and you will be saved."

"I heard that it is necessary to pray without ceasing, but I do not know how to pray without interruption and I cannot even understand what is meant by ceaseless prayer. Please explain this to me, dear Father."

"I do not know how to make this clear, dear brother. But wait, I have a book which has an explanation," and he brought a copy of St. Demetrius's Spiritual Instructions for the Interior Man and indicated which page I should read. I began reading the following: "The words of the Apostle, 'Pray constantly,' are to be understood as referring to mental prayer; the mind can be constantly fixed on God and communion with Him."

"Please explain to me how the mind can be always set on God, not be distracted but continuously praying."

"This is exceptionally difficult to understand unless God Himself reveals it," said the Father Superior and he did not explain.

I spent the night at the monastery and in the morning expressed my gratitude for the warm reception and continued with my journey, not knowing where it would take me. I grieved over my lack of understanding, and for consolation I read the Bible. For five days I traveled in this manner on a long and wide road, and toward the evening of the fifth day an old man caught up with me who looked like a member of some religious community.

To my question he answered that he was a monk and that his hermitage was about ten versts from the main road, and he invited me to visit the hermitage. "We receive pilgrims and strangers and give them food and lodging in our guesthouse," he said.

Since I had no inclination to stop there, I replied, "My peace does not depend on a place to stay but on spiritual direction. I am not looking for food, as I have enough bread in my knapsack."

"And what manner of direction are you looking for; what seems to be puzzling you? Come, come dear brother, visit us; we have experienced elders2 who can give spiritual nourishment and direct one on the path of truth according to the word of God and the writings of the holy Fathers."

"You see, Father, about a year ago while I was at a Liturgy I heard the following admonition from the Apostle Paul: 'Pray constantly.' Not being able to understand this I began to read the Bible, where in many places I found God's precept that it is necessary to pray continuously, to pray always, at all times and in all places, not only while working, not only when awake but also in one's sleep. 'I sleep but my heart is awake' (S. of S. 5:2). I was very surprised by this and could not understand how this could be possible and by what means it could be accomplished. A strong desire and curiosity took hold of me and night and day it did not leave me. For this reason I went from church to church to listen to sermons on prayer; and though I have heard very many of them, I did not receive the desired instruction, how to pray without ceasing. The homilies I heard were about the preparation for prayer or the fruits of prayer and similar things, but I did not learn how to pray without ceasing or what is the meaning of such prayer. I kept reading the Bible and in this way I tested what I had heard. But I could not find the desired knowledge, and so to this day I am left bewildered and without peace."

The elder blessed himself and began to speak: "Thank God, dear brother, for this insatiable desire to understand ceaseless mental prayer. Recognize in this a call from God and be at peace. Believe that up to this time your seeking was in accordance with God's will and you were given to understand that heavenly light regarding continuous prayer is not reached by worldly wisdom and superficial curiosity. On the contrary, it is discovered in the spirit of poverty and simplicity of heart through active experience. Therefore, it is not surprising that you did not hear about the essential act of prayer and learn how to carry it out without ceasing.

"The truth is that, though there is neither a shortage of sermons nor of treatises of various writers about prayer, for the most part these discourses are based on mental analysis and on natural considerations rather than on active experience. For this reason they teach more about the external character of prayer than the essence of prayer. One speaks beautifully about the necessity of prayer, another about its power and its benefits, and still another of the means and conditions for its accomplishment: that is, zeal, attention, warmth of heart, purity of thought, reconciliation with the enemies, humility, contrition, and so on.

"And what is prayer? And how does one learn to pray? To these primary and most fundamental questions one seldom finds an accurate explanation in the homilies of our time. These basic questions are more difficult to understand than the above-mentioned discourses and they require mystical perception in addition to academic learning. What is most unfortunate is that worldly wisdom compels these spiritual teachers to measure God's ways by human standards. Many approach prayer with a misunderstanding and think that the preparatory means and acts produce prayer. They do not see that prayer is the source of all good actions and virtue. They look upon the fruits and results of prayer as means and methods and in this way depreciate the power of prayer.

"This is contrary to Holy Scripture, because St. Paul clearly states that prayer should precede all actions: 'First of all, there should be prayers offered' (1 Tim. 2:1). The Apostle's directive indicates that the act of prayer comes first; it comes before everything else. The Christian is expected to perform many good works, but the act of prayer is fundamental because without prayer it is not possible to do good. Without frequent prayer it is not possible to find one's way to God, to understand truth, and to crucify the lusts of the flesh. Only fidelity to prayer will lead a person to enlightenment and union with Christ.

"I say frequent prayer because purity and perfection in prayer is not within our reach, as St. Paul the Apostle indicates. The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness when we do not know how to pray (Rom. 8:26). Consequently, our only contribution toward perfection in prayer, the mother of all spiritual good, is regularity and constancy. 'If you win the mother, you will have the children also,' says St. Isaac of Syria. Acquire the habit of prayer and it will be easy for you to do good. This basic truth regarding prayer is not clearly understood or presented by those who are lacking practical experience and who are not acquainted with the mystical teachings of the holy Fathers."

The course of this conversation brought us close to the hermitage. In order not to let this wise man go, and to quickly receive my heart's desire, I hurried to ask him, "Please, be gracious, Reverend Father, and explain the meaning of ceaseless mental prayer to me and show me how I can learn to practice it. I can see that you are both well versed and experienced in this matter."

The elder received my plea lovingly and invited me to visit him in his cell: "Come, stop by and I will give you a book of the holy Fathers from which, with the help of God, you can learn all about prayer and understand it clearly and in detail." When we entered his cell, the elder said, "The ceaseless Jesus Prayer is a continuous, uninterrupted call on the holy name of Jesus Christ with the lips, mind, and heart; and in the awareness of His abiding presence it is a plea for His blessing in all undertakings, in all places, at all times, even in sleep. The words of the Prayer are: 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!' Anyone who becomes accustomed to this Prayer will experience great comfort as well as the need to say it continuously. He will become accustomed to it to such a degree that he will not be able to do without it and eventually the Prayer will of itself flow in him.

"Now do you understand what ceaseless prayer is?" he asked me.

"Very clearly, dear Father. For the love of God please teach me how to make it my own," I exclaimed in joy.

"To learn about this prayer, we will read from a book called the Philokalia.3 This book, which was compiled by twenty-five holy Fathers, contains complete and detailed instructions about ceaseless prayer. The content of this book is of such depth and usefulness that it is considered to be the primary teacher of contemplative life, and as the Venerable Nicephorus says, 'It leads one to salvation without labor and sweat.' "

"Is it then more important than the Holy Bible?" I asked.

"No, it is neither more important nor holier than the Bible, but it contains clear exposition of the ideas that are mysteriously presented in the Bible and are not easy for our finite mind to understand. I will give you an illustration. The sun--a great, shining, and magnificent light--cannot be contemplated and looked at directly with the naked eye. An artificial glass, a million times smaller and dimmer than the sun, is needed to look at the great king of lights to be enraptured by its fiery rays. In a similar way the Holy Bible is a shining light and the Philokalia is the necessary glass.

"Now if you will listen, I will read how you can learn ceaseless interior prayer." The elder opened the Philokalia to the account of St. Simeon the New Theologian and began reading: "'Sit alone and in silence; bow your head and close your eyes; relax your breathing and with your imagination look into your heart; direct your thoughts from your head into your heart. And while inhaling say, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me," either softly with your lips or in your mind. Endeavor to fight distractions but be patient and peaceful and repeat this process frequently.' "

The elder illustrated this passage for me and then we read the accounts of St. Gregory of Sinai and Venerable Callistus and Ignatius. All the material which we read in the Philokalia the elder explained in his own words. I listened with attention and delight to everything and endeavored to remember as much as I could. We spent the whole night in this way, and in the morning we went to matins4 without having slept.

Image Classics Series

Introduction to the Devout Life
The Cloud of Unknowing
Abandonment to Divine Providence
Models of the Church
The Way of Perfection
The Autobiography of Saint Therese
Saint Francis of Assisi
The Way of a Pilgrim
Saint Thomas Aquinas
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About the Author

Walter J. Ciszek, S.J.
Decorative Carat

About the Author

Helen Bacovcin
Decorative Carat