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"THE PILGRIM" ON MENTAL PRAYER
THE PILGRIM The Candid Narrations of a Pilgrim to His Spiritual Father was first printed in Kazan' in 1884. It soon became a rare book, considered to be almost esoteric and held in high esteem by all searchers into the ways of Orthodox mysticism. Only recently, through reprinting in Western Europe and translation into English, has this precious little book become accessible to the wide circle interested in Russian religious life.
Nothing is known of the author. Written in the first person singular, the book presents itself as the spiritual autobiography of a Russian peasant who lived at about the middle of the nineteenth century, related in intimate conversations. The social conditions depicted in the story represent Russia during the last decades of serfdom, under the severe autocratic government of Nicholas I. The mention made of the Crimean War (1853-54) permits an exact chronological placement.
There are, however, many factors which do not allow us to accept literally the anonymous author's description of himself. Although the style of the book has somewhat the flavor of the popular Russian idiom, it is essentially in the elaborate literary manner characteristic of the Russian spiritual writing of the middle of the nineteenth century. There are even many traces of the epoch of Alexandrian mysticism (Alexander I, 1801-1825) which deeply influenced the religious mentality and style of the Russian Church. Quite apart from the style, we come across many profound theological and philosophical digressions and comments which would be inconceivable in the mouth of a Russian peasant, even one well read in the Philocalia. The traces of a romanticism of Western origin are undeniable.
On the other hand, the many incidents related in detail, and even the confused order of the narrative, prevent us from dismissing the autobiographical form of the narration wholly as a literary convention. Probably a real experience of the pilgrim is the basis of the composition. Some educated person may have worked over the original oral confessions, either his actual "spiritual father," a priest or monk in Irkutsk (Siberia), or some monk on Mount Athos, whence the manuscript is supposed to have been brought to Kazan' by the abbot Païsius.
These critical remarks are intended to warn the reader not to accept the mystical life of the Pilgrim as reflecting Russian popular religion. On the contrary, it is the product of a fine spiritual culture, a rare flower in the Russian garden. Its main value consists in a convincingly detailed description of mental prayer as it was or could be practised, not in a monastic cell, but by a layman, even under the peculiar conditions of a wandering life.
From another point of view, the book is a work of propaganda, designed to popularize in lay circles the mystical prayer of the Hesychasts as embodied in an ascetic-mystical anthology entitled the Philocalia. The first Greek edition of this anthology, the work of an anonymous compiler (probably Nicodemus of Mount Athos), was printed in Venice in 1782. The Slavonic translation by Païsius Velichkovsky was printed in 1793. Most of the Greek fathers of this collection were already known in Russia to Saint Nilus Sorsky in the fifteenth century. But from the sixteenth century onward, the mystical movement in Russia was suppressed until the time of the revival effected by Païsius. This Russian monk was an emigré living in the Balkan monasteries of Mount Athos and Rumania, where he imbibed the mystical tradition at its sources. The whole monastic revival which took form at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century in Russia is attributable to Paisius and his disciples. The Optina cloister in Russia (in the province of Kaluga), with its unbroken line of startzy, held itself to be the heir and depository in a special sense of Paisius' tradition.
That this tradition was not held within the confines of monasteries is demonstrated by the Pilgrim's book. It is his aim to convince us that mental prayer is possible in every condition of life. True, he admits that complete solitude is for him the most favorable condition for the practice of continual prayer: he often feels uneasy in human society when suddenly the prayer of Jesus begins to "act of itself" in his heart. Yet the conditions under which a wanderer lives are as suitable for mystical prayer as is the cell of a monk.
The wandering life (this is a more correct English equivalent of the Russian phrase than "pilgrimage") is characteristic of Russian spirituality. Very often, as in the case of the present author, the wandering has no visit to a place of devotion as its object but is a way of life in which the early Christian ideal of spiritual freedom and detachment from the world is grafted onto the Russian feeling for the religious significance of nature as Mother Earth, and the truly Russian rejection of civilization out of religious motives. Yet, reading the tales of the Pilgrim, we realize that the mystical life of the author is moving against a background of the external manifestations of Christian charity. Some of his tales have little or nothing to do with the prayer of Jesus, but portray ideal types of the evangelical life, found in all strata of society—among the gentry, the army, the clergy, the simple peasantry. These portraits of secular, uncanonized, and even unknown, lay saints are, as it were, a counterpoint to the scenes of cruelty, violence, and despotism which we are not spared. What is lacking is rather the average level of Russian life. The author has not the intention of depicting life around him as it is, but that of selecting instructive examples of Christian virtue.
A reader who would like to get a more adequate idea of Russian life under Nicholas I can be guided by many of the classical works of Russian literature: Gogol's Dead Souls, Turgenev's Memoirs of a Sportsman, the short stories of Leskov. The anonymous Pilgrim gives us rather exceptional specimens of Russian piety, authentic in themselves but inadequate as a basis for generalization.CHAPTER 2
THE WAY OF A PILGRIM
BY THE GRACE OF GOD I AM A CHRISTIAN, BY MY DEEDS A GREAT SINNER, AND BY CALLING A HOMELESS ROVER OF THE LOWEST status in life. My possessions comprise but some rusk in a knapsack on my back, and the Holy Bible on my bosom. That is all.
On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, I went to church to hear Mass. The first Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians was read. In it we are exhorted, among other things, to pray incessantly, and these words engraved themselves upon my mind. I began to ponder whether it is possible to pray without ceasing, since every man must occupy himself with other things needed for his support. I found this text in my Bible and read with my own eyes what I had heard, namely that we must pray incessantly in all places, pray always in spirit, lifting up our hands in devotion. I pondered and pondered and did not know what to think of it.
"What am I to do?" I mused. "Where will I be able to find someone who can explain it to me? I shall go to the churches known for their famous preachers; perhaps there I shall hear something that will enlighten me." And I went. I heard a great many very good sermons on prayer in general, how one ought to pray, what prayer is and what fruits it bears, but no one said how to succeed in it. There were sermons on spiritual prayer, on incessant prayer, but no one pointed out how it was to be accomplished.
Thus my attendance at the sermons failed to give me what I sought. Therefore, after having heard many of them, I gave them up without acquiring the desired knowledge of incessant prayer. I decided to look, with the help of God, for an experienced and learned man who would talk to me and explain the meaning of incessant prayer since the understanding of it seemed most important to me.
For a long time I went from one place to another, reading my Bible constantly, and inquiring everywhere whether there was not a spiritual teacher or a pious and experienced guide. Finally, I was informed that in a certain village there lived a gentleman who had, for many years, sought the salvation of his soul. He had a chapel in his house, never left the premises and spent his days praying and reading religious books. Upon hearing this I well-nigh ran to that particular village. I got there and went to the owner of the estate.
"What is it that you want?" he asked.
"I was told that you are a pious and intelligent man," I said. "For the love of God enlighten me in the meaning of the Apostle's utterance 'pray incessantly.' Is it possible for anyone to pray without ceasing? I wish I could know, but I do not seem to understand it at all."
The gentleman remained silent for a while, looking at me fixedly. Finally he said: "Incessant inner prayer is a continuous longing of the human spirit for God. But in order to succeed in this sweet practice we must pray more and ask God to teach us incessant prayer. Pray more and with fervor. It is prayer itself that will teach you how it can be done without ceasing; however, it will require some time."
Having said this he ordered that food be brought to me, gave me money for my journey and dismissed me. And in the end he had explained nothing at all.
Once more I set out. I pondered and pondered, read and read, and my thoughts dwelt constantly upon what this man had told me, though I could not understand what he meant. Yet, so ardently did I wish to fathom this question, that I could not sleep at night.
I traveled two hundred versts on foot and reached a large city which was the capital of the province. There I saw a monastery, and. at the inn where I stayed I learned that the abbot was a kindly man, at once pious and hospitable. When I went to see him he received me in a friendly fashion, asked me to sit down and offered refreshments.
"Holy Father," I said, "I do not want any food, but I beg you, enlighten me in spiritual matters. Tell me how I can save my soul."
"How can you save your soul? Well, live according to the commandments, pray and you will be saved."
"But it is said that we should pray incessantly. I do not know how this can be done for I cannot even get the meaning of it. Father, I beseech you, explain to me what incessant prayer means."
"I do not know, dear brother, how to explain it to you! But wait a moment ... I have a little book which will enlighten you." He handed me St. Demetrius' book, called The Spiritual Education of the Inner Man and said: "Here, read this page."
I read the following statement: "The words of the Apostle 'pray incessantly' should be interpreted as referring to the prayer of the mind, for the mind can always be soaring to God and pray without ceasing."
"But," I said, "won't you indicate to me the means by which the mind can always be directed to God without being disturbed in its incessant prayer?"
"This, indeed, is very difficult, unless God Himself bestows upon one such a gift," answered the abbot, and he offered no further explanations.
I spent the night in his monastery. The following morning I thanked him for his kind hospitality and went on my way, though I did not know myself where I was going. I was saddened by my incapacity to understand and read the Holy Bible for consolation.
In this wise I followed the main road for about five days when, one evening, I was overtaken by an elderly man who looked as though he belonged to the clergy. In reply to my question he answered that he was a monk from a monastery situated some ten versts off the main road and extended to me his invitation.
"In our guesthouse," he said, "we offer rest, shelter and food to pilgrims and other pious people." I did not care to go with him and replied that my peace of mind did not depend upon my lodging, but upon finding spiritual guidance. Neither was I concerned about my food, for I had a provision of rusk in my knapsack.
"What kind of spiritual guidance are you seeking? What is it that troubles you?" he asked. "Do come for a short stay, dear brother. We have experienced elders who will guide you and lead you to the true path in the light of the word of God and the teaching of the Holy Fathers."
I told him what was troubling me. The old man crossed himself and said: "Give thanks to God, my beloved brother, for he has awakened you to the irresistible longing for incessant, inner prayer. Acknowledge in it the voice of our Lord and be calm in the assurance that all that has happened to you hitherto was the testing of the compliance of your own will with the call of God. You have been given the privilege of understanding that the heavenly light of incessant inner prayer is not found in wordly wisdom or in mere striving for outward knowledge. On the contrary, it is attained in poverty of spirit, in active experience and in simplicity of heart. For this reason it is not astonishing that you have not been able to learn anything about the essential work of prayer or to attain the skill by which incessant activity in it is acquired. What is prayer and how does one learn to pray? Though these questions are vital and essential, one gets only rarely a true enlightenment on that subject from contemporary preachers. It is because these questions are more complex than all the arguments they have at their disposal. These questions require not merely academic achievements, but mystical insight. And one of the most lamentable things is the vanity of elementary knowledge which drives people to measure the Divine by a human yardstick. Only too often wrong reasoning is applied to prayer, for many believe that preparatory steps and great virtues lead us to prayer. In fact it is prayer that gives birth to all the virtues and sublime deeds. The fruits and consequences of prayer are wrongly taken for the means of attaining it. This attitude belittles the value of prayer, and it is contrary to the statements of the Holy Scripture. The Apostle Paul says: 'I desire therefore, first of all, that supplications be made.' Here the main thing that the Apostle stressed in his words about prayer is that prayer must come before anything else: 'I desire therefore, first of all' ... There are many virtues that are required of a good Christian, but above all else he must pray; for nothing can ever be achieved without prayer. Otherwise he cannot find his way to God, he cannot grasp the truth, he cannot crucify the flesh with all its passions and desires, find the Light of Christ in his heart and be united to our Lord. Frequent prayer must precede all these things before they can be brought about. I say 'frequent' because the perfection and the correctness of prayer is beyond our power. 'For we know not what we should pray for as we ought,' says the Apostle Paul. Therefore we ought to pray often, to pray at all times, for this alone lies within our power and leads us to purity of prayer, which is the mother of all spiritual good. As St. Isaac the Syrian says: 'Win the mother and she will bear you children,' so must you first of all attain the power of prayer, and then all other virtues will be easily practised afterwards. All this is scarcely mentioned by those who have had no personal experience, but only a superficial knowledge of the most mysterious teaching of the Holy Fathers."
While he talked to me, we reached the monastery without noticing it. In order that I might not lose contact with this wise elder, and to get further information more quickly, I hastened to say: "Reverend Father, do me a favor: Explain to me what incessant prayer is, and how I am to learn it. As I see, you are deeply versed in all these matters."
It was with kindness that he granted my request and taking me to his cell, he said: "Come in, I shall give you a book written by the Holy Fathers. With God's help you may get from it a clear and definite idea of what prayer is."
As we entered his cell he began to speak again: "The constant inner prayer of Jesus is an unbroken, perpetual calling upon the Divine Name of Jesus with the lips, the mind and the heart, while picturing His lasting presence in one's imagination and imploring His grace wherever one is, in whatever one does, even while one sleeps. This prayer consists of the following words:—'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!' Those who use this prayer constantly are so greatly comforted that they are moved to say it at all times, for they can no longer live without it. And the prayer will keep on ringing in their hearts of its own accord. Now, do you understand what incessant prayer is?"
"Yes, I do, Father. In the Name of God explain to me how to achieve the mastery of it," I said, feeling overwhelmed with joy.
"You will learn how to master it by reading this book, which is called the Philocalia; it comprises the complete and minute knowledge of incessant inner prayer, as stated by twenty-five Holy Fathers. It is full of great wisdom and is so useful that it is regarded as the first and best guide by all those who seek the contemplative, spiritual life. The reverend Nicephorus said once: 'It leads one to salvation without labor and sweat.'"
"Is it then loftier and holier than the Bible?" I asked.
"No, it is not, but it sheds light upon the secrets locked up in the Bible which cannot be easily understood by our shallow intelligence. Let me give you an analogy: the largest, the brightest and at the same time the most wonderful of all luminaries is the sun; yet you must protect your eyes in order to examine it, or simply to look at it. For this purpose you use artificial glass, millions and millions of times smaller and darker than the sun. But through this tiny piece of glass you can contemplate the sublime king of all stars with its flamboyant rays. Thus the Holy Scripture is like the resplendent sun, while this book—the Philocalia—may be compared to the piece of glass which permits us to contemplate its lofty magnificence. Now, listen; I shall read you the instructions on incessant prayer as they are given here."
Excerpted from The Way of a Pilgrim by Nina A. Toumanova. Copyright © 2008 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted January 25, 2013
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