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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 with some dried bread in it on my back, and in my breastpocket a Bible. And that is all.
On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost I went to church to say my prayers there during the liturgy. The first Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians was being read, and among other words I heard these--"Pray without ceasing." It was this text, more than any other, which forced itself upon my mind, and I began to think how it was possible to pray without ceasing, since a man has to concern himself with other things also in order to make a living. I looked at my Bible and with my own eyes read the words which I had heard, that is, that we ought always, at all times and in all places, to pray with uplifted hands. I thought and thought, but knew not what to make of it. "What ought I to do?" I thought. "Where shall I find someone to explain it to me? I will go to the churches where famous preachers are to be heard; perhaps there I shall hear something that will throw light on it for me." I did so. I heard a number of very fine sermons on prayer--what prayer is, how much we need it, and what its fruits are--but no one said how one could succeed in prayer. I heard a sermon on spiritual prayer, and unceasing prayer, but how it was to be done was not pointed out.
Thus listening to sermons failed to give me what I wanted, and having had my fill of them without gaining understanding, I gave up going to hear public sermons. I settled on another plan--by God's help to look for some experienced andskilled person who would give me in conversation that teaching about unceasing prayer which drew me so urgently.
For a long time I wandered through many places. I read my Bible always, and everywhere I asked whether there was not in the neighborhood a spiritual teacher, a devout and experienced guide, to be found. One day I was told that in a certain village a gentleman had long been living and seeking the salvation of his soul. He had a chapel in his house. He never left his estate, and he spent his time in prayer and reading devotional books. Hearing this, I ran rather than walked to the village named. I got there and found him.
"What do you want of me?" he asked.
"I have heard that you are a devout and clever person," said 1. "In God's name please explain to me the meaning of the Apostle's words, 'Pray without ceasing.' How is it possible to pray without ceasing? I want to know so much, but I cannot understand it at all."
He was silent for a while and looked at me closely. Then he said, "Ceaseless interior prayer is a continual yearning of the human spirit toward God. To succeed in this consoling exercise we must pray more often to God to teach us to pray without ceasing. Pray more, and pray more fervently. It is prayer itself which will reveal to you how it can be achieved unceasingly; but it will take some time."
So saying, he had food brought to me, gave me money for my journey, and let me go.
He did not explain the matter.
Again I set off. I thought and thought, I read and read, I dwelt over and over again upon what this man had said to me, but I could not get to the bottom of it. Yet so greatly did I wish to understand that I could not sleep at night.
I walked at least 125 miles, and then I came to a large town, a provincial capital, where I saw a monastery. At the inn where I stopped I heard it said that the abbot was a man of great kindness, devout and hospitable. I went to see him. He met me in a very friendly manner, asked me to sit down, and offered me refreshment.
"I do not need refreshment, holy Father," I said, "but I beg you to give me some spiritual teaching. How can I save my soul?"
"What? Save your soul? Well, live according to the commandments, say your prayers, and you will be saved."
"But I hear it said that we should pray without ceasing, and I don't know how to pray without ceasing. I cannot even understand what unceasing prayer means. I beg you, Father, explain this to me."
"I don't know how to explain further, dear brother. But, stop a moment, I have a little book, and it is explained there." And he handed me St. Dmitri's book, on The Spiritual Education of the Inner Man, saying, "Look, read this page."
I began to read as follows: "The words of the Apostle, 'Pray without ceasing,' should be understood as referring to the creative prayer of the understanding. The understanding can always be reaching out toward God and praying to Him unceasingly."
"But," I asked, "what is the method by which the understanding can always be turned toward God, never be disturbed, and pray without ceasing?"
"It is very difficult, even for one to whom God Himself gives such a gift," replied the abbot.