The Way of a Pilgrim – Wild at Heart

So the men’s Bible study has moved on from my studies about ‘biblical manhood’ to the book Wild at Heart. Although I have some methodological concerns about Eldredge’s book, I have decided to like it. My brother told me that it is good at what it does. I told him I would give it a shot and try to integrate with my Orthodox books. He says that they do very different things.

He’s probably right.

The first chapter of Wild at Heart — all that we’ve made it through at study — is basically clearing the field to be able have the rest of the book happen. Men, argues Eldredge, are ‘wild’ — we are not tame, domesticated. Adam was made outside the Garden, and the Sons of Adam crave adventure and wildness, going into the unknown, pushing new frontiers.

I recently finished The Way of a Pilgrim and am now reading The Pilgrim Continues His Way in the translation by Helen Bacovcin (Image Books — both in one volume, as is normal). This, if you’ve not heard of it, is a nineteenth-century Russian story of a ‘pilgrim’ who wanders all over Russia seeking ceaseless prayer, praying the Jesus Prayer, looking towards the self-activating prayer of the heart and the union of the mind with the heart.

I’ve decided that the Pilgrim is wild — but his wildness isn’t anything so tame as enjoying boating on the Gulf of Mexico or tracking elk in the mountains. Certainly, he fulfils some of the exterior wildness chapter one of Wild at Heart enumerates: he avoids cities, he spends lots of time in the woods and the steppe. He grows restless when he spends too much time in one place. All of that sort of thing.

The driving force, though, is prayer.

The story begins with the Pilgrim in church, where he hears the verse, ‘Pray without ceasing,’ (1 Thess. 5:17). He wants to know how this can be, so he begins visiting churches and listening to what preachers have to say. He hears a lot about prayer and the blessings of prayer and how to pray, but no one talks about ceaseless prayer.

He is already a wanderer (a disability prevents him from working, so he goes from town to town begging for a living), so he makes it his mission in his wanderings to ask any holy men — laymen, monks, priests — if they can teach him about how to pray without ceaseless.

His strivings bring him to a holy elder (staretz — akin to Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov or Archimandrite Sophrony in Essex) who teaches him about ceaseless prayer and the prayer of the heart, specifically the Jesus Prayer:

The elder gives him a prayer rule of praying the Jesus Prayer (sometimes called just ‘the Prayer’) a certain number of times per day over a period of time, and then increasing the number of prayers, all with the goal of the prayer becoming ‘self-activating’ — that is, that the Pilgrim would awake with the Prayer already in his heart and on his tongue. I believe he increases the number of Jesus Prayers to 12,000.

The Pilgrim is given a copy of The Philokalia — specifically, the one-volume Russian version often called ‘The Little Russian Philokalia‘ — and he reads it assiduously. One of the reasons he avoids other people is so that he can read and re-read his Philokalia and his Bible, and so that he can practise the Jesus Prayer in peace.

After his holy elder’s death, the Pilgrim acquires the elder’s chomboskoini (which Bacovcin translates as ‘rosary’!), his prayer rope. Like a rosary, this is a physical aid to prayer. With it, the Pilgrim is able to count his prayers more carefully. It also, in my experience, focusses the mind to have something in the hand, something to do.

Anyway, the Pilgrim pushes the frontiers of prayer throughout this book, has visions, sees healings, meets many people who have been richly blessed the the Jesus Prayer, and more. It is a fascinating and compelling book, as well as being a great introduction to the Jesus Prayer.

Men are wild at heart, and the least tame thing about us should be our faith in Jesus Christ.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,

have mercy on me, a sinner.

Work is prayer

So I’m working on a sermon about ceaseless prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17: ‘pray without ceasing’). And I had this thought that the ancients never came up with any cop-outs for ceaseless prayer. You know, ‘St Paul means pray regularly’ or something. Or ‘ceaseless in Greek doesn’t mean the same thing when put in context.’

However, Origen almost does, as I learned doing my research for the sermon:

He prays without ceasing who joins prayer to works that are of obligation, and good works to his prayer. For virtuous works, or the carrying out of what is enjoined, form part of prayer. It is only in this way that we can understand the injunction, pray without ceasing, as something that we can carry out; that is to say, if we regard the whole life of the saint as one great continuous prayer. What is usually termed “prayer” is but a part of this prayer, and it should be performed not less than three times each day. … –On Prayer, 12.2, trans. John J. O’Meara (Ancient Christian Writers 19; pp. 46-47)

Perhaps, however, this is not a cop-out. When you read the Philokalia, fifth-century writers like Hesychios the Priest of Diadochus of Photike talk about constant vigilance and ceaseless prayer, and how stopping praying can harm your progress toward holiness and hesychia (silence/stillness).

It’s a grand ideal.

But I still have to make breakfast for myself and my sons, eat said breakfast, take a shower, “go to work”, change diapers, fold laundry, empty the dishwasher, maintain a healthy and human relationship with my wife and any other people I see during the day, buy groceries, help cook supper and lunch at times, bathe my sons, brush my teeth, and so forth.

Some of these acts I can pray during. Others I cannot, for they require my attention for one reason or another.

Origen’s approach, then, is to turn these non-prayer-acts into prayers. Work is prayer.

This is, in fact, an idea I found once in a book about Benedictines (possibly Esther de Waal, Seeking God?), that our work, especially in service to others, is itself prayer. As I empty the dishwasher, I often say to myself, ‘Work is prayer. Prayer is work. Service is love.’

Furthermore, if we commit ourselves more fully to undivided prayer when we do set aside times for seeking the face of God, prayer will begin to imbue our lives, and we will become a living prayer. At least, that’s what they say…

Ceaseless Prayer (from Diadochos of Photiki)

I had to cut this from a sermon I’m working on, so I’ll share it here, instead:

‘Those who desire to free themselves from their corruption ought to pray not merely from time to time but at all times; they should give themselves always to prayer, keeping watch over their intellect (nous) even when outside places of prayer. When someone is trying to purify gold, and allows the fire of the furnace to die down even for a moment, the material which he is purifying will harden again. So, too, a man who merely practises the remembrance of God from time to time, loses through lack of continuity what he hopes to gain through his prayer.’ –‘On Spiritual Knowledge’, 97, Philokalia 1, pp. 293-94.