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.

Orthodox thoughts invading my sermon notes

St Gregory Palamas

My sermon notes tend to include square-bracketed thoughts that pass through my mind that are not the preacher’s — a system of differentiation. They are usually intertexts or allusions, sometimes criticisms. Today’s, besides [False dichotomy] in relation to the idea of Hebrew vs Greek thought, I had:

Union of mind + heart

  • Palamas
  • Way of Pilgrim

This was in relation to the fact that the biblical world vision is (supposedly?) not of mind ruling all (as in caricatured Platonism) but of the ‘heart’ in control. I couldn’t help but think of Gregory Palamas and The Way of a Pilgrim and the teaching on the union of the mind with the heart. But I also know that nous is not the same thing as English mind as commonly used.

My next bracketed thought:

[Theophan the Recluse]

This was for the idea that, although we ourselves strive for virtue, it is always only possible through the work of the spirit, as taught by St Theophan in the excerpts in The Art of Prayer.

After [Theophan] came

[Maximus]

this a reference to St Maximus the Confessor and his idea that we are already ontologically united to Christ as Christians, so imitatio Christi isn’t really the name of the game, for all virtue is Christ living in us already.

Finally, there was

[John Behr]

in relation to human sexuality and its goodness — thinking on his teaching about Genesis 1 and the fact that God declares the human being in his image and makes males and females — male and female humans together make the full image of God. I didn’t write it down, but I was also thinking of Solov’iev (Solovyov).

The preacher himself referenced Peter Kreeft, Thomas Aquinas, and Brother Lawrence. (And yes, I go to a Protestant church.)

What does it say that my Christian intertexts are increasingly Orthodox?

The Jesus Prayer and me 1: Some books, and a little practice

My four-part discussion (starts here) of why I take issue with Timothy Keller’s severity towards mystical prayer in his book Prayer stems largely from the fact that I, in fact, pray the Jesus Prayer, as I discuss in the last of the four. The Jesus Prayer is:

I first encountered this prayer through The Way of a Pilgrim, in the translation of Helen Bacovcin. I’d picked up a used copy at an event in the summer before my fourth year of undergrad; sadly, I lost it along with my copy of The Poems of St John of the Cross on the bus one day. And, while I think it worked out well for me at the time to seek elsewhere for devotional reading, I have since replaced both in the same translations. The Way of a Pilgrim is a classic of nineteenth-century Russian spirituality; it recounts the story of a Russian pilgrim (wanderer?) who meets different spiritual elders and people in his journeys — and learns the art of the Jesus Prayer along the way.

In The Way of a Pilgrim, the Pilgrim learns from his spiritual father to pray the prayer many times a day, increasing the number of Jesus Prayers he prays until he attains what is called the ‘self-actuating prayer of the heart’ and prays the Jesus Prayer without ceasing. He also reads The Philokalia, as it turns out (my quick intro to that anthology here).

I believe I next met the Jesus Prayer through the work of John Michael Talbot, the summer following graduation. I read The Music of Creation, and it challenged me in various ways. My interest in the mystical/contemplative paths had been piqued by St John of the Cross and Talbot’s work on St Francis already. I’m not actually certain that the Jesus Prayer comes up in that book, but Talbot’s work is where I first met the term hesychasm, and I’ve a feeling I met in that book the idea of praying the Jesus Prayer by inhaling on the invocation, and exhaling with the petition.

Anyway, this was the cusp of leaving for Cyprus, where I spent a year having various adventures and doing evangelistic work amongst the international students. I was loaned vol. 1 of The Philokalia by the dean of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Nicosia, I read the whole of The Way of a Pilgrim, and I learned much about the Jesus Prayer and icons and the Orthodox tradition from the priests I befriended there, as well as Richard Foster, Prayer, which I was loaned by my team leader. This was an important time — serving others, praying, delving into Scripture. The Jesus Prayer was not yet really woven into my devotional world, though.

However, one way in which Cyprus is important for the Jesus Prayer and Me part of my spiritual journey is the fact that I met the Orthodox and Orthodox liturgy and read Orthodox books and haven’t really stopped since. And that has kept the Jesus Prayer part of my consciousness ever since.

For most of my time after Cyprus, the Jesus Prayer was a sometimes prayer. For a period of time, I would pray it in the style of the rosary, replacing the ‘Hail Marys’ with the Jesus Prayer. As Kallistos Ware says in The Power of the Name, it is a good prayer for waiting in queues or walking down the street. It is a way to use our minds in idle moments, turning those moments to prayer and Almighty God.

And then came the terrible day when anger got the better of me.

Prayer in 2004: Classic and Charismatic

Today, my historical journey on the pocket scroll will take us to the far gone, bygone days of yesteryear — 2004.

In 2004, I lost two very excellent books. I still sometimes grieve for them. One of them was The Way of a Pilgrim, the other the poems of St John of the Cross. I had acquired the former at the Métis Nation of Ontario’s annual gathering (the official name of which escapes me) for, like, 50 cents. The Way of a Pilgrim is a Russian spiritual novel about a guy who wanders all over Russia, meets with spiritual elders, and prays The Jesus Prayer, seeking ‘the self-actuating prayer of the heart.’

That’s actually what it says.

This book was my first contact with the Jesus Prayer, which has subsequently become a staple for my prayer life, alongside the more Protestant/evangelical prayers of my upbringing and the BCP.

My mother’s only concern with the Jesus Prayer was one which she also has with much contemporary worship music — it is self-focussed. Nonetheless, she agreed that the idea of a simple, repetitive pathway to perpetual prayer was probably a good thing.

The poems of St John of the Cross were a gift from my friend Emily. They’re interesting, an insight into a different approach to Christian prayer and mysticism — the original ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ vision of Christian spirituality. But, unlike contemporary Christian music, at least St John of the Cross got his spirituality from the Bible (read Song of Songs with the majority tradition as the expression of God and His Church together for that to make sense).

In those days, instead of swanky striped shirts with cufflinks made out of watch gears, I wore T-shirts and cargo pants (for my UK readers, those would be trousers). And my cargo pants (insert chuckle) had a pocket that was just the right size for two small pocket books/mass market paperbacks.

So I put them in there.

Somewhere on OC Transpo (city of Ottawa bus system) they got off without me.

So. There I was, an eager, young undergrad, seeking the idealistic depths of constant prayer and union with the Divine.

What was I to do?

The OC Transpo did not have them in their lost and found.

I like to always have a devotional/spiritual l book on the go (sometimes I absorb nothing, but it’s better than not seeking at all; sometimes I fail to have such a book on the go). So I plucked off my shelf a book I had found at Ottawa’s murky, three-storey used bookshop of dubious quality, the Book Market — Nine O’Clock in the Morning.

This book, for those of you who don’t know it, is the story of the start of the ‘charismatic renewal’ in the Episcopal Church of the USA. I was captivated by the tale of how a high-church priest who didn’t go in for or even believe in such things became an outlet for the Holy Spirit pouring Himself upon His people with rich blessings, with healings and conversions alongside the ordinary miracles of daily life.

This book, and a visit to Ottawa by Bishop Malcolm Harding of Anglican Renewal Ministries reminded me that, as a Christian indwelt by the power of the Holy Spirit, I already had all the resources I needed to enter into a deep experience of prayer — John of the Cross and The Way of a Pilgrim might be nice, might be helpful, but they are not necessary.

This is an important lesson for bookish people like me. Some Christians should probably read more books. Some Christians should probably read fewer books. I should probably often put the books down and actually pray.

Christ through his life, death, and resurrection, as well as the power of the indwelling Spirit, has already given me what I need to enter into deepest communion with the Divine. All I need to do is accept it.