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Continued from Part 1

The Pilgrim Continues His Way Excerpt from The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His way, translated from the Russian by R.M. French

The Pilgrim and his companion the Professor are travelling on foot, on their way to the Solovetsky Monastery located on the Solovetsky islands in the White Sea, where they hope to join the monastic community called Anzersky. Along their journey they meet a starets, skhimnik and devout priest.

The Professor relates his tale, how he came to be travelling on pilgrimage and the reason for  his spiritual quest. In the course of his narrative he reveals that he's on his way to Anzersky to lead a contemplative life, but he submits his doubts in all sincerity: in the first place he is not certain whether the recommended methods of ascetism will lead him ultimately to his goal, nor is he sure that he has what it takes to practice them.

The Skhimnik then brings out a text and reads from it: The Secret of Salvation, Revealed by Unceasing Prayer, an essay by an unknown author, about the importance of constant prayer, at all times and in every place.

The Pilgrim, his companion and the others listen attentively, and the Professor expresses reservations—the same reservations that occur to all of us who are living in the "real world", caught up in business and so many other distractions.

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"No one should give the answer that it is impossible for a man occupied with worldly cares, and who is unable to go to church, to pray always. Everywhere, wherever you may find yourself, you can set up an altar to God in your mind by means of prayer. And so it is fitting to pray at your trade, on a journey, standing at the counter or sitting at your handicraft. Everywhere and in every place it is possible to pray, and, indeed, if a man diligently turns his attention upon himself, then everywhere he will find convenient circumstances for prayer..."

The Pilgrim. With all my heart I thank you, holy Father. With that reading of yours you have given pleasure to my sinful soul. For the love of God be so kind as to allow me to copy out for myself what you have read. I an do it in an hour or two. Everything you read was so beautiful and comforting and is so understandable and clear to my stupid mind, like The Philokelia, in which the holy Fathers treat the same subject. Here, for instance, John Karpathisky in the fourth part of The Philokelia also says that if you have not the strength for self control and ascetic achievements, then know that God is willing to save you by prayer. But how beautifully and understandably all that is drawn out in your notebook. I thank God first of all, and then you, that I have been allowed to hear it.

The Professor. I also listened with great attention and pleasure to your reading, Reverend Father. All arguments, when they rest upon strict logic, are a delight to me. But at the same time it seems to me that they make the possibility of continual prayer in a high degree dependent on circumstances which are favourable to it and upon entirely quiet solitude. For I agree that frequent and ceaseless prayer is a powerful and unique means of obtaining the help of divine grace in all acts of devotion for the sanctifying of the soul, and that it is within the power of man. But this method can be used only when man avails himself of the possibility of solitude and quiet. In getting away  from business and worries and distractions he can pray frequently or even continually. He then has to contend only with sloth or with the tedium of his own thoughts. But if he is bound by duties and by constant business, if he necessarily finds himself in a noisy company of people, and has an earnest desire to pray often, he cannot carry out this desire because of the invitable distractions. Consequently the one method of frequent prayer, since it is dependent upon favourable circumstances, cannot be used by everybody, nor belong to all.

The Skhimnik. It is no use drawing a conclusion of that kind. Not to mention the fact that the heart which has been taught interior prayer can always pray and call upon the Name of God unhindered during any occupation, whether of the body or of the mind, and in any noise (those who know this know it from experience, and those who do not know it must be taught by gradual training), one can confidently say that no outward distraction can interrupt prayer in one who wishes to pray, for the secret thought of man does not depend upon any link with external environment and is entirely free in itself. It can at all times be perceived and directed towards prayer; even the very tonguye can secretly without outward sound express prayer in the presence of many people and during external occupations. Besides, our business is surely not so important and our conversation so interesting that it is impossible during them to find a way at times of frequently calling upon the Name of Jesus Christ, even if the mind has not yet been trained to continuous prayer. Although, of course, solitude and escape from distracting things does constitute the chief condition for attentive and continuous prayer, still we ought to feel ourselves to blame for the rarity of our prayer, because the amount and frequency is under the control of everybody, both the healthy and the sick. It does lie within the scope of his will. Instances which prove this are to be found in those who, although burdened by obligations, distracting duties, cares, worries and work, have not only always called upon the divine name of Jesus Christ, but even in this way learned and attained the ceaseless inward prayer of the heart. Thus the Patriarch Photius, who was called to the patriarchal dignity from among the ranks of the senators, while governing the vast diocese of Constantinople, persevered continually in the invocation of the Name of God, and thus attained even the self-acting prayer of the heart. Thus Callistus on the holy Mount Athos learned ceaseless prayer while carrying on his busy life as a cook. So the simple-hearted Lazarus, burdened with continual work for the brotherhood, uninterruptedly, in the midst of all his noisy occupations, repeated the Jesus Prayer and was at peace. And many others similarly have practised the continuous invocation of the Name of God.

If it were an impossible thing to pray midst distracting business or in the society of other people, then, of course, it would not have been bidden us. St. John Chrysostom, in his teaching about prayer, speaks as follows: "No one should give the answer that it is impossible for a man occupied with worldly cares, and who is unable to go to church, to pray always. Everywhere, wherever you may find yourself, you can set up an altar to God in your mind by means of prayer. And so it is fitting to pray at your trade, on a journey, standing at the counter or sitting at your handicraft. Everywhere and in every place it is possible to pray, and, indeed, if a man diligently turns his attention upon himself, then everywhere he will find convenient circumstances for prayer, if only he is convinced of the fact that prayer should constitute his chief occupation and come before every other duty. And in that case he would, of course, order his affairs with greater decision; in necessasry conversation with other people he would maintain brevity, a tendeny to silence, and a disinclination for useless words; he would not be unduly anxious about worrying things. And in all these ways he would find more time for quiet prayer. In such an order of life all his actions, by the power of the invocation of the Name of God, would be signalized by success, and finally he would train himself to the uninterrupted prayerful invocation of the Name of Jesus Christ. He would come to know from experience that frequency of prayer, this sole means of salvation, is a possibility for the will of man, that it is possible to pray at all times, in all circumstances and in every place, and easily to rise from frequent vocal prayer to prayer of the mind and from that to prayer of the heart, which opens up the Kingdom of God within us."

The Professor. I agree that during mechanical occupations it is possible and even easy to pray frequently, even continuously; for mechanical bodily work does not require profound exercise of the mind or great consideration, and, therefore, while it is going on my mind can be immersed in continuous prayer and my lips follow in the same way. But if I have to be occupied with something exclusively intellectual, as, for instance, attentive reading, or thinking out some deep matter, or literary composition, how can I pray with my mind and my lips in such a case? And since prayer is above all things an action of the mind, how, at one and the same time, can I give one and the same mind different sorts of things to do?

The Skhimnik. The solution of your problem is not at all difficult, if we take into consideration that people who pray continuously are divided into three classes. First, the beginners; secondly, those who have made some progress; and thirdly, the fully trained. Now, the beginners are frequently capable of experiencing at times an impulse of the mind and heart towards God and of repeating short prayers with the lips, even while engaged in mental work. Those who have made some progress and eached a certain stability of mind are able to occupy themselves with meditation or writing in the uninterrupted presence of God as the basis of prayer. The following example will illustrate this. Imagine that a severe and exacting monarch ordered you to compose a treatise on some abstruse subject in his presence, at the steps of his throne. Although you might be absolutely occupied by your work, the presence of the kind who has power over you and who holds your life in his hands would still not allow you to forget for a single moment that you are thinking, considering and writing, not in solitude, but in a place which demands of you particular reverence, respect and decorum. This lively feeling of the nearness of the king very clearly expresses the possibility of being occupied in ceaseless inward prayer even during intellectual work. So far as the others are concerned, those who by long custom or by the mercy of God have progressed from prayer of the mind and reached prayer of the heart, they do not break off their continuous prayer during profound mental exercises, nor even during sleep itself. As the All Wise has told us, I sleep, but my heart waketh (Cant. v. 2). Many, that is, who have achieved this mechanism of the heart acquire such an aptitude for calling upon the divine Name, that it will of itself arouse itself to prayer, incline the mind and the whole spirit to a flood of ceaseless prayer in whatever condition the one who prays finds himself, and however abstract and intellectual his occupation at the time.

The Priest. Allow me, reverend Father, to say what is on my mind. Let me have a turn and say a word or two. It was admirably put in the article you read that the one means of salvation and of reaching perfectin is frequency of prayer, of whatever sort. Now, I do not very easily understand that, and it appears to me like this. What would be the use if I pray and invoke the Name of God continually with my tongue only and pay no attention to, and do not understand, what I am saying? That would be nothing but vain repetition. The result of it will only be that the tongue will go chattering on, and the mind, hindered in its meditations by this, will have its ctivity impaired. God does not ask for words, but for an attentive mind and a pure heart. Would it not be better to offer a prayer, be it only a short one, even rarely may be, or only at stated times, but with attention, with zeal and warmth of heart, and with due understanding? Otherwise, although you may say the prayer day and night, yet you have not got purity of mind, you are not performing a work of devotion, not achieving anything for your salvation. You are relying on nothing but outward chatter, and you get tired and bored, and in the end the result is that your faith in prayer is completely chilled, and you throw over altogether this fruitless proceeding. Further, the uselessness of prayer with the lips only can be seen from what is revealed to us in Holy Scripture, as, for instance, This people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth and honureth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me (St. Matt. xv. 8). Not everyone that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (St. Matt. vii. 21). I had rather speak five words with my understanding... than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue (1 Cor. xiv. 19). All this shows the fruitlessness of outward inattentive prayer with the mouth.

The Skhimnik. There might be something in your point of view if with the advice to pray with the mouth there were not added the need for it to be continuous, if prayer in the Name of Jesus Christ did not possess self-acting power and did not win for itself attention and zeal as a result of continuity in the exercise. But as the matter now in question is frequency, length of time, and uninterruptedness of prayer (although it may be carried on at first inattentively or with dryness), then, on account of this very fact, the conclusions that you mistakenly draw come to nothing. Let us look into the matter a little more closely. One spiritual writer, after arguing the very great value and fruitfulness of frequent prayer expressed in one form of words, says finally: "Many so-called enlightened people regard this frequent offering of one and the same prayer as useless and even trifling, calling it mechanical and a thoughtless occupation of simple people. But unfortunately they do not know the secret which is revealed as a result of this mechanical exercise, they do not know how this frequent service of the lips imperceptibly becomes a genuine appeal of the heart, sinks down into the inward life, becomes a delight, becomes, as it were, natural to the soul, bringing it light and nourishment and leading it on to union with God." It seems to me that these censorious people are like those little children who were being taught the alphabet and how to read. When they got tired of it they cried out: "Would it not be a hundred times better to go fishing, like father, than to spend the whole day in ceaselessly repeating a, b, c, or scrawling on a sheet of paper with a pen?" The value of being able to read and the enlightenment which it brings, which they could have only as a result of this wearisome learning the letters by heart, was a hidden secret to them. In the same way the simple and frequent calling upon the Name of God is a hidden secret to those people who are not persuaded of its results and its very great value. They, estimating the act of faith by the strength of their own experienced and short-sighted reason, forget, in so doing, that man has two natures, in direct influence one upon another, that man is made of body and soul. Why, for example, when you desire to purify your soul, do you first of all deal with your body, make it fast, deprive it of nourishment and stimulating food? It is, of course, that it may not hinder, or, to put it better, so that it may be the means of promoting, purity of soul and enlightenment of mind, so that the continual feeling of bodily hunger may remind you of your resolution to seek for inward perfection and the things pleasing to God, which you so easily forget. And you find by experience that through the outward fast of your body you achieve the inward refining of your mind, the peace of your herat, an instrument for the taming of your passions and a reminder of spiritual effort. And thus, by means of outward and material things, you receive inward and spiritual profit and help. You must understand the same thing about frequent prayer with the lips, which by its long duration draws out the inward prayer of the haert, and promotes union of the mind with God. It is vain to imagine that the tongue, wearied by this frequency and barren lack of understanding, will be obliged to give up entirely this outward effort of prayer as useless. No; experience here shows us exactly the opposite. Those who have practised ceaseless prayer assure us that what happens is this: One who has made up his mind to call without ceasing upon the Name of Jesus Christ or, what is the same thing, to say the Jesus Prayer continuously, at first, of course, finds difficulty and has to struggle against sloth. But the longer and the harder he works at it, the more he grows famliar with the task imperceptibly, so that in the end the lips and the tonue acquire such capacity for moving themselves that even without any effort on his part they themselves act irresistibly and say the prayer voicelessly. At the same time the mechanism of the throat muscles is so trained that in praying he begins to feel that the saying of the prayer is a perpetual and essential property of himself, and even feels every time he stops as though something were missing in him. And so it results from this that his mind in its turn begins to yield, to listen to this involuntary action of the lips, and is aroused by it to attention which in the end becomes a source of delight to the heart, and true prayer.

There you see the true and beneficent effect of continuous or frequent vocal prayer, exactly the opposite of what people who have neither tried nor understood it suppose. Concerning those passages in Holy Scripture which you brought forward in support of your objection, these are to be explained, if we make a proper examination of them. Hypocritical worship of God with the mouth, ostentation about it, or insincere praise in the cry, "Lord, Lord," Jesus Christ exposed for this reason, that the faith of the proud Pharisees was a matter of the mouth only, and in no degree did their conscience justify their faith, nor did they acknowledge it in their heart. It was to them that these things were said, and they do not refer to saying prayers, about which Jesus Christ gave direct, explicit and definite instructions. Men ought always to pray and not to faint. Similarly, when the Apostle Paul says he prefers five words spoken with the understanding to a multitude of words without thought or in an unknown tongue in the Church, he is speaking about teaching in general, not about prayer in particular, on which subject he firmly says, I will therefore that men pray every where (1 Tim. ii. 8), and his is the general precept, Pray without ceasing (1 Thess. v. 17). Do you now see how fruitful frequent prayer is for all its simplicity, and what serious consideration the proper understanding of Holy Scripture requires?

The Pilgrim. Truly it is so, reverend Father. I have seen many who quite simply, without the light of any education whatever and not even knowing what attention is, offer the Prayer of Jesus with their mouths unceasingly. I have known them reach a stage when their lips and tongue could not be restrained from saying the prayer. It brought them such happiness and enlightenment, and changed them from weak and negligent people into podvizhniki and champions of virtue.

[The original has a note here as follows: "In the nineties of the last century [19th century] there died at the Troitskaya Lavra a starets, a layman in his hundred and eighth year; he could not read or write, but he said the Jesus Prayer even during his sleep, and lived continually as the child of God, with a heart that yearned for Him. His name was Gordi."

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Philokelia—"The Love of Spiritual Beauty". The title of the great collection of mystical and ascetic writings by Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church, over a period of eleven centuries.
starets, pl. startsi—a monk distinguished by his great piety, long experience of the spiritual life, and gift for guiding other souls. Lay folk frequently resort to startsi for spiritual counsel; an in a monastery a new member of the community is attached to a starets, who trains and teaches him.
skhimnik (fem. skhimnitsa)—A monk (nun) of the highest grade. The distinction between simple and solemn vows which has arisen in the West, has never found a place in Orthodox Monasticism. In the latter, Religious are of three grades, distinguished by their habit, and the highest grade is pledged to a stricter degree of asceticism and a greater amoung of time spent in prayer. The Russian skhimnik is the Greek megaloschemos.
Troitskaya Lavra—The famous monastery of the Holy Trinity near Moscow, founded by St. Sergei in the fourteenth century. The part it played in Russian religious life has been compared by Frere in some respects to the Cluniac movement (Links in the Chain of Russian Church History, p. 36). The Troiskaya Lavra was intimately connected with Russian history, and was the focal point of the national movement which drove out the Poles and placed the first Romanov on the Russian throne in 1613.


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