So, I’ve already mentioned the books I’m trying to tackle this Lent. I have successfully completed one (a serious feat for me…) and wanted to share some things about it. “The Way of a Pilgrim” – it’s a quite beautiful book. Unknown author. Story of a pilgrim learning to pray without ceasing. I think it is a style of praying we don’t hear much in our churches, as it is typically seen as a more eastern tradition. Regardless, I think it’s totally relevant to anyone’s prayer life.
Here’s how the story goes…
This pilgrim has thoughts probably similar to what you have had:
“…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 think our pragmatic selves tend to shake off the idea of praying incessantly, so perhaps you’ve never really thought too much into the idea. But, the pilgrim goes on:
“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 fruit it bears, but no one said how to succeed in it.”
This, to me, seems to be the more common approach to prayer in our pulpits. I’ve heard many a talks through college on prayer, like the pilgrim said – what it is, how to, what it gives the heart – but, never have I learned from someone how to succeed in keeping my heart open to an incessant prayer. And, it’s always been a struggle for me. Sure, maybe I’ll think about God throughout my day, but have I truly softened my heart to Him and allowed that to persist throughout the day? I’ve had plenty of moments of soft heartedness, but I have never believed those moments could actively last the entirety of my day – though I may be well intentioned.
The pilgrim seeks a spiritual advisor for help with this task.
“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.”
I tried spiritual direction in college (even met with a couple of different women), but I don’t think I really jived with them. I’m naturally very closed with my personal things and tend to wait for someone to ask me a question specifically before sharing. Regardless, I have had trouble seeking someone who I trusted spiritually, and maybe that’s what made spiritual direction in college difficult.
When I lived in Dallas, I went to a wonderful parish with extremely holy priests. It was the kind of place that offered confession every day before and after the two daily Masses and throughout the entirety of Sunday morning. It’s one thing to see a full church at Mass, but it’s another to witness so many of your fellow parishioners humbling themselves to the Sacrament of confession. This is how I came to know and trust my priest enough to be able to schedule meetings with him one on one when I needed guidance.
When he stumbled upon (by God’s grace, naturally) his mentor, the pilgrim let him know of his desires to pray without ceasing yet not knowing how to attain such thing. His elder replied:
“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.”
The prayer he gave this young pilgrim is known as the Jesus prayer.
“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, Son of God, have mercy on me!’”
And, then his spiritual director goes on to guide him on how to’s as the pilgrim begins to learn the ways of the prayer. Quoting St. Simeon the New Theologian, he says:
“Take a seat in solitude and silence. Bend your head, close your eyes, and breathing softly, in your imagination, look into your own heart. Let your mind, or rather, your thoughts, flow from your head down to your heart and say while breathing: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ Whisper these words gently, or say them in your mind. Discard all other thoughts. Be serene, persevering and repeat them over and over again.”
So, the pilgrim goes on to the next village and manages to stumble upon a kind peasant who offers his backyard hut for work in his garden. Perfect for the pilgrim to begin the mastering of this prayer. Naturally, he begins the prayer with great zeal, but quickly falls to boredom, laziness, and being distracted by his thoughts. When he meets with his spiritual director again he is told to say the prayer:
“…quietly, without hurrying, but say it exactly three thousand times a day, neither increasing nor diminishing the number of prayers of your own accord. By this means God will help you attain also the incessant action of the heart.”
The pilgrim begins to find a beauty in the consistency of this prayer, and his spiritual director continues to up the standards, asking him to pray it six- and twelve- thousand times a day.
The prayer becomes natural for him. His heart is warm, and he is detached from things of the world. He prays the prayer without any effort.
I’ll be real. These conditions set by his spiritual director are very difficult for a non-pilgrim to achieve. Rather than praying this prayer thousands of times a day, I have been praying it fifty in the morning and fifty in the evening with plans to slowly increase that amount. The prayer does come to me naturally randomly during the day, and I have felt a softer heart because of it. Am I quite to the pilgrim’s level?? Heck no, but if you go on to read the rest of this book, you will see him journey and grow in the prayer – because it doesn’t just click in a few weeks. As he travels, you’ll also witness his encounters with others and how he introduces the prayer to them.
Also while reading, I had to remind myself that I am not -quite- called to the same life as he was (otherwise you’ll feel like you HAVE to be a monk to achieve this level of prayer). He lives in a, kind of, voluntary poverty only concerned with growing in his prayer. Though this is a beautiful way of life, it’s not exactly what God has willed me to do.
Yes, we are all called to pray without ceasing, we are all called to detachment of our worldly things, but I also have to be concerned for my husband and future children. There are practical things I need to participate in to ensure the basic needs of our family our met. Regardless, the Jesus prayer can be part of my day. I hope for it to one day be a naturally occurring rhythmic prayer in my heart – even when I have to tell Matt to get the laundry in the basement or fuss at our future kids for doing all the naughty things (their father will teach them…).
The Jesus prayer may not be for you, but maybe there is some way which you are being called to pray incessantly which you have not thought about before.