Book of the Week: The Way of a Pilgrim
Book 35: The Way of a Pilgrim
I first came across this book in 2007, when I became acquainted with the poet Scott Cairns. His then recently published memoir, A Short Trip to the Edge, was the story of his journey to Mt. Athos to learn how to pray. It was an intentional imitation of the pilgrim of this classical spiritual text. The pilgrim in Way of a Pilgrim is a Russian man who, after suffering the tragic loss of his young wife, leaves everything behind to pursue the way of ceaseless prayer. In the Orthodox tradition, he means, of course, the Jesus Prayer. This work recounts the stories of his journey, meeting fellow pilgrims, everyday Christians, and scoundrels, all of whom contribute to the journey by spurring him on towards prayer, distracting him from prayer, or teaching him from their own reflections on prayer. Central to pilgrim’s journey is his companion text, the Philokalia. From these Orthodox Church fathers, he learns the meaning of prayer and continues his spiritual journey towards fellowship with God.
The pilgrim pursues a particular vision of prayer that, at times, feels gnostic. In conversation with another Christian, he chastises a book on the Lord’s Prayer for thinking of the petition for “daily bread” as being too literal and focused on material need. For many of us Protestants, it is precisely the attention to the very human material need for bread that makes the petition all the more significant. Nevertheless, the point Way of a Pilgrim presses is that the Pauline imperative “pray without ceasing” challenges us to think of prayer as a way of life, not merely a repetitive action. Like all habits, the more we pray, the more prayer becomes second nature—a disposition of the heart, not just an action of the mind (or mouth). When this happens, we find that our knowledge of God and ourselves grows.