No, really. Specifically. In practice.
How do you pray without ceasing? Do you discuss every little decision you face during the day? Do you give God status updates every minute? Do you shut yourself away from human society altogether, and interact only with God?
This Orthodox classic puts forth a different way, one that rang strangely in my evangelical ears, but which inspires a whole new conception of what continuous prayer means.
The Way of a Pilgrim is written by a narrator whose name we never learn, walking through Russia and Siberia with a knapsack containing his Bible, dry bread, and the Philokalia. The manuscript was preserved by a monk and was first published in 1884. The pilgrim wants to understand how the unceasing prayer recommended in Scripture is possible. Early on, he meets a “starets,” or spiritual father, who explains to him the “Jesus prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” The starets assigns him to say the prayer, mantra-like, 3,000 times a day. Then 6,000 times. Then 12,000 times. Then without limit.
This is a very different conception of prayer than I’m used to, one that doesn’t center around communicating with God about ideas, events, people or interior states. Eventually it becomes merely a habit, something most evangelicals (and Americans in general) would shun because it’s so not about inventing something fresh and individual. But this pilgrim experiences deep results spiritually.
I should point out that he practices the types of prayer more familiar to me as well, as when he recommends to a maiden fleeing an unwanted marriage that she would be better off praying earnestly for God to change her circumstances than running away. This isn’t a rejection of more… cognizant? conscious?… prayer. But it is an introduction of another kind, one that becomes a training of body, mind and heart. Eventually, the pilgrim speaks of his amazement that he can live with two consciousnesses, one continually in prayer, the other conducting the business of daily life.
One thing that initially bothered me was the pilgrim’s desire to be alone. The Great Commission being what it is, I think that even those of us with a monastic impulse to retreat into solitude need to challenge that by living our faith in community. But this didn’t end up bothering me for long, because this pilgrim is given many opportunities to interact and minister among people, despite the transient nature of his relationships.
I’m still processing the book in my thoughts. There are several things I appreciate and feel challenged by. One is the concreteness of its interpretation of unceasing prayer. Is it really possible to keep one part of your mind in prayer at all times — not just frequently, but continually? When I think about it, it seems quite likely that it is possible. I seldom give my whole mind to anything. There are always several lines of mental activity going on, for all of us — an amazing human capacity that our technologies can exploit with destructive results, turning our God-given complexity into mere distractibility.
Another thing I like about this book is its insistence on the primacy of prayer — a theme being developed in our church these days as we seek to become a “house of prayer,” and an exhortation that I always need to hear. There is a sequel to this book, The Pilgrim Continues His Way, which I will probably read as well. But I’m going to close this review with one example of the pilgrim’s words on prayer. The book is filled with gems, but this is one of my favorite passages:
My late starets of blessed memory also used to say that the forces which are against prayer in the heart attack us from two sides, from the left hand and from the right. That is to say, if the enemy cannot turn us from prayer by means of vain thoughts and sinful ideas, then he brings back into our minds good things we have been taught, and fills us with beautiful ideas, so that one way or another he may lure us away from prayer, which is a thing he cannot bear. It is called ‘a theft from the right-hand side,’ and in it the soul, putting aside its converse with God, turns to the satisfaction of converse with self or with created things. He taught me, therefore, not to admit during times of prayer even the most lofty of spiritual thoughts. And if I saw that in the course of the day, time had been spent more in improving thought and talk than in the actual hidden prayer of the heart, then I was to think of it as a loss of the sense of proportion, or a sign of spiritual greed. This is above all true, he said, in the case of beginners, for whom it is most needful that time given to prayer should be very much more than that taken up by other sides of the devout life.