The Way of a Pilgrim

What does it mean to pray without ceasing?

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.


Wet world

On Sunday, the forecast was for rain all the way into next week. Now it’s looking like we may have a chance for sun on the weekend. But on Sunday the outlook was bleak, and I decided to go for a beauty hunt.

My dissertation director used to teach about the three categories of landscapes: picturesque, beautiful, and sublime. Most of what I see falls into the first two categories. But I’m glad to find it.

I question our certainty when it comes to things like forecasts. In science, I’ve noticed that almost none of our experiments turn out the way they’re supposed to. In math last week, we rolled dice to learn about probability, and there too it didn’t turn out as predicted by the text. There’s a book called The Black Swan that examines such things. (No relation to the movie that’s out.) One of these days, maybe, I’ll read it. (I checked it out of the library once, but got distracted by something else.)

I do find a camera in the hand to be a powerful aid to vision. Yesterday, I photographed a bird in the evergreen out back, thinking it was a chickadee. The picture revealed a black body, white wing bars, and a streaked yellow breast — a magnolia warbler, as I learned after searching through the bird book. I’ve never seen one before. I didn’t know I was seeing one yesterday till the camera captured it for me. Same with a bright red bird that I thought was a cardinal, but that turned out to be a scarlet tanager.

I’ve never thought of raindrops as pretty either, but once photographed they become lovely in my eyes.

I still prefer sun. But I enjoyed finding evidence of color that defies the clouds. And I do enjoy the little surprises the camera helps me see.


Lovely, dark and deep

Actually, the woods my daughters and I walked through yesterday were anything but dark. The sun was so bright I could hardly even see this robin in the trees above, much less determine what kind of bird it was.

When we reached this point in the trail, my youngest exclaimed, “I want to go into that tree tunnel!”

We paused beside a stream…

and thought…

…and the girls waded…

…and we listened. We “came into the presence of still water,” as Wendell Berry says:

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The rest of “The Peace of Wild Things” is here.

When we started out, I despaired of seeing any critters because of the noise my two small companions made (and the often louder noise I made with my piercing “SHHH!!”). But the quietness of the woods seemed to seep inwards and we all came under the spell. We heard a woodpecker drumming and calling, songbirds letting loose as they got used to our being there, chipmunks scurrying in the undergrowth. I’m not sure how long we were there, but it was long enough to satisfy. Truly.

Then we went home.

Poetry Friday is at Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup today. Enjoy the poetry feast over there!

Math Read-Alouds

Carol wrote recently about String, Straight-Edge, and Shadow: The Story of Geometry and the idea of a story about a mathematical concept seemed like a great idea. We’re mostly book geeks around here, not “mathemagicians.” So I set to searching for some books aimed at my younger daughter, and found several appealing picture books.

A Remainder of One is about a troop of marching ants who keep dividing into columns that leave one ant out. Finally he has a brilliant mathematical revelation, and the 25 ants divide into 5 columns of 5. Voila! It’s a cute book written in rhyme, and it introduces the subject of division with and without remainders.

How will they get to the food the fastest? One line takes forever. Two lines isn’t much better. Not till the littlest ant figures out that ten lines moves the whole group quickly do they really start to make time. This is also written in rhyme and created by the same author-illustrator team.

Amanda Bean counts everything, and she won’t be persuaded that multiplication is faster — not until she has a dream that taxes her counting skills to the limit by giving her too much to count and too little time to count it. Both girls enjoyed this whacky tale.

This book¬† might work well if you’re doing factorials in math. We weren’t, so Older Daughter, reading it in the back seat on the way home from the library, informed me that it started out as an interesting story and then turned into math. After I read it myself, I decided not to try it with Younger Daughter, but I may read it with Older Daughter again. It starts out developing the idea quite concretely, then becomes a little more abstract.

I had no idea there were so many such books out there; these are just the ones I could get through our library system. They provide some examples and ways of talking about math in a more entertaining format than our math text.

You can click on the button to see what others are reading this week at Read Aloud Thursday, hosted at Hope Is the Word.

Birds, Horses, and Joy

I am reading Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society mentioned it, and I remembered I had a copy. But I can’t seem to gain much traction reading anything these days. I’d rather be outside.

Yesterday was my oldest’s horse lesson. Some of these pics are included (at the moment) in the sidebar slideshow. But here are a few more.

Learning to ride such magnificent creatures is fun. But my youngest seems to feel that it’s equally fun to learn about cats…

…and to gallop joyfully around the finally-dry corrall on two legs rather than four.

I’ve never noticed before this year how much spring and fall resemble one another. But the state of mind is different.

I’ve been snapping photos of birds for my bird log. I’m trying to capture as many of the birds of this place as I can with my camera — the animal-lover’s version of hunting, I reckon. I’ve set up a “Birds” page where I can keep track of them all and share them here. (*Edited to add: I’m rethinking the page, but still going with the photo project.)

Not a great photo, but it shows them sharing a seed beak to beak. Aww...

So there you have it — not much to say. I’m all eyes these days. I often think of writing as an act of worship; returning my words to the living Word. But eyes can worship too. Ann Voskamp says we “pay tribute to God by paying attention.” I am grateful for these sights that nourish my soul. After such a long, leaden, sleeping winter world, the return of color and life seems to be trickling back into my spirit through the camera and the eye.