I was in college and I read Salinger's Frannie and Zooey, and I was really into it. I liked Franny's breakdown after reading the little book about the Russian peasant. I liked the way her family dealt with it. I liked all of it.
At this same college I also happened to be friends with the Catholic Chaplain, and in conversation with him I mentioned the book - the Salinger book - and also the little Russian book enclosed within it, and I don't remember why I mentioned them but I do remember that I thought that the pilgrim book was a fictional invention.
But no, says Father Oliver the Catholic Chaplain, no that book really exists and I have a copy and I'll give it to you, he says. Just give it to someone else when you're done with it.
So he gave it to me a little later, The Way of a Pilgrim
, and I took it back to my dorm
room and put it on the desk or on the bed or on the floor or something and then I went somewhere else and I don't remember what I did.
But the next day I woke up and I picked up the book (from the floor I think) and I pulled it into bed and I wrapped myself in blankets and prepared to skip all my classes and stay in that bed and have a good satisfying spiritual collapse or breakdown or crisis or whatever - as long as it was big and Frannie-style.
It really was a small book. With a red cloth binding, worn and threadbare at the corners. The author is an anonymous Russian peasant who lost his wife and his home and the use of one arm due to a series of tragic events there in Russia, in the middle of the 19th century, before serfdom had been abolished. In 1870 he dictated the manuscript (which actually has seven parts, although in most editions of the book only the first four are included) and gave it to a monk named Solomentsev in 1885. The book's title in Russian is "Otkrovennie rasskazui strannika dukhovnomu svoemu otsu", or “Sincere Tales of a Pilgrim to his Spiritual Father.”
The anonymous peasant was literate enough to be able to read the Bible apparently, and he seized upon a certain passage of Thessalonians (I Thessalonians 5:17) which admonishes the reader to "pray without ceasing". The peasant became obsessed with this command, wondering what exactly it meant and how he should go about doing it. So he set off on a pilgrimage through the woods and fields and villages looking for someone who could answer his questions.
Eventually the pilgrim found a starets (sort of a monk or a hermit, or an elder of the Russian Orthodox Church) who gave him a copy of the Philokalia and taught him the Invocation of the Name, a method of prayer known as the Hesychast, or "prayer of Jesus". The method consists simply of the repetition of the mantra "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me" (in this case in Russian of course) over and over again. At first the pilgrim is advised to try doing this only several hundred times a day, increasing the reps in slow increments. He is to keep increasing the number until he is repeating the prayer thousands of times a day, until it becomes inseparable from his breathing, his heartbeat, until he becomes able to live the prayer - live within it and be consumed by it, and in a way, to be replaced by it, almost.
The rest of the book is mostly about the pilgrim's experiences with the prayer, the difficulties he encountered in his attempts to truly pray unceasingly, the joy and transcendence he experienced as a result of his praying, and the various characters he encountered in his travels. He met thieves and families and wolves and other travelers, and he did odd jobs in exchange for some bread and salt, or a night's lodging. He found that it was very difficult for him to pray unceasingly in the presence of an attractive woman, and he found that the more repetitions he was able to accomplish in a day, the more he was attacked by forces that did not want him to be approaching the union with God that he was so close to achieving.
I read the book in one day - in less than a day - in bed, skipping classes. It is very short. It made enough of an impression on me that I still frequently say the prayer six years later.
A few months after reading The Way of a Pilgrim, I gave the copy that Father Oliver had given to me to a friend of mine who told me that her favorite book was Frannie and Zooey. She had been wearing the same dress and stockings and slip and everything for fourteen days in a row, without ceasing. She was counting. This was not the only thing that she had done that had impressed me. I gave her the book.