I was hoping to have all of The Pilgrim’s Tale, a Russian spiritual classic, read for review today. Even with kids and limited reading time I can plow through a book if need be. This time? I’m savoring it. In fact, I’m inspired by it.
One of the things I love about the Eastern Orthodox tradition in all its ‘flavors’ (the Church is divided along ethnic and national lines) is that mysticism is front and center: in its liturgy, traditions, stories and practice. Mysticism is more than theology or incense or icons or even an embrace of mystery. Part of mysticism is the belief that every individual has access to and the ability for deep union with the Divine. The Pilgrim’s Tale is focused on the Hesychastic tradition of inner prayer, also called prayer of the heart or the Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It can be shortened to: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
This type of prayer is essentially a form of Christian meditation; it’s a mantra for deep inner meditation. When I started reading the book I decided that I would start praying it as well. Except, the prayer as is doesn’t sit well with me. Jesus and I don’t have much to say to each other, and I while I believe in sin and that I am flawed, I don’t believe in sin and being a sinner the way this tradition does. So I altered the prayer to the following: Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy/Holy Mother, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy. It’s another form of Orthodox prayer (using God, instead of Mother), so I felt the spirit was there. I also didn’t just want to pray for mercy on myself. For a week now I’ve been praying this aloud or under my breath while walking, folding laundry, doing dishes, lying in bed at night, etc.
What has been surprising to me is how deeply this prayer affects me. I’ll just be standing at the sink doing the dishes, thinking about my day or what chore I’ll tackle next or which park I’ll take the 3-year-old to, and I find myself feeling things, things I didn’t know I was feeling, needing to coat those feelings in mercy.
See, I’m not so good with feelings. There’s a lot of Stuff I know I haven’t dealt with. This mantra prayer is like a distraction for my brain. While brain and body are busy forming the words, heart bubbles up Stuff and it needs mercy. I have feelings about being so frustrated with my son’s inability to stop pushing his sister over – have mercy on me for being so angry, have mercy on my son, may his feelings find a better outlet, have mercy on my daughter’s body, and thank you that she didn’t whack her head this time. I have feelings, mostly judgment, for various thing I’m doing or not doing – or even feeling! Have mercy on me, that I’ll be more compassionate to myself, that I’ve so far to go before enlightenment, that I’ll stop judging even that. Have mercy on the sadness that trickles out from the edges of my thoughts, have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.
Just as the Pilgrim describes, the repeated request for mercy also comes out as a thanksgiving. Have mercy (thank you that we are so well fed and have mercy on those who aren’t and have mercy on the hands that made it possible have this food at all), have mercy (thank you that my friends arrived safely), have mercy (thank you for this opportunity, thank you for the support to push forward even when I feel scared). Oh have mercy. Oh thank you for this life.
There’s a lot in this book that’s repetitive and rather boring. It is firmly situated in the Orthodox trope in form and content; I’m used to it, but I could see it boring the crap out of most people. There are some gems in here, though, things that I think many people can relate to.
On the very first page we see the Pilgrim coming across the instruction in the Gospel to ‘pray without ceasing.’ He is stumped; how in the world is that possible? This entire book is his search to find out how and what happens when he does.
“I thought and thought but could find no answer. So I asked a cleric: ‘What does it mean to pray unceasingly and how does one do it?’ He replied: ‘Just pray it as it says.’ I asked again: ‘Yes, but how do you pray unceasingly?’ ‘You’re still asking?’ said the cleric and left.”
I love this. This is the opening. On one hand I see the frustration of a beginner, seeking and asking and basically being brushed off by someone who seems to know but won’t tell. I think many of us have had similar experiences. We want to know something, to go deeper and the person we’ve asked gives us some crappy line: ‘Well, if you haven’t figured it out by now you never will’ or ‘One either is ready and therefore gets it, or one is not.’ On the other hand, to pray unceasingly, we must start praying. That’s something this blog project has taught me: dive in, just begin, sort out the how later, it will make sense eventually.
The Pilgrim asks another man about this prayer:
“Unceasing interior prayer is the uninterrupted striving of the human spirit toward attentiveness in the divine center. … You will not understand. But if you pray as you know how, this very prayer will itself reveal to you how it can be unceasing. Everything takes its own time….”
I believe this is true of so much of the mystic life. Knowledge come from words, but wisdom comes from experience. Both are important, but all the words in the world will not give us the wisdom we seek.
This book has a few little one-off moments of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, and claims that the Hindu yogis got this meditative prayer from the Eastern Fathers (it is likely the other way around). This is par for the course in a Russian Orthodox book of this era. Despite these flaws, I will be keeping this book on my shelf. And I will be continuing to pray this prayer for the remainder of this quarter.