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Ortodox Christian Spiritual Classic: The Way of the Pilgrim

How to pray without ceasing

One of the most perplexing issues throughout the history of Christianity is how to obey I Thessalonians 4:17: "Pray without ceasing." This verse is translated differently in some Bibles, such as "Pray continually," but the idea is the same: a Christian is called to always be in prayer. Two (or three) simple words, but with no simple solution. If one was a monk, perhaps, this would be possible, the thinking goes, but for the majority of folks this is seemingly unobtainable. Today we examine one 1700 year old solution discovered by an anonymous author as described in a spiritual autobiography in Russia in the 1800s.

The Way of a Pilgrim was first published in Russia in 1881. It tells of a Christian who desired an answer to the question: "How do I pray without ceasing?" He traveled and searched for someone who knew the solution. He heard numerous sermons and spoke to many people; all believed this important but yet could not tell him how. For instance, he wrote, "I did hear a sermon on interior prayer and ceaseless prayer but nothing about attaining that form of prayer." He spoke to the Superior (Head) of a monastery who told him, "This is exceptionally difficult to understand unless God Himself reveals it."

Yet he continued to travel and search for someone to teach him. He met an elderly man one day, and as they conversed, the Pilgrim realized he was a wise and spiritual man. He asked the elderly man his question and finally received an answer.

The answer he received is actually an old solution, dating back to the desert monks of Egypt in the 300s and 400s (as found in the Apophthegmata Patrum). It has been practiced for over 1700 years and has led many into the practice of ceaseless prayer. The solution is both surprisingly simple and extremely difficult. At the heart of this particular solution is the Jesus Prayer. To quote the wise elderly man who taught the Pilgrim: "The ceaseless Jesus prayer is a continuous, uninterrupted call on the holy name of Jesus Christ with the lips, mind, and heart; and in the awareness of His abiding presence it is a plea for His blessing in all undertakings, in all places, at all times, even in sleep. The words of the Prayer are: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’

The Pilgrim was instructed to say this prayer 3,000 times a day. He says, "For two days it was somewhat difficult. Then it became so easy and pleasant that when I wasn’t saying the Prayer a need arose within me to say it." He went back to his teacher and was instructed to say it 6,000 times a day. The Pilgrim wrote, "I became so accustomed to the Prayer that if for a short while I stopped reciting it I felt as if I were missing something as though I had lost something." Again he went back to his teacher and was instructed to say the Prayer 12,000 times a day. The Pilgrim wrote, "During my sleep I often dreamed that I was praying. And if I happened to meet people during the day they all seemed as close to me as if they were my kinsmen, even though I did not know them."

The Pilgrim was taught that "the Jesus Prayer is the abbreviated form of the Gospel." So by repeating the Jesus Prayer he believed that he was reciting the Gospels as well as seeking Jesus. Eventually the Pilgrim reached the point where he subconsciously called on the name of Jesus by using the Jesus Prayer throughout the day, even when talking with others or at work. And so he was able to find one solution to the age-old question: "How can I pray without ceasing?"

©2004 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved