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“The Way of a Pilgrim” is a classic work of 19th-century Eastern Orthodox mysticism that charts ...
2022-01-20 09:00:00

In the Footsteps of Russian Spirituality
The Way of a Pilgrim

Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski
In the Footsteps of Russian Spirituality
In the Footsteps of Russian Spirituality

Nobody knows who he was. The nameless, humble ascetic wandered Russia searching for himself (and God). His musings, published anonymously as The Way of a Pilgrim, are a legacy of 19th-century Eastern Christian mysticism, whose influence is visible still today, including in Western culture.

Read in 14 minutes

It’s not often that the hero of a book that has entered the canon of world literature is a person so sincere and guileless, while simultaneously so enthralling to readers. The narrative mechanism is also simple: already on the first page, the whole story is set in motion. One Sunday the main character stops by a church, where I Thessalonians is being read, and he hears the sentence: “Pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17). “This saying struck me,” the hero confesses, “and I began to wonder: how is it possible to pray without ceasing when everyone must attend to endless matters simply to make a living?”

The rest of the story is an attempt to answer this fundamental question, i.e. what does it mean to ‘pray without ceasing’? The man approaches this task with exceptional humility and consistency. He will search for the answer during wanderings through Russia on foot, from Siberia to the Black Sea, and will find it partly in churches, from various teachers, but also from ordinary people. In a word: from everyone who could have something to teach (which also shows his admirable humility and openness to his fellow human beings). Nevertheless, a key role in his spiritual searching will be paid by a certain unprepossessing book.

The mysterious wanderer

We don’t know much about the hero himself. He comes from Oryol Governorate, that is, from the western part of Russia (the city of Oryol lies about 350 kilometres south of Moscow). From childhood, he has suffered from complete paralysis of his left arm, making it difficult for him to find work once he reaches adulthood. At a certain point, he and his wife fall victim to an act of vengeance and lose their savings. After the death of his beloved, he sells his house, gives his clothing to the poor, and, as he says, goes where his eyes lead him. It’s the middle of the 19th century in Tsarist Russia, most likely just before the abolition of serfdom.

The hero travels on foot – initially from church to church, visiting monasteries. Most often he wanders through forests and fields, avoiding the main thoroughfares. In the villages, he receives a bit of dry bread, a handful of salt, some water for his cup; afterwards he “once again walks about 100 versts”, or more than 100 kilometres. He sleeps where people take him in, but he also doesn’t disdain to sleep in the woods or in a haystack, sometimes managing to find a dugout for a longer stay. All of his worldly possessions – aside from his bag for dried bread – consist of two books: a Bible and the Philokalia. The latter was recommended to him by a spiritual elder shortly before his death; for a moment, the man had become our hero’s spiritual teacher.

Book within a book

The copy of the Philokalia is somehow a co-equal hero of this story. For the pilgrim, this “old and threadbare” book, purchased for two roubles, becomes his sole true spiritual guide. It’s the subject of ceaseless study (read in forests, shacks and mud huts) and a source of inspiration. It was, the pilgrim said, “the first and last treasure of my life”. So what is this book?

Known as the Philokalia in Greek, and in Russian as Dobrotolyubie, the book is certainly one of the most exceptional works of Eastern Christian spirituality. Its emergence is connected with the monastic tradition cultivated over the centuries in the cloisters of the holy Mount Athos in northern Greece, but its roots reach much deeper.

Published for the first time in 1782 in Venice, and edited by one of the monks from Mount Athos, the Philokalia is a collection of numerous texts and teachings from the greatest spiritual masters, ranging from the fourth to the 15th centuries, whose manuscripts were preserved in those monasteries. Among them were the writings of the Desert Fathers from Egypt and Syria (such as Anthony the Great); ascetics associated with monasteries on the Sinai Peninsula and in Constantinople; as well as later writings from monks associated with monasteries on Mount Athos – all of them dedicated to the practice of internal prayer, or what today we would call contemplation.

On the basis of the five-volume Greek edition, very quickly, already in 1793, a Russian edition was created, or rather an Old Church Slavonic edition. This, Paisius Velichkovsky’s translation, is what becomes inseparable for our hero.

Masters of mindfulness

According to the translator of the Polish version of the Philokalia, the Reverend Professor Józef Naumowicz, the entire collection, ordered chronologically, “was selected according to a clearly defined criterion, as indicated by the full title, The Philokalia of the Niptic Fathers. It primarily took into account those writings that showed how to attain in prayer a state of spiritual mindfulness (the Greek nipsis or nepsis), assisting concentration on the presence of God in the heart.”

It is precisely this mindfulness, along with techniques of contemplation, that were practised for whole centuries by the monks in the inaccessible cloisters of Mount Athos. One of the key figures of this movement, known as hesychasm (from the Greek hesychia, ‘quietness’ or ‘stillness’), turned out to be the 14th-century monk Gregory Palamas. The main element of the contemplative technique recommended by Palamas and the hesychasts was repeating in one’s spirit a brief prayer, which was to be recited while sitting, with the head bent toward the abdomen, with the appropriate breathing sequence. According to the hesychasts, this practice allowed people to commune with the divine light, the divine energy. In this way, they stressed a real spiritual connection between the person and God.

This turned out to be controversial, and in the mid-14th century hesychasm became the subject of a serious debate in the heart of the Eastern churches. As a result, the hesychasts – whom their opponents, referring to the method of prayer, described as omphaloskopoi (Greek for ‘navel-gazers’), and even omphalopsychoi (‘people with their souls in their navels’) – were almost designated as heretics. In the end, the dispute was settled in favour of the hesychasts, one of just a few examples of a victory by a clearly mystical strain in the history of the institutional Church.

Cry of the heart

The object of the pilgrim’s greatest concern and most intense activity is to possess knowledge and to control the ability that the authors of the Philokalia describe as ceaselessly praying the Jesus prayer (also known as the prayer of the heart). While this prayer is made up of just a few words (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”), it would be a mistake to believe that it is only the repetition of a well-worn formula.

During his studies the pilgrim begins to understand the difference between reciting the prayer ‘with the tongue’ and internal recitation, ‘in the heart’. The latter, repeated over and over, has great transformative power, the Philokalia teaches, and once initiated, it ‘operates by itself’. Among its effects, the pilgrim counts a feeling of great warmth in his heart, deep pleasure, a feeling of internal peace, and with it a great desire to constantly engage in this prayer.

“I spent about five months alone, praying and enjoying these experiences, and I grew so used to the prayer of the heart that I practised it without ceasing, and finally I felt that the prayer was functioning entirely of its own accord and repeating itself in my mind and heart without any effort on my part, not only when I was awake, but also in my sleep, so that nothing interrupted it for even a second, no matter what I was doing. My soul praised God continually and my heart overflowed with unceasing joy.”

As the prayer is practised, so also grows the sensitivity to many subtle feelings and internal states, which the hero was completely unaware of earlier. There appeared, for example, an impression of internal duality: “If I am working, the prayer continues in my heart of its own accord and the work goes faster; if I am listening carefully to something, or reading, the prayer never stops and I am aware of both at the same time, as though I were divided in two, with two souls in my one body. My God, how mysterious man is!”

Interestingly, in the pilgrim’s description the mental experience is often linked with physical ones (e.g. “After about three weeks I began to feel a pain in my heart, followed by a very pleasant kind of warmth, joy and peace”), which seems characteristic of the language of mystics known from various religious traditions (“Sometimes it was as though something were bubbling up in my heart, and I felt such lightness, freedom and consolation that I was completely transformed and enraptured”). Thus, the descriptions of subtle internal states undoubtedly belong to the most valuable aspects of the book and guarantee it a permanent place in the canon of mystic literature.

A dangerous technique

Other, even more mysterious effects of the prayer noted by the pilgrim include the gift of seeing distant things (which happens to one of the heroes, who during a journey accurately foresees a fire in a town), and insight into their own bodies (“Sometimes I entered deep into myself and seemed to see all my inner workings clearly and marvelled at the wise arrangement of the human body”). Nor does the pilgrim have any doubt that the prayer gives a person powers that we would certainly describe as paranormal.

Thus it is difficult to escape the impression that the prayer practised by the pilgrim is something clearly more than thoughtless repetition of a religious formula. Rather, it is an exceptionally powerful spiritual technique, assuming the conscious use of both the body (breath) and mind (concentration and visualization techniques, the so-called ‘visualizing the heart’). He also says numerous times, particularly in later sections of the Way, that the technique itself can be dangerous for the adept, and requires the assistance of a spiritual teacher. Among the threats, he lists self-deception, self-love, madness, and also confusing visions and dreams with reality.

Encounter with a Pole

So it’s no surprise that this prayer arouses opposition. Very typical in this context is the reaction of a Pole, a figure who can in fact be recognized as representing Roman Catholicism in general. While he shows interest in the prayer of the heart, and even a certain knowledge on this subject, he in fact has no intention of practising it: “I saw that book at our priest’s house when I lived in Vilno; however, I’ve heard that it contains strange tricks and arts of prayer written by Greek monks, like those fanatics in India or Bukhara who sit breathing in and swelling up in the effort to make their hearts tickle. In their ignorance, they mistake this natural sensation for prayer granted them by God.” We would even say that his relationship to the prayer is in fact typical for manifestations of mainstream religion: “You should simply pray to do your duty before God: get up in the morning, say the Our Father as Christ taught, and then you’re right for the whole day, without endlessly droning one and the same thing. I beg your pardon, but that’s the way to go mad and you’ll damage your heart while you’re at it.”

This is how the Pole responds to the arguments raised by the pilgrim: “Well, you are reading very lofty things there [...] beyond us mere mortals!” Religion thus understood is in essence the polar opposite of the active, transformative practice of the pilgrim, for whom prayer is a means of transformation, something that engages his entire being and has a real effect on his inner state.

The meeting with the Pole highlights on the one hand the differences between Eastern Christianity, within which there exists a theological tradition allowing the possibility of deification of the human, and Western Christianity, where the faithful are rather left to the grace of God. On the other hand, the scene with the Pole also shows a more universal chasm between every mystic religious practice, actively seeking an experience of the divine, and practice that is content to repeat rituals for peace of mind.

Literary value

While the main subject of the work – and also the strand around which almost all the hero’s thoughts and efforts revolve – is the Jesus prayer, the literary values of the work mean The Way of a Pilgrim remains interesting reading today, and interesting not only for seekers of spiritual mysteries. The presence of the numerous stories heard by the pilgrim make the book something of a mirror in which we can observe mid-19th-century Russia.

Travelling through the entire country, from Irkutsk in Siberia through Odessa, Kyiv and Pochaiv, to the Solovetsky Islands, along the way the pilgrim meets people who belong to various layers of the society of the day.

For example, he passes a Jewish settlement and Siberian wastelands, where for many days he doesn’t meet a living soul (another matter is that the landscape is not at all an object of interest or description of the pilgrim, focused on his own internal self). He meets an Old Believer (and his bitter accusations against official Orthodoxy); a priest who became a beggar; the aforementioned Pole (the pilgrim miraculously saves the life of his wife); numerous deserters from the Tsar’s army; Tatars and Cossacks; as well as numerous craftsmen, repentant sinners and alcoholics who attempt to atone for their guilt and see God as their only rescue. It’s not necessary to add that our hero applies prayer to all of these people as a universal, infallible panacea.

Many of the stories told by the pilgrim are truly unbelievable tales, full of horror, dreamlike apparitions, spirits and visions. Some of them, e.g. the story of an encounter with a wolf, would be worthy of Baron Münchhausen himself. Sometimes their common motif is some phenomenon (psychological or physical) that is inexplicable from the perspective of science and reason; which we can fully comprehend only through prayer.

So we read the story of a peasant who burned with an incomprehensible desire to throw himself off a bridge into a 20-metre ravine. This man didn’t rest until he slaked that desire, breaking his legs in the process. We learn the story of a young boy who learned the prayer, but because he couldn’t practise it freely, he travelled several thousand kilometres to find himself at home (and to die there from unexplained causes). There also appears the story of a wagon driver who, when reaching the bank of a frozen river, undressed, started to rinse himself with water – and died. An elderly priest who the pilgrim tells this story to explains that “there is much in nature that remains strange and incomprehensible to us. I think God permits it to happen to show us the working of His providence in nature more clearly by means of examples of unnatural and direct changes in its laws.”

The pilgrim is satisfied with this answer. The contemporary reader would certainly be more inclined to perceive various types of mental illnesses and complicated disorders, with both a social and an individual basis. But does that mean they’re closer to the truth? And would they be able to propose an effective treatment?

Tracking down the author

From the very beginning, i.e. from the first publication of The Way of a Pilgrim in Kazan in 1870, it has remained a mystery who the author, or hero, of the book is. For a long time Nemytova, a peasant from the Oryol Governate who supposedly made regular visits to the elder Makary in the Optina Monastery, was considered a good candidate. Another trail was suggested to researchers by a note found on the pages of a copy belonging to the theologian Pavel Florensky, who remarked that The Way of a Pilgrim was written by a certain Mikhail Kozlov. Researchers seized on this idea, and today it seems almost certain that the writer of the most important framework of the book, which was later edited by Teofan the Recluse in 1894, really was Kozlov (which, of course, doesn’t mean the text describes his own experiences).

As Andrew Louth explains in the introduction to the newest English version of the book, Kozlov came from the Old Believers, an Orthodox splinter group whose adherents rejected the liturgical reforms of the Patriarch Nikon from the mid-17th century and with time came to be designated as heretics. But Kozlov returned to the bosom of the Orthodox church, and at the time he was editing the text was most likely an archimandrite (a senior, unmarried priest) engaged in an attempt to reconcile his former Old Believer brothers with the Mother Church. This is important, because it was the Old Believers, also known as the raskolniki, pushed to the margins of society and persecuted by the authorities, who were the first to become wandering pilgrims, ‘runaways’ (beguny) or ‘wanderers’ (stranniki), making up the typical spiritual landscape of 18th- and 19th-century Russia. As Louth explains: “Such wandering pilgrims, not all Old Believers, will be familiar from nineteenth-century Russian writers, Tolstoy, for example, or especially Nikolai Leskov, who knew these Old Believer wanderers well (see, for example, his short story ‘The Sealed Angel’), as well as from Vasily Surikov’s startling painting Boyarina Morozova.”.

This landscape of late 19th-century Russian spirituality also included the great Russian monasteries (like the one in Optina), along with the institution of the so-called elders, or spiritual masters. Their activity and role in the intellectual life of Russia is attested to by how the most important intellectuals of the era, such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, made pilgrimages there. Dostoyevsky in fact mentions The Way of a Pilgrim in The Brothers Karamazov. Unfortunately, this whole exceptionally rich and colourful world of Russian spirituality was largely destroyed with the 1917 revolution and the coming of communism, which as we know effectively defeated not only manifestations of religious diversity, but religion itself.

Salinger and the counterculture

Today, the most common version of The Way of a Pilgrim is the 1911 edition, enriched with the second part, comprising three stories found posthumously in the papers of another elder, Ambrose of Optina. It was this version that was most commonly translated into other languages. And it’s most likely this version read by Franny, the heroine of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (1961), which may have made the greatest contribution to the popularity, and something of a cult status, that The Way of a Pilgrim has achieved in Western culture.

The pilgrim’s teaching on prayer plays an important role, in particular in the story “Franny”, about the youngest member of the eccentric Glass family (in the novella Zooey we find out that the book was important for the oldest of the Glasses, the genius Seymour). In a key scene, Franny, who’s going through a psychological crisis, mentions the book to her boyfriend, saying: “But the thing is, the marvellous thing is, when you first start doing it, you don’t even have to have faith in what you’re doing. I mean even if you’re terribly embarrassed about the whole thing, it’s perfectly all right. I mean you’re not insulting anybody or anything. In other words, nobody asks you to believe a single thing when you first start out. You don’t even have to think about what you’re saying.”

Franny then refers to other (Buddhist and Hindu) techniques based on reciting the name of God or mantras, “and the same thing happens. The exact same.” For her, what happens is a vision of God. “Something happens in some absolutely nonphysical part of the heart – where the Hindus say that Atman resides, if you ever took any Religion – and you see God, that’s all,” she explains to her sceptical boyfriend.

And that’s how The Way of a Pilgrim has gone beyond its original context as a religious phenomenon in the Orthodox world, finding itself among the texts and phenomena that would soon play an exceptionally important role in Western counterculture.


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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Mikołaj Gliński

is an Editor at He is also a translator, co-author of a book about the Polish language “Quarks, Elephants and Pierogi”, and a senior staff writer at, where he writes about Polish culture for non-Polish speakers.