The Way of a Pilgrim: A Good Idea Whose Time Has Come Again

wayofapilgrimRonald Rolheiser who wrote “The Shattered Lantern” has it right, “Distraction is normal in our culture. Contemplativeness, solitude and prayer are not.” Busyness and restlessness are our drugs of choice.

“One of the most obvious characteristics of our daily lives is that we are busy. We experience our days as filled with things to do, people to meet, projects to finish, letters to write, calls to make, and appointments to keep. Our lives often seem like over-packed suitcases bursting at the seams. In fact, we are almost always aware of being behind schedule.” Henri Nouwen

I look at my life, and everyone around me, and I have grown sick of hearing people say, “I’m busy.” I am ready for a contemplative backlash to this in my own life and my Church.

There is a nineteenth-century religious classic called “The Way of a Pilgrim” whose time has come, again. The anonymous wandering Orthodox Christian pilgrim has suffered the loss of his wife and business and roams the country seeking direction on how to pray ceaselessly. The book is a teaching on the Jesus Prayer. Readers are often struck by the simple encouragement they feel to begin praying the Jesus Prayer. But that is not all that the book is about. The narrator is a wanderer, a pilgrim whose life is an example of those who give up everything to live the spiritual life.

Here is what is fueling my thoughts: I know a man who is consciously attempting a personal spiritual experiment. He is a man who previously spent a little time in an Orthodox monastery. Today he finds himself unemployed and has decided, before he moves in order to reenter to workforce, to try on the life of a ‘strannik’ (Russian for ‘wandering pilgrim’). And while he might prefer to live in a monastic community again; his debt, poor health and other commitments keep him in the world. But he wants to practice interior prayer. He wakes up, prays his prayers, reads a little, and then, on some days, he leaves the house with a backpack on and tries to pray The Jesus Prayer wandering around his town. He handles whatever comes his way and tries to return to the Prayer. That’s it.

Here is what I am wondering (and would like your thoughts on), is the life of a wandering pilgrim a possibility for today?

This attempt is so non-controlling, non-practical and contemplative. I wonder, in response to the speed at which we are traveling and the distractions we are experiencing if the time has come for day-long prayer pilgrimages.



Filed under Contemplative Prayer, The Jesus Prayer

7 responses to “The Way of a Pilgrim: A Good Idea Whose Time Has Come Again

  1. sounds wonderful…
    i fully recommend reading ‘the way of a pilgrim’ to everyone.

  2. I do think this is possible and I have often thought that we need more monastics in the USA. The church needs that part of spirituality. We have some great monasteries here in the US but a wandering pilgrim, that is great! The main problem I would see was support. Can he raise enough support to keep himself going?

  3. s-p

    My immediate gut reaction is why put on a backpack and wander around and pray and “deal with whatever comes his way”…I do that every day in my work. It is not my place to judge this as a spiritual discipline, only a spiritual Father would know if this is coming from laziness, despondency, delusion or if it is a true discipline that will bear good fruit for the future. If we’re going to “deal with what comes our way”, what comes our way does so in the context of our life, however we have to live it. If one has incurred debt, then we should be working, or working at finding work. The birds of the heaven eat “freely” but they are up at dawn and have to find their food. Monks don’t wander around all day aimlessly praying, they have more work and responsibilities than many of us in the world. While I think there is a legitimate time to “go to a lonely place to pray”, I’m afraid the juxtaposition of “prayer” and “real life” is a problem for me. The Spirit is everywhere present and fills all things and God is experienced and encountered and can be contemplated in all we do. It may take some wandering around praying to help us see that, but I don’t think we can put this forth as a “good thing for everyone to do or try” without good spiritual direction. Other than that… I wholeheartedly agree we’re poor contemplatives and need to find a way back to it especially in our culture.

    • Fr. James Coles

      Thank you Heath, Fr. Peter and Steve for your comments. Steve, I appreciate your remarks. I want to make sure to clearly state that I am not proposing some kind of quasi-monastic delusion that encourages one to leave reality and pretend they are something they are not. My main point is that what most people do with a day off or a lay off is TV, fretting, chores, depression, alcohol, etc. What we could do is seize the opportunity to put effort into taking our prayer effort “on the road.” My proposal comes at the end of the blog. I propose that maybe there should be more of us who decide that a perfectly legitimate “retreat” is a day-long prayer pilgrimage around the town we live in.

      I have read that St. John of San Francisco used to wander around his town in the middle of the night stopping outside of people’s houses to pray for them while they slept.

      Contemplative action not reruns!

      • Lenore

        One of the things St. Paul would have been aware of while teaching about unceasing prayer was the plethora of prayers for everything–even a prayer for relieving oneself–in Jewish teaching of the day. I am thinking that the Jesus prayer or other prayer can be applied to everything, even of the most humble actions. On the other hand, a day-long prayer pilgrimage sounds good!

      • I have a little devotion that I will share with you. I walk round the town trying to say, silently, in my heart: “The Lord bless you” to everyone I can see. You have to avoid staring though 🙂
        I find it helps me after a day of horrible news and in-your-face politics.
        Bless you, Fr. James for your thoughts in your blog.

  4. Are not all our lives a pilgrimage through this world? Like the pilgrim, we all encounter many people and events along the way.

    “The Way of a Pilgrim” is about unceasing prayer, and not everyone in the story saying The Jesus Prayer was a wandering pilgrim. The pilgrim taught The Jesus Prayer and the method to anyone who would listen.

    The point is that unceasing prayer can be achieved for everyone, no matter what their station in life.

    It is the state of one’s heart that is important, whether one is a monastic, a layperson, or pilgrim wanderer:

    “There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.” – Amma Sencletia (4th cent A.D.)

    Whatever is going on “outside,” there can be a secret place of silence in the soul, of unceasing prayer of the heart… of encounter, of communion.

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