A few years ago, I bought a used copy of The Way of a Pilgrim pictured above at a used book sale at Mount Angel Abbey Library. I had read this amazing classic years before in 1986, when I first began to pray the Jesus Prayer. When I brought this newly obtained thin spiritual classic home, I found inside its cover a bonus: a hand-made, cross-stitched bookmark with a quote from Acts 17:28. “In God, we live and move and have our being.”
I reread this spiritual classic and recently gave a seminar on The Way of a Pilgrim, as part of a 3rd Sunday Seminar series titled, Great Heroes of the Faith.
The following writing features my notes for this seminar, beginning with the Bible teaching on praying without ceasing.
Great NT passages on unceasing prayer
- Luke 18:1. Jesus told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.
- Luke 21:36. Keep alert at all times and pray that you might be strong enough to escape these coming horrors and stand before the Son of Man.”
- Acts 2:42. All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals) to prayer. The Greek word for DEVOTED, proskartereo, combines two words: towards (PROS) + steadfast with continual strength (KARTEREO).
Paul writes four times to four different churches to pray without ceasing.
- Romans 12:12. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
- Ephesians 6:18. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.
- Colossians 4:2. Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.
- 1 Thes. 5:17. Pray constantly.
As Frederica Mathewes-Green writes in Praying the Jesus Prayer, “[Paul] must have thought this message was important, because he said it to four different communities–the Romans, Thessalonians, Ephesians, and Colossians. It must have been one of the points he emphasized regularly. And he must have thought it was possible. He wouldn’t have kept on telling these early believers to ‘pray constantly’ if they were humanly incapable of doing so.”
In addition, Paul writes to the church in Philippi, Phil 4:6. Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.
Paul also tells the young pastor Timothy, 2 Tim 1:3. Night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.
1 Thes. 5:17. A word study
Let’s examine Paul’s admonition to Pray without ceasing. In Greek: ἀδιαλείπτως προσεύχεσθε. adialeiptōs proseuchesthe. The word translated without ceasing, is a combination of three words: A + DIA + LEIPTOS; not + across + to leave; or nothing left between, without any unnecessary interval or gap. In Greek, proseuchesthe, literally means “You all, Pray! It is a command or imperative to a group of people. We are called to pray unceasingly, without stopping, incessantly, constantly! As you all pray, do not leave any gaps as you go across life. Never stop praying. Pray all the time, all the way across the journey of life. Paul was a deep man of prayer, often going first to “the place of Prayer” as he did in Phillipi, where he met with a group of prayerful women in a prayer meeting outdoors by a river. Paul opens most of his letters with beautiful prayers, such as this prayer from
We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly. As we pray to our God and Father about you.1 Thes 1:2-3.
Now a few words on Unceasing Prayer: Paul is teaching truth here. Some think it is impossible to pray all the time, and thus Paul must not have known what he was talking about. Paul is NOT telling us to close our eyes and talk to God 24/7 for the rest of our lives! Prayer for Paul is not primarily about talking to God, but Prayer is about intimacy with God, being with God 24/7, deep personal love relationship with God through Jesus Christ AT ALL TIMES. Paul is talking about making our lives a prayer to God, having our whole being, our inner life so infused with God dwelling within us, that all we do is intimacy with the Lord: all our breathing, all our motives, all our thoughts are captive to Christ, pulsating with God’s love!
Like Steve Green’s song,
Make my life a prayer to youSteve Green, 1978
I wanna do what you want me to
No empty words and no white lies
No token prayers no compromise
To deepen my prayer life, I pray the Psalms, praying from the Prayerbook of the Bible. To deepen my prayer life, I pray weekly with others, listening to wise followers of Jesus pray aloud, agreeing in prayer together.
To deepen my prayer life, I breathe as I pray, pray as I breathe. Prayer is as vital to our spiritual life as air is to our physical life. I breathe Jesus’ beautiful prayer from John 15: Abide in me, and I in you.
Never stop praying! Keep growing in our prayer life. How are you deepening your prayer life? What gets in the way of prayer? How can our lives become a prayer to God? Train ourselves to never stop praying. An invitation! A Heart Habit.
A Great Hero of Faith
Our great hero of faith this month is an anonymous Russian Christian who wrote one of the greatest spiritual classics of all time, a short book called The Way of a Pilgrim. Before we look into this classic book he wrote, a little about this writer. He lived in poverty, as a devout, Christian, a low-income peasant, in the mid-1800s somewhere in Russia. He wrote a spiritual classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, to describe his own personal spiritual journey. He writes in first person. “I am a Christian. I am a great sinner. I am a homeless wanderer.” In November, on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost in an unknown year, our anonymous author went to church to say his prayers. During a Sunday morning service, he heard a reading from Paul’s letter, 1 Thes. 5:17. “I heard these words, Pray without ceasing.” “It was this text,” he writes, “more than any other, which forced itself upon my mind, and I began to think how it is possible to pray without ceasing, since a person has to concern himself with other things in order to make a living.”
This Russian Christian began a walking spiritual journey, searching for the answer, “How do I pray without ceasing?” He went from church to church to listen to sermons, to hear the advice of many pastors, priests, monks. Finally, he met an elderly Christian man, well-respected for his spiritual life and wisdom, what in Russian is called a Starets. This wise elderly man told our great hero, “Ceaseless prayer is a continual yearning of your spirit towards God. To succeed in this we simply ask God to teach us to pray without ceasing. Pray more, and pray more fervently. It is prayer itself which will reveal to you how to pray unceasingly; but it will take some time.” Then the elderly wise Russian mentor taught our great hero peasant The Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” He taught our great hero to pray this simple prayer many, many times every day and even through the night.
The Jesus Prayer
Let’s look at the Bible roots of “The Jesus Prayer”: where does the Jesus Prayer come from?
The LORD shows up to Moses, telling him in Exodus 33:19. “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” Turn this into a prayer. LORD, have mercy!
- Psalm 6:2. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint.
- Psalm 9:13. Lord, see how my enemies persecute me! Have mercy and lift me up from the gates of death.
- Psalm 41:4, 10. I said, “Have mercy on me, Lord; heal me, for I have sinned against you.” “But may you have mercy on me, Lord.”
- Psalm 86:3. Have mercy on me, Lord, for I call to you all day long.
- Psalm 123:3. Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us.
- Matthew 15:22. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
- Matthew 17:15. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water.
- Luke 18:13-14. But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
- Luke 18:38-39. He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
In the early Church, followers of Jesus often prayed, “Lord, have mercy,” praying the Bible, praying prayers from the Bible, learning to pray the Bible way of prayer.
The Jesus Prayer developed in the first two hundred years of the early church, based upon these Bible passages on prayer, and got expressed in a collection of wise spiritual teachings called Philokalia, Greek for Love of the Good. Move forward to 1800s in Russia, and the Jesus Prayer was in common use at that time, and finds its way into this classic work, The Way of a Pilgrim. Throughout The Way of a Pilgrim, this peasant pilgrim wanders from place to place, reciting this simple Jesus Prayer, reading his Bible, and reading a collection of wise sayings from the 2nd-4th century, book called Philokalia, or “the love of what is good.” Along the way, our great hero meets fellow Christians, other pilgrims, is beaten and robbed of his Bible and books, keeps praying without ceasing, keeps walking, learning, living, loving. He compares praying to a child learning to read: at first the ABCs do not make any sense, and the child wonders if his time may not be better spent doing something fun. Eventually, though, the ABCs of prayer teach the child to write, read, speak, communicate and commune with the One he loves most.
The Way of a Pilgrim: a book review
The Way of a Pilgrim, and its companion volume, The Pilgrim Continues His Way is an anonymous spiritual classic written in the mid-19th century in Russia. This classic was first published in 1884. The author tells his story first person, reciting the events of his life that led him to learn to pray the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. The author opens with this humble admission: By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by my calling a homeless wanderer of humblest origin, roaming from place to place.
The anonymous pilgrim learned to pray as he breathed, to pray along with his breathing. Breathing becomes a physical reminder and tool to teach us to pray. A wise man taught the pilgrim to pray the Jesus Prayer thousands of times every day, in union with his breathing: inhale (Lord Jesus Christ), exhale (have mercy on me). In this one breath, our heart calls out to the heart of God as found in our Lord Jesus Christ, declaring him to be Son of God, asking for mercy, admitting to him our need for help as a sinner.
Some prefer to pray, as expressed also in The Way of the Pilgrim, a longer version of The Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ (inhale), Son of God (exhale), have mercy on me (inhale), a sinner (exhale); or even the shortest version, Lord, have mercy. We breath in God’s breath of life, just as God breathed the breath of life into Adam making him a living being. We breath out our cry for help, our admission that we need God’s mercy.
The Way of a Pilgrim refers often to a collection of sacred writings from the early Church in Greece known as The Philokalia, available in a single volume, or in a four-volume set. The Way of a Pilgrim, as 25 Books Every Christian Should Read notes, “offers a concrete way to learn to maintain a constant inner sense of the presence of God . . . . doing the most important thing one can do, giving [ourselves] over entirely to God.” (234-235)
A Classic of Christian Spiritual Writing
Why did this little Russian book from the mid-1800s become one of the great Christian spiritual classics? First, it was written by an “everyman,” a common anonymous peasant, not some celebrity author, but a person close to the earth, living in poverty. Second, this book helps us recover a deep connection with the inner life with God, recover a focus upon the spirit and the soul.Third, The Way of a Pilgrim offers readers a concrete way to learn continual prayer, way to live more often through the day or night in the presence of God. Fourth, The Way of a Pilgrim points us to The Jesus Prayer practically showing us how to pray this prayer in a way that will completely change our life with God. Federica Mathewes-Green: “The Jesus Prayer has proved to be a very helpful way of learning to maintain a constant inner sense of the presence of God. This book distills that wisdom into a story that readers new to the Jesus Prayer will find accessible.” Fifth, this simple, short book also portrays spiritual life as a journey, and of the discipline of simplicity and intimacy with God as above all other callings.
Quotes from The Way of a Pilgrim
Here are a few of my favorite quotations from this spiritual classic:
“All that is necessary is to descend in silence into the depths of one’s heart and call on the name of Jesus Christ frequently.”
“Direct the flow of the Jesus Prayer in the heart in harmony with your breathing; that is, while inhaling say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ,’ and while exhaling say, ‘have mercy on me.’ Practice this as often as possible, gradually increasing the time, and before long you will experience a kind of pleasant pain in the heart, a warmth, and a sense of burning.”
“If you give God a penny, then He will give you a gold piece. If you will only decide to go to your Father, He will come to meet you.”
“Prayer is the essence of Christian life. I consider prayer the most important, necessary, first responsibility of every Christian.”
“We should pray always.”
Scriptures on prayer: “It is necessary to pray under all circumstances of life (James 5:13-16); the Holy Spirit helps us in our prayer (Romans 8:26); it is necessary to pray in the Spirit on every occasion (Ephesians 6:18); calm and inner peace are necessary for prayer (Philippians 4:6-7); it is necessary to pray for everyone and not only for ourselves (1 Thessalonians 2:1-5).”
“Prayer is of primary importance; it is more necessary than anything else.”
We are commanded to practice prayer without interruption; to pray constantly. It behooves us to pray always, at all times, and in all places.”
“Let your lips first become familiar with frequent uninterrupted prayerful calling; let them constantly, without interruption call on the powerful name of Jesus Christ.”
“Do not be disturbed by the impurity or dryness of your prayer, but with patience await the fruit resulting from frequent calling on the name of the Lord. The power of the name of the Lord, if frequently called on, will bring its fruit in due time!”
“Take courage, and do not cease to call on the name of the Lord! Even if this cry comes from a heart which is distracted and filled with worldly concerns, do not worry! Only continue to recite the Prayer; do not become silent and do not lose your peace, for prayer will purify itself by repetition.”
“Prayer has the power to regenerate.”
“God asks not for words but for an attentive and pure heart.”
How to pray the Jesus Prayer with your breathing
As the writer of the Book of Hebrews proclaims, “We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Along with the great cloud of witnesses of writers of contemplative books of the spiritual life, writers across the centuries who have encountered God through such spiritual classics as The Way of a Pilgrim, here are a few steps you may consider as you enter into your own personal journey into the contemplative life with Christ. Quotations in italics below are from M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O., from his book, Centering Prayer: Renewing the Ancient Christian Prayer Form (see M. Basil Pennington, Centering Prayer, New York: Doubleday, 1980, 17-18), as he reflects upon the contemplative journey discovered in The Cloud of Unknowing:
- Find a place and time to sit and be quiet. “Simply sit relaxed and quiet.” I find it helpful to have a good reading lamp, a journal and a Bible nearby to guide my times of contemplative prayer. Finding the time to sit still and be quiet may be one of the first hurdles. We tend to be busy much of the time, and many people find it hard to just sit down and wait on God. Mary, the sister of Martha, chose the best part by sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet to listen to our Lord.
- Focus your heart on God as you breathe in and out. “Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart.” One of the ancient practical ways of focusing our hearts on God is to focus our life with God by breathing. With every inhale and exhale, we use our breath to keep focused upon God’s Spirit. In the Bible, the Hebrew and Greek words used for God’s Spirit, Ruach and Pneuma, are the same words used for breath or wind.
- Pray a short prayer with your breathing. Chose a short prayer as your prayer to the Lord. The ancient prayer of the Church, often called “the Jesus prayer” is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” drawn from the Gospel of Luke 18:13, 38. A shorter version of this prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” “Gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. . . . But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. . It is best when this word is wholly interior without a defining thought or actual sound. . . . Let this little word represent to you God in all his fullness and nothing less than the fullness of God. Let nothing except God hold sway in your mind and heart.” I like to pray from God’s Word. I daily pray a short prayer from John 15:4, “Abide in me, and I in you,” praying this simple prayer as I breathe in and out.
- Deal with distractions. “No sooner has a person turned toward God in love than through human frailty he finds himself distracted by the remembrance of some created thing or some daily care. But no matter. No harm done; for such a person quickly returns to deep recollection. . . . Should some thought go on annoying you, demanding to know what you are doing, answer with this one word alone.” Everyone gets distracted while praying. Learn to quietly, gently and quickly turn back to Jesus, always returning to God’s presence by that simple, short prayer, offered to God in rhythm with your breathing.
- Keep it simple. In Luke 10, consider Mary, Martha’s sister, who chose what is best, and the only one thing that was needed, to sit at Jesus’ feet listening to what he said. “Be careful in this work and never strain your mind or imagination, for truly you will not succeed in this way. Leave these faculties at peace. . . . It is simply a spontaneous desire springing toward God. . . . The will needs only a brief fraction of a moment to move toward the object of its desire.” Praying “the Jesus Prayer” is not complex, but rather a simple turning toward God. Take time this Fall to simply sit at Jesus’ feet, like Mary, basking in God’s loving presence.
About Breath Prayer
One of the many healthy ways to practice physical self-care is to learn to breathe. It sounds odd to me also to read, “learning to breathe,” because we breathe without thinking about it. Take time today to breathe slowly for a few minutes. It may sound elementary, but I am going to state it anyway. Breathe.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe slowly. Breathe unaware. Breathe aware that you are breathing. Take time to become more aware that you are breathing.
The first breath a human ever took was the breath of life from God, as witnessed in Genesis 2:7. Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.
Breathing is part of our automatic, involuntary survival practices; ways our bodies function whether we are awake or asleep, conscious or unconscious. There are ways to voluntarily control our breathing. Here are a few examples: pursed lip breathing; diaphragmatic breathing; equal breathing; deep breathing; box or square breathing. These various approaches to voluntary breathing involve ways to use our breathing to focus our minds, calm our anxieties, relax our stressed or tense bodies, or involve our whole body in self-care.
Breathing is essential to living. When we stop breathing, our lives are at risk. As an asthmatic, I’ve been more aware of my breath than many other people who do not have breathing problems. When wheezy, I do not get enough oxygen into my body, I get light-headed, and my health is easily compromised. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I knew I was a candidate with “underlying conditions,” a person who was especially vulnerable to this disease that attacks the respiratory system.
Every morning, one of my regular activities is to sit quietly in a comfortable chair, put my feet up, allow my two siamese kitties, Tus and Tak to come nestle themselves on my lap and fall asleep, as I simple sit quietly and breathe.
I breathe as I pray. I view prayer as breathing. As we inhale, we receive God’s breath of life into our bodies and souls. As we exhale, we offer to God our souls and lives. As I breathe, I pray Jesus prayer found in John 15:4, “Abide in me, and I in you.” I pray this prayer as two full breaths: Abide (inhale), in me (exhale), and I (inhale) in you (exhale).
There are many examples of what is known as breath prayer, or prayers that are offered to God in rhythm with our breathing.
I am grateful to live so close to the Pacific Ocean, just a few blocks away. Every time I open a window in my home or in my pastor’s study in the church building, I breath in cool, refreshing air coming in off the ocean. I love going outside to listen to the song of the sea, and breath in the fresh ocean air. I love the lyrics to the song “Great are you Lord”: It’s your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise, we pour out our praise! A Trappist monk once told me that prayer is as vital to our spirit as breath is to our body.