The Way of a Pilgrim: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read

A few years ago, I bought for 50 cents a used copy of The Way of a Pilgrim at a used book sale at Mount Angel Abbey Library. I’d 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 hand-made, cross-stitched bookmark with a verse from Psalm 46:10. Be still and know that I am God.

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. 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 author opens his work by seeking the answer to Paul’s challenge found in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Never stop praying. How is it possible to pray constantly? “Where can I find a person who will explain this mystery to me?” writes the anonymous author. Whenever I’ve asked this question of a fellow Christian, the usual answer is “just pray as much as you can.” But is this what Paul really said, “pray as much as you can”? Not according to The Way of the Pilgrim, and also not according to the Greek word Paul uses for constantly, ADIALEIPTOS, ἀδιαλείπτως, a combination of three Greek words: A – not, DIA – across; LEIPTOS – to leave. Together, these three words combine to read, do not leave any gaps as you go across. Paul tells us to pray unceasingly, to pray without any breaks in praying, to pray as we breath, without any period across the day, across the night in which we are not praying, just as there are no breaks across the day or night in which we are not breathing. Prayer is as vital to our spirit as breath is to our body.

That is why 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 (Son of God), inhale (have mercy on me), exhale (a sinner). In these two breaths, 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 shorter version of The Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Inhale (Lord Jesus Christ); exhale (have mercy on me). 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 today 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)

Here are a few 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.”