In the Russian classic, “The Way of The Pilgrim,” readers are introduced to a homeless man on a spiritual quest. With neither home nor possessions, save a knapsack with bread and the holy Bible, he ventures on a journey in search of a spiritual guide who can instruct him on how to “pray constantly.”
He first became interested in learning more about prayer when during the Liturgy of the Word he read about the apostle Paul instructing the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.” The pilgrim found himself perplexed on how to “pray constantly” with all of the practical necessities of life.
Though the book was written in the 19th century one could argue that the protagonist’s dilemma is one even more relevant to present-day Catholics.
While traveling along a wide and open road, the pilgrim meets an elderly monk with whom he shares his struggles. The monk assures him that his desire to understand how to “pray constantly” is a gift from God and that he ought to be at peace. He points out that prayer is the source of all good actions and virtues.
The monk further explains, “without frequent prayer it is not possible to find one’s way to God, to understand truth and to crucify the lusts of the flesh. Only fidelity to prayer will lead a person to enlightenment and union with Christ.”
The monk sees an earnest desire from the pilgrim to seek union with God and turn away from the world so he introduces him to the Jesus Prayer. A short prayer that can be said with prayer beads (not for counting but rather for concentration) it simply states: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” (There are variations of the prayer with the shortest simply saying “Jesus” or a longer version “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.)
Under the guidance of the spiritual elder, the anonymous pilgrim learns to pray the Jesus Prayer up to thousands of times throughout the day. Eventually the Jesus Prayer transforms the man. In the beginning of the book he is a restless and depressed man desperate for purpose and meaning in his life. At the end of the story the Jesus Prayer lives inside his heart and he becomes joyful and loving, wanting to share and bless others in return for what he has received.
We can learn so much from this story and benefit so much from praying the Jesus Prayer. For one thing, the pilgrim didn’t know where he was going and what he was supposed to do. But with humility he went forth knowing he wanted to seek the Lord.
Jesus guided him on his journey to meet a man with the knowledge and resources to teach him the Jesus Prayer and instruct him spiritually. Over time his fidelity to prayer and Christ made him a changed man.
We too don’t always understand what lies around the corner or where our lives are headed in many ways. But during the Advent season we do know that we are waiting for the anniversary of Christ’s birth and we are waiting for the time when he will come again. While we wait we have the world’s distractions of a different kind of Christmas competing for our attention.
One way to center us is to pray the Jesus Prayer as the pilgrim did. Just saying Jesus’ name while stuck in traffic, stressed at work, or while running errands can remind us of who we are and of Jesus, the one who came and died for us all.
With the end of the Year of Mercy and Advent season upon us, now is the perfect time to pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Kim Griffin is a member of the Parish of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, Philadelphia.