(The Return of) Book Review Wednesday: The Way of a Pilgrim

2 May 2007

The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. Translated from the Russian by R. M. French, with a Foreward by Huston Smith (San Francisco: Harper, 1991).

I liked reviewing my recent readings on Wednesdays, and maybe I’ll begin doing this again. I can’t guarantee it as a weekly feature, but I’ll try.

Anyone who has read about Russian Orthodox piety and practice has encountered at least a reference to The Way of a Pilgrim. Written by an anonymous pilgrim during the 19th Century (contextual clues tell us that the narrative is set some time before the liberation of the Russian serfs in 1863 but after the Crimean War in 1851), the book tells of a pious pilgrim who wanders the countryside, finds a starets (elder in an Athonite-inspired semi-eremitical tradition), and receives instructions from this starets concerning the Jesus prayer (i.e., “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or some variation thereof). The remainder of the first half of the book involves the death of the starets and the pilgrim’s subsequent wanderings in search of other pious people.

The second half of the book, The Pilgrim Continues His Way, is in dialogic form, with different speakers telling stories and sometimes delivering whole treatises on prayer, as the Skhimnik does twice in the last section. During this whole set of narratives, we know little about the pilgrim. We learn he does not have the use of his left arm, treasures his Philokalia, Bible, and strarets’ prayer rope, and has a passport which allows his to travel anywhere in Russia.

The Way of a Pilgrim is instructive and inspiring in the way that pious and devotional literature generally is. This book is a window as much into the devotional practice of the Jesus prayer as it is into the society of 19th Century Russia, especially amongst pious Orthodox. The pilgrim is particularly gentle and accepting, listening to everyone who might speak to him and being a particularly kind and generous person.

During last week’s discussion it struck me how similar The Dharma Bums is to The Way of a Pilgrim. The analogy is far from perfect, and yet I think it works. Kind-hearted and loving pilgrim/bum wanders the countryside and some cities searching for enlightenment/salvation with a lot of conversations on and the achievement of the same.

What this similarity means, I’m not sure. It may be a future essay project. What also struck me during that discussion is how much Rich’s position seems to coincide with the Pilgrim’s.  In my reading, the pilgrim seems to argue through his actions and narrative that it is inward prayer and outward kindness and generosity which are the most important things in a Christian’s life. Although liturgy and the sacraments are clearly important, the pilgrim goes weeks and months without visiting a church or attending liturgy, but he never goes very long without being giving of his time and wisdom.  It seems unlikely considering the pilgrim’s religious context is the most liturgical tradition in the world, and yet I think it works.  The pilgrim doesn’t live in church, nor does his salvation or others’ seem to rely on specific or elaborate liturgical actions.

Simplicity is all that’s required, and humble prayer coupled with gentle, loving interactions with others is all that matters.

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8 Responses to “(The Return of) Book Review Wednesday: The Way of a Pilgrim”


  1. What grabbed me about The Way of Pilgrim when I read it 15 years ago wasn’t the Jesus Prayer but ‘the society of 19th-century Russia, especially amongst pious Orthodox’, a living tradition, entirely Catholic but with a mystical flavour all its own… which in spite of the Communists still exists in some places.

    P.S. In your links under ‘Wingèd Faith Communities’ you need to add a line break between ‘The Monastic Fling’ and ‘Affirming Catholicism’ and the first one there, the one for All Saints’, Chicago, seems a bit smaller than the others in my browser.


  2. I guess I didn’t specify it, but the 19th Century Russia bit was inspiring to me, too. Families with their own chapels, taking in the sick and homeless. Pretty beautiful and inspiring.

    Funny you mention the bit about the links. I’ve been tinkering with them all morning, and I can’t figure out why or how the All Saint’s Chicago link is a different size. Back to the widgets!


  3. You seem to have fixed both problems.


  4. I have indeed. Perseverance, Fogey. Perseverance.

  5. Tripp Says:

    You know, I read Pilgrim a couple of years ago. It’s a lovely book and says much about simplicity and Christian spirituality. The pilgrim had been formed somehow in the Christian tradition. When we talk about worship, we are talking about formation to some degree…to a great degree. So what formed the pilgrim? Maybe not the liturgy, but certainly the tradition. My beef with those who would generalize worship into the lowest common denominator is that they want to avoid tradition as much as possible. Doctrine, dogma, theology, heck, even the story itself, all are engaged in good worship. That’s what I don’t wish to lose.


  6. Tripp, I like your emphasis on the pilgrim’s Christian spirituality.

    I think that many (contemporary American) readers might get tripped up by the 19th Century context. In essence, it’s a remarkably universally applicable book.

  7. Tripp Says:

    It is a great book, universally understandable by those on a spiritual journey. I have no difficulty in interreligious sharing…none at all. But I will hold that PoMo position of being Christian in the midst of multiple expressions of faithfulness. I don’t see how my being Christian has to necessarily deny the faith of another person.


  8. “I don’t see how my being Christian has to necessarily deny the faith of another person.”

    Agreed. A sentiment I often detect amongst the Rabbis here at school who would identify as more “Modern” (their term) Orthodox.

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