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Book Review

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

 

The Way of a Pilgrim
Annotated & Explained
Gleb Pokrovsky
SkyLight Paths 04/01 Paperback $14.95
ISBN: 1-893361-31-4


The Way of a Pilgrim, a classic of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, was first published in Russia in 1881. The English edition debuted in the 1930s, and it has remained in print ever since. It took a leap forward in popularity with the publication of J. D. Salinger's best-selling novel Franny and Zooey in 1961. One of the characters is quite taken with the book and the practice of the Jesus prayer.

This paperback is a volume in the Skylight Illuminations series edited by Andrew Harvey. It contains an abridged version of the text and facing-page commentary by Gleb Pokrovsky to explain the names, place references, and other details. In his foreword, Andrew Harvey notes: "There are many ways you can read this profound and glorious book that is one of the world's religious masterpieces. Whatever path you find yourself on, you can revel in it as a spiritual adventure story, the account of a man who searches for the meaning of prayer and mystical truth and finds them on a journey peppered with colorful encounters, visions, and those revealing twists of fate of which any sincere seeker's life is full."

The events in the story are thought to have taken place in Russia during the middle of the nineteenth century. Its anonymous author was one of the wandering pilgrims who were characteristic of the period. This account is divided into four narratives and includes the following incidents: the pilgrim meets his spiritual elders, he learns the Jesus prayer, he encounters a forester, he gets a job as church watchman, he plans for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he visits with a pious family, and he departs for the Holy Land. Although these events are not incredibly dramatic, the inner life of the pilgrim is transformed by the practice of the Jesus prayer and by his readings of the Fathers of the Church in the Philokalia, a great classic of Orthodox teaching on prayer.

At one point, the pilgrim observes: "I spent the entire summer continuously repeating the Jesus prayer. I was very much at peace and often even dreamed that I was saying the prayer. If I happened to meet people during the day, each of them without exception seemed very dear to me, as if they were family, though otherwise I did not concern myself with them much. All thoughts seemed to vanish on their own, and I thought of nothing else but the prayer. My mind was recollected and attentive to it, while at times, and of its own accord, my heart would feel a warmth and a sort of pleasure." On this devotional path, the pilgrim comes to a deep appreciation for silence and solitude. He also experiences what is known in Orthodox circles as "the gift of tears."

This spiritual classic does show the importance of the heart to a person on the mystical path. The text alludes again and again to the sensations that come over the pilgrim as he deepens his practice of the Jesus prayer. This paperback will enable you to ponder some of the essential elements of Eastern Orthodox devotion.

 

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Reviews and database copyright 1970 2012
by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
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