Every so often I’m in need of a lesson in humility, simplicity, and perseverance. So I turn once again to The Way of a Pilgrim.
A classic of Eastern Christian spirituality, The Way of a Pilgrim recounts the story of a humble believer, known only as the Pilgrim, who initially sets off on a journey across Russia in search of a teacher who can help him understand St. Paul’s instruction to “Pray without ceasing.”
In the translation by Olga Savin, the Pilgrim sets out on his quest with only “a knapsack on my back, containing some dried bread, and a Holy Bible in my breast pocket.”
I’ve driven many miles during the course of my life, but I’ve never traveled as simply or as lightly as the Pilgrim, or with such humility.
At 22 I moved from Massachusetts to Maryland to attend graduate school and was weighed down by a car and trailer filled with boxes of books.
To prepare for my comprehensive exams, I moved back home to Massachusetts and then back to Maryland for a job and then to Washington, D.C. I moved from Washington to Sarasota, Florida, for work and again was weighed down by numerous boxes of books.
I moved from Sarasota to Jacksonville for work; from Jacksonville to College Park, Maryland, for another degree; from College Park back to Jacksonville for work; from Jacksonville to Athens, Ohio, for another degree; from Athens to Missoula, Montana, for work; and from Missoula to Charlotte, North Carolina, for work.
And once in Charlotte, now in my forties, I couldn’t stay put. I left at one point to spend a year teaching in Pocatello, Idaho, and I took far more with me than I needed.
During all my moves, the story was always the same: I was weighed down by too many possessions, mostly books I no longer own.
I’ve lived in Charlotte longer than anywhere else now, more than twenty years. I live in a smaller house than I’ve ever owned and have fewer possessions than everyone I know. Still, I have more than I need.
As the years have passed and my faith and prayer life have deepened, I’ve gradually learned to live with fewer and fewer possessions, particularly books, and to stay in place, both crucial in my own conversion.
We often think that conversion occurs in a blinding light. We seem to think that it always occurs when we’re going about our daily business and we’re struck blind like Paul. True, some are blinded like Paul, but there is more to his story.
The seed for Paul’s conversion could have been planted in his heart the day he witnessed the murder of the Deacon Stephen.
After he was blinded by a vision of Our Lord on the road to Damascus, he remained in darkness three days, his time in the tomb before he is spiritually resurrected. He regains his sight only after he is baptized and catechized by Ananias. Years later, he still struggles with thorns.
The Pilgrim’s story teaches us a similar lesson. Already a prayerful man, his blinding moment comes through hearing Scripture. At Divine Liturgy one Sunday he hears 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which directs us to “Pray without ceasing.”
“This verse especially fixed itself in my mind,” he says.
After liturgy he reads more biblical passages about unceasing prayer. Then he begins to read sermons; he’s disappointed because all concern prayer in general. It’s at this point that he decides to seek a guide with God’s help.
He wanders a long time, he says, before he reaches a monastery where the abbot gives him some direction but not the answer he seeks. So he wanders some more.
The Pilgrim prays until his tongue, jaws, left hand, wrist, and elbow ache. Yet he continues to pray joyfully, meeting regularly with the starets over the course of a summer.
Then the starets dies. So the Pilgrim sets off to wandering again, taking with him only two new items: the chotki and a copy of the Philokalia, his conversion now truly underway.
All this occurs in the first 14 pages of the 92-page book, a story continued in a second short book of 88 pages called The Pilgrim Continues His Way, the two books flowing into each other as one.
Each time I read the Pilgrim’s story, I’m reminded again that change of heart, true conversion, is painful. And that it takes time; a lifetime.