The Pilgrim’s Way

Thirty years before the Bolshevik revolution a monk in the Mikhailovsky monastery in Kazan came across a strange manuscript, Stories Told by a Pilgrim, and published it. The stories, told by an unidentified Pilgrim, had been written (with what seemed like numerous later additions) by someone to whom he had told them in the Siberian city of Irkutsk.

The Pilgrim had come from the government of Orel, south of Moscow. Orphaned as a child he had gone to live with his older brother at his grandfather’s inn. His grandfather could read and studied the Bible every day, but his brother was a rebellious boy and got into drinking. One night when the two of them lay sleeping on the back of the clay stove his brother pushed him off and he broke his arm.

The arm shrivelled up and he lost the use of his hand. Seeing that he would never work like other men, his grandfather made special effort to teach him what he could from the Bible. After the accident, his older brother left, so before his grandfather died he became heir to the inn. His grandfather had found a young girl to be his wife and they lived happily in the fear of the Lord.

No sooner did the grandfather die however, than the older brother broke into the inn, stole the money, and lit it to cover up his tracks. Crippled and penniless, the Pilgrim then had to depend on his wife’s sewing and knitting for support. Many days, with nothing else to do, he would sit beside her and read from the Bible while she sewed by hand. Both of them would cry and seek God. They fasted often. They went to church and kissed the ikons. Every night they would fall on their faces, not once but hundreds of times, to pray. “Yet we did it,” the Pilgrim wrote later, “like clowns going through the motions because we did not know the Lord in our hearts.”

After two years his wife turned sick and died. Not knowing what to do, the Pilgrim took dry bread in his bag and set off on foot for Kiev to visit the graves of the sufferers: Boris and Gleb.

Along the way, and wandering from there eastward, he asked many how he should come to really know Christ. Some told him one thing, some another. One evening he met an old man, a starets, who told him about the Jesus Prayer. From that time onward, things began to change.

As he prayed the Jesus Prayer throughout the day, the Pilgrim from Orel discovered what it means to “live in repentance.” He discovered the indescribable joy, the change of perspective, and the heavenly light that comes in constant awareness of Christ. He told the man from Irkutsk:

And this is how I go about now, never ceasing to call on the name of Jesus. At times I walk as much as forty verst a day, but I do not feel like I am walking at all. I am only aware of Christ. When the cold comes through to me I begin to pray more earnestly and I get warm all over. When hunger overcomes me I call more often on the name of Jesus and I forget my wish for food. When I turn sick and rheumatic pains afflict my back and legs, I fix my thoughts on Christ and do not notice the pain. If anyone does me harm I have only to remember Christ for the injury and anger to pass away and for me to forget it all.

The Pilgrim described his experiences on the roads of Russia. He told of breaking through the ice on a cold rainy morning, of meeting a wolf, of sleeping in a guardhouse one night when runaway horses crashed with the tongue of a wagon into a window and scared the guard’s wife out of her mind, of false accusation, of robbers, beggars, sickness, and experiences on the way with soldiers, the wealthy and a lonely hermit in the woods. In all these things he said:

I would sometimes feel as though my heart was a fountain flowing over with joy, such lightness, freedom and consolation were in it. Sometimes I felt a burning love for Jesus and for all God’s creatures. Sometimes my eyes overflowed with tears of thankfulness to God for his mercy to me, a sinner. Sometimes my understanding that had been so limited was given so much light that I could easily understand and concentrate on things that up to now I had not thought about at all. The sense of a warm gladness in my heart spread through my whole being until God’s presence everywhere became real to me. By calling on the name of Jesus I was overwhelmed with joy and now I know the meaning of the words, “The Kingdom of God is within you!”

From details in the story of the Pilgrim from Orel, it appears that he lived in the time of Tsar Nikolai I, probably before the Crimean War. But his story did not become widely known until the twentieth century. Then, in the context of what happened during and after Communism it gradually became clear that the Pilgrim’s story is the story of all who believed in Russia and discovered the secret of . . .