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Resources for Prayer, pt. 3: the Orthodox Tradition

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, there is a consistent emphasis on what the fathers called the “prayer of the heart.” Taking as a starting point the apostle Paul’s words that we should “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), these writers wondered how it was possible to enter into a state in which one’s heart was in constant communion with the Lord, even in the midst of other activities.

These writers wrote deeply about this goal of an ongoing conversation with God, and I’m only familiar with a tiny portion of the work that has been carried on through the centuries. One of the most popular books about this quest is a 19th century Russian book called The Way of a Pilgrim. It’s the story of a peasant who hears those words of Paul’s read aloud in church one Sunday and sets out to pray all the time. The first thing he does is finds a mentor (called a starets in the Orthodox tradition) to guide him. This man teaches the pilgrim a simple prayer, known among the Orthodox as the Prayer of Jesus. It’s only seven words long in the form it takes in this book, but as the pilgrim says at some point, the whole gospel is contained in these words: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

The starets gives the pilgrim simple—and, to us, very unspiritual-sounding—directions: say the prayer 3000 times for the next several days, keeping a count to know when you’ve done it. When he’s spent some time doing that, the number is upped to 6000, then 12000. You would be forgiven if you’re thinking this sounds more like math than spirituality, more multiplication than meditation. As time passes, though, the pilgrim begins to find the prayer getting under his skin and into his heart. It’s no longer mere words. He finds deep joy in keeping Jesus, his Lordship, and his mercy on his lips all day long. Eventually he senses that his heart has begun to keep praying the prayer even while he is outwardly attending to other things.

All the while, as the pilgrim walks (for much of the book he’s on a very long trip from central Asia to Jerusalem), he also reads from two books. He carries both books with him, and they too work his way into his heart. The books are the Bible, as you might guess, and the Philokalia, a classic Orthodox collection of teachings about prayer. His practice of prayer isn’t a set of magic words or a mantra. It’s a way to recall the gospel story and his need for mercy, and to inhabit that reality with his whole life.

Occasionally, the pilgrim runs into others in his travels. One of the people he meets tells him that he too is a dedicated follower of Jesus, and that he is especially a student of the gospels. In fact, he reads one of the four gospels through from start to finish every day. He tells the pilgrim that he developed this habit because of a personal challenge. Twenty years earlier, in his youth, he had been a heavy drinker. As he struggled to overcome his problems with drinking, a wise person suggested that meditating on Scripture could provide him a way out. God had promised in the New Testament that whenever we were tempted he would provide a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). This way out could be found by turning to God’s word. (Not for nothing, David also suggested that Scripture was a good guard against temptation, in Psalm 119:11.) Every time he felt the temptation to drink, he should read a chapter of the gospels. If he was still tempted after that, he should read another. Eventually, he lost his taste for drinking and gained such a deep hunger and thirst for Jesus that he kept Jesus always before him by reading a whole gospel every day.

The Way of a Pilgrim contains much more than the brief accounts I’ve shared. And its aim is to take readers into deeper waters as they pray—to convince us that we ought to pray more than we do and to show us a way to do so. But one of its underlying aims is to show us the spiritual power of habit. If we commit ourselves to performing some activity, we will grow in our love for it. If this activity is prayer or attending to Scripture, our hearts will be deeply altered. The Lord will pull us nearer to himself and grow us in grace.

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