Holiness through the Jesus Prayer as Depicted in The Way of a Pilgrim (Early Draft)

For my latest class on "Ascent to Holiness" I was given the task to choose an essay on an aspect of holiness. I chose the following broad topic: "Examine in detail a work of art or of literature, a drama, film or musical etc. that seems to you an exposition of holiness and explain why."

Methodological approach. I decided to choose the text The Way of a Pilgrim. I read, re-read, and carefully listened to the audio version. Line by line I took "relevant quotations" from the book that pointed to holiness. Having listened to course lectures delivered by Rev. Dr. Nikolai Sakharov, Dr. George Bebawi, the late Archimandrite Ephrem Lash and numerous others, I looked for quotes that would 'fulfil' class definitions provided. What you read below is my first attempt at connecting notions of holiness with actual text from The Way of a Pilgrim. As I was analysing the "text", I also used Leximancer to identify the major thematic concepts of the book. The word "holy" appears 39 times and appears in the top 20 concepts of the book. I also analysed each of the "four tales" in like manner. Provided at the end of this paper are also pages of references I sought through to come to a clearer understanding of what holiness means. My next steps is to severely prune this essay back to explicit quotations that describe holiness and support them with direct references/sources on the advice of my tutor Fr. Alexander Tefft.

Note: What is holiness? Holiness is not doing "good works" or being "virtuous". Holiness is something that God possesses and we acquire from God as we are made in His image. How do we acquire this? By "abiding in Him", by calling on Him more and more to reside in our hearts. We love our enemies because we see God in them, we love His creations because He made them. 

Disclaimer: the below essay is an early draft of my first attempt. Note: all errors are my own. I am studying towards a Certificate.


Holiness through the Jesus Prayer as Depicted in The Way of a Pilgrim

Katina Michael

This paper uses the book titled The Way of a Pilgrim to describe the path to holiness through prayer. In this 19th-century work, first published in Kazan with the title “Candid Narratives of a Pilgrim to His Spiritual Father” found in an Athonite monastery, the narrator takes the reader on a pilgrim’s journey across Russia while practising the Jesus Prayer. It is not known whether the book is a literal or fictional account of one pilgrim’s journey but the book demonstrates the power of invoking the name of Jesus through the biblically-based prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). The authorship of The Way of a Pilgrim is unknown although the four tales seem to be based on the original work of Archimandrite Mikhail Kozlov (1826-1884), entitled The Seeker of Unceasing Prayer. The exhortation by Saint Paul the Apostle in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray constantly” is a call toward unceasing prayer. In effect, it is a call to God to reside within our heart at all times through the Holy Spirit in a synergistic manner. For it is said by Saint Paul the Apostle: “we are God’s fellow workers” [i.e., Gk <<συνεργοί>>]. And again the Apostle states in James 4:8, if we “draw near to God”, He will draw near to us. Such is the striving toward a state of holiness, where we can open the door to God to reside within us, given we are made in His image. The Way of a Pilgrim demonstrates the importance of interior silence through the recitation of the Jesus Prayer guided by a spiritual father with the aim of uniting one’s mind and heart. The more we pray, the more God is able to work through us to effect change in our own hearts and that of those around us. The ultimate aim of unceasing prayer, as demonstrated in The Way of a Pilgrim, whether living a celibate or married life, is union with God, that is, theosis.

The Path to Holiness is Prayer

Holiness is not a state in which we can reach on our own accord, no matter how hard we try, no matter how many good works we do. Holiness is a mystery and it cannot simply be attained by the “learning of the schools”. It has unspeakable depths. The pilgrim is clear in stating, that “we must pray more often to God to teach us to pray without ceasing”. When our mind and heart is “continually yearning” and we have an “unappeasable desire” toward God, then it cannot be in a state of sin. It is “the testing of the harmony of your own will with the voice of God”. The misconception of many Christians lies in the belief that “good actions and all sorts of preliminary measures render us capable of prayer” when in fact the reverse is true, “prayer [is that] which bears fruit in good works and all the virtues”. Furthermore, we are told in The Way of a Pilgrim that while the Christian is compelled to perform good works, that without prayer these cannot be accomplished. “Without prayer he cannot find the way to the Lord, he cannot understand the truth, he cannot crucify the flesh with its passions and lusts, his heart cannot be enlightened with the light of Christ, he cannot be savingly united to God. None of those things can be effected unless they are preceded by constant prayer.”

A wise staretz (spiritual elder), tells the pilgrim that "the continuous interior prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart, while forming a mental picture of His constant presence, and imploring His grace, during every occupation, at all times, in all places, even during sleep.” The prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” interlinks a person with God, and after some time, he/she “can no longer live without it”. The prayer takes root in the heart on its own accord, casting “all other thoughts aside”. The admonition is to “repeat the prayer of Jesus as often as possible”. Of course, at one level, The Way of a Pilgrim, sets conditions for the hesychast “to cut off from everything else” through the Jesus Prayer, and yet on another level the book also describes how all forms of prayer (e.g. the Lord’s Prayer) can also be recited within a family context. God calls all of His children to holiness, not just those predisposed to monasticism. And this of course is demonstrated in the sanctification of Saints who chose either the path of marriage or virginity. Our goal should be to be with God as often as possible, “to cleanse the soul from all sensuality”. But it is a constant striving, once the prayer has manifested in one’s heart, like a well-oiled machine it must be cared for and nurtured, if it will go on “working still longer”. The directive is to be awake in “prayer as often as you wish and as often as you can… without counting the number of times.” It is to “seek after God in the simplicity of a loving heart” and to allow Him to “lead you into the right path."

The effect of recollecting our Lord Jesus Christ so often is a feeling of unutterable peace within the soul. The pilgrim describes his feelings thus: “I felt absolute peace in my soul. During sleep I often dreamed that I was saying the prayer. And during the day if I happened to meet anyone, all men without exception were as dear to me as if they had been my nearest relations… All my ideas were quite calmed of their own accord… my heart began of itself to feel at times a certain warmth and pleasure. If I happened to go to church, the lengthy service of the monastery seemed short to me and no longer wearied me as it had in time past. My lonely hut seemed like a splendid palace…” The pilgrim emphasises the importance of the instruction of a staretz in the recitation of prayer. He describes his joyful prayer as a “slight pain” in his heart as he imagines himself in God’s merciful embrace: “I pictured myself, if only I could see Him, throwing myself at His feet and not letting them go from my embrace, kissing them tenderly, and thanking Him with tears for having of His love and grace allowed me to find so great a consolation in His Name, me, His unworthy and sinful creature!” The pilgrim, recognising his sinful nature as a fallen human, is given the grace by God to feel His presence within his heart. The pilgrim endures a transformative process uniting with God through the Holy Spirit while invoking the name of Jesus. We are reminded by Saint Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:19-20): “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

Union with God

The two books that the pilgrim carries with him throughout his journey are the Holy Bible and The Philokalia. The pilgrim is shocked by the amount of knowledge he gains from The Philokalia, supported also by the prayer of Jesus which the holy Fathers said was “a summary of the Gospels”. He noted, that his heart was kindled with a “desire for union with God by means of interior prayer”. In Psalm 82:6, we are told, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.” What greater glory could a human attain than this theosis? The pilgrim writes: “I began to see the meaning of such sayings as "the inner secret man of the heart," "true prayer worships in the spirit," "the kingdom is within us," "the intercession of the Holy Spirit with groanings that cannot be uttered," "abide in me," "give me thy heart," "to put on Christ," "the betrothal of the Spirit to our hearts," the cry from the depths of the heart, "Abba, Father," and so on”. It was in this way that the pilgrim observed all natural things around him as “delightful” and “marvellous” singing praise to God constantly: “[t]he trees, the grass, the birds, the earth, the air, the light”. And yet at the same time, all of these creations equally “witnessed to the love of God for man.” We see here deeply the mystery of God’s love which is revolving. God does not want us to do good works from the “fear of hell”, but from “love for Him and zeal for His service; He wants us to find our happiness in uniting ourselves with Him in a saving union of mind and heart.” In walking with name of Christ on our lips, in our thoughts, and our heart, ceaseless prayer helps maintain our path to holiness, bringing us closer to the meaning of the Cross and Resurrection, and the eschata (that is the last things).


The pilgrim describes feeling “overwhelmed with bliss” on the calling upon the name of Jesus. As he recites the prayer day and night, month after month in solitude, he becomes acutely aware of the meaning of the passage "[t]he kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). The pilgrim states at this point, “[m]y soul was always giving thanks to God and my heart melted away with unceasing happiness.” Indeed, holiness is to allow the heart to “melt away”, doing away with negative recollections that weigh heavy on the heart. It is to love one’s enemy, to love all people as if members of the one family. The pilgrim writes that the rosary (i.e. prayer rope) can bring one to sanctity: “[w]hen the soul is made holy the body becomes holy also”. He explains, “[e]veryone has his own gift from God… [and that] [e]veryone does what he can, as he sees his own path, with the thought that God Himself shows him the way of his salvation”. The pilgrim cites St. Gregory of Thessalonika in conversation, in his love for others and his want to reveal to them to power of the invocation of the name of Jesus: “we are bound to reveal it and teach it to others, to everyone in general, religious and secular, learned and simple, men, women, and children, and to inspire them all with zeal for prayer without ceasing”. Over and over again, throughout The Way of a Pilgrim, the message is conveyed as to the sweetness of the boundless love for Jesus Christ one attains when they are praying constantly. The Jesus prayer we are told by the pilgrim is a “comfort”, makes his “heart bubble”, is “delightful”, is “consoling”, provides “tears of joy”, and such “gladness of heart” that he cannot find the words to express his feelings. To be united to God so closely through prayer must give such peace and innocence that is indescribable.

Some way through the Russian spiritual classic, we learn the reason why the pilgrim has chosen to live a wanderer’s life. The pilgrim recounts many a story that demonstrate his path to holiness. He is not mad at his brother for causing a malady in one of his arms so that he cannot work rendering him a “cripple”. He is not mad at his brother for burning down the home he and his wife shared. He is not mad at God for taking the “worthy and sensible” girl he had married prematurely. He is not mad with the townsfolk whom he helped so much but later accused him of wrongdoing with a young girl who was betrothed to another man. He is not mad with the men who robbed and struck him, even taking his knapsack, Holy Bible, copy of the Philokalia, and dry bread. In his interactions with others he showed great love, did not sin against them, and though he felt pained at times beyond what could be written for his treatment, he continued to love. To the men who had struck him “senseless” he gave 1 ruble and told them: “Repent and pray! Jesus Christ loves men; he will not forsake you.” In essence, the pilgrim becomes “Christ-like” and fulfils the highest aspects of love that lead one to holiness. He reflected in his narrative: “If thine enemy hunger, feed him," and Jesus Christ himself said, "Love your enemies," "And if any man will take away thy coat let him have thy cloak also." He not only believed in these New Testament commandments, but lived by them whole-heartedly.

While the narrator paints a picture of a solitary life (i.e., monastic life) that is underpinned by prayer and fasting for Jesus and complete preoccupation with Him and the Saints, the narrator by no means takes away from the propensity for holiness in a family setting. When he encounters two children on his way, they insist that the pilgrim must meet their mother, and later the mother insists the pilgrim must meet her husband who is a magistrate. She tells the pilgrim: “He [the magistrate] reverences every pilgrim as a messenger of God. If you go away he will be really grieved not to have seen you. Besides that, tomorrow is Sunday, and you will pray with us at the liturgy, and at the dinner table take your share with us in what God has sent.” The family lives by the Gospel and fulfils Matthew 25:34-39:

34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’

The pilgrim writes "I was astonished as I listened to what she said, and I asked myself whether I was talking with a human being or with a ghost of some sort.” The reader, likewise, is left feeling deep love and hope that there are people who actually exist like this. Indeed, the whole scene is reminiscent of Paradise. The pilgrim continues: “The more I saw and heard of all this, the more surprised I was, and I thanked God for letting me see these devout people.” The mother is symbolic of the Virgin Mary as she proclaims to the pilgrim that she does not rest. Holiness in this case is defined as being “fond of beggars, and brothers in Christ, and pilgrims.” Rev. Dr. Nikolai Sakharov adds only “enemies” to this list under the instruction of Fr. Sophrony Sakharov who believed being Orthodox was plainly described as “loving your enemies”.

The mother in this scene recounts her mother’s blessing: “as her last will and testament she urged us to live as good Christians, to say our prayers fervently, and above all try to fulfill the greatest of God's commandments, that is, the love of one's neighbor, to feed and help our poor brothers in Christ in simplicity and humility, to bring up our children in the fear of the Lord, and to treat our serfs as our brothers. And that is how we have been living here by ourselves for the last ten years now, trying as best we could to carry out mother's last wishes. We have a guesthouse for beggars, and at the present moment there are living in it more than ten crippled and sick people.” Later, the pilgrim proclaims: “'You are in God's own paradise here… Here is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and His most holy mother, and the blessed saints! And there… are the divine, living, and everlasting words of their teaching.” It is reaffirmed by the pilgrim that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness, and that neither the monastic path or the married path is easy, but that God grants what is needed to each accordingly. He says to the family:

“Of course, for hermits they give special and higher methods, but for those who live in the world their writings show ways which truly lead to interior prayer.” And returning to the Jesus Prayer, he conveys to the family: “One must learn to call upon the name of God, more even than breathing—at all times, in all places, in every kind of occupation. The Apostle says, 'Pray without ceasing.' That is, he teaches men to have the remembrance of God in all times and places and circumstances. If you are making something, you must call to mind the Creator of all things; if you see the light, remember the Giver of it; if you see the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, wonder and praise the Maker of them. If you put on your clothes, recall Whose gift they are and thank Him Who provides for your life. In short, let every action be a cause of your remembering and praising God, and lo! you will be praying without ceasing and therein your soul will always rejoice." There, you see, this way of ceaseless prayer is simple and easy and within the reach of everybody so long as he has some amount of human feeling.'”


The pilgrim continues to say that interior prayer has shed more light on the mystery of God than anything else and that it can be “done by anyone”. That “[i]t costs nothing but the effort to sink down in silence into the depths of one's heart and call more and more upon the radiant name of Jesus.” In a critical passage, the pilgrim comes close to defining and explaining what holiness is- a deep relationship with God. It is worth quoting this passage in full:

“Everyone who does that [interior prayer] feels at once the inward light, everything becomes understandable to him, he even catches sight in this light of some of the mysteries of the kingdom of God. And what depth and light there is in the mystery of a man coming to know that he has this power to plumb the depths of his own being, to see himself from within, to find delight in self- knowledge, to take pity on himself and shed tears of gladness over his fall and his spoiled will! To show good sense in dealing with things and to talk with people is no hard matter and lies within anyone's power, for the mind and the heart were there before learning and human wisdom… The trouble is that we live far from ourselves and have but little wish to get any nearer to ourselves. Indeed we are running away all the time to avoid coming face to face with our real selves, and we barter the truth for trifles. We think, "I would very gladly take an interest in spiritual things, and in prayer, but I have no time, the fuss and cares of life give no chance for such a thing."

The pilgrim cites the saying of Saint Nicetas Stethatus in The Philokalia who wrote: “The nature of things is judged by the inward disposition of the soul,' that is, a man gets his ideas about his neighbors from what he himself is. And he goes on to say, 'He who has attained to true prayer and love has no sense of the differences between things: he does not distinguish the righteous man from the sinner, but loves them all equally and judges no man, as God causes His sun to shine and His rain to fall on the just and the unjust.'” In like manner, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia in The Orthodox Way pointed to holiness as the “calling out of an individual from their sinfulness, into the true selves that God intends for them to be as they participate fully in their eschatological destination: God’s own self” (Kangas 2014). Dying to the world through the prayer of the heart, the pilgrim doubts that there would be a “happier person on earth” and whether there “could be greater and fuller happiness in the kingdom of heaven.” The state of holiness he has attained, not only provides light for his own soul but for “the whole outside world” as well. He felt, “[e]verything drew me to love and thank God: people, trees, plants, and animals. I saw them all as my kinsfolk; I found on all of them the magic of the name of Jesus… Sometimes I felt as joyful as if I had been made czar.”

The pilgrim places great emphasis on holy prayers aided by the Holy Spirit that are pleasing to God. The pilgrim recollects throughout his journey the words of Christ: “Abide in Me, and I in you” (John 15:4). He writes that:

“every intention, every impulse, even every thought which is directed to His glory and our own salvation is of value in His sight. For all these the boundless loving kindness of God gives bountiful rewards. The love of God gives grace a thousand fold more than human actions deserve. If you give Him the merest mite, He will pay you back with gold. If you but purpose to go to the Father, He will come out to meet you. You say but a word, short and unfeeling— 'Receive me, have mercy on me'—and He falls on your neck and kisses you. That is what the love of the heavenly Father is like toward us, unworthy as we are. And simply because of this love He rejoices in every gesture we make toward salvation, however small. It looks like this to you: What glory is there for God, what advantage for you, if you pray a little and then your thoughts wander again, or if you do some small good deed, such as reading a prayer, making five or ten acts of reverence, or giving a heartfelt sigh and calling upon the name of Jesus, or attending to some good thought, or setting yourself to some spiritual reading, or abstaining from some food, or bearing an affront in silence—all that seems to you not enough for your full salvation and a fruitless thing to do. No! None of these small acts is in vain; it will be taken into account by the all-seeing eye of God and receive a hundredfold reward, not only in eternity, but in this life.”

Furthermore the pilgrim continues:

"Truly boundless is the love of God for us sinners. Is it not marvelous that so small an action—yes, just taking his rosary out of his pocket and carrying it in his hand and calling once upon the name of God—should give a man his life, and that in the scales of judgment upon men one short moment of calling upon Jesus Christ should outweigh many hours of sloth? In truth, here is the repayment of the tiny mite with gold. Do you see, brother, how powerful prayer is and how mighty the name of Jesus when we call upon it?”


The Way of a Pilgrim urges the reader to be united to God through prayer. It is the calling especially to unceasing prayer that asks God to light up our hearts and to warm them toward a path to holiness which encompasses love not only for God Himself, but all of His creations. The more we pray, through the recitation of prayer, whether it be the Jesus Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer, under the instruction of our spiritual father, the more we will ignite the fulfilment of God’s commandments as delivered in the New Testament. God promises that if we “come” to Him and “follow Him”, we will receive “treasures in Heaven” (Luke 18:22). We can follow Him through our interior prayer, whether we are celibate or married, whether we recite the prayer of the heart with our lips or inwardly, whatever the means, we should seek to be with Him as often as possible. While it is paradoxical to ask the source of love and life, God, to grant in us a prayerful heart, because He becomes both the power and source of love and its preoccupation, it is He who gives life to all other actions: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:3). Indeed, I can pray more when I ask Christ to have mercy on me, and He will give me the strength to love my enemies, love my neighbour, and love myself. This revolving action becomes a constant pursuit of love- God toward His creation, a person toward God and his fellow neighbour. Prayer becomes self-actuating and self-propelling, it is co-working in synergy toward holiness. Holiness in man does not mean perfection, but attests to the constant striving toward the love of God through the Holy Spirit, the minimization of sin, toward transformation to living a divine life in Christ.


Thematic Concept Map 1. The Way of a Pilgrim (all four tales)

Thematic Concept Map 1. The Way of a Pilgrim (all four tales)

Thematic Concept Map Tale 1 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 1 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 2 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 2 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 3 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 3 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 4 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Thematic Concept Map Tale 4 of the Way of a Pilgrim

Ranked Concept List