Do you know the story of the Anonymous Russian Pilgrim? It’s a heart-warming and unforgettable story of how God brought healing and transformation to a lonely, depressed man. Through this simple man God changed the world!
I have discovered that what was true for the Anonymous Pilgrim and so many others has been true for me and many people that I have helped: God can use a little Breath Prayer to bring about a big change!
He Wanted to Learn to Practice God’s Presence
One day in the early 1800’s a poor young man went to a church in Russia, desperate for God. He had lost the use of his arm in a tragic accident. Then he was orphaned at an early age. Then his brother stole his inheritance. Then his wife had died after just a few short years of marriage.
On this day as he went to church he was homeless and alone in the world. He was depressed.
In church he heard a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray without ceasing.” He was drawn to such a life, but couldn’t conceive of how even to begin. How could anyone pray continuously? He decided to go on a journey and find people who could teach him how to pray.
We don’t even know the name of this man! That’s what a simple, humble man he was. But thankfully, he wrote down his story as he traveled the vast countryside of Russia on foot. His amazing story begins this way:
By the grace of God I am a Christian man, by my actions a great sinner, and by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth who roams from place to place. My worldly goods are a knapsack with some dried bread in it on my back, and in my breast-pocket a Bible. And that is all.
On the 24th Sunday after Pentecost I went to church… I heard these words: “Pray without ceasing.” (The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues his Way, p. 1).
He Found a Staretz
The Anonymous Pilgrim took the Bible at face value. It said, “Pray without ceasing” and he wanted to learn how to do that! So he walked the countryside of Russia asking everyone he met if they knew how to pray without ceasing. No one did. He pressed on. He knew that God had spoken to his heart in church that day. His life was empty and he longed for Intimacy with Jesus. Oh, to be a close friend with Jesus the Lord!
Finally the pilgrim came upon a “staretz.” A staretz is a Russian term for a spiritual elder known as a holy person. This is someone who is experienced in the ways of God with the soul and gives spiritual care and advice to others. The staretz listens to pilgrims talk about their life and relationship with God and guides them closer to the Lord and deeper in prayer.
Not only is the staretz able to help pilgrims grow in a praying life, he or she is experienced to know how to guide others through times of spiritual dryness, confusion, and frustration with God, including the Dark Night of the Soul.
In our culture we call a staretz a spiritual director. Every Christian would benefit greatly from meeting with an experienced spiritual mentor for conversation and prayer about how they’re experiencing God (or not) and how he’s guiding them (or not). I’ve been receiving spiritual mentoring for a number of years — and providing this for others.
He Learned the Jesus Prayer
The Anonymous Pilgrim’s staretz taught him the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” (The longer version of the Jesus Prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”)
The ancient Jesus prayer was developed by the Desert Fathers of the 3rd and 4th Centuries from the often repeated prayer the Psalms, “Kyrie eleison” or “Lord, have mercy on me.” This is also used often in the Gospels, for instance, the prayer of the tax collector in Luke 18:13, and the prayer of the blind men in Luke 18:38-39.
Later the Russian pilgrim was given a copy of the Philokalia, which contains the writings on prayer by the Eastern Orthodox Church Fathers, dating back to the fourth century. What an amazing book of prayer this is!
By practicing what he was taught from his Staretz and the Philokalia he learned to pray the Jesus Prayer without ceasing. He walked about the countryside with his precious Bible on his heart and the Jesus’ Prayer continually on his lips.
Literally thousands of times per day he murmured the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me… Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me… Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me…”
Again and again, slowly and meditatively, he prayed the Jesus Prayer. Sometimes stressing a different word. Always confessing his sinfulness and crying out with longing for God. Always worshiping Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
He prayed the Jesus Prayer as he walked… Ate his little loaf of bread… Read his Bible and the writings of the church fathers… Grieved the death of his loved ones… Engaged in spiritual conversation with fellow travelers… Was robbed and nearly beaten to death… Ministered to the people he encountered…
A Little Prayer, a Big Change!
The Jesus Prayer lived deep inside the pilgrim. It warmed his heart sweetly. It became a habit of his heart. With effortless delight he’d pray continually: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.”
Praying the Jesus Prayer over many years transformed the Anonymous Russian Pilgrim from a depressed and reclusive man to a joyful and loving pilgrim! It healed his hurts. It gave meaning to his life. It flowed through him to bless and heal many other people.
I Carried the Psalms on My Heart
The image of the Anonymous Pilgrim walking about the countryside with only his Bible on his heart and the Jesus Prayer on his lips touched me deeply. I wanted to have my heart warmed with love and affection for Jesus like that! I wanted to learn from him how to participate with the Holy Spirit in prayer so that more and more it’d become as natural and easy as breathing!
So I decided to follow the pilgrim’s example: I started carrying My Psalms Prayer Book on my heart (sometimes literally!) and I practiced praying the Psalms as I walked and prayed with Jesus throughout the day. In my training I devoted over three years to praying through the entire Psalter every two months.
Breath Prayers Helped Me
But to experience prayer of the heart I knew I needed more variety than repeating the same prayer all the time. So instead of just praying the Jesus Prayer I prayed from the Psalms, going through the whole Psalter every two months. I used lines from the Psalms and other Scriptures to Abide in Prayer, to take the Scripture deep into my heart. My favorite way to do this became writing and praying little Breath Prayers from the Bible (most of them are similar to the Jesus Prayer). My passion in all my prayer training has been to do all this with Jesus, practicing God’s presence throughout the day.
The Anonymous Pilgrim learned to pray the Jesus Prayer over 3,000 times a day! (If you prayed the Jesus’ Prayer every 10 seconds it’d take eight hours and twenty minutes to reach 3,000!) I can’t imagine that! However, on occasion I have found it helpful during a time of extended solitude and silence to pray nothing but the Jesus Prayer (or a similar little Breath Prayer) dozens or even hundreds of times slowly.
I don’t count my prayers! But the days that I’ve remembered during the course of the day to “shoot up” a little prayer maybe 30 times or even 300 times it’s been a good day. The best thing about this and what shows me the real power of prayer is that often I find myself praying my Breath Prayer even when I hadn’t intended to! Through training God has helped me to form a habit that engages my mind and heart with the Word of God and the continuous prayers of the Holy Spirit.
Even in the stress, disappointment, or pain of the day when I continually reach out for the hand of Jesus like the Anonymous Pilgrim it gives me such peace and joy – it makes all that I do more meaningful and easier.
I’m Still Learning
And when I don’t remember to practice God’s presence consciously as much I as I’d like I don’t get down on myself — I’m still learning. Instead I give thanks to Jesus and Parakletos (the Holy Spirit) that they cover my gaps by interceding for me, Parakletos from deep in my heart and Jesus at the right hand of the Father.
Prayer for has become much larger than a verbal or mental activity — it’s going on unconsciously all the time as my will is submitted to God and I rely on his grace. What joy it brings to my soul when I find myself joining the prayers of the Holy Spirit even when in that moment I hadn’t intended to. Prayer lives in my body because my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.