I recently started reading The Way of a Pilgrim – the memoirs of an anonymous Russian peasant chronicling his quest to fulfill Scripture’s command to “pray without ceasing.” The Pilgrim eventually learns from a spiritual director to pray the Jesus Prayer constantly, making it one with his breathing. His unceasing prayer leads him into mystical and miraculous experiences. After his spiritual director dies, he still receives instruction from him in dreams. At one point, he encounters a big wolf jumping at him, but the wolf is fended off by… his rosary. (I won’t even try to explain concisely how that happened…)
I picked up The Way of the Pilgrim again today to read more. Reading a book by a wandering peasant in the comfort of my own home didn’t seem right. So I walked down the street to my favorite place to drink tea – Te Cafe. I ordered a pot of the green tea of the day, and sat down in the big comfy chair in the corner to read more of the Pilgrim’s journey. Shortly into my reading, I across this: “As I came inside the [inn], I saw two distinguished-looking men, one elderly and the other middle-aged and rather stout; they were sitting at a table in the far corner of the room drinking tea.”
I smiled at the connection between me and the book, and kind of wished I would have ordered a pot of Russian Caravan to make the connection even more obvious. I felt a spur of inspiration to imagine myself as one of the men drinking tea and encountering the pilgrim. “Which man am I?” I wondered, “Does it even matter?” As I continued to read, I learned that it matters a lot.
The two men, I read on to learn, were a school teacher and a court clerk. The clerk was immediately sarcastic with the Pilgrim. Upon hearing about the Pilgrim’s encounter with the wolf and how his rosary fended off the wolf, the clerk replied with a smile, “Really? Do wolves pray?” As the pilgrim shared the details of the story, the clerk disregards any sense of the miraculous. He only sees an animal getting frightened by a blunt object being thrown at it.
I wondered to myself, “Is that me? Am I the clerk? Am I only reading the story of a man on an earnest -even admirable – quest but failing to see the depths of mystery, wisdom and holiness at work in the Pilgrim’s story?”
The teacher, on the other hand, saw the miracle, even in ways that the Pilgrim had not yet seen. The teacher saw in wolf’s being tamed by the rosary evidence of the owner’s holiness. The teacher recalls that the animals submitted themselves before Adam, and Adam exercised God-given authority over the animals as he named them. Holiness, the teacher explains is a return to the innocence of Adam in the garden, and that nature still recognizes that innocence and responds as the wolf did.
“Is that me? Am I the teacher? Am I experiencing the depths of mystery, wisdom and holiness in the Pilgrim’s story?”
I know which character I want to be. And the truth is that I’m probably somewhere on a spectrum between the two. I haven’t yet responded to the Pilgrim with the sarcasm of the clerk. But I also haven’t had nearly the depth of insight that the teacher displayed. What I am finding is that I’m falling in love with the God of the Pilgrim. I want to learn from the Pilgrim how to experience God as deeply as he does.
And that’s why we need to look at the Pilgrim’s story – and the whole world – with the same eyes as the teacher. The Pilgrim responds to the teacher’s interpretation of his story by giving him encouragement and instruction in the faith. The Pilgrim disciples him. We can’t learn from the Pilgrim, or any other spiritual master, if we aren’t willing to receive their lives as examples of communion with Jesus Christ.
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, that we would have the eyes of faith to see the fruits of holiness in your saints.