The prayer of Jesus

A history

Russia – The story of a Russian Pilgrim



Part 5               by brother Yvan Jacques




Russia in the 14th century.


The metropolitan of Kiev, Cyprian, was introduced in the spirituality of the prayer of Jesus in Bulgaria. He met with a lot of approval for he was a charismatic man bringing this new spirituality. He himself practised poverty.


The great founder of monasticism in Russia was saint Sergey who lived from 1314 until 1392. He too knew the prayer of Jesus. The Holy Trinity Laura was founded by him and already at that time he sent monks to Mount Athos to get acquainted with this new spirituality. One of his monks founded a monastery in the region of the White Lake following the example of Mount Athos. In the writings we find :


“We have followed the exhortation to practise the prayer of Jesus or the prayer of the heart with one or two brothers, as we have seen it on Mount Athos.”


The rule inspired by John Climac, allowed a perfect freedom, except with regard to the world. Nil however defended evangelic poverty, but the monastery had to have enough means to fulfil charitable and social actions toward the population. But for him the spiritual help was more important. He said :


“The alms of the monk is to help his brother with the word, as he needs to console him when bad luck has happened to him.”


In 1453 the Ottoman empire invaded Constantinople ( now Istanbul ) and Moscow considered itself as the spiritual heir of Byzantium.


The birth of the third Rome was a fact. Monks pushed out into the desolate areas and founded there monasteries near the north pole on the island of Solovsky. In 1616 the hermit Eleazar founded there a small community and died in extreme poverty.


In the 17th century the Russian church fell into decay, there were schisms and troubles amongst the clergy. Patriarch Nikon started reforms that even led to a schism in the church, called the “raskol” ( 1625 – 1658 ).


The old believers refused to accept the renewal in liturgy and opposed to the patriarch. Peter the Great and Catherine II were in favour of the renewal.


In this difficult period an Ukrainian monk stepped forward, he went to Mount Athos and retreated in the little monastery of the prophet Elias. After coming back, he settled in Moldavia and became abbot of the laura “Neamt”. The person of Paissy started a revival of the prayer of Jesus and his most important work was the translation of the Philocaleia by Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a monk on Mount Athos.


Despite the fall of Constantinople, Mount Athos with its large library remained a spiritual centre. In 1782, helped by the metropolitan of Corynth Macary, he published a series of proverbs of the fathers titled “Philocaleia”, which means “Love of the Beautiful”.


It was a collection of proverbs of the fathers about the spirituality of the prayer of Jesus. The book was enormously successful amongst the monks and priests and also amongst laics. In 1870 in Kazan appeared for the first time “The story of a Russian pilgrim”. The books origin is unclear and it could be a copy of a manuscript of Mount Athos, found between the books and writings of a starets. It tells about a pilgrim, aged around 30, who had lost everything. When attending a liturgy he heard the lecture of the Scripture : “Pray incessantly”. Because of this exhortation, he started his pilgrimage. He looked for a man who could tell him more about this prayer and met a hermit. Armed with the prayer of Jesus he went on and had several adventures : attacks by robbers, wolves etc. Passing by he discovered 19th century Russia and discovered remarkable phenomena as “dead souls”, described by the writer Nikolay Gogol.


Just before he died, his spiritual leader gave him the book “Philocaleia”. This book together with the Bible were daily food for the wanderer. On his pilgrimage he was led by the invisible Light from the East. A remarkable passage describes how the heart of the pilgrim is filled with grace and how he looks at the world with new eyes :


“When some-one threatened me, I thought about the beneficent prayer of Jesus, anger and tiredness disappeared and I forgot about everything.

I have no more sorrows, nothing that is external preoccupies me. God knows what I need.”


Turned over to God, he finishes his pilgrimage in full inner freedom. He did understand the language of the creation, for he declared :


“The trees, the grasses, the birds, the earth, the air, the light, they all tell me they are given to the people, they witness of Gods love towards the people. Everything prays, he says, everything sings the glory of God. Now I understand what is written in the Philocaleia : to have knowledge of the language of the creation.”


The pilgrim experiences a “Cosmic Liturgy” that is eternal, that opens itself slowly, the eternal daybreak becomes reality.


The Starets Zosima, in the novel “The Brothers Karamasov” by Dostoevsky, says this :


“The Word is for each of us, the whole creation and all that is created, the smallest leaf on a tree addresses itself to the Word.”


The word “starets” means spiritual father. In the East he is called abba or abbot, he who passes on the spirit. To be able to pass on the spirit one should carry the spirit, this person is a man inspired by the spirituality. Even in the desert, which can be a spiritual desert too, the abba or starets is mainly a man burning with love.


The spiritual fatherhood is a charisma that shows itself in many ways. Having become “pneumaphore”, “carrier of the spirit”, the spiritual father can give your life a totally new direction when the right Word is said on the right moment.


The word touches the visitor and gives him a start, brings him to an inner turn which we call the “metanoia”. Also very important is the fact that the spiritual father possesses the discretion of the minds. A proverb of a father says this : “A monk goes to abbot Anthony and remains near him without saying a word. The abbot asks him about this and the young monk says : this one thing is sufficient for me, father, just to see you.”


To be continued.



Midi "Quiet Evening" is
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Bruce DeBoer