The Way of the Pilgrim

APPLICATION WRITTEN BY

There isn’t enough space to describe this book. It tracks the life of a man who discovers a prayer rope as a discipline to pray along the way of his troubled life. It introduces the Philokalia, ancient writings by spiritual fathers, as one path of learning. Success, straying, and failure open along the path as this book challenges our prayer lives and lifestyles. Edgy for the standard Christian. Essential stretch for those who want to get outside of the box.

The How I Use This Book section below is much longer than normal because of the unique nature and unfamiliarity of most leaders with the topics in this novel.

Key Topics or Truths

Prayer
Spiritual Growth
Hearing God
Discipline in Prayer

This Book is Good For...

This book is good for any mainstream Christian who has a very structured or conversational prayer life. It will stretch disciples to sit in God’s presence.

How I Use this Book to make disciples

I use this book to push the boundaries on “normal” Christianity and expose disciples to a wider variety of faith traditions. This novel follows the main character, the pilgrim, along his spiritual journey. The book is presented in two parts. Though many of my peers have disciples read the first and second parts, I have found that the first half is enough to achieve the objectives of: expanding their view of Christian practice and other traditions in the faith; illustrating the power of more experienced spiritual mentors; introducing the idea of contemplative, structured prayer; and, pushing back on the idea of withdrawing from the world to experience God.

One of the most powerful concepts in The Way of the Pilgrim is understanding the difference between Eastern and Western thinking. And, this can be a real eye-opener because the Bible is written by Eastern thinkers. Whereas Western thought is very linear, Eastern thought is more circular and conceptual. Western thought expects a pattern where one thing leads to the next thing. Spiritual maturity is achieved one step at a time, ending in a final step. Theology and Christian concepts are viewed in a logical fashion with scholars feeling the need to explain everything. Eastern thought is more mystical readily accepting the mysteries of God at face value. And, our faith is full of those inexplicable mysteries, all along the way. The apostle Paul often spoke of such “mysteries”: Jesus’ incarnation (1 Timothy 3:16), the indwelling of the Spirit (Colossians 1:26–27), the unity of the church (Ephesians 3:4–6), the rapture (1 Corinthians 15:51–52), and the gospel itself (Colossians 4:3).

There is no doubt that some get out of balance on mysticism making everything, even the things God has explained, into mysteries. However, the mystical nature of our faith is often ignored or downplayed in the Western world. The disciples we make here in the west are not good at circular, mystical thought. They have been raised on a faith that must be explained. The truth is that we should stand in awe, overwhelmed at the mysteries of creation, God, and our faith.

I have the disciples read one section a week and we discuss it at the following meeting looking at their highlights and answering their questions. I use the time to create thought vacuums, asking the disciples, “Is this practice/teaching/thought Biblical?” I am cautious to not be critical of different practices. Each of our experiences is unique and we can learn from different people in the body of Christ. However, I am careful to make sure to challenge some of the more esoteric practices of the Pilgrim and his mentors. I push back on the idea that the pilgrim never talks about where his Bible is while he obsesses with the Philokalia (a collection of early church father writings attempting to explain the faith and the scriptures). I ask, “Does it bother you that he is getting his information about the faith from extra-biblical writings?” I let them stew, get cranky, and then I ask, “Before you started this process, where did you get your information?” I trap them showing them that this error that seems so obvious in the pilgrim is the same error most believers make as we get our learning from secondary sources. Today’s Christian does not read and contemplate the entire bible. We focus on and get our learning from sermons, podcasts, self-help books, and Christian living commentaries. People are not so different – even East to West.

As we walk through this novel, I make sure that some key thoughts arise — raising them if the disciples do not.

  1. There is much we can learn from the variety of people that follow God: Though I challenge some of the pilgrim’s practices, I champion his devotion to being in God’s presence. I champion the idea and zeal of the characters to just sit in the presence of God with no agenda. I champion the mystical nature of the pilgrim’s and his mentors’ thoughts. I am careful to not dismiss the freedom of believers to practice their faith in different ways as long as those practices are consistent with scripture. I ask disciples to evaluate the pilgrim and the mentors based on scripture.
  2. There is power in more experienced spiritual mentors: I champion the Eastern idea of “church fathers”, men and women with much experience in the faith who can guide us. In the east, these spiritual mentors are actually called fathers and venerated, or lifted up, by those who learn from them. I point out that this practice is forbidden by Christ (Matthew 23:9) while championing the idea of us respecting our teachers and learning from them (Galatians 6:6, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Hebrews 13:7, 1 Timothy 5:17). I challenge disciples to ask, “Do I respect those that guide me?”
  3. There is a unique benefit to structured contemplative prayer: Few in the west are familiar with the prayer rope. Employed by the earliest of church fathers, the prayer rope is a knotted circular rope used to structure prayer and make time with God intentional and effective. The prayer is the predecessor to the Catholic rosary but is much different. Whereas the rosary focuses on penance and practice, the prayer rope is merely a tool to provide focus and structure to time with God. The practice is to pray one prayer for each knot on the rope (usually with 25, 50, or 100 knots). I push back on the ancient eastern tradition of praying, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” at each knot. It seems more like a meditative mantra than a prayer. However, I champion the discipline, structure, and effectiveness of this tool. Few followers make intentional blocks of time available to pray and meditate with God. The rope is highly effective at creating space as one commits time to walk through the circular rope. Instead of praying a mantra-like prayer to focus, I share how I used my prayer rope to provide structure and intentionality to my prayer life. I would sit down once a day to pray with my rope and pray 25 prayers for others, 25 prayers for my family, 25 prayers for things that would make me better for others, and 25 prayers for ministries, servants, and workers of God. I quickly realized how unstructured and inattentive my prayer life was. The first time I sat down it took me two hours just to come up with things to pray for! I also champion the effectiveness of the prayer rope to keep us focused. When our body (our voice), our mind, and our spirit are simultaneously engaged in talking to God we stay focused. We are in essence praying with all our being. I do not instruct people to use a prayer rope. Rather, I challenge them to create an intentional practice that is disciplined, and structured, and that stays focused in God’s presence. I remind them that ad-hoc, along the way prayer is equally important.
  4. There is limited benefit in withdrawing from the world to be with God: The pilgrim withdraws from life, family, and productivity becoming obsessed with prayer and study. It seems noble to be wholly devoted to God. But there is a moment when I ask the disciple, “Which is nobler, withdrawing from the world to live holy in God’s presence or living wholly in God’s presence in the world?” I believe the more difficult life is to live out our faith among the world with all its refining temptations and trials. I believe the nobler life is to be a light in the darkness rather than to go with the objective of endlessly becoming brighter. Christ called us to be examples, to share, and to redeem the days on this earth. Yes, Jesus and the disciples he raised up withdrew for times of prayer. But neither Jesus nor the disciples left the world. Their withdrawal was for rest, refreshment, and times to hear from God. They fueled up and got directions so they could go back to his work. They took care of their families even while they traveled with Jesus. When they weren’t at the full-time work, they worked regular jobs. They were always productive members of society. Peter reminds us to live in this world as aliens and examples. Jesus reminds us that we are the light of the world. I push back on the ideas of withdrawal and asceticism (denouncing material things and living like a monk alone, off) as selfish.

Through the review weeks, I champion the many great truths about faith, following, prayer, confession, and so much more. The novel is full of truth and conversation-starting ideas. I find this irreplaceable to challenge a broader more mystical, inviting perspective on God.

I love this book because it is a mind-bender of a book for those of us raised as Christians in the Western World. It is a challenging alter-ego view of what our Christian fathers thought, practiced, and prayed.

Real Life Story

Karl was on staff at our church. One day, Karl didn’t show up for a meeting. He wasn’t at home. He wasn’t with his wife. We got concerned. Eventually, I found Karl wandering in the woods in a monk-like robe. “What’s up?” I asked. Karl answered that he had abandoned himself to prayer after reading this book. Of course, I challenged him, “Karl, what does the Bible say about keeping your commitments, providing for your family, and working hard?” I had to admire Karl’s desire to commune with God but I had to point him to the kind of balance Jesus and Paul had. They had times alone with God but they kept at the work of the Lord. I left Karl to pray. Karl came to work the next day and lived life with that desire burning in him. Twenty years later, Karl teaches on prayer and is one of the finest warriors I have ever met. Way of the Pilgrim was a push he needed to understand much about prayer and life.

Know Issues or Controversies

The pilgrim in this novel practices continual prayer with a prayer rope and reads the Philokalia – a collection of writings by the early church fathers.

If you are not familiar with a prayer rope, people often confuse it with a rosary. Whereas a rosary is a performance-oriented approach to supplication, the prayer rope is a method of prayer concentration. It is essential to make this clear to disciples.

The myth of how prayer ropes came about appears to be a myth and, though fun, should be de-emphasized if the question comes up.

There is nothing wrong with the Philokalia. This collection of writings instructs disciples in how to apply God’s truths to their daily lives. The writings were some of the earliest commentaries on God’s word designed to amplify and assist people in understanding the Bible and God. In this fictional tale, the Pilgrim never says anything about his Bible. His focus is on the words about the Words. Disciples should pick up on this inconsistency. If they do not, you need to.

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Olga Savin
Book Details
Reading Time
Two Weeks
Related Reads

This book goes well as a mystical follow-up to How to PrayIt also pairs well with Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire.

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