MY PATERNAL GREAT-GRANDFATHER was illiterate. It was a startling piece of information. I had a sense this new knowledge might prove precarious in the playground, on whose byzantine workings my grip was already tenuous, at best. The next revelation, however, slapped aside the buzz and whine of social anxiety: ‘But,’ my father said, ‘he could read the forest like a book.’ Not a twig, a sapling, a creature, or mushroom escaped his attention. He could find his way about as I might navigate the landmarks of our town. He knew who or what had passed by and when, perhaps even how long they’d lingered there, and why. He was a Sherlock Holmes of the forest.
This was ancient woodland, the pushcha, the last bit of Europe’s primeval forest, which woke up to find itself in different places, in Poland then (that had perished, and then had not perished, and then again had perished, and then not), in Belarus now. Great-grandfather was a forester, or that, at least, was one of his occupations, as it would be my grandfather’s, and should have been my father’s. And once I had seen Ivan Kramskoy’s 1874 portrait The Forester, I put great-grandfather’s name to that forester’s face, gratified by the dignity the Russian realist painters of the nineteenth century, the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers), accorded to ordinary people. With time, great-grandfather’s image acquired a jumble of features drawn from folk tales, Russian novels, and stories of Seraphim of Sarov, engaged beneath endless birches, alongside marshes, navigated by wooden slatted paths and flat punt-like boats in summer, which froze in winter and flooded in spring. Right until the time the Soviets came and took everyone away in the middle of a February night. And when the rattle and swing of trains heading north wasn’t haunting my imagination, the image of an empty farmyard in darkest winter did, the snow blowing in through an open door, the big tiled stove gone out, the animals lowing helpless and unwatered, and the sound of a shutter banging, off its catch, with no one to run and fasten it. The borders shifted, the marshes were drained. The family never returned and my imagination moved west, to my mother’s gentry family, with its sleighs and lands, carp pools, church-endowing priest-uncles and intense patriotism.
It was obvious, then, when the proposal was mooted for a new translation of the Russian nineteenth-century collection of seven tales known as The Way of a Pilgrim, that I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to go off with this wanderer, adding his features to the collection distinguishing my great-grandfather (who, I’d learnt by now, had been an Orthodox Christian), to accompany him to places familiar to me from literature and history and family legend that, though intensely beautiful, unpeopled, and unspoilt, were also harsh and remote, where you could be lost forever, even if you managed to return, swollen with unnamed suffering.
The roads of nineteenth-century Russian literature teem with wanderers and pilgrims. In this collection of tales, enormously popular when they appeared in 1884, my Pilgrim sets out one day on a quest which was giving him no peace: to discover the meaning of unceasing prayer, in response to St Paul’s exhortation to ‘pray without ceasing’ which he’d heard in church and which had exercised him. What did it actually mean? He is persistent, dogged, and not easily satisfied with the first answers he is given. He is readily told the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of prayer, but somehow, frustratingly, never the how. Finally, he finds a spiritual director or starets,a wise monastic elder, the kind consulted by writers like Tolstoy and Gogol, who found theirs at the famous monastery of Optina, celebrated for its startsy, the most famous of whom appears as Fr Ambrose in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.
The Pilgrim’s starets, to whom he opens his heart, introduces him to the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me (a sinner) – which, he says, ‘summarizes the whole Gospel’, and instructs him in how to go about saying it. Slowly, gradually, painfully, fighting boredom as much as anything else, the Pilgrim struggles until he’s physically aching, ratcheting up the number of prayers (thousands) he says daily until he acquires the skill of setting the prayer in motion, to run smoothly, automatically, alongside all daily vicissitudes. His starets then introduces him to the Philokalia, a kind of anthology of the writings of early fathers and ascetics, to deepen his understanding and knowledge of ‘unceasing prayer’, and bequeaths the Pilgrim his prayer rope after his death. These loops of usually woollen rope, made up of tight knots, typically a hundred, perhaps with beads along their length, were used to count the number of times one had prayed the Jesus Prayer. Alongside his bible and tatty Philokalia, which he buys for two roubles, the Pilgrim’s rope is his dearest possession, and like all precious things, it is almost stolen (by a wolf).
So far, so good. After this strenuous initiation, and to nurture his newly acquired habit, the Pilgrim sets off, walking several thousand miles (if you piece together his journey), positively euphoric, at one with the created world and overflowing with good will for his fellow-creatures whom we encounter as we follow him through forests, fields, villages and towns, and listen to some colourful stories of runaway girls not wanting to be married; horse thieves and soldiers; merchants and monks; innkeepers and nuns. The Pilgrim is homeless, he survives on a severely restricted diet of dried rusks, he’s out of work and liable to be arrested for vagrancy if he mislays his passport. He finds shelter through doing odd jobs: as a watchman in forests or gardens, for example, or as a churchwarden. He meets with both hospitality and hostility, he is befriended and beaten by turn, but almost invariably wins people over in the end, with his mixture of charm, ingenuousness and infectious enthusiasm, until he himself begins to attract people in search of spiritual advice and consolation.
What are you working on?acquaintances would ask. A nineteenth-century Russian classic, I’d answer airily, well aware what characters would be jostling immediately in their imaginations. When pressed further, I’d introduce my appealing folk hero, defensively, avoiding his eye as I pushed him forward, his elbow firmly in the grip of Franny Glass – it’s the pea-green book that Franny was reading in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey – I’d explain helpfully. Giving them a handle, locating him acceptably. They assured me they would buy and read, and I’d feel mildly treacherous, thinking beyond the charm of the first few tales to the final ones, which grow ever more theologically urgent in their emphasis on the need for prayer, answers to objections to prayer, the techniques of prayer, setting out their case in a mix of mini-tract, testimony, discourse and dialogue between a monk, a professor, a hermit, and our Pilgrim. What could the techniques of Hesychasm – a mystical tradition of prayer in the Eastern Church – communicate to the curious reader? I wanted the Pilgrim to be accessible, to stay as astonished as I was bemused. I made sure to supply his interjections, full of wonder, with sufficient exclamation marks, as accurately and appropriately as possible.
The Pilgrim does not spend his time enchanting us with descriptions of the countryside, or revealing how and whether he supplemented his diet with the fruits of the birch forests, though these beauties are undoubtedly a given, set quietly in the background of his travels. He brushes lightly over whole days spent quite alone before reaching a village; the ‘next 100 versts’ of walking (about 75 miles) are mentioned in passing; he takes to travelling by night so that he has more time to read by day, because the Pilgrim is anything but illiterate; he is a Man of the Book. He may be refreshingly in the here and now, but he also reads and studies endlessly. He is devoted to his Bible and the Philokalia.
I wondered what rose to the surface of great-grandfather’s mind as he walked in the forest. My own began to fill early with words that fell into beguiling patterns, choosing unexpected partners and settling into poetry or snatches of prose which clung on in the mind; the rhythm of walking was a perfect way to awaken them. Great-grandfather’s head didn’t echo with quotations, half-remembered lines. His eyes were quick and hands were doubtless always deft. The Pilgrim, by contrast, had a useless arm, injured in a fall, rendering him incapable of physical labour, He’d been taught to read because he couldn’t work. His mind was full of scripture and snatches of the Philokalia – indeed, the tales echo scripture constantly, whether through direct quotation, or swimming under the surface of the Pilgrim’s words. They colour his world. As the psalms no doubt coloured the mind of his Master, and as the Pilgrim’s words echo, in turn, in Franny’s mind, as she clutches the Tales like her own talisman against disillusion. If anything might echo in the minds of both the Pilgrim and great-grandfather, it could only be the poetry of liturgy.
It isn’t actually possible, though, is it? a friend said to me, pondering the Pilgrim’s ‘prayer rule’. I mean, you just can’t do it. Where’s the time? I wanted to agree (although I didn’t see the same incredulity extended to the modern much-touted ‘10,000-hour rule of expertise’) and I wasn’t keen to start brandishing a prayer rope to try. I had taken to wearing a discreet, thin wrist-rope, which I’d bought at St Julien-le-Pauvre in Paris and which was pink and unremarkable, not grimly black. But 12,000 Jesus prayers a day? That was the Pilgrim’s tally by the end of the first of the seven Tales, when he’s a praying trainee, under the direction of the starets. Of course, I reassured myself, the point is not the literalness, but the general mindfulness – the term was plausible to the modern mind, with a big enough internet footprint to be familiar; I made sure to slip it subtly into my translation where it fit, the tiniest jolt of recognition of what it might all be about. The internalization of the prayer, until it united with the rhythm of breathing and the beating of the heart.
So if the Pilgrim’s quest did not reconcile me to a prayer rope in any meaningful way, what did I take back with me in my knotted handkerchief when we finally parted company? I was struck by the consistent and constant assignation of meaning, a breath-taking acceptance of causality and linking of events, of dreams in which directions are imparted, or your starets speaks to you.An ordered, harmonious universe is a given for the Pilgrim, and everything in it is a gift, a warning, or a lesson. The sense of certainty was reassuring, but felt even more achingly out of reach now than then, when the clerk at the inn where the Pilgrim is fixing his prayer-rope, snapped by the wolf but miraculously rescued, says: You holy pious types see miracles everywhere! What’s so holy about this? You hurled something at a wolf and he took fright and ran off… Does so little happen in the world that we have to believe immediately that everything is a miracle?
The Pilgrim would say yes. He wanders on the opposite bank of the grand narratives of the 20thcentury, which pushed God to one side and then smacked him off the edge of a precipice, before neatly dissolving into heaps of shifting signifiers, where nothing is true and everything is possible. And yet the Pilgrim’s voice is so fresh, so oddly appealing, that at moments the distance between his bank and ours does not seem so great. There are even intimations, perhaps, of future philosophical crises in certain strange stories over which the Pilgrim and his interlocutors puzzle. The young wagoner, for instance, who stops the train of wagons he is leading because of a powerful desire to submerge himself into a freezing-cold stream in which the thawing ice of early spring is churning. He dies soon afterwards. Or the man who has an overwhelming urge to throw himself into a precipice he passes every day – and finally, he does. No one knows why. There is something ominous about these accounts which evade objections of madness or naivety. They seem to gesture at something other at work in the human mind, to be released later in history with a vengeance.
The Pilgrim’s world is full of vivid characters and not a few scoundrels, but he remains grateful for every small act of generosity and, if not quite unperturbed, he is certainly not surprised by any villainy he encounters. He sits in church, watching the visitors: ‘Some came to pray, some came out of boredom, and some came hoping to pinch something out of the collection plate.’ He is full of blessings and thanks for the good he receives at the hands of people, but his gratitude comes back always to God in the end, as the ultimate source of goodness. Which leads me back to the original question of just what this curious thing, this practice of prayer, can mean to someone now? The Pilgrim is quite certain of one thing: prayer already exists in the human heart – something to be untethered, directed, tended and released: ‘there’s a secret prayer inside a person that he’s not even aware of; it emerges spontaneously inside the soul, all by itself…’
Consequently, there is the deep, urgent focus on the act itself of praying. Anyone can do this, says the Pilgrim, but we are far from ourselves and don’t much want to know ourselves better. We avoid confronting ourselves at all costs and exchange the truth for trifles. Is it prayer, then, which, untethered, in turn tethers and illumines that which otherwise might drive us over the precipice? Refines our reading of the signs of the times? Whatever objections, incredulousness, scepticism, or sheer bone-idleness and distraction, the absolute, almost pleading, insistence that one should go ahead – devote oneself toquantity, the only thing in our power, and let God worry about the quality – without waiting for a well-crafted set of reasons, did give me pause. The Pilgrim has a powerful drive to weld the impulses of the mind – and the heart, he would say – to concrete actions. On the other side of that great chasm of the 20th century that separates me from the Pilgrim, I come across things that bring him oddly, unexpectedly to mind. I remembered how the Pilgrim had walked to Kiev, the 10th -century cradle of Orthodoxy in those parts and home to the famous Monastery of the Caves, when I was reading about Mustafa Nayyem, a Ukrainian reporter who, when urging his Facebook friends during the unrest in November 2013 to protest on the Maidan and to set off physically, not leaving things in the realms of the ‘virtual’, posted: ‘Likes don’t count.’ I cannot tell what the Pilgrim would have made of it.
The Way of a Pilgrim. Candid Tales of a Wanderer to his Spiritual Father, translated by Anna Zaranko; edited and with an Introduction by Andrew Louth. Penguin Classics: Penguin, Random House, UK, 2017. Pp. xviii + 197. ISBN 978-0-241-30977-3. Pbk. £12.99. All quotations from this edition.
The lines quoted in the second paragraph are from Julia Fiedorczuk’s poem ‘Psalm XXXI’, in Bill Johnston’s translation.
Anna Zaranko MONK