The Jesus Prayer: The Anonymous Pilgrim's Story

By Ron Bender © 2006

Do you know the story of the Anonymous Russian Pilgrim? He has inspired me to offer little prayers to Jesus from the Psalms all day everyday.

I have discovered that what was true for the Anonymous Pilgrim has been true for me and many people that I have helped: God can use a little prayer to bring about a big change!

An Unforgettable, Heart-Warming Story

One day in the early 1800’s a poor young man went to church in Russia. He was depressed. He had lost the use of his arm in a tragic accident. He had been orphaned at an early age. His brother had stolen his inheritance. His wife had died after just a few short years of marriage. He was homeless and alone in the world.

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. 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

As the Anonymous Pilgrim walked the countryside of Russia he kept asking people 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. He longed for a deeper intimacy with Jesus.

Finally the pilgrim came upon a “staretz.” A staretz is a Russian term for a spiritual elder known as a holy person. It’s 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” or the longer version, “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.

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. 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.

How I Was Impacted

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 carry My Psalms Prayer Book on my heart (sometimes literally!) as I walk and pray with Jesus throughout the day.

But I don’t follow the Anonymous Pilgrim’s approach exactly – I adapted it.

I knew I needed more variety than one main prayer! So instead of just praying the Jesus Prayer I pray the Psalms morning noon and night with Jesus in sequence over a two month period and I mine from each Psalm one or more little Abiding Prayers and I use these to help me to practice God’s presence throughout the day. (Many of the short Psalm-inspired prayers I’ve written are very similar to the Jesus Prayer.)

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 silence and solitude to pray nothing but the Jesus Prayer (or a similar little prayer inspired by a Psalm) 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 or more it’s been a good day. Even in a day of stress, disappointment, or pain continually reaching out for the hand of Jesus gives me such peace and joy – it makes all that I do more meaningful and easier.

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Ronald Bender- President/CEO Bender Consulting.~



Faith In God