pilgrim’s (and professor’s) progress

This weekend my semi-annual book purge unearthed my pocket-sized copy of The Way of A Pilgrim.  This artifact brought me right back to high school when I first discovered J. D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey.   Franny Glass walks around campus in an unfocused swoon, mouthing the words to the pilgrim’s prayer in an attempt to achieve the spiritual challenge to “pray unceasingly.”  It takes her older brother–the moody, cig-in-the-bath heartthrob Zooey–to set her straight about the proper faith/life balance.

I was so open to influence at sixteen that I could almost feel the new neural pathways forming as I read Salinger’s story.  The book joined a list of others that actively shaped who I was becoming.  My best friends and I regularly quoted from these books: “Keep passing the open windows!” (Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire).  A sign on my bedroom door read “This is the room of the wolfmother wallpaper” (Robbins’s Skinny Legs and All).  It might even have been my Constant, Mary, who bought me the little new-age classic The Way of A Pilgrim as a romantic second-course to Salinger.

I don’t think I ever read the book–just displayed it prominently in my locker.  What strikes me, reading it now, is how well it harmonizes with mindfulness meditation techniques I’ve learned over the last couple of years.  The Biblical injunction to “pray unceasingly,” taken up by the pilgrim in the book, turns out not to be about transcendence and asceticism at all.  It’s rather a way of being hyper-present, of slowing down and observing in the moment–just like the Buddhist pebble that sinks to the creek bottom and watches the current go by.

So, for anyone who loved Franny, who wanted to be her, as much as I did but was never quite curious enough to research what, exactly, she was up to with the pilgrim’s prayer, here is my 5- point summary of the technique:

1. Gaze at your chest and visualize your beating heart.  Try to coordinate your mind’s-eye image with the feeling of your real heartbeat.

2. On each inhalation say, in time with the beats of your heart-image, “Lord. Jesus. Christ.”

3. On each exhalation say, “Have. Mercy. On. Me.”  Repeat this for longer periods of time each day.

4. Once you’re up to whole days of this, your (real) heart will ache alarmingly, and then suddenly be filled with an intensely pleasurable sensation.

5. Eventually the prayer will become automatic, so that you can tune in to its cadence while carrying on with your daily activities.  The pleasure will always be with you, no matter what you’re doing.

I know: this sounds simultaneously too hard and too good to be true.  But I recently heard that the Dalai Lama can meditate whilst checking his email, so who am I to be skeptical?  Besides, there’s great poetry here, both in conjuring of one’s beating heart as a symbol of well-being and continuity, and in the humble reaching beyond oneself to ask for mercy.

Maybe our Franny Glass was onto something after all…


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