Pilgrims Who Make No Progress

by

To describe life as a journey is such a perfect metaphor that writers in every age return to it again and again. Western culture is full of pilgrims, headed in different directions, to different destinations. Before John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, there was Piers Plowman by an anonymous medieval writer. Both are allegories that are, at the same time, highly realistic. Instead of reflecting the sophisticated society of the courts and the universities, both come out of the world of peasants, craftsmen, and farmers. Both authors were poor and uneducated, and yet both were literary geniuses.

But they write about very different pilgrimages. The pilgrim in Piers Plowman goes through a tortuous path to find “Do-Well.” When he does, he next has to go on another trip to find “Do-Better.” But that is not enough. When he attains “Do-Better,” he next must go through another labyrinthine and confusing journey to find “Do-Best.” And he never finds what he is looking for. The author was never able to bring his story to a finish.

Piers Plowman reflects the spiritual conundrums of the late middle ages. The problem with salvation by works is that one never knows how many works are enough. The plot in Piers Plowman goes around in circles, goes off on puzzling side-paths, and gets lost in bewildering tangles.

An even greater work of literature than either of these is Dante’s Divine Comedy. It too is an allegorical pilgrimage. Dante as the pilgrim journeys through the depths of hell, then laboriously climbs the mountain of purgatory, then flies up through the heavenly spheres until he finally reaches God.

Dante’s allegory is profound. For example, the punishments of hell are symbolic of the sins in their nature. (The wrathful cut each other apart, just as they did on earth. Those who betray the ones who loved them are frozen in ice, mirroring their cold, cold hearts. The damned are in hell because they choose to be there. The saved in heaven are mirrors, reflecting the light and the love of God.)

But at its essence, again, is the arduous works-righteousness of medieval Catholicism. God is far above and far away. The pilgrim must somehow come to Him, slogging through hell, climbing up the mountain, transcending the world to reach God. In Bunyan, writing in the shadow of the Reformation, God comes down to the pilgrim in Christ, who is known personally through His Word.

Another allegorical pilgrimage that came out of the Reformation is Spenser’s Fairie Queene. The first book of that sprawling, dream-like epic is about the journey of a pilgrim named Red Crosse Knight who seeks to attain holiness. Its subject is thus sanctification.

The Red Crosse Knight starts out on the right road, accompanied by a maiden named Una, symbolic of the one, true faith. He gets confused by a man who looks holy on the outside but is, in reality, an evil wizard, Archimago. This symbol of the Church of Rome makes Red Crosse disillusioned with Una, so that he, literally, leaves his faith behind. He takes up instead with Duessa, a woman who appears beautiful but is really a wicked witch, a symbol of false belief. Poor Red Crosse thinks he is holy, through his pride and works-righteousness, but he only gets further and further off the path. Eventually, after confrontations with three knights named Without Faith, Without Law, and Without Joy, he is thrown into the dungeon of the giant Pride, where he wastes away in despair.

Red Crosse has to be rescued. On his own, he is in bondage. But symbols of God’s grace — light from heaven, the balm from a tree, a fountain of water — not only free him from the dungeon but enable him to be re-united with Una and to defeat the dragon of Satan.

After Bunyan, when a new vision of “progress” emerged, writers wrote about new kinds of pilgrimages. The great American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a takeoff of Bunyan called The Celestial Railroad. Reflecting nineteenth-century technology and liberal theology, the more modern pilgrim finds an easier way to the Celestial City: he takes the train.

After all, engineers have built a bridge over the Slough of Despond and installed gas lights to illuminate the Valley of the Shadow of Death. The pilgrim has it easy. He goes to church in Vanity Fair, where he listens to the sermons of Rev. Stumble-at-Truth and Rev. Shallow-Deep. Guided by Mr. Smooth-it-Away, he makes fun of the handful of pilgrims he sees out the train window living the Christian life in the old way. Unfortunately, at the end of the line, his train plunges into a tunnel straight to hell.

Today, people tend to see the journey of their lives as, in the words of a TV show, a Highway to Heaven. We drive on in our isolated automobiles, in a world of our own, on a vast interstate highway, to our own private destinations. That is not progress.

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