A Pilgrim’s Progress
It is not easy to be a Christian, a true follower of Jesus Christ. The world is, in the words of John Bunyan, the great English writer and preacher of the 17th Century, a ʺVanity Fair.ʺ His allegorical description of our ʺpilgrimageʺ through the life in this world with all of its temptations, trials, and fears, is as relevant today as it was when he wrote his great spiritual classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, back in 17th century England.
Bunyan was no stranger to the world’s difficulties. He was born into poverty, the son of a traveling tinker, a profession that he would also follow in his early years. He married a woman who was as poor as he, who brought with her into the marriage a simple ʺdowryʺ of two Puritan books. He would say of their union at the age of 21, ʺWe came together as poor as poor might be, not having so much household-stuff as a dish or spoon betwixt us both.ʺ But those two books his wife brought as her dowry would be the beginning of his conversion. As is not uncommon, the temptations of the world began to attack him fiercely as he was gradually converting his life to God. He says at one point in his autobiography, ʺI was, as at other times, most fiercely assaulted with this temptation, to sell and part with Christ; the wicked suggestion still running in my mind, Sell him, sell him, sell him, sell him, sell him, as fast as a man could speak.ʺ But with the help of God, he turned away from the ʺrecreationsʺ and distractions of his life and began attending a Separatist church in Bedford. Within four years he was attracting people from wide and far as a lay preacher of uncommon gift.
Because of his participation in a ʺSeparatistʺ church, at the time of the ʺRestoration of Charles II, he also spent time in prison for not ʺconforming to the Church of England.ʺ His first wife had died by this time and he had married again. He said that the worst punishment of his imprisonment was being separated from his new wife and his four children. He could have freed himself if he had promised not to preach, but he refused. But there was a grace in his imprisonment as well. He had the time, the incentive and the opportunity to write. Charles II finally relented and issued the Declaration of Indulgence, which enabled Bunyan to be released from prison. He was licensed as a Congregational minister and pastored a church in Bedford.
At this time he wrote his great book, Pilgrim’s Progress. The entire book was written as an allegory recounting ʺa pilgrim’sʺ difficult journey from ʺthe City of Destruction to the Celestial City.ʺ It begins with the line, ʺI saw a man clothed with rags…a book in his hand and a great burden upon his back.ʺ That burden was, of course, his sins. This pilgrim has to try to stay on the narrow path while traveling through places like the ʺSlough of Despondʺ, or the threat of depression and despair, and the relentless circus of Vanity Fair, a village of almost endless distractions and pleasures, all tempting the pilgrim to leave the road to the Celestial City.
Of course, that ʺpilgrimʺ is us, and that journey is ours. The problems of life that were allegorized in Bunyan’s great book, are still with us today. The world still threatens us with reasons to despair, still tempts us with all manner of immediate gratifications for the senses. Indeed, it is even more so. In Bunyan’s time, they did not have the instant access to the perverse, the titillating, and the distracting entertainments that crowd our environments today. The endless distractions of Hollywood, TV, glossy magazines, some types of popular music, are much more readily available, indeed, at our fingertips. And we can not forget the countless drugs used, appealed to, and ʺlegalizedʺ today, which are really nothing more than means to ʺescapeʺ the sufferings of the world by becoming, in essence, mindless. The internet, so easily accessed through our I-Pads and Tablets, smartphones, and computers, makes entering the chaos of Vanity Fair so simple, so easy, and so ʺsecretʺ (not), with just a few keystrokes. These technologies, in and of themselves, are neither good, nor evil, but since we human beings can use them for either purpose, we need to be ever much more aware of the difference.
As Christians, we have the information we need to come to know the difference between what IS good and what IS evil. We also have the means to be able to see the narrow path to the ʺCelestial Cityʺ and to stay on it. They are called the Scriptures and the Grace of God. If we keep our eyes on Jesus, we will not be drawn away from that narrow path by the flashing lights and the Siren songs of the world’s endless panoply of ʺpleasingʺ temptations. O, we know well that they are there. We even feel their intense draw, maybe even fall on occasion, but we know deep down in our hearts that those things are a fool’s folly. And we know that when we have lost our way, we can, in true sorrow and repentance, turn to Jesus and be forgiven. We know, too, that he will give us the graces we need to remain courageous and faithful. So we spend time reading the Scriptures, and time in quiet prayer. We call on God when we are being tempted and trust in his graceful aid. We ask for the support of others and give it when we are called upon, helping one another through the hard times. And we gradually make a habit of keeping our eyes on God. The more we do this, the more we will be able to say as the psalmist says in the shortest of all the psalms, Psalm 131:
ʺO Lord, my heart is not proud,
Nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great,
Nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul
In tranquility and silence.
As a weaned child on its mother,
As a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, wait for the Lord,
Both now and forever.ʺ
Can the whole Church say, Amen! Thanks be to God for his generous love, mercy and grace.