Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Pilgrim's Progress

For our parish book discussion this month, we veered slightly from the “Great Catholic Fiction motif” to embrace the great Protestant classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, first published in 1678, long considered one of the most influential religious books ever written in English, and since translated into many other languages as well. Although I’d known about The Pilgrim’s Progress all my life, this was in fact the first time I ever actually read this superb expression of Reformation sensibility – so obviously germane to the type of Protestantism which so strongly influenced American society at its very beginning.

The Pilgrim’s Progress recounts the allegorical journey of an “everyman” character, "Christian," from his worldly home in the "City of Destruction" to salvation in “The Celestial City.” Christian begins his journey weighed down by a great burden, the knowledge of his sinfulness, an awareness acquired from reading the Bible. To save himself, he leaves behind his home, and his wife and children, whom he could not persuade to accompany him. Along the way, he meets all sorts of allegorical characters with wonderfully descriptive names like “Evangelist,” “Obstinate,” “Pliable,” “Worldly Wiseman,” etc., and passes through spiritual challenges allegorically portrayed as places, e.g., “the Slough of Despond,” “the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” etc. There are also helpful places along the way – “the Hill of Deliverance,” representing the Cross of Christ (where he is relieved of his burden), and “the House Beautiful,” representing the local Protestant congregation. Passing through “Vanity Fair,” he is arrested (along with “Faithful”) because of their disdain the vanities there. Faithful is martyred, but “Hopeful,” appears on the scene to join Christian the rest of the way. The two are captured and imprisoned by “Giant Despair,” who imprisons them in “Doubting Castle,” but from which they are able to escape using a key called “Promise.”

And so on … (You get the picture).

In an earlier, more religiously literate age, the allegories and scriptural references would undoubtedly have been readily recognized and appreciated. The idea would have been for every ordinary (Protestant) Christian to recognize his or her own spiritual journey in the tale. More broadly, the fact that Christian must ultimately make this pilgrimage more or less on his own (admittedly with lots of help along the way) undoubtedly reflects the individualistic premise presumed by the Reformation theology. (In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Second Part, which appeared in 1684, Christian's wife and children also make the pilgrimage, showing that women no less than men are capable of the journey out of this world to salvation, and indeed that ordinary, less heroic, even frail people can become pilgrims).

In our discussion last evening, I invited the group to try to imagine what a competing Catholic version might have looked like. Catholic Counter-Reformation theology promoted a comparably strong spirituality, but one more centered on the Church and the sacraments. The “pilgrim” would likely have encountered many of the same threats and challenges along the way, but would have been assisted and supported in a very different way by the structures of the Church and its sacramental life. More than likely, a Catholic alternative would have highlighted a path to perfection through consecrated religious life. Those not called to such a life, however, would not necessarily have had to stay behind in the “City of Destruction,” but would have relied on the structures of the Church and its sacramental system to help them along.
Part of the distinctive religious dynamic of the Reformation, with all sorts of subsequent social ramifications (as Max Weber and others have shown), was that by abolishing the special path to personal perfection proposed by consecrated religious life, the Reformation, as has been said, made “every man a monk,” sending everyone (or at least everyone who cared about his or her salvation) along that strenuous pilgrim path.

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