Blessed by several experiences of pilgrimage this summer, I’m now in the final stage of the journey: the return, where the main focus is on reflection. Because I am also finishing the first draft of my memoir about a Mennonite childhood, the return takes me back not only in space but in time also. Like the characters in the frieze above, I am moving backward as I tell my tales.
The best connection I can make between my literal pilgrimage this summer and the metaphorical pilgrimage of my life is through a book: Pilgrim’s Progress. This classic seventeenth-century allegory written by Puritan preacher John Bunyan from his jail cell has influenced many writers and has been particularly influential in America, where focused attention on the part of the individual, the stark contrasts between good and evil, and the importance of effort in the face of obstacles resonated with the dominant Protestant ethos.
I remember being both scared of and attracted to the version of Pilgrim’s Progress I checked out of the Lititz Mennonite Church library. I was about nine or ten when Mother read the book to me and I followed along, gazing intently at the illustrations of Robert Lawson.
I identified with Christian, who struggled under the weight of his sins and who wanted so much to get to the Celestial City. Sin was very much on my mind when I was young, especially during revival meetings at church. I knew I had told lies. I had locked my little brother in the chicken house. I had felt jealousy. I had been glutinous. So I was as relieved as Christian when he gazed at the cross, midway through his pilgrimage, and felt his burden fall away.
But what I enjoyed most about the book were the illustrations of the many treacherous characters. Pilgrim’s Progress made an early impression on me as a dramatic telling of the same stories I had heard in Sunday School. When I raised my hand in a revival, I felt a lightness of being as I imagined Christian felt it as his burden rolled away.
When I encountered spiritual temptations, it helped to personify them in the way Bunyan wrote the story and Lawson drew it. A child tends to see the world allegorically anyway.
Pilgrim’s Progress was my Star Wars.
Looking at these illustrations after more than fifty years of time has passed and after I have been combing through memorabilia from childhood and adolescence, I found an interesting resemblance.
My only diary from childhood is this one:
Inside the orange Scribble-In Book, my one and only novel, written when I was in seventh grade, begins: “Paige Anderson stepped out into the shivery cold and wondered where her father was.” After three pages of hand-written flash fiction, the blank book suddenly becomes a diary instead. The entries are written very sporadically over the course of three years, 1961-1963.
Most of the book is blank, which seems fitting for the unformed state of my identity. Every day being a new adventure, I set off to find my own version of the Celestial City while leaving only a few scraps and fragments of childhood behind for my older self to find. I was too busy living my life to write about it.
But I did illustrate it. At the end of the Scribble-In Book, several pages of ink drawings stare back at me. I remember loving what happened in my mind and heart when my pen started to draw a face, usually the face of a young man. I would make up stories about my “families” as I drew them. I tried to convey different desires, beliefs, and personalities in their faces.
I didn’t have Robert Lawson’s illustration talent, but I often held my younger brother and three sisters in thrall as I drew my faces and talked about the people I was creating just with pen and paper.
The “Family Series” was a type of graphic novel with no words to muddle the images or to restrict the possibilities of the story. These were characters whose moral choices could be made anew just by gazing intently at them and deciding what they needed to learn today.
Every childhood is a pilgrimage.
We are born into a particular time, place, and family. And yet we end up making the journey alone, accumulating a backpack full of mistakes and worries, fears and wrongs, waiting for Bright Ones to encourage us. We have to learn to detect wise advice from cunning and deceit. We have to learn both to struggle valiantly and then let go with grace.
What makes the books we read as children so important is the act of immersion that leads to transcendence. We move inside a story, inside the blank pages of a book, and we suffer and triumph along with the characters we find there.
Later,one way or another, we create our own stories. We go on pilgrimage to remind ourselves of the wisdom from our Source. We remember all the other pilgrims who have gone before.
One of the gifts of this summer’s pilgrimage was remembering how long I have lived with the idea of life as a journey. In my bones, bones which I felt anew while walking on English earth, I know that the gates of the Celestial City, like the top of the spire of the Cathedral which shone in sunlight this summer, will actually take me back home to the bright meadow for which I am named and to which I go.
Did you read Pilgrim’s Progress as a child? Would you read it to your children or grandchildren? Is it better or worse food for the imagination and/or moral guidance than Star Wars? Does the pilgrimage image feed your soul?