Pilgrim's Progress: Walking Backward from England to Childhood, Part III
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?
I read Pilgrim’s Progress in college and fell in love with it. I still have my copy, beaten up and full of comments and questions. I’ve been meaning to reread it as I tackle my memoir and with your reminder in your wonderful post will do it immediately! It is at the top of my all time favorites! Thanks, Shirley for getting me back on track!
Glad to know that this was a post you can use, Joan.
Which version of the story did you read? Did it have illustrations? I presume a college text would have been more formal. I was surprised to see quite a few versions.
Do you see your memoir as a journey story?
Shirley, wonderful, thought-provoking post! I enjoyed reading about you reaction to Pilgrim’s Progress.
We read it in high school, but it was interpreted through the lens of the fundamentalist Christian school I attended. I don’t remember reading it with wonder as much as with fear.
I found it fascinating that you drew pictures of families and made up stories about them. I did the same thing, though my drawing skills were not as strong as yours. I loved making up names for the characters.
Thanks, Tina. I’m interested in how the school taught the book. Was it in conjunction with evangelism or with warnings about behaviors? One of the things those illustrations did for me was give the book a little less severity.
Drawing and naming. Two great activities to take us worlds away. Thanks for sharing your experience here also.
Shirley, it was more in the sense of evangelism, making sure we were “saved,” and believed in a certain way.
Mine was a formal version, no illustrations. I’ll have to check out other versions. my memoir is absolutely a journey story, moving from abuse and trauma by way of difficult pathways to love and compassion for my abusers and most importantly, myself.
So in seventh grade you were already a writer – that’s a good first line! And nicely done illustrations. I think men are hard to drawy. I enjoyed this post and think how wonderful you have at least some childhood writings to look back at. I suppose I ought to go read that classic Pilgrim’s Progress. I’m feeling deficient, although I think my morals are pretty high. 🙂
Impeccable, Linda! Your morals are Impeccable, I’m sure. Wouldn’t that be a fun character to draw?
Thanks for complimenting my novel. 🙂 I think it was highly influenced by the Nancy Drew books I had read. Here’s the telling line: “She saw her father’s rather dirty Buick pull up along the curb. She quickly hopped in and watched her father’s expression turn to pleasure.”
Thanks for the comment!
What an indepth and beautiful reflection,Shirley on how one story can have such a profound , lifelong impact on us. I read it in high school but you make me want to reread it! Your childhood diary is a treasure and I agree with Linda, the first line of your novel has what it takes to make me want to turn the page! How wonderful that you were able to take a real pilgrimage back in time so that you can keep moving forward on a clear and focused path. Best wishes on finishing the first draft of your memoir.. You are so right-it truly is a journey!
Thanks, Kathy. Maybe after finally wrestling my memoir into publication, I’ll take up novel writing.
Thanks for sharing your own experience reading it in high school. It seems lots of people read it in class. I doubt that public schools would still use it.
Did you go to a public school?
You are writing of a formative book from my Mennonite childhood, Shirley. We had a hardbound book at home and a paperback version in the church library. The language in the paperback one was more accessible to my young mind, and the hardbound one had grand black and white pictures and made the journey seem so serious. I felt Christian’s decision to make the journey was like my decision to stand for Christ, so I got a glimpse from Christian’s adventures that life would be full of obstacles and sloughs of despond.
I had never made the comparison to Star Wars, but, yes, it is Star Wars that spoke loudly to my children. I had lost track of all my copies of Pilgrims Progresses by the time I had children, but they did get some doses of Narnia and Lord of the Rings.
I recently unpacked a small paperback version of Pilgrim’s Progress that my grandma gave me late in her life. It has a ribbon in it; she used those for markers. Maybe it’s time to read it again. Thanks for sharing your connections to the book and to pilgrimage.
Thanks, Dolores, and welcome back to the comment section. So glad the post evoked memories. It took me a long time to write this post because I had to connect to a way that relates to my adult faith and not just to my childhood fears and imaginings.
Hope that ribbon was placed in a good spot for you to remember not only the story, but the child reading the story, and the grandmother who last placed that ribbon in the book.
Hello Shirley, it is so interesting to read this as my friend just spoke of how we don’t see the Pilgrim’s Progress anymore and how we’ve forgotten that the struggle is so much a part of this journey. It has been so many years since I’ve read it, I had to cheat and visit Wikipedia for the outline. Thanks for bringing us back to these ancient and very present truths.
No one better illustrated the difficulties of the journey than John Bunyan! And this children’s version is my favorite.
These Robert Lawson characters are so vivid they lasted over fifty years in my mind.
Thanks for the comment. Love having your voice here.
What a profound, wonderful, spiritual essay, Shirley. I love:
“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.”
You’ve hit it out of the ballpark. I’ve never read Pilgrim’s Progress and it appears I need to, to feed my soul. It obviously matters what stories we first hear. I wonder if one’s pilgrimage might be simply to feast on new stories, the ones we might have had all along but missed?
Thank you so much, Richard.I’m honored and moved by your words. And I’d love to know how the book reads to you. Anyone who knows the KJV of the Bible as well as you do will recognize Bunyan’s total immersion in the primary text.
I love your idea of feasting on new stories. Isn’t it Borges who said heaven is a library?
What a rich reading experienced I’ve enjoyed while drinking my morning coffee just now! Thanks for the many layers of inspiration.
Thanks, Gloria. I hope you will find something helpful in these words for your own pilgrimage ahead!
And I will be all ears (and eyes) when you choose the best way to share the experience.
Blessings on the journey.
[…] His wife Lucy, in the book’s epilogue, concludes by quoting from a hymn text unfamiliar to me but written by John Bunyan and derived from Pilgrim’s Progress. […]