The fundamental and all-encompassing theme of spiritual life is pilgrimage: its images are the images of wayfaring, of exile and repatriation, of alienation and reconciliation, images of journeying through wilderness to gain the promised land. The Bible abounds in imagery of that kind, from the beginning to the end; from man's ancient exile from the paradise of Eden, in the Book of Genesis, to the vision of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. Indeed, the Scriptures represent the whole of our existence, the whole of natural and spiritual life, under images of pilgrimage: from the descent of all things from God in creation, to their return to him in the final summing up of hell and heaven. The theme is all-inclusive, and cosmic in dimension. As St. Paul explains (Rom. 8:19-23), "the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now .... awaiting the adoption", when "the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God".

Pilgrimage - pilgrimage to glory, pilgrimage to liberty - is the life of all creation, and the meaning of all natural and human history.

The work of God for man's redemption is represented, too, in just such imagery: the descent of God the Son into the world to do the Father's will, and his return, through a wilderness of suffering and deprivation, to the homeland of the Father's glory; the descent of God the Spirit upon the infant Church, giving unity and order to the chaos of conflicting tongues, and the return of God the Spirit in the Church's life of charity, of penitence and adoration, making intercession "with groanings that cannot be uttered" (Rom. 8:26).

Finally, in a difficult and profoundly important sense, pilgrimage is the very life of God himself, the Holy Trinity: the outgoing of God the Father in his own self-knowing, which is the eternal begetting of his Word; and the eternal procession of God the Holy Spirit, whereby the knower and the known are bound in mutual love. Thus, the very name of God, as love, bespeaks the timeless pilgrimage of God. What, then, is man's imaging of God, but a timely imitation of that eternal pilgrimage? What is man's vocation, but the call to take the pilgrim's way, to be caught up in the drawing of that supernal triune love which (as Dante puts it) "moves the sun and the other stars"? [1]

The whole of revelation is encompassed by the images of pilgrimage, of wilderness and paradise. It is possible, of course, to translate those images into the more precise, explicit language of theology - to "demythologise" the images - and we may attempt something of the sort from time to time; but mainly, I think, we should stay close to the language of the images themselves. That is, after all, the primary form of revelation, and although the precisions of theology are important and necessary, the images have a depth and richness, or wholeness., which the exactness and explicitness of scientific language can never quite exhaust. [2]

Consider, for instance, so simple a composition as a few lines of an old "spiritual", which move entirely on the plane of biblical imagery:

I looked over Jordan an' what did I see,
Comin' for to carry me home?
A band of angels, comin' after me,
Comin! for to carry me home.
What is being said there? Nothing, really, is explained, yet everything is said, in the wonderful play of images.

"I looked over Jordan": the pilgrim people stand at the border of the promised land, looking with eager, yearning eyes towards the place of liberty and peace, longing for the fulness of salvation. Behind them lies the bondage of Egypt, and the miracle of Exodus; the forty years of weary wandering; the pillar of cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night; manna from the skies, and water from the stoney rock; fiery serpents to scourge, and the brazen serpent to heal; laws and prophecies, and fears and hopes; all that, and so much more, lies behind those yearning eyes.

"I looked over Jordan". The river is the last frontier, the border between the wilderness and paradise, the border which only faith can cross. It is the mystery of water: floods that either overwhelm or fructify; waters of destruction and regeneration, death and re-birth; water of baptism; waters that "make glad the city of God" (Ps. 46:5); all that, and more, is there.

"I looked over Jordan, an' what did I see?". The eyes of faith, purified and chastened in the wilderness, clarified through suffering and deprivation, can look across the border and see divine deliverance: "A band of angels, comin' after me". I cannot cross the river by myself; only God can give salvation, only God can "carry me home". The angels are his messengers and messages: angels, who rejoice over every sinner who repents; messengers of God - all the beneficent powers and virtues of nature and of grace, revealed and given in the Gospel of the Saviour, "comin' for to carry me home". "Home" is where the heart is; the place of freedom and security, the Father's mansion, to which the Prodigal returns from wandering in barren places.

All that, and so much more, is contained in, and evoked by, those few, simple lines, by virtue of the richness and the interplay of divinely-given images. These are images of pilgrimage, and each one suggests and calls to mind a host of others. One could explain for hours, and still not be much below the surface. There is always something more there, something new and fresh to be seen there. Such is the language of revelation, the language of liturgy and prayer. That language is not just about pilgrimage: the understanding of the language, the penetration of the images, is itself a kind of pilgrimage. God is not, finally, other than his Word; and to penetrate the images, to see through them to their very ground, will be to see God face to face in the life of paradise. God's word may seem a wilderness of words; but its images are translucent, and his word becomes a paradise of light and life. [3]

The substance of our meditations will be the images of pilgrimage, of paradise and wilderness, as they are found in Holy Scripture; and St. Augustine and Dante will provide us with two eminent examples of the fecundity of those images for the Christian mind. But, just before we venture on that quest, I want to do something which may strike you as a diversion.

Images of pilgrimage are not only biblical and Christian; they are universal. As historians of religion, and historians of art and literature have fully demonstrated, such images inform the consciousness and aspirations of every human culture, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, in modern as well as in ancient times, in every quarter of the globe. [4] Whether we explain this fact according to an ancient Platonic theory of "recollection", or a modern Jungian theory of the "collective unconscious" (which are perhaps not, after all, so very different), or in some other way, the phenomenon, at least, is evident: these images belong somehow to the essence of our humanity; they are essential and permanent features of our spiritual landscape, whether secular or sacred. And even if we deny the images, and seek to banish them, and lose ourselves in immediate occupations, still they impinge upon our consciousness, in the sense of emptiness and futility they leave behind them. By our very denial, we somehow affirm them.

The images are universal, and belong essentially to the human consciousness; they are not only biblical and Christian. The similarities are striking and profound. But even more significant are certain crucial differences. I think that we can better understand both the likenesses and the differences, if we first establish some context of comparison, and for that reason, although it might seem to be a diversion, I want to explore first some images of pilgrimage in pagan culture; specifically in the spirituality of ancient, pagan Greece and Rome.

I think that will be the most useful comparison, for several reasons: first, because in that pagan culture, we find a spirituality developed to a very high degree, richly articulated in artistic and literary forms, and thoroughly interpreted; secondly, because (as we shall see with St. Augustine) it was in relation to that culture that the distinctive claims of Christianity were sharply clarified; and thirdly, because it is towards that pagan spirituality that we ourselves are drawn. when we forget our Christianity. Historically, Christianity both assumes and rejects that ancient paganism. There is no St. Augustine without the pagan Platonists, though he is their severest critic; [5] and there is no Dante without Aristotle and Virgil, though he is compelled to consign the great philosopher, "il maestro di color che sanno" - "the master of those who know" - together with his beloved poet, everlastingly to Limbo, the state of frustrated aspiration.[6] His pain and gentleness in doing so makes one of the most moving episodes, I think, in all of Dante's poetry.

I think that we, too, must have some sense of the nobility and tragedy of paganism, if we would understand the glory and the liberating force of the images of biblical and Christian spirituality. And therefore, I ask you to follow me, for a brief space, into the literature of ancient Greece and Rome.

Fundamental in that literature are the images of pilgrimage: the odos - the road that lies before us, the journey, and the agon - the hero's struggle through a wilderness of one sort or another, to find a reconciliation, a paradise, which is eternal and divine. Homer, sometimes called "the Bible of the Greeks", sets the tone of this heroic pilgrimage, most obviously in the Odyssey, the great epic poem about Odysseus, the wayfarer, the pilgrim (that is what his name means), as he make his homeward way from ruined Troy to Ithaca. His wilderness is a wilderness of sea and islands (the "wine-dark sea", presided over by unfriendly Poseidon, but still within the providence of Zeus), through which he makes his way, beset by peril., trials and temptation., hungering for home.

It is a wonderful adventure story; but it is also more than that: it embodies a profound spiritual lesson, one which holds the essence of all pagan tragedy; and most astutely does Aristotle identify Homer as the first of the tragedians. Consider how the story ends: Odysseus, finally returned to Ithaca, slaughters the suitors of his wife, Penelope; and when their sons and brothers come upon him to avenge their deaths, he proceeds to slaughter them relentlessly, and his hand is stayed only by the intervention of Athena, who (says Homer)

... cast a grey glance at her friend, and said: 'Son of Laertes and the gods of old, Odysseus, master of land ways and sea ways, command yourself. Call off this battle now, or Zeus who views the wide world may be angry'. [7]
The point is just this: the hero must learn what are the human limitations, and moderate his zeal. His thirst is for a completeness, the divine realm, "the wide world" which belongs to Zeus alone. Precisely in heroic aspiration lies the tragic flaw, the hero's hubris - the overweening pride which knows no finite limits; really, the satanic temptation to "be as gods, knowing good and evil", having the whole in one's possession. "Gnothi seauton" said the oracle at Delphi, "know thyself"; know that you are a man, and not a god, and be content with human limitations.

There is the essence of the tragic view of life: heroic virtue, heroic aspiration, is heroic hubris, and is destined for defeat. That is the worm at the heart of pagan spirituality: the endless cycles of aspiration and despair. There is an odos, a road of pilgrimage, a journey through a wilderness of suffering, but that road turns back upon itself, and ends in contradiction. Dante rightly sees that the conclusion of the Odyssey is really no conclusion; that heroic virtue cannot abide the limitation; and therefore, he provides a sequel (apparently his own invention), in which he attributes to Odysseus one final, disastrous assault upon Mount Purgatory, the Earthly Paradise [8] .

Illustrations could be multiplied indefinitely from the poets, the religious movements, and the philosophers of ancient pagan culture. The philosophers speak, of course, a somewhat different language, but the message is the same: the gulf between the pure and perfect good of paradise, which is divine, and the realities of human life, is eternally unbridgeable. The divine good, says Aristotle, is "a life too high for man", though, at the same time, it is the only end of human longing, and man's only final happiness. [9] There is that in man which is divine, and man will be satisfied with nothing less. The pilgrimage is both necessary and impossible. That is the tragic contradiction.

One more illustration seems especially important, if only because it lies so directly in the background of both St. Augustine and Dante. That is from the Roman poet, Virgil. In the sixth book of the Aeneid, Aeneas, under the auspices of the prophetic Sibyl, makes a journey to the underworld, the place of the departed, to the fields of Elysium (the place of liberty), where he converses with his own departed father, Anchises. Aeneas is much puzzled to see a multitude of souls gathered at the border of the river Lethe, the waters of forgetfulness. Anchises explains that all these souls, pure spirits, sparks of elemental fire, must drink these waters of oblivion, so that they may endure, once more, to enter into the fetters of the body, to be hampered once again by the body's evils.

Each of us (says Anchises) finds the world of death fitted to himself. Then afterwards we are released to go free about wide Elysium, and we few possess the fields of joy, until length of days, as time's cycle is completed, has removed the hardened corruption, and leaves, without taint now, a perception pure and bright, a spark of elemental fire. Now when these souls have trodden the full circle of a thousand years, God calls all of them forth in long procession to Lethe river, and this he does so that when they again visit the sky's vault, they may be without memory, and a wish to re-enter bodily life may dawn. [10]
Then Aeneas returns to earthly life, and, says Virgil, he returns through the gate of ivory; the gate through which the spirits send the visions which are false in the light of day.

Just what is being said there? One must aspire to paradise, the place of joy and liberty, the place of pure and perfect good, the divine life. But that is God's life; for man, it is a false dream which spirits send through gates of sleep. To possess the earth, and content oneself with it, one must drink the waters of oblivion, and forget Elysium. One must find substitutes, of course: the most potent was the pious fiction that the Empire was eternal, and the Emperor divine. A fiction, certainly; and surely one knew it was a fiction. But it was a spiritually necessary fiction, and really no less plausible than the similarly necessary fictions of modern paganism.

"Idolatry", cried the Christians, and, of course, they were absolutely right. But then, idolatry in one form or another is all that one has left when one despairs of the pilgrimage to God. The comment of St. Gregory the Great, looking back on Roman history, seems to me profoundly perceptive. Speaking of the reign of Trajan, whom he much admired, and those days of imperial prosperity, he says: "In their hearts, it had already withered" [11] .

From a pagan standpoint, the pure and perfect good, the divine life, is the deepest longing, the highest aspiration, of the human spirit; but alas, its conclusion is impossible; it is a life too high for man. That has nothing to do with any moral failure of ours. There is nothing voluntary about it, it is simply the nature of things. The distance is too great, there can be no mediation. That is just the way things are, have always been, and always will be, and we had best content ourselves with that. To insist on more than that is folly, the flaw of hubris, the tragic flaw; it goes too far.

Dante can blame Odysseus, and with a stroke of sheer poetic brilliance, give his story a conclusion, and place him far down in the "Inferno", in the circle of the fraudulent. [12] . But that judgement is possible only from a Christian standpoint. From a pagan point of view, there is really nothing essentially voluntary in the situation of Odysseus. As Homer's Alcinous tells Odysseus, "That was all gods' work, weaving ruin there so it would make a song for men to come".[13] . The predicament is simply there, in the nature of things. Zeus has two urns, and pours from both, combining good and evil.[14] . The philosophers draw back from that conclusion: Plato denies the duplicity of Zeus, and insists that "the fault is his who chooses".[15] .

But then, as one sees in Plato's "Myth of Er", the choice is limited; one cannot really choose the paradise of God, but only among better and worse finite alternatives. [16] . The impasse remains.

We must ever keep an upward course, we must cultivate the virtues, and be disciplined by suffering; but we must know that, in the end, there really is no end, no final paradise for us. That is the nature of things, the everlasting order of the universe. We can make our idols, to be sure, our eternal empires and universal panaceas; but we cannot but suspect that they have feet of clay, and when we see that, the issue is despair. That is the essence, I think, of that pagan "futility of mind" of which St. Paul speaks in his Letter to the Romans. [17] .

It is against the background of that spiritual impasse that we should begin to look at some aspects of biblical spirituality in the Old Testament images of paradise and wilderness.



1. Dante, Divine Comedy, "Paradiso, XXXIII, 145: "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle". Cf. Boethius, Consol., II, m. VIII:

O Felix hominum genus,
Si vestros animos amor
Quo caelum regitur regat.
2. On the place of images (metaphor) in Scripture, see St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., I, 1, 9; for a discerning modern discussion of the same matter, see A. M. Farrer, The Glass of Vision (London, 1948).

3. Cf. St. Augustine, Confessions, XII, 28, and XIII.

4. See especially M. Eliade, The Quest. History and Meaning in Religion (Chicago and London, 1969); "The Yearning for Paradise in Primitive Tradition", in Diogenes (1959); and other works by the same author.

5. St. Augustine, Confessions, VII; City of God, passim; R. D. Crouse, "Semina Rationum: St. Augustine and Boethius", Dionysius, 4 (1980), 75-86.

6. Dante, Divine Comedy, "Inferno", IV, 131.

7. Homer, Odyssey, XXIV, 542-44 (tr. Robert Fitzgerald, The Odyssey of Homer, Garden City, N.Y., 1963, p-462).

8. Dante, Divine Comedy, "Inferno", XXVI.

9. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X, 7-8.

10. Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 473-51 (tr. W. F. Jackson Knight, Virgil. The Aeneid, Harmondsworth, 1958, p. 169).

11. St. Gregory the Great, Hom. XXVIII (quoted by C. Dawson, "The Dying World", in St. Augustine and his Age, New York, 1957, p. 25).

12. Dante, Divine Comedy, "Inferno", XXVI.

13. Homer, Odyssey, VII, 577-580 (tr. R. Fitzgerald, op. cit., p.142).

14. Homer, Iliad, XXIV, 527-32.

15. Plato, Republic, II, 379d.

16. Plato, Republic, X, 614b-520d. In Republic, X, 611, Plato speaks movingly of the soul's aspiration: "our description of the soul is true of her present appearance; but we have seen her afflicted by countless evils, like the sea-god Glaucus, whose original form can hardly be discerned...But we must rather fix our eyes, Glaucon, on her love of wisdom and note how she seeks to apprehend and hold converse with the divine, immortal and everlasting world to which she is akin, and what she would become if her affections were entirely set on following the impulse which would lift her out of the sea in which she is now sunken, and disencumber her of all that wild profusion of rock and shell, whose earthy substance has encrusted her, because she seeks what men call happiness by making earth her food" (tr. F. M. Cornford, The Republic of Plato, Oxford, 1941, pp. 345-46). Dante employs the Glaucus story to describe his own transformation upon entering paradise (Paradiso, I, 68-59).

17. Romans 1:21.


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