IMAGES OF PILGRIMAGE:

PARADISE AND WILDERNESS IN CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY


CONTENTS
CHAPTER I: BIBLICAL AND PAGAN IMAGES
CHAPTER II: THE OLD TESTAMENT
CHAPTER III: THE NEW TESTAMENT
CHAPTER IV: ST. AUGUSTINE
CHAPTER V: DANTE
CHAPTER VI: RECONCILIATION


Figures of wisdom back in the old sorrow
Hold and wait forever; We see, admire
But never suffer them: suffer instead
A stubborn aberration.
O God, the fabulous wings unused,
Folded in the heart.
[1]
With Dante's "Paradiso", our pilgrimage through images of wilderness and paradise has come to a conclusion; but that is not to say that the pilgrimage just ends there. The images live in countless other representations, pagan and Christian, ancient, medieval and modern. Many of the greatest works of modern literature would readily engender further chapters of our theme: one thinks immediately of Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Rousseau's Confessions, Goethe's Faust and Wilhelm Meister, and, in recent literature, of such works as Eliot's Waste Land, Kafka's Metamorphosis, Camus' Stranger, Sartre's No Exit, and so on.

What are all these, and countless others, but images of wilderness and paradise, Christian and pagan; paradise lost, paradise sought, paradise regained, or paradise impossible?

And it's not just the poets and the novelists: what, after all, is the spiritual substance of Das Kapital, but alienation, and repatriation to the harmonic bliss of a utopian paradise? The images are permanent features of our spiritual landscape, and we cannot think without them; they are witnesses of the restless heart, which has intimations of its homeland, and knows itself as a stranger and a pilgrim here.

The images are universal; but Christian thought and piety have a distinct understanding of them. As we have seen in our meditations on the Scriptures, St. Augustine and Dante, there is a certain collation and reconciliation of the images, which constitutes the distinctive character of Christian spirituality. Paradise and wilderness are not just alternatives. Paradise is to come, certainly: "Thy kingdom come", we pray; but at the same time, paradise is here, in the wilderness. Here we are fed with manna, the supersubstantial bread of heaven, for which we daily pray. Paradise is not just "somewhere else", not just "eastward in Eden"; it is, even here and now, "a new heaven and a earth", reconciled.

Christian spiritual life is neither "this-worldly" nor "other-worldly" - those are its temptations and distortions; authentically, it must be lived in the tension between those worlds, in the ambiguity between paradise attained and paradise to come. As St. Paul explains it, all who are in Christ are, by the grace of God, new creations, [3] born anew, no longer at enmity with God, but friends of God. Our reconciliation has been accomplished, once for all; for Christ's sake, we are accounted friends of God. But, in another sense, our reconciliation is not complete, and will not be complete until our life of charity is finally fulfilled in the perfect knowledge and the perfect love of God; until, finally, "we shall know as we are known". Thus there is the tension between a justification, divinely-wrought, and finished once for all, and a sanctification which is being worked out within us day by day.

In that working out, the trials of the wilderness have a necessary place. Trials and temptations, the dark night of doubt, confusion and uncertainty, are not just unfortunate accidents. In God's good providence, they belong to the very life of faith, for faith must be tried, like precious metal, "which from the earth is tried, and purified seven times in the fire". [4] Perhaps those trials take different forms in one age or another, and different forms for each of us; but always they are, and must be there. Doubt and confusion - even the moment. of betrayal - do not destroy the soul which is ready to return in penitence. What alone destroys the soul is the cold, hard cynicism which blasphemes against the Spirit; which simply doesn't care.

The trials of the wilderness are necessary, and must be embraced. Indeed, as St. James puts it, we must "count it all joy, knowing that the trial of your faith worketh patience. Let patience have her perfect work", he says, "that ye may be perfect and entire".[5]

Certainly the wilderness - the confusions of the world in which live, uncertainties within the Church, confusions within our own souls certainly the wilderness presents us with problems and dilemmas, and it is surely not very easy to "count it all joy", and discern and celebrate the lineaments of paradise within it. But that is precisely the nature of our calling, and, by the grace of God, who gives the Bread of Life in the wilderness, we are not without resources to do just that.

We do possess, in faith, God's word of reconciliation, committed unto us. We do possess, in faith, God's work for us, God's word to us, made audible to us in Holy Scripture, made sensible to us in Holy Sacraments, if we will attend with minds and hearts obedient and penitent. We do possess, if we will, in the community of faith, centuries of wisdom and experience - none of it irrelevant - words and images of sanctity which will come alive for us, if we will give them (as to the shades in Homer's Hades) our own blood to drink. We do possess, in faith, an inner space of reconciliation, the knowledge of our justification, an inner space of peace and clarity, in which the Spirit teacher, us the patience to look upon our trials sub specie aeternitatis - in the perspective of eternity. We do possess, in faith, a vision of the pure and perfect good, which is no mere vision, but our home; a vision in which all the scattered leaves of hopes and prophecies are bound together, as Dante says, into one volume, in the charity of God. [6]

We do possess, in the life of prayer, a bond which hold. wilderness and paradise in one embrace. George Herbert, in The Temple, speaks wonderfully of that unitive way:

Prayer the Church's banquet, Angels age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;

Engine against th' Almighty, sinners' tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

All this must be cultivated in the light of charity, that best and highest gift of grace. Above all, charity. But just what does that involve? The theologians tell us that it is the for. of all the virtues [8] - it includes and shapes them all. And some of them are not easy for us to bring together. Charity must include, for instance, that obedience of mind whereby we stand firmly in the truth, so far as we can see it; but it must also include that humility of mind by which we recognise that we know in part, and through a clouded mirror which might benefit from some polishing. Then also, it must include the more homely virtues of cheerfulness, good-humour, and a readiness to think well of one another. The fact is that we do not have it all together. We have it in all the manifold diversity of the Spirit's gifts; not as just one point of light, but spread out among us, diversified. And therefore, if we have charity at all, we have it in friendship and reciprocity.

The practice of Christian spirituality presents us, no doubt, with many difficulties. But only one of those difficulties, I think, is really fundamental; and that is the demoralising of the Christian mind and heart, when we forget our pilgrimage and fall into a mindless conformity to the spirit of the present age, the ambitio saeculi, as St. Augustine (reading St. John in the Latin version) calls it. [9] Secular ideals, secular methods and measures insidiously invade our consciousness, and pollute the springs of spiritual life. We lose direction, and we lose heart. We fall back into a hopeless neo-pagan spirituality.

The only remedy - if we will trust it - lies in the steady cultivation of the Christian virtues of faith and hope and charity; holding on to the centuries of Christian wisdom, holding fast to our road of pilgrimage. What is essentially required is the practical upbuilding, among us and within us, of the life of penitential adoration All depends, really, upon the prayerful life. St. Bonaventure, one of the great masters of spirituality, in his book, The Mind's Road to God ("The Mendicant's Vision in the Wilderness" is its subtitle), puts it this way:

Just as no one comes to wisdom save through grace, justice and knowledge, so none comes to contemplation save through penetrating meditation, holy conversation, and devout prayer. Just as grace is the foundation of the will's rectitude and of the enlightenment of clear and penetrating reason, so, first, we must pray; secondly, we must live holily; thirdly, we must strive toward the reflection of truth and, by our striving, mount step by step until we come to the high mountain where we shall see the God of gods in Sion. [10]
If we can follow such a recipe, surely we shall learn that in the dark and stubborn forest which is our world and our very own souls, we find (as Dante says [11] ) great good. We shall learn to bless our wildernesses, and thank God for them.

This year is the sixteen-hundredth anniversary of the conversion of St. Augustine, that great exemplar of the Christian pilgrimage, upon whose works we have drawn so continually in these meditations, and we shall conclude now with a prayer from his Confessions:

Entering my secret chamber, I shall sing Thee songs of love, with groanings that cannot be uttered; in my pilgrimage remembering Jerusalem reaching out towards her with heart uplifted, Jerusalem my homeland, Jerusalem my mother. I shall remember Thee, her ruler, her illuminator, her father, her guardian, her spouse; Thee her pure and strong delight, Thee her solid joy, Thee all at once all goods ineffable, because Thou art the one true, highest Good.

I shall not turn aside until I reach that place of peace, Jerusalem, my dearest mother, where my first-fruits are already, whence comes my certitude; I shall not turn aside 'till Thou, my God, my Mercy, shalt gather in all that I am, from this dispersion and deformity, and conform it and confirm it in eternity. [12]


Notes: Chapter VI

1. Christopher Fry, "A Sleep of Prisoners", Three Plays (London, 1960), p. 207.

2. Williams, op. cit., for instance, traces the theme in the history of colonial New England, and also in the history of the idea of the university.

3. Romans, 5:17; cf. St. Thomas, Super epistolas S. Pauli lectura, II ad Corinthios, IV, 192.

4. Psalms, 12:6; I St. Peter, 1:7.

5. St. James, 1:3-4.

6. Dante, "Paradiso", XXXIII, 85-87.

7. George Herbert, "Prayer", from The Temple (ed. J. Wall, George Herbert. The Country Parson. The Temple, Ramsey, N.J., 1981, pp. 165-66).

8. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theol., II, II, 23, 8; De caritate, 3.

9. I St. John, 2:16; St. Augustine, Confessions, X, 30; cf. R. D. Crouse, "In multa defluximus: Confessions X, 29-43, and St. Augustine's Theory of Personality", in H. J. Blumenthal and R. A. Markus, eds., Neoplatonism and Early Christian Thought (London, 1981), pp. 180-85.

10. St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium mentis in Deum, I, 8 (tr. G. Boas, St. Bonaventure. The Mind's Road to God, Indianapolis and New York, 1953, p. 10).

11. Dante, "Inferno", I, 8.

12. St. Augustine, Confessions, XII, 16, 23 (tr. R. D. C.).


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