Pilgrim 2 001

As the poet mounted the rocky steps, climbing higher and higher, he had a return of the irrational feeling of a visionary vertigo.  He told himself again, as if in warning, that it was his whole duty in life to walk on a tight-rope above a void in which many imaginative men were swallowed up.

                    –G. K. Chesterton, “The Shadow of the Shark” in The Poet and the Lunatics


* * * * * * * * * * * *


Like many notable Pilgrims, Kevin of Glendalough was what some of us might call an “odd duck.”  If eccentricity and idiosyncrasy are to be regarded as marks of sanctity – as in some cases they may well be – then Kevin was surely one of the holiest of Ireland’s numerous saints and seers.

Even the hagiographical legends surrounding his birth are not so much miraculous as bizarre.  The snow that happened to be falling on that occasion is supposed to have melted as it touched the ground around his house.  It’s also said that when the time came for the child to be delivered, Kevin’s mother felt no labor pains.  For reasons like these, and because an angel from heaven expressly commanded it, the boy was called Coemgen or Caoimhin in the Irish tongue (Anglicized as Kevin):  “He of Blessed Birth.”  He was the first person in history ever to bear this now very common name.

All this seemed propitious enough.  Still, there were things about Kevin’s personality and character that were not particularly well suited to sainthood.  For one thing, he is reputed to have had a terrible temper as a child.  He also made it fairly clear that he didn’t like people.  This circumstance may have had something to do with the development of his strong love and deep affinity for animals.  Whatever the cause, one thing seems certain:  Kevin did not grow up to be your average, run-of-the mill “regular Joe.”  Today he would probably be known as a “nerd” or a “weird-o.”

In spite of this, he must have impressed the monks who raised him as an exceptionally holy man, for he was ordained a priest while still relatively young.  Unlike most priests, however, he took this occasion to divorce himself from human society and move out to the wilderness of Glendalough, the Glen of Two Lakes, a remote spot in the province of Leinster.  The reason for this move?  He wanted to avoid the company of his followers.  Not a great way to kick off a thriving ministry.

In Glendalough, Kevin took up residence in a Bronze-age tomb now known as St. Kevin’s Bed, a hand-hewn cave cut in the sheer rocky face of Lugduff Mountain about thirty feet above the surface of the lake.  The name is apt, since the hole is too small – about four feet wide and three feet high – to have served him as anything but a sleeping place.  Here for seven years he lived the life of a hermit, seeking God’s face in extreme asceticism and cultivating an extraordinary intimacy with nature.  Birds and beasts sought his companionship.  An otter once retrieved for him the psalter he had dropped into the lake while standing and praying waist-deep in the frigid water – an habitual practice with him.  On another occasion – or so the story goes – a blackbird landed in his outstretched palm as he knelt in prayer and proceeded to build her nest there.  Kevin’s response?  He was moved to pity; and


               Now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.[i] 


Kevin must also have been a rather attractive fellow, for despite his efforts to stay secluded he somehow captured the attention of a pretty young maiden.  Unfortunately, the girl did not experience the same degree of compassion at his hands as had the blackbird.  When this bold Kathleen came looking for him in his wild abode, Kevin is reputed to have driven her away with a bunch of nettles.  One writer goes so far as to make the doubtful claim that he “hurled the maiden from the rock into the black lake shrieking.”  Strange behavior, to be sure.  But such was the hermit’s devotion to his vows of chastity and purity.

Eventually Kevin came out of this long retirement, at which point one might assume that he would be singularly ill-equipped to get involved in the hands-on work of meeting the day-to-day spiritual needs of other people.  Oddly enough, it didn’t turn out that way.  In spite of his anti-social tendencies – or perhaps because of them – Kevin had acquired the reputation of being a man intimately acquainted with God.  As a result, a group of monks gathered around him in Glendalough, where they built a monastery known as Kevin’s Cell.  The saint had oversight of this community until he died at the age of 120, somewhere around the year 618.  And as his fame as a teacher spread, people came from far and wide seeking his help and guidance; so that afterwards,


     a great number of pilgrims out of every quarter of Ireland came to visit Kevin’s church; so that this is one of the four chief pilgrimages of Erin:  to wit, the Cave of Patrick in Ulster, Croagh Patrick in Connaught, the Isle of the Living in Munster, and Glendalough in Leinster.[ii]


Is there a moral to this story?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  But in any case it’s worth remembering that there may be more to the eccentric and curmudgeonly recluse than meets the eye; and that retreating from the world is sometimes the best way of impacting it for the kingdom. 



(Woodcut by Clive Hicks-Jenkins)


[i] Seamus Heaney, “St. Kevin and the Blackbird,” 1996.

[ii] From The Lives of Irish Saints, quoted in Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness, an Anthology by Christopher Bamford and William Parker Marsh (West Stockbridge, MA:  Lindisfarne Press, 1987), 86.

The Firebird XXV

Storm 001


Suddenly the raftsmen’s cries of alarm rang out above the howling of the gale.  I looked out from beneath the edge of the tarp and a flash of lightning showed me the reason for their dismay:  directly ahead a huge pointed mass of black rock rose up out of the sea.  Quick and sharp as the lightning itself, a bolt of cold terror flashed through my heart.  But the man beside me went on talking in a calm, quiet voice as if nothing had happened.  Perhaps he is insane, I thought.

“My story is probably much like your own,” he was saying.  “So is theirs, though they won’t admit it now.  All of us started out with a burning desire to reach the place of the rising sun, but people have a way of changing.  I’ve been traveling for a long time now, and have become a very old man along the way.  I’m sure you wouldn’t think so to see me.  But the farther I travel, the younger I get.”  His smooth young face smiled, but something in his eyes impressed me with the thought that they belonged in a frame of wrinkles and bristling white hair.  “You yourself must have been quite young when you started out,” he added, “from the look of you now.”

As he spoke, the cries of the men became more desperate.  “It’s all over!” I heard the steersman shout.  “We’re lost!  Every man for himself!”

I threw the tarpaulin and cloak aside and help my lamp aloft.  Above us loomed the great rock, the air above it filled with the black shapes of wheeling and soaring seabirds.  A huge wave nearly overturned the raft, then sent it shooting towards the craggy face of the outcrop at breakneck speed.  Men were jumping into the water on all sides.

“Well,” I shouted bitterly, “it seems you’re going to have your way!  Not that your story has convinced me.  I hope you’re happy!”

Again he smiled through the rain.  “Does this mean anything to you?” he asked, pulling open his ragged shirt.  There across his chest, over the place of his heart, was a long white scar.  I stared, remembering my own wound; and as I did, it grew burning hot.

I was about to speak when the sky above flashed bright white and the thunder exploded as if in my ear.  A huge wall of water arched over us and fell upon the raft in a rush and roar or foam and spray.  All in a moment my friend and I were swept into the sea while the raft was smashed to pieces against the face of the great black rock.  Then the waves closed over my head and I knew no more.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Firebird XXIV

Sunset 001


“Disagreed?” I said stupidly.  “Disagreed about what?”

“About turning back.”

I freed his hands, wincing at the sight of his rope burns.  Gingerly he rubbed them together over the yellow flame of the lamp.

“I don’t know what they’ve told you,” he continued in a moment.  His voice, deep, resonant, and seasoned, seemed ill-matched to his frail body.  “I have no idea what they’ve said or how they persuaded you to come aboard.  But the truth is that you and I would be better off by far if we could only throw ourselves into the sea.”

“In this storm?” I said in disbelief.

“Yes.  This raft is headed in the wrong direction.”

I could only stare.  He was obviously suffering from pain, weakness, and hunger, and his face was as grim as his words.  Yet his eyes seemed to twinkle somehow, almost as if he delighted in having found a listening ear.

“It’s true,” he nodded.  “I suppose you’ve been told that the other way leads to the end of the world and certain destruction.  But the truth is just the opposite.”

I was quiet for a moment, pondering his words.

“When I started out,” I said at last, speaking very slowly, “I believed as you do.  I believed that I had been led this way and that someone had instructed me to throw myself into the sea.  I was convinced that if I did so I would eventually come to the place of the rising sun and Christmas morning, and that the rider of the eight-legged horse would meet me there.  But in time I found that my hopes were false, just as these men say.  So I bargained with them for passage back to land.”

“Your hopes were not false!” he said earnestly.  “It’s all true, I tell you!  Every bit of it!”

“But they said that I was traveling west, not east – toward the setting sun, not the rising sun!  And everything I’ve experienced thus far seems to bear out the truth of their words.  I’ve floated in the ocean for a very long time now and never once have I seen the slightest change in the approaching daylight, nor any sign that the sun is indeed rising.  I have felt for some time that the sun is actually moving away from me just as rapidly as I’m pursuing it.  And that’s exactly what the men said!”

“Ah!” he responded, stroking his beard.  “In that they were absolutely right.”

He must have read the confusion in my face, for now at last he smiled and laughed out loud.

“Yes,” he said.  “Once you cast yourself upon these waters there is only one way to reach the sunrise:  by going straight on into the sunset, right through it, and out the other side!  To turn back is certain death.”  He moved closer and dropped his voice to a whisper.  “This raft’s present course leads only to sheer glassy cliffs against which the furious surf pounds unceasingly.  If we continue to travel in the direction these men have chosen, this raft and all aboard will be dashed to pieces at the foot of those cliffs.  There is no going back that way!”

I had to acknowledge that these words rung true.  I remembered looking down from the top of those glassy blue cliffs.  As I pictured them in my mind’s eye, I realized that no sea-going vessel could possibly find a safe landing there.  And yet I was reluctant to believe it somehow.  There has to be a haven or harbor somewhere! I thought.  Besides, this idea of plunging into the sunset and out the other side is preposterous!

He shook his head and clucked his tongue.  “I tried to tell them,” he said, his eyes glowing, “but they wouldn’t listen.  Though they knew the truth, they could not bear to hear it.  So they silenced me.  But now, together, we can escape from this doomed raft!  This is our chance!  Under cover of the storm we can slip into the sea and be saved!”

This was too much for me.  “Are you crazy?” I hissed.  “Can’t you hear the wind and the rain?  Can’t you feel the tossing of the waves?  And you really want to jump overboard?  Why should I trust what you say?  How do you know all this?”

We stared at one another in silence as the raft pitched sickeningly down the slope of a wave.  The twinkle in his eye became a burning flame.

“Don’t you know it yourself?” he asked quietly.  “If you don’t know these things for yourself, why are you here at all?”

I could not answer him.


 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *


Pilgrim 2 001

    But one must face the fact:  the Power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however “good”; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us.  

                               – J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter #191 


* * * * * * * * * * * *


We have spoken here at length about a number of shockingly counter-intuitive Pilgrim values; values that, taken together, create a sort of negative photographic image of the world and stand in direct opposition to everything the kosmos treasures most; values like meekness, weakness, defenselessness, child-likeness, poverty, madness, failure, defeat, and death.  It remains to be said that the Pilgrim willingly embraces these values because, among other reasons, he recognizes his inability to do otherwise.  He knows that it is not in him to be mighty, brave, powerful, good, pure, holy, successful, heroic, or victorious in his own strength.  For all of this he is entirely dependent on Someone else.

The Lord’s Prayer concludes with this peculiar petition:  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  If in the course of our mindless repetitions of this Prayer we were to pause long enough to feel the full weight of these words, we might find ourselves caught up short in the face of their deeper implications.  Notice what they do not say:  they do not say, “Strengthen us in the face of temptation that we might be able to resist.”  Instead, the plea is “Keep us completely away from the influence of evil!  Don’t allow us to go anywhere near temptation!”  Why?  Because if we do, we know we’re bound to fall.

This thought is powerfully and memorably illustrated at the climax of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  At the end of the long, bitter pilgrimage, after so many sorrows, sufferings, and dogged decisions to push ahead in spite of the odds, when in the final moments of his agony he stands at the edge of the Cracks of Doom, positioned at last to carry out the fulfillment of his terrible charge, Frodo Baggins looks at his incredulous companion, Sam Gamgee, and quietly says, ”I do not choose to destroy the Ring.”  Against all expectation, Frodo – even Frodo – succumbs to the power of the evil talisman.

It was an outcome few had anticipated.  With good reason, Gandalf and his colleagues had supposed – or at least they had hoped – that a humble hobbit from the Shire would not prove quite so susceptible to the seduction of Absolute Power as the so-called Great and Wise ones of the world.  To a certain extent they were right:  it took a long time for the influence of the Ring to reach Frodo’s heart, and that was only at the point of its maximum strength.  But eventually the burden turned out to be too heavy for him.  And had it not been for the dissolute creature Gollum, who at that very instant bit the ring-finger from Frodo’s hand in a lustful frenzy and fell with it into the abyss, the mission would have failed and the Cause would have been lost.

Tolkien reflects on the significance of this plot twist in a letter to one of his readers:


     There exists the possibility of being placed in positions beyond one’s power.  In which case (as I believe) salvation from ruin will depend on something apparently unconnected … [i] 


In a second letter he adds:


     Surely this is a more significant and real event than a mere ‘fairy-story’ ending in which the hero is indomitable?  It is possible for the good, even the saintly, to be subjected to a power of evil which is too great for them to overcome in themselves.[ii]


Ultimately, says Tolkien, “Frodo failed” – just as St. Francis “failed” in the estimation of biographer Julien Green.  He failed because he was stretched beyond his own power.  And when at length Deliverance arrived, it was precisely from “something apparently unconnected” that it made its unexpected appearance:


     Frodo deserved all honor because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further … the Other Power then took over:  the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), ‘that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named …‘[iii]


This is a thought that the Pilgrim takes very much to heart.  He recognizes his own weaknesses, limitations, and sins.  He understands that the words “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” are not a promise of superhuman invincibility but rather a confession of utter dependence – dependence upon that “one ever-present Person.”

For all these reasons he is careful to “watch and pray that he might not enter into temptation.”  For he knows that when he thinks he stands, that is the moment of all moments when he is most likely to fall.


*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *


[i] Tolkien, Letter to Miss J. Burn, 26 July 1956; #191 in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1981).

[ii] Tolkien, Letter to Amy Ronald, 27 July 1956.  Ibid., #192.

[iii] Ibid.


Books 001

“Modern man worships ‘facts’  — that is, he accepts ‘facts’ as the ultimate reality.  He is convinced that what is, is good.  He believes that facts in themselves provide evidence and proof, and he willingly subordinates values to them; he obeys what he believes to be necessity, which he somehow connects with the idea of progress.”

— Jacques Ellul, Propaganda

The Firebird XXIII



I sat down heavily beside the man under the tarpaulin, staring into the basket in disbelief.  But no one paid any attention to me, for suddenly an icy wind arose and filled the ragged sail with a snap like the crack of a whip.  As if from nowhere dark clouds came tearing across the sky and covered the stars.  The red glow on the horizon faded and disappeared.  Instantly the men aboard the raft leaped into action.

“Strike that sail!” the steersman shouted into the howling wind.  He was on his feet, gripping the steering oar with both hands and twisting his leathery neck to look up at the sky.  “Ship oars!  We’ll have to try to ride it out!”

Next came a blinding flash and a din of thunder, and the rain began to fall, driven into our faces by a cutting wind.  Everyone took cover as best he could.  I looked longingly at my cloak as the man beneath it stirred and groaned as if in pain.

Never had I seen anything like the sudden fury with which the storm descended upon us.  Rain, thunder, lightning, and wind I had known before, but the boiling and heaving of the sea were entirely new and terrifying to me.  As I watched, a mountain of water surged up on one side, sucked us down into a deep trough, then broke over the raft in an angry avalanche of brine and foam.  The men lashed themselves to the logs of the deck.  The steersman tied himself to a post and clung to the steering oar, trying desperately to hold the raft steady.  In terror I pitched myself face down next to the man called John, pulled the edge of my cloak and the tarp over myself, and lay there trembling beside him.

In a moment I heard him moan again.  It’s all up with me now, I thought.  If I am not drowned in the storm, I will certainly die of this man’s disease.

Remembering that my lamp was still burning on the deck, I raised myself on one elbow, making a little tent of the tarpaulin, and drew the light inside.  In the glow of its flame I turned to examine the person who lay beside me.  What I saw made me gasp in surprise.

It was not his appearance that startled me, unusual though it was.  He was rather small, and his ragged clothes were much too large for him.  Like the rest of them, he was thin and starved-looking.  He had apparently been asleep or unconscious, but did not otherwise seem to be ill.  His dark hair and beard were unkempt and matted with dirt and sea scum, but his beard was short as compared with those of his companions, and behind it I thought I could see the face of a very young man.

As I looked, he opened his eyes and glanced up.  Though the face seemed young, the eyes most certainly did not.  They were eyes that had seen much and suffered much — eyes full of weariness and pain.  For a moment I could do nothing but stare into them.

Altogether he presented a strange and arresting sight.  And yet it was not his eyes nor his face nor yet his beard nor anything else about his appearance that gave me such a shock.  It was the fact that he had been bound and gagged.

His renewed groans brought me back to myself.  Quickly as I could, I tore the rag away from his mouth.

“What does this mean?” I said.  “Why have they tied and gagged you?”

He coughed, spat, and answered hoarsely:

“I disagreed with them,” he said.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *


Pilgrim 2 001

            But I’m all right, I’m all right

            I’m just weary to my bones –

            Still, you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant

            When you’re far away from home,

             So far away from home. 

                                    – Paul Simon, “American Tune” 

* * * * * * * * * * * *


It seems there is no longer any place in the world for such a thing as sadness.  Sadness has been scratched from the catalogue of acceptable feelings and emotions.  We deprive it of its former dignity and respectability by calling it a sickness, labeling it “depression,” and drowning it in therapies and drugs.  In a hundred ways we sweep it under the rug and expel it from the realm of “healthy” human experience.  In the process, a brand-new Brave New World has emerged – a place where “everybody is happy” and where responsible citizens keep a ready supply of soma at their belts as a defense against the onset of sadness and sorrow.

The Pilgrim sees all this for the sham it is.  He understands that the world as we know it – the world through which he passes en route to his ultimate destination – is a very sad place indeed.  It’s an abnormal world:  a world fallen from its axis and drifting off course, the prey of relentless decay and progressive death; a world filled with sorrow and regret from one end to the other.

Because he sees the bigger picture, the Pilgrim does not have the option of turning his back on this grim situation.  For him there can be no easy way of escape, no medication strong enough to mute the pain.  As a follower of the “Man of Sorrows” he has an obligation to embrace and enter into the sadness.  And as a homesick traveler – a stranger and exile in the country of disillusion and discontent – he aches to lay hold of the promise of something better.  To that extent every step of his pilgrimage is dogged with affliction and grief.

George MacDonald gives us a portrait of such a “man of sorrows” in the character of Eric Ericson, a poet, tutor, and solitary thinker who plays a significant role in the action of the author’s monumental novel Robert Falconer.  In one especially memorable scene Ericson describes for young Robert what he hears in the sound of the restless sea:


“The sea-moan is the cry of a tortured world …  Its hollow bed is the cup of the world’s pain, ever rolling from side to side and dashing over its lip.  Of all that might be, ought to be, nothing to be had!” 


This, as Ericson clearly discerns, is the central problem of existence:  all is not as it should be, nor am I the person I ought to have become.  Herein is found a source of great sorrow for those who have eyes to see.  The Pilgrim bears the burden of it every day of his long and tiresome journey through the kosmos.

Few writers have given us a more poignant picture of the exquisite sadness of creation than J. R. R. Tolkien.  His long and detailed account of the history of Middle-earth demonstrates how a world can be both broken and beautiful at the same time (a concept many modern people seem to have difficulty grasping).  The chronicles of the elves in particular return again and again to a single constant theme:  the theme of a grand but dismal fall from former glory and grace.  Dark threads of tragedy and loss run through nearly every elven song – like the one Legolas sings to his companions about the lovely elf-maiden Nimrodel:


                                   Where now she wanders none can tell,

                                                In sunlight or in shade;

                                    For lost of yore was Nimrodel

                                                And in the mountains strayed.


Why is this important?  Because, like it or not, there is no escaping one fundamental truth:  you can’t hear the Good News until you’ve heard the Bad.  There will be joy in the morning for the ones who brave the darkness of the night, but it is likely to go unnoticed by those who banish the shadows by lighting their own false fires.  The story does not end in sadness, because the Man of Sorrows bears our griefs and takes our iniquities upon Himself.  But can this mean anything to the person who finds other ways of masking the pain?

It’s a question well worth asking.


The Firebird XXII

Basket 001


All this while I had been wondering what had happened to the gray bird with the burning blue eyes.  He was no longer on my shoulder, nor was he anywhere to be seen.  Has he too abandoned me, I asked myself, and just at the moment when I need his help most?

Yet though I hesitated, I felt sure that the steersman’s suggestion was not unreasonable:  my cloak to help a sick man in exchange for passage to land.  It seemed a fair trade.

“Yes,” I said at last.  “Of course, he may have the cloak.  He needs it more than I.”

“Take hold of the rope, then,” called the steersman, “and I’ll pull you aboard.”

Again I was hesitant, remembering the eyes of the dark lady who had given me the cloak, eyes like bright stars in a velvet sky.  And as I thought of her, it seemed to me that a dark shadow, like the wingspan of a great black bird, passed over me for a bare instant.

“Such a small child,” I heard one of the men mutter as they pulled me dripping from the water and onto the raft.  “She won’t take up much space at any rate.”

Once on board I proceeded to remove the cloak of heaven blue.  But I stopped short in surprise in reaching up to undo the silver brooch, for the sleeved seemed to have grown to twice their original length, and it required some trouble to free my hands for the task.

“What ails you now?” asked the steersman, for again I paused upon looking down and seeing the hem of the cloak lying piled in blue folds around my feet.  The men laughed as the hood fell forward over my face and covered my eyes.

“I – I don’t understand,” I stuttered.  “It fit perfectly when I first put it on!”

“Well, howsomever that may be,” said one of the raftsmen as he took the cloak, “it should be quite large enough to cover old John.”  And he threw the cloak over the sleeping figure.

Without my cloak I stood shivering on the deck, close to the place where the man called John lay.  I still held my little lamp of red clay.  In its light I saw the ring of hollow faces all around me, their eyes yellow in the glow, like the eyes of wolves or cats.

“What’s in the basket?” one of them wanted to know.

“Just apples,” I said, my voice quavering slightly – whether with fear or the cold I could not tell.

“Just apples!” cried the steersman.  “And here we are, all half starved to death.  How many apples, if you please?”

“Seven,” I answered, not bothering to look.

“Not enough to go around,” he growled.  “Still, we’ll have to divvy ‘em up as best we can.”

I handed him the basket without argument.  There would have been no point in protesting.  As in the matter of the cloak, I saw no harm in sharing my apples with them.  And yet also as before, I felt a cold shadow pass over me as I released the basket into his hand.

“You may be surprised,” I said.  “These apples are quite large.”

But when he reached into the basket and drew out a piece of the golden fruit I could only stand open-mouthed with shock.  In in hand, the it looked no larger than any ordinary apple.

“Seven, eh?” he mused with a wry laugh.  “Quite large, you say?  Well, we’ll just have to make do as best we can.”

He drew a knife out of his pocket and began cutting the apple into pieces.  The pieces were then shared all around by the men.  I myself got a piece – a very small piece, since, as the steersman explained, I was the smallest on board.  The fruit tasted as sweet to me as ever.  Even such a small bit of it warmed and refreshed me beyond all expectation.  But as the glow returned to the wound in my heart, I found that it was mixed with a sense of painful regret – whether over the smallness of my piece of apple or for some other reason, I did not know.

When the pieces of apple had all been shared out, the steersman passed the basket back to me.  “It’s yours to keep, I suppose,” he said grimly.  “Not much use to the rest of us now.”

I smiled a knowing smile as I took it from his hand.  But my smile faded when I looked inside.  The basket was completely empty.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *


Pilgrim 2 001

“Let there come on me fire, and cross, and struggles with wild beasts, cutting, and tearing asunder, racking of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil, may I but attain to Jesus Christ!”

                                    — Ignatius to the Romans, V.3

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Here in the comfortable and progressive West the word martyr has long been associated almost exclusively with a laughable psychological complex.  That may be changing.

Despite all the talk about strengthening borders, we are daily being pressed on all sides by strange new influences and forces:  foreign mindsets and ideologies characterized by a shocking degree of raw zeal and youthful vigor.  They are adamant and determined.  No wall can keep them out.  Our pale, worn, groundless platitudes about “rights,” “freedom,” and “the American way” seem impotent beside them.  As a result, we are discovering that martyrdom is no longer merely a thing of the gold-illuminated, rosy-tinted, and romantic medieval-religious past.  It is a present and immediate reality.

A word of clarification:  a martyr is not a person who straps explosives to his body and kills himself and hundreds of other innocent people in the name of some ideal.  That kind of “martyrdom” is both counterfeit and cowardly.

The Greek verb martyrein means “to bear witness.”  That’s exactly what a real martyr does.  He speaks the truth in spite of opposition.  He delivers his message again and again, even in the face of ridicule, insult, taunts, and deadly threats.  If necessary, he submits to death rather than betray his Master’s call by remaining silent.  And in that moment death itself becomes his clearest, loudest, and most persuasive testimony.  This, too, is a crucial part of the Pilgrim Path.

George Eagles, a tailor from Essex, was both Pilgrim and martyr.  Somewhere around the middle of the sixteenth century – about a hundred years before John Bunyan wrote his little book in the Bedford Gaol – Eagles decided that he had a talent for public speaking, and that it was incumbent upon him to use his gift in the service of God.  Leaving his shop, he set out as an itinerant gospel preacher, tramping all over the countryside, living in the woods, sleeping in the open fields, addressing small groups in private houses and inns, speaking to anyone and everyone who would listen.  In the process he earned for himself the nickname “Trudgeover-the-World” or simply “Trudgeover.”  All this took place during the reign of King Edward VI – a time when there was relatively little risk associated with such undertakings.

The situation changed drastically when Edward’s sister Mary Tudor (“Bloody Mary”) came to the throne.   Mary made a law specifying that anyone found convening a gathering of more than six persons in a private or secret place was to be considered guilty of the crime of treason or sedition.  In accordance with this legislation, Trudgeover was hunted down and arrested in a wheat field outside of Colchester.  Two days later he was taken to London to be tried by the church authorities.

Convicted of having prayed that “God should turn Queen Mary’s heart or else take her away” (he staunchly maintained that he had prayed only for the change of heart), Eagles was bound flat to a sledge and dragged to the place of execution.  From one end of this short journey to the other he did not cease to read loudly from his psalm-book.  What he suffered when he reached the gallows is too gruesome to be described in detail – suffice it to say that he was, in the vernacular of the time, “hanged, drawn, and quartered.”  His head was the only part of his anatomy to receive a decent burial:  some sympathetic person picked it up and interred it in the churchyard one night after the wind had blown it down from the market-cross in Chelmsford.

The authorities found it fairly easy to put a stop to George Eagles’ preaching.  Unfortunately, they failed to silence his witness to the truth.  His story, recorded in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, has been speaking powerfully into the lives of subsequent generations of Pilgrims ever since – for more than four centuries.

It continues to speak to us today.  And not the least part of its message is contained in the thought that some of us may eventually be called upon to follow in Trudgeover’s footsteps – just as many of our brothers and sisters around the world are doing at this very hour.