Pilgrim 2 001

     What you want is an unpractical man.   That is what people always want in the last resort and the worst conditions. 

                                           G. K. Chesterton, The Poet and the Lunatics


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


Does “faith” have practical benefits?

We’ve all heard this claim many times before.  In the past, it emanated primarily from the “religious” community, where it appeared under the guise of “positive thinking,” “possibility thinking,” and “the health and wealth gospel.”  More recently it’s been championed in less likely quarters:  among sociologists, psychologists, and even medical doctors.

“Results from several studies,” reports the University of Maryland Medical Center, “indicate that people with strong religious and spiritual beliefs heal faster from surgery, are less anxious and depressed, have lower blood pressure, and cope better with chronic illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and spinal cord injury.”[i]

Jonathan Ewald, writing in Life + Health, assures us that “faith” has a far-reaching, deep impact upon more than our spiritual condition:  “It also affects our physical, mental, and social well-being.”  Ewald even goes so far as to say that “being part of a faith-based community is an important piece of the longevity puzzle.”  The moral of the story?  “If you have never done so before, consider submitting your life to God.  By exercising faith, our lives can be more fulfilled, balanced, and peaceful than before.”[ii]

This is not the Pilgrim perspective.

The Pilgrim is not accustomed to speak in terms of possessing “a faith.”  He is not interested in becoming part of a “faith-based community” as a way of securing prosperity or longevity, nor does he submit his life to God with an eye to what he can get out of it.  For him, “faith” is simply a question of total allegiance to a Person.  It’s all about attaching himself to and following the Master of his soul.  And this, he knows, is often an extremely impractical thing to do.  As history clearly demonstrates, this kind of “faith” does not always bring balance, peace, wealth, or temporal fulfillment.  Sometimes it leads to misunderstanding, rejection, defeat, and death.  In the eyes of the practical men of this world, it can look very much like an unforgiveable piece of pure folly.

There are several different words in the Old Testament that get translated into modern English as “faith,” “confidence,” or “hope.”  One of them is chislah, a noun is derived from a verbal root that means “to be foolish.”  In Psalm 78:7, the Hebrew poet wants the Children of Israel to “set their hope (chislah) in God;” but a few Psalms later (85:8 – verse 9 in the Hebrew text), the same word is used to express the idea that the Lord will “not let His people turn back to folly.”  Similarly, in Job 4:6, Eliphaz the Temanite accuses Job of placing false confidence (chislah) in his own integrity.

What’s the connection here?  Simply this:  there is a fine line – or perhaps no line at all – between faith and folly.  Indeed, in the eyes of the kosmos the two are frequently indistinguishable.  To pick up one’s cross and follow the Lord of Pilgrims wherever He may lead is not necessarily the best way to “get things done,” to “come out on top,” or to “make America great again.”  Just ask those heroes of “the faith” who were mocked, scorned, tortured, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in half, and slain with the sword for their troubles.

All this is just another way of saying that the Pilgrim life can be extremely impractical.  It’s not about doing what works (a good definition of politics).  On the contrary, it’s about doing what’s good and right – even if it doesn’t turn out so well for you in the end.


[i] “Spirituality,” University of Maryland Medical Center.

[ii] Jonathan Ewald, “The Important Relationship Between Faith and Longevity,” Life + Health, December 6, 2012.

The Firebird XLV

Sun arch 001


Our little group pushed on, moving forward steadily until we were standing within the circle of the sun with the deafening rush and roar of its flaming arch straight above our heads.  It was as if we had stepped into the midst of a swirling, blistering firestorm.  Stunned, I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my face with my hands.

When I opened them again, I found myself engulfed in a dazzling sea of light.  Its brightness pressed upon me relentlessly, almost as if it had weight and mass of its own; it pounded and pummeled me, body, brain, and soul, while the lady carried me deeper and deeper into the vortex of the blazing maelstrom.

The farther we went, the more slowly we seemed to progress.  Time at length ground to a standstill.  Squinting into the glare, I thought I could discern shapes of people and other indistinct forms, though only as shadows or patches of lesser light flitting to and fro against the churning background of searing white.  The flames and the heat whipped around us like tortured winds and waves.  I held my hands up before my face and saw my fingers streaming with wisps of fire like strands of white-hot cotton candy.  Meanwhile, the wound in my heart burned and stretched and swelled until it possessed me entirely, inside and out.

At last, not because of any pain I felt – indeed, it was all a strangely painless experience – but purely because of the overwhelming intensity of it all, I fainted dead away.  The light went out and I fell down into nothingness.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The Powers That Be

Books 001

(From the Interrogation of John Bunyan before Paul Cobb, Magistrate)


Cobb:  You know, saith he, that the Scripture saith, the powers that are, are ordained of God.

Bunyan:  I said, yes, and that I was to submit to the King as supreme, also to governors, as to them that are sent by him.

Cobb:  Well then, said he, the King commands you, that you should not have any private meetings; because it is against his law, and he is ordained of God, therefore you should not have any.

Bunyan:  I told him, that Paul did own the powers that were in his day, as to be of God; and yet he was often in prison under them for all that.  And also, though Jesus Christ told Pilate, that he had no power against him, but of God, yet He died under the same Pilate …


                — from John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners  

  Pilgrim 2 001

The Firebird XLIV



And now, though the scene around me was so terrible and the air so thick with desperate cries, I felt myself slip into a state of inexpressible rest and peace.  So intense was the heat as we drew nearer the flaming gateway that it no longer registered on my senses.  The wound in my heart burned hotter than ever, and I began to feel as if I were melting, both inside and out.  It was an indescribably pleasant and soothing sensation.  Relaxed, supple, flexible, and yielding, my body sank deeply into the lady’s arms.  I closed my eyes and leaned my head against her breast.

When we were almost directly beneath the fiery arch itself, my repose was suddenly shaken by the strident sound of a powerful revving engine.  Raising my head to glance in the direction of the noise, I found that its source was none other than the elegant yacht manned by my old friends Ralph, Jack, and Dr. Roger.  All three were on the vessel’s bridge, wrestling frantically with the controls, striving with every ounce of their gas-powered might to break free of the force of the current which was drawing them inexorably into the sun’s open mouth.  On either side of the yacht hundreds of other craft, both large and small, were streaming through the bright portal surrounded by flaming bits of flotsam and jetsam.

As I watched, the laboring yacht nosed slowly around, gradually putting its stern toward the sunset.  Then, with a final surge of power, it inched its way out of the current and drew off slightly to the south.  But its struggle was far from over; for, as I have explained, the waters on either side of the sun – those not sucked through the fiery gateway – were pouring over the margin of the world in an endless cataract.  Any vessel coming this far had only two options:  either it must pass through the sun’s arch or fall over the edge.

Its engines screaming, its tailpipes shuddering and spewing black smoke, the yacht struggled to escape the irresistible pull of the falls.  But it was all to no avail.  Just as the prow began to turn to the east, the craft’s progress suddenly faltered, then halted altogether.  In the next instant the stern burst into flame.  Then came a terrific explosion as the fuel tanks were ignited and a shattering of glass as the cabin windows burst.

With that the nose swung swiftly around to the west and the entire craft went spinning over the precipice in a cloud of spray and smoke.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *


Pilgrim 2 001

              “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”  

         — Variously attributed to Alexander Hamilton, Peter Marshall,                                       Gordon A. Eadie, et al.


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


For reasons that desperately need to be explained at greater length, cynics and skeptics have been given a bad name in the church and most “religious” circles.  This is a great tragedy.

Our word skepticism is derived from the Greek skeptomai, “to look at, check out, put to the test.”  The skeptic is a person who doesn’t take things at face value.  He subjects everything to a rigorous examination, searching for the substance that lies beneath the surface.  He adheres to the highest possible standards of good and bad, real and unreal, and he accepts only those assumptions and assertions that are solid enough to pass the test.

The true Pilgrim is an indefatigable skeptic – perhaps the only real skeptic left in the modern world.  He knows that gullibility is no asset to those who travel the road beyond the Wicket Gate, for it is a road lined on either side with persuasive counterfeits and attractive shams.  He remembers the word of warning given to all who dare set foot upon this path –

                                               Upon a world vain, toylsom, foul

                                                A journey now ye enter;

                                               The welfare of your living soul

                                                Ye dangerously adventure

 – and, accordingly, he arms himself with the shield of suspended belief.  This is just another way of saying that he equips himself with genuine faith.

Nathanael, one of the first followers of the Original Pilgrim, was a skeptic to the core.  When his friend Philip came to him and said, “We’ve found the Messiah, and he comes from Nazareth,” Nathanael responded by asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nowadays he’d be labeled a “downer,” a “defeatist,” a “rotter,” or a “negative thinker.”  His sarcasm would be condemned as hurtful, insensitive, and “bigoted.”  But Christ called him “an Israelite in whom is no deceit.”  Nathanael was honest and transparent, but he was something else as well:  he was intent upon finding the Real Thing and determined to settle for nothing less.

True skeptics are an endangered species.  That’s because you can’t have real skepticism where no one cares about Truth.  Under such conditions, all you get is a lot of pretentious, mushy, and insincere “tolerance” for “beliefs” that don’t mean anything to anybody anyway because everyone assumes that they’re all equally imaginary and irrelevant.  People who are convinced that the Real Thing doesn’t exist have no need to defend themselves against counterfeits.  They’re as happy as clams with or without them.  The skeptic, on the other hand, is on a quest, and he can never be satisfied until it is achieved.  If he ever gets to the place where truth-claims no longer matter, he will find himself out of a job.

The Pilgrim, then, is a genuine skeptic for the simple reason that he still believes in Truth.  It’s precisely because he cherishes the Real Thing so deeply and intently that he remains so resistant, critical, iconoclastic, and “intolerant” in his response to all substitutes, replacements, impostors and phonies.  Like Peter, when asked if he is on the verge of turning away from his Master, he can only say, “Lord, where else can I go?  You alone have the words of eternal life.”  Having seen the glory of the One and Only, he cannot and will not brook the claims of any other.




A Stranger and An Exile

Books 001

Nothing ever written goes so far as the devil’s words to Christ in Saint Luke concerning the kingdoms of the world.  “All this power will I give thee and the glory of it, for that is delivered unto me and to whomsoever I will give it.”  It follows from this that the social is irremediably the domain of the devil.  The flesh impels us to say me and the devil impels us to say us; or else to say like the dictators I with a collective significance …

… I am well aware that the Church must inevitably be a social structure, otherwise it would not exist.  But in so far as it is a social structure, it belongs to the Prince of this world …

… I do not want to be adopted into a circle, to live among people who say “we” and to be part of an “us,” to find I am “at home” in any human milieu whatever it may be …  I feel that it is not permissible for me.  I feel that it is necessary and ordained that I should be alone, a stranger and an exile in relation to every human circle without exception.

                       — Simone Weil, Letter II from Waiting For God, pp. 12-13

The Firebird XLIII

Sun arch 001


I felt my head begin to swim as I looked first at the basket of apples and then up into the boy’s clear blue eyes.

“Is it possible …” I stammered.

“Say no more,” he interrupted.  “I am the man you met under the tarpaulin on the raft.  Oh, if only you could see yourself now!”  And he laughed as if he could not contain his joy.

Then I took one of the apples from the basket and ate it with great relish. No apple ever tasted sweeter.  It warmed my heart from within and dispersed the terrible sense of dread that had gripped me for so long.  I wiped my mouth and smiled up at the boy, a feeling of relief and inexplicable peace washing over me like a summer rain.  But in the next moment I was stricken with a feeling of sudden weakness.  My legs collapsed beneath me so that I fell down and lay upon the surface of the water at the boy’s feet.

“What is happening?” I whimpered in alarm.  “You said that eating the apple would give me strength.  Instead, I feel so weak that I cannot even stand.  How can I complete my journey now?”

“Take courage,” said a new voice.  “Your weakness is your strength.  You are now too young and small and feeble to stand or walk on your own.  You are happy and to be envied, for I am now going to carry you the rest of the way.

I turned my head in the direction of the voice.  There behind me stood the three ladies, Givers of the Gifts, who had the power of changing their shapes and taking on the form of birds.  It was the dark-haired one who had spoken to me, the one I understood to be the eldest, the wise raven of the night sky.  She was clad all in black and midnight blue, a diadem of white gold about her brow.

On her right stood the dove, the lady of the auburn hair.  She seemed larger and more majestic than I remembered her.  Her face and eyes glowed, her cloak of white feathers was thrown back over her shoulders, and her bare arms were resplendent with armlets and bracelets of silver.  Even her hair seemed to have changed its color to a fiery red, and it appeared like an aura of flame as the hot wind whipped it wildly to and fro.

On the left stood the youngest of the three — the sparrow, the girl with the circlet of spring flowers in her golden hair.  She looked at me and smiled, and I smiled back.

Then the dark-haired lady stooped down and lifted me in her arms.  Straightening up, she turned to face the sunset, the golden-haired girl taking her place beside us and holding me by the hand.  But the lady with the fiery red hair went on ahead, leading the way through the reefs and rocks, past the disastrous smokes and flames, over the flashing wave-tips, straight into the burning gateway of the setting sun.  The boy went beside us, holding his clay lamp aloft, its pale flame strangely visible even against the blinding background of the sun’s rays.  In the sky above me the Firebird reappeared.

Three Ladies 001

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *


Living Allegory

Books 001

“In a larger sense, it is, I suppose, impossible to write any ‘story’ that is not allegorical in proportion as it ‘comes to life’;  since each of us is an allegory, embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life.”

        — J. R. R. Tolkien, letter to W. H. Auden, June 7, 1955