“Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme …”
“Awake! The Voice calls us …”
— Philipp Nicolai, 1599
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To watch, in Pilgrim parlance, is not simply to look and stare in dumb amazement, as one might watch television. As a matter of fact, it’s the exact opposite. To watch, in the good old Anglo-Saxon sense of the word (OE wacian), is to stay awake and be aware. It’s to maintain close contact with one’s surroundings and keep a sharp lookout for the approach of unexpected threats. It’s about cocking your ear for the rustle of every leaf and the cracking of every twig. In this respect it is precisely parallel to the Latin vigilare, “to wake, remain vigilant, or stand guard.”
The Pilgrim knows how important it is to stay vigilant. He understands that the world is a dangerous place, a perilous enchanted wood where enemies prowl like roaring lions seeking whom they may devour. Because he lives by trust, he knows how important it is to guard his trust. He realizes that to invest it in an unworthy object would be a fatal error.
Little Tom Thumb, inhabitant of a world almost as depraved and dangerous as our own – the world of fairy-tale and romance – grasped the importance of keeping vigil. Tom, having taken lodging in the house of a child-eating ogre, knew better than to doze off in the middle of the night. Lying there in a great feather bed beside his six snoring brothers, he concocted a daring scheme. In the wee hours, he slipped out from beneath the covers, crept to the bed where the ogre’s daughters lay, and exchanged their seven golden crowns for the boys’ seven felt caps. Soon the ogre came tip-toeing into the room and began fumbling around in the dark. Feeling the golden crown on Tom’s head, he muttered, “What a mistake I’ve nearly made! I must have drunk too much last night!” With that he went straight to the other bed and cut the throats of all his seven daughters. When he was gone, Tom and his brothers made their escape into the night.
The point of the story is that watchfulness and cleverness trump brute force and violence every time. But the Pilgrim knows that physical dangers are the least of the perils he faces as he travels through the kosmos. Far more formidable are the ogres that lurk within his own heart – those natural, inborn inclinations to evil that lie in perennial ambush, looking for a chance to leap out and link up with the first suitable opportunity that comes along. Those inclinations and opportunities can be subtle, inconspicuous. They can also be deceptively familiar and comfortable; for as the prophet Jeremiah saw so clearly, it’s the heart that is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Fearsome are the monsters that dwell within: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
When Lord of all Pilgrims returned from His prayers only to find His most trusted followers sleeping, like Tom Thumb’s heedless brothers, in the midst of invisible perils, he roused them with these unforgettable words: “Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). The same Voice calls to us today. Those who complete their pilgrimage successfully will be those who have ears to hear.