Friday, December 5, 2014

The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 2: The Slough of Despond

Years ago I began reading Bunyan’s devotional classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. All I remember about that experience was the Slough of Despond, a swamp in which the pilgrim, Christian, gets mired almost immediately after he sprints away from his home in the City of Destruction toward the wicket-gate, which opens onto the King’s Highway, leading to the Celestial City.

Now I know why this is all I remember of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Like Christian, I bogged down here. I never read any further.

In those days, circa 1982, I read Bunyan firm in the conviction that it must be, like all other religious texts, a coded key to “the inner spiritual quest.” In those days, the only Celestial City I acknowledged was my “real self,” which always seemed just out of meditative reach. But I reached for it anyway.

When I read the New Testament (rarely) or the Bhagavad Gita (more commonly) or the Sufi classic The Conference of the Birds (most often of the three), I viewed them through the same searching lens: How can this text help lead me closer to something authentic inside myself? 

Today, I recognize the Slough of Despond as a real place, because I have experienced despondency in the religious life.

I became a Catholic in 2008, and like Christian I did so alone. Christian dashes away from home, leaving his wife and four children behind when they refuse to believe that their home town is targeted for destruction. I didn’t do anything so drastic, though my decision to become Catholic wasn’t embraced in all quarters of my home city.

I left home with a burden on my back and, like Christian, I felt the terrible weight of this burden only upon reading the Slough of Despond, the onset of post partum spiritual desolation that may affect every convert.

One has done something so rash—turn Papist at 57?!—and yet done it so enthusiastically. Inevitably the enthusiasm wears off and some fundamental spiritual problem, there in oneself all along, rears its head. In my case, this was the weight of guilt for past and present behavior.

The nature of my own disagreeable behavior is something I take up in my memoir, The Long Walk Home. All I will say here is that within a year of becoming a Catholic, I came up against a major personal psychological roadblock, which I needed to overcome before I could head out onto the King’s Highway.

In The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius there is wonderful advice for the pilgrim who finds himself in such desolation. Remedies found in paragraphs 318–322 include “remaining firm and constant in resolution,” “intensifying our activity against the desolation,” and “prayer, meditation, and much examination of ourselves.” When in desolation, Ignatius writes, one “should strive to persevere in patience.”

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, help arrives as Christian gamely resists the slough. Help takes the form of a character named Help! One of the happy pleasures of reading The Pilgrim’s Progress is smiling at dozens of such allegorical figures with names as self-evident as Help. Setting out from the City of Destruction, Christian has already been joined and then abandoned by would-be pilgrims named Obstinate and Pliable. It comes as no surprise to the reader that neither of these characters makes it through the Slough of Despond.

Like Christian, I found help after struggle against my own despondency and much begging on my knees. When I spoke of this help to a priest in confession, he convinced me that the help had been the gift of the Holy Spirit and the fruit of my own poor prayer.

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