Confessions of a Twentieth Century Pilgrim

One of the more impactful books that I’ve read in a while. Thought-provoking, captivating, and authentic. Here is a series of powerful observations from its pages:

Introduction

“Genetic failures are heavenly messengers, with a special role in the world to make outward and visible the physical and mental distortions which we all have inwardly and invisibly. Without dwarfs, we should suppose that all humans were giants and vice versa. In simpler societies than ours the imperfect specimens – the idiot, the blind, the lame, and the dumb – are revered; we call them “handicapped,” and persuade ourselves that by murdering them all before or just after they are born, the norm, the model ad-man with his everlasting smile exposing his perfect teeth, will become Every-man.” (11-12)

“In my own case, conversion has been more a series of happenings than one single dramatic one.” (14)

“Holiness, an expression of love, is luminous; hence the haloes in medieval portraits of saints.” (15)

“What, then, is a conversion? The question is like asking, “What is falling in love?” there is no standard procedure, no fixed time. Some, like the Apostle Paul, have Damascus Road experiences; I have often myself prayed for such a dramatic happening in my life that would, as it were, start me off on a new calendar, like B.C. to A.D., and provide a watershed between carnal and spiritual love. Jesus’ own image of a conversion is made clear in His conversation with Nicodemus, when he came to see Jesus by night – being born again. No such experience has been vouchsafed me; I have just stumbled on, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, falling into the Slough of Despond, locked up in Doubting Castle, terrified at passing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death; from time to time, by God’s mercy, relieved of my burden of sin, alas, soon to acquire it again.” (15-16)

The Child

“In the very first consciousness of childhood there is an awareness of some benign spirit – God – watching over our human condition; as there are also built into the night shapes and shadows and strange awesome sounds. With the passage of time these impressions are liable to get blurred and mistaken for one another. With old age comes what is called second childhood, so that we may meet our Maker precisely as we left Him – as little children who, the Gospel tells us, alone are able to understand what He came into the world to tell us.” (20)

Rapture

“The most characteristic and uplifting of the manifestations of conversion is rapture – an inexpressible joy which suffuses our whole being, making our fears dissolve into nothing, and our expectations all more heavenwards.” (21)

“The billions upon billions of fellow humans who have lived, are living and will live on our little earth, have only one recourse – to put aside every other consideration, the backwards and the forwards, hope and despair, ardour and listlessness, and get down on their knees to pray with the utmost humility, and utterly meaning it: “Thy will be done,” confident that our Creator’s purpose for His creation is to do with love rather than power, with peace and not strife, with Eternity rather than Time, and with our souls rather than our bodies or our minds. Thus in the turmoil of life without, and black despair within, it is always possible to turn aside and wait on God. Just as at the centre of the hurricane there is stillness, and above the clouds a clear sky, so it is possible to make a little clearing in the jungle of our human will for a rendezvous with God. He will always turn up, though in what guise and in what circumstance cannot be foreseen. – perhaps trailing clouds of glory, perhaps as a beggar; in the purity of the desert or in the squalor of London’s Soho or New York’s Times Square. Once, in Times Square, I was glancing disconsolately, but also avidly, at the rows of paperbacks, each with some lewd or sadistic picture for its cover, and noticed that by some strange accident my book on Mother Teresa, Something Beautiful for God, had got on to these sad shelves. Wondering how it could have happened, Herbert’s beautiful lines came into my mind:

And here in dust and dirt, O here

The lilies of His love appear.

For every situation and eventuality there is a parable if you look carefully enough.” (22-23)

The Boy

“It was something he was to learn – that the most profound truths are characterized by seeming, once recognized, to have been always known, and the most profound love, once experienced, to have always existed, so that you see a face and hear a voice familiar from the beginning of time, and always to be familiar – every truth an echo, every love without a beginning or an end. An idea becomes close to you only when you are aware of it in your soul, when in reading about it, it seems to you that it has already occurred to you, that you know it and are simply recalling it. That’s how it felt when the Boy read the Gospels. In the Gospels he discovered a new world; he had not supposed that there was such depth of thought in them. Yet it seemed so familiar; it seemed he had known it all long ago, that he had only forgotten it.” (27)

The Undergraduate

“Faith is a special kind of knowledge, as the process for acquiring it is a special kind of education. Though we have to accept the impenetrability of the Cloud of Unknowing that lies between us in Time and the Eternity that is our true habitat, Faith provides a special insight into the mystery that lies at the heart of our earthly existence. We cannot resolve the mystery, but seeing it as a parable, and Scripture expounding it as an allegory, we can make guesses at what it signifies. And what inspired guesses there have been! Chartres Cathedral, for one – what a guess that was! And Shakespeare’s King Lear, and the book of Job, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Sistine Chapel, Pascal’s Pensees and Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and Beethoven’s Missa Soleemnis.  Indeed, every true word ever uttered, every thought sincerely and lucidly entertained, every harmonious note sung or sounded, laughter flashing like lightning between the head and the heart, human love in all its diversity binding together husbands and wives, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, and making of all mankind one family and our earth their home; the earth itself with its colours and shapes and smells, and its setting in a universe growing ever vaster and its basic components becoming ever more microscopic – seen with the eyes of Faith, it all adds up to oneness, an image of everlasting reality. (35-36)

“It is not unusual for living suddenly to lose all its savour.” (39)

“Surveying the abysmal chasm between his certainty that everything human beings tried to achieve was inadequate to the point of being farcical, that morality itself was a kind of gargoyle joke, and his equal certainty that every moment of every day was full of enchantment and infinitely precious, that human love was the nearest image vouchsafed us of God’s love irradiating the whole universe; that, indeed, embedded in each grain of sand, there is veritably a world, to be explored, as geologists explore the antiquity of fossils through their markings, and astronauts through their flights into outer space – surveying this chasm, yawning in its vastness to the point of inducing total insanity, tearing us into schizophrenic pieces, he grasped that over it lay, as it were, a cable-bridge, frail, swaying but passable. And this bridge, this reconciliation between the black despair of lying bound and gagged in the tiny dungeon of the ego, and soaring upwards into the white radiance of God’s universal love – this bridge was the Incarnation, whose truth expresses that of the desperate needs it meets.” (41-42)

“Because of our physical hunger, we know there is bread; because of our spiritual hunger, we know there is Christ.” (42)

“The answer is, in a word, the Word – God’s Almighty Word…The Word with which everything began, that came to dwell among us, full of grace and truth. The Word that is written into all truth, spoken in all wisdom, enacted in all authentic living; that is sounded in a baby’s first cry, and echoes in the last rattle of death; that is embodied in the Fearful Symmetry we dare not utter – that children understand what sages have forgotten; that we must hate our life in this world to deserve a place in another; that the meek, not the arrogant, inherit the earth, and the foolish, not the wise, understand its caprices.” (54)

“Happiness that comes upon us, he discovers, is as different from happiness sought or bought as is synthetic perfume from the fragrance of spring flowers. Of all the different purposes set before mankind, the most disastrous is surely “The Pursuit of Happiness,” slipped into the American Declaration of Independence, along with “Life and Liberty” as an inalienable right, almost accidentally, at the last moment. ‘Happiness,’ he scribbles down, ‘is like a young deer, fleet and beautiful. Hunt him, and he becomes a poor frantic quarry; after the kill, a piece of stinking flesh.’ True happiness, he concludes, lies in forgetfulness, not indulgence, of the self; in escape from carnal appetites, not in their satisfaction. We live in a dark, self-enclosed prison which is all we see or know if our glance is fixed downwards. To lift it upwards, becoming aware of the wide luminous universe outside – this alone is happiness.  (55-56)

The Journalist

“This assumption that a sense of humor and a Christian faith are incompatible is totally mistaken…The true function of humor is to express in terms of the grotesque the immense disparity between human aspiration and human performance…when the Gates of Heaven swing open, as they do from time to time, mixed with the celestial music there is the unmistakable sound of celestial laughter…Laughter, indeed, is God’s therapy; He planted the steeples and the gargoyles, gave us clowns as well as saints, in order that we might understand that at the heart of our mortal existence there lies a mystery, at once unutterably beautiful and hilariously funny” (70-72).

“Once more, it is borne in upon the Journalist that throughout every moment of existence God is trying to say something to us if only we will listen; that in every happening, large and small, from the bite of a flea to a nuclear explosion, from a muttered word while sleeping to Beethoven’s symphonies, the Creator speaks to His creation” (72).

 

“…in suffering and deprivation rather than in well-being and ease the light of understanding shines forth; that in humility, not pride, the eyes see and the ears hear what the experience of living truly signifies. The Man on the Cross dying to ribald shouts and mockery is validated, and seen to have guided and inspired through the Christian centuries all that is most creative and wonderful in human life” (83).

“A truly peaceful day from beginning to end is a great rarity in this life” (90).

“We are like people waking from sleep, who cannot collect their thoughts at once, or understand where they are. Little by little the truth breaks upon us. In the present world we are sons of light gradually waking to a knowledge of ourselves. For that let us meditate, let us pray, let us work, gradually to attain a real apprehension of what we are. Thus, as time goes on, little by little we shall give up shadows. Waiting on God day by day we shall make progress day by day, and approach to the true and clear view of what He has made us to be in Christ” (94-95).

A Spiritual Pilgrimage

“It was padding about the streets of Moscow that the other dream – the kingdom of heaven on earth – dissolved for me, never to be revived. Those grey, anonymous figures, likewise padding about the streets, seemed infinitely remote, withdrawn forever strangers, yet somehow near and dear. The grey streets were paradise, the eyeless buildings the many mansions of which heaven is composed. I caught another glimpse of paradise in Berlin after it had be “Liberated” – there the mansions made of rubble, and the heavenly hosts, the glow of “Liberation” still upon them, bartering cigarettes for tins of Spam, and love for both. (Later, this paradise was transformed by means of mirrors into a shining, glowing one, running Schlag and fat cigars, with bartered love still plentifully available, but for paper money, not Spam.) So many paradises springing up all over the place, all with many mansions, mansions of light and love; the most majestic of all, the master paradise on which all the others were based – on Manhattan Island! Oh, what marvelous mansions there reaching into the sky! What heavenly Musak overflowing the streets and buildings, what brilliant lights spelling out, what delectable hopes and desires, what heavenly hosts pursuing, what happiness on magic screens in living colour!

And You, Jesus? I never caught even a glimpse of You in any paradise – unless You were an old, coloured shoeshine man on a windy corner in Chicago one February morning, smiling from ear to ear; or a little man with a lame leg in the Immigration Department in New York, whose smiling patience as he listened to one Puerto Rican after another seemed to reach from there to Eternity. Oh, and whoever painted the front of the little church in the woods at Kliasma near Moscow – painted it in blues as bright as the sky and whites that outshone the snow? That might have been You. Or again at Kiev, at an Easter service when the collectivization famine was in full swing, while Bernard Shaw and newspaper correspondents were telling the world of the bursting granaries and apple-checked dairymaids in the Ukraine. What a congregation that was, packed in tight, squeezed together like sardines! I myself pressed against a stone pillar, and scarcely able to breathe. Not that I wanted to, particularly. So many grey hungry faces, all luminous like an El Greco painting; and all singing. How they sang – about how there was no help except in You, nowhere to turn except to You; nothing, nothing that could possibly bring any comfort except You. I could have touched You then, You were so near – not up at the altar, of course, where the bearded priests, crowned and bowing and chanting, swing their censers – one of the grey faces, the greyest and most luminous of all.

It was strange in a way that I should thus have found myself nearest to You, Jesus, in the land where for half a century past the practice of the Christian religion has been most ruthlessly suppressed; where the very printing of the Gospels is forbidden, and You are derided by all the organs of an all-powerful state as once You were by ribald Roman soldiers when they decked You out as King of the Jews. Yet, on reflection, not so strange. How infinitely preferable it is to be abhorred, rather than embraced, by those in authority. Where the distinction between God and Caesar is so abundantly clear, no one in his senses – or out of them, for that matter – is likely to suggest that any good purpose would be served by arranging a dialogue between the two of them” (132-133).

“At the intersection of time and eternity – nailed there – You confront us; a perpetual reminder that living, we die, and dying, we live. An incarnation wonderful to contemplate; the light of the world, indeed” (134).

The Prospect of Death

“If Man is the very apex of creation, with nothing greater than himself in the universe; if his earthly life exhausts the whole content of his existence, then, clearly, his definite end, his death, is too outrageous to be contemplated, and so is better ignored” (144).

“The hardest thing of all to explain is that death’s nearness in some mysterious way makes what is being left behind – I mean our earth itself, its shapes and smells and colours and creatures, all that one has known and loved and lived with – the more enchanting; as the end of a bright June day somehow encapsulates all the beauty of the daylight hours now drawing to a close; or as the last notes of a Beethoven symphony manage to convey the splendour of the whole piece. Checking out of St. Theresa of Avila’s ‘second-class hotel,’ as the revolving doors take one into the street outside, one casts a backward look at the old place, overcome with affection for it, almost to the point of tears.

So, like a prisoner awaiting his release, like a schoolboy when the end of term is near, like a migrant bird ready to fly south, like a patient in hospital anxiously scanning the doctor’s face to see whether discharge may be expected, I long to be gone. Extricating myself from the flesh I have too long inhabited, hearing the key turn in the lock of Time so that the great doors of Eternity swing open, disengaging my tired mind from its interminable conundrums and my tired ego from its wearisome insistencies. Such is the prospect of death.

I am eighty-four years old, an octogenarian who has done much that he ought not to have done, and lived fourteen years longer than the three score years and ten which, the Bible tells, will be but labour and sorrow, they pass away so soon.

For me, intimations of immorality, deafness, failing eyesight, loss of memory, the afflictions of old age, release me from preoccupation with worldly fantasy and free me to meditate on spiritual reality, to recall Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s remark that ‘Christendom is over but not Christ.’

And so I live, just for each day, knowing my life will soon be over, and that I, like Michelangelo at the end of his life ‘…have loved my friends and family. I have loved God and all His creation. I have loved life and now I love death as its natural termination…’, knowing that although Christendom may be over – Christ lives! (149-150)

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