Pilgrim’s Progress

Mark Twain once said that when he was 15 he thought his father the stupidest man alive, but by the time he was 25, he was amazed at how much the old man had learned in 10 years.

The Puritans could probably empathize. In their day, these Angry Young Men were certain they were where History was going. The Puritan stormed out of the ecclesial house in a huff in the 17th Century, rebelling against his Anglican father who had himself stormed out of the Catholic house a century before. Like all hotheaded young turks, the Puritan was determined to show the old guys he could do it better. Dad, said the Puritan, had rejected the Pope but retained popery. The young Puritan, full of the future, would at last scour his faith clean of all the smells and bells, feasts and fasts, images and statues and become Purely Spiritual. He rejected anything that even smelled popish as the worship of Satan. He destroyed religious images with zeal whenever he got the chance. He was so distrustful of the Catholic idea of “sacred time” that he refused to honor any of the feast days. In fact, some Puritans even tried to ban calling the days of the week “Monday, Tuesday” etc. because these names came from Norse and Roman deities. However, the attempt to rename the days of the week “First Day, Second Day, Third Day” failed. So did the attempt (under Oliver Cromwell) to get rid of the King, Christmas, theatres, feasts and pretty much anything else the English thought was fun. In the end, the English had enough and brought back the King, Christmas, theatres, feasts and all the rest. As Chesterton observed, “In America, they have a feast to celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims. In England, we should have a feast to celebrate their departure.”

The failure of his English political fortunes did not spell the end for the Puritan. Long after his influence declined in England, he continued thriving on our shores. But something odd happened. As time went on he found the face staring back at him from the mirror each morning was looking more and more like Dad and, as time went on, like Grandpa. For as the children of a young country began to crowd around him, asking for stories of where they came from, who they were and how they were to make their way in the world, the once-rebellious Puritan ruefully found he had to submit to the embarrassing process of become Venerable. He found that he could not build a life on mere protest. However Pure and Spiritual he had set out to be, he found his children needed to become human. And so, in the end, this former rebel had to rummage through Grandpa’s attic and begin to pull out things like Tradition to teach his children. This hater of religious images started turning up in paintings hung in churches all over America. This old radical whose Cromwell had beheaded the King had to invent a government, start talking about Family Values, and warning against radicals like Karl Marx or Jack Kevorkian or Planned Parenthood. This despiser of Holy Days established the first holiday celebrated on our shores–a Feast whose name, in Greek, is “Eucharist.” For his children, inheriting his not only his youthful zeal but his fallen nature turned out to be all too inclined to follow these voices to disaster in their attempt to show the old man they can do it better.

Ironically though, as he went through all these changes, he discovered another, rather unexpected, voice speaking in chorus with him: the voice of the Holy Father in Rome, speaking out against tyranny, speaking out for the Gospel of Life, speaking out for the Gospel of Christ, speaking out to give thanks to God as he had done in that first Thanksgiving. And he suddenly felt himself to be part of divine practical joke, a joke which exalts rather than humiliates. For here was a little fulfillment of Malachi’s prophesy that God would turn the hearts of the fathers toward their children and the hearts of the children toward their fathers. And so he gave thanks even for the Holy Father, whose moral stature dwarfs every figure on the world stage, and who, like Twain’s father, turns out to have learned a bit in 400 years.


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