Vigilate & orate

Among my favourite pop-Protestant hymns is “To Be a Pilgrim,” as sung by the empyreal Maddy Prior. This partly at least because she sings the salty original words of John Bunyan, and not the fey Edwardian rewrite that is to be found in Vaughan Williams’ English Hymnal. Bunyan did not hesitate over terms such as “hobgoblin” and “foul fiend”; and can carry a pronoun through three stanzas. (In the churchy version, “he,” the Pilgrim, migrates to “we,” and “I,” as if Annibale Bugnini had been advising the Anglicans about the year 1906.)

Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend,
Can daunt his spirit;
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day
To be a Pilgrim.

A delicate Catholic question might be raised whether the Pilgrim’s confidence in being saved is a presumption upon Our Lord, or a manifestation of the theological virtue of Hope. The prose understanding would require the former, the poetical understanding the latter interpretation. I note that the passage is cast in verse.

It happens I was reading last night a collection of prayers by the late Thomas Dekker (c.1572–1632): playwright, pamphleteer, invincible Cockney, and all-round pioneering journalistic hack. It is entitled, Foure Birds of Noahs Arke, and I have a delicious facsimile of the little book, reset in hot metal (edited F.P. Wilson, 1924). The original was written and published in 1609, during the worst of the plague outbreaks in Jacobean London, when all the theatres were closed, and all the acting companies fled upcountry — or onto the Continent, where they first found that peasant German audiences could be enchanted by the works of such as Shakespeare, reduced to a kind of mime-show.

Dekker is among my beloveds, even though the two of us would not have got along; for we are hyperbolic in opposite ways. His prayer book is a prize, the more to be appreciated by anyone familiar with his plays. The man is salt-of-the-earth to start with, and quite often a rogue, but in offering prayer-texts for the common folk in their so several walks of life, he drops and loses his bag of conceits. Nothing could be plainer; the Faith that rings through those prayers is shorn of affectation.

We think of Bunyan as the finest face of the old Puritanism, but in his allegorical “excess” (for the modern reader, who has been alienated from allegory), he is Catholic in spirit. Too, he is so by his rigid adherence to Biblical teaching, which takes one ever home to our same common Christian place. But he is so, too, in the comparison that emerges to a writer like Dekker, who is strait-laced and po-faced when providing his moral instructions, setting the pleasures of this world in too strict opposition to the pleasures of Heaven — if he has a fault. Bunyan, by comparison, could belly-laugh like a Catholic, and took it for granted that, for instance, people joy in a little earthly splendour.

He (Bunyan) is all of one piece, where Dekker will race from one cliff-edge to another. But that starkness is also Dekker’s strength:

“Christ the Sonne of GOD, is the Pellican, whose blood was shed out to feed us: the Physician made of his owne bodie a medicine to cure us; looke upon him well, and beholde his bodie hanging on a crosse, his wounds bleeding, his blood trickling on the earth, his head bowed downe (as it were to kisse us),”

… and what follows is a vision of worldly corruption to curl your toes. All set in almost casual juxtaposition to the unheroic, quotidian life of the city.

Whereas Bunyan is our holie knight and Pilgrim. Combine these two aspects of the old English puritanism (itself a product of the later Middle Ages), as if uncrossing one’s two eyes, and the old Catholic Christianity seems fully restored: of an otherworldliness that can still be strangely comfortable in its own skin; that is secure and balanced on its both legs.

We are not “universal tourists” in the decadent manner, but Pilgrims all. We must revolt against a post-modern world that stands, not on the one leg or the other, but on nothing and nothingness. And I should think, together on our march to Heaven’s Gate in Jerusalem Wall — with both Bunyan and Dekker in our re-assembled, universal (“catholic”) entourage.