The “preposterous obstinacy” of pilgrims traveling to the Celestial City

pilgrimEnter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. – Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV)

In John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), the pilgrim-hero Christian travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City by foot, suffering much along the difficult way. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s parody of The Pilgrim’s Progress, “The Celestial Rail-road” (1843), the narrator, “resolved to gratify a liberal curiosity” and “take advantage of modern improvements,” makes the journey by train, enjoying the “great convenience of the new method of going on pilgrimage.” Of his fellow train passengers, he says: “Our enormous burthens, instead of being carried on our shoulders, as had been the custom of old, were all snugly deposited in the baggage-car.” They scorn the foot-travellers:

The passengers being all comfortably seated, we now rattled away merrily, accomplishing a greater distance in ten minutes than Christian probably trudged over in a day. It was laughable, while we glanced along, as it were, at the tail of a thunderbolt, to observe two dusty foot-travellers in the old pilgrim guise, with cockle shell and staff, their mystic rolls of parchment in their hands and their intolerable burdens on their backs. The preposterous obstinacy of these honest people in persisting to groan and stumble along the difficult pathway rather than take advantage of modern improvements, excited great mirth among our wiser brotherhood. We greeted the two pilgrims with many pleasant gibes and a roar of laughter; whereupon they gazed at us with such woeful and absurdly compassionate visages that our merriment grew tenfold more obstreperous. Apollyon also entered heartily into the fun, and contrived to flirt the smoke and flame of the engine, or of his own breath, into their faces, and envelop them in an atmosphere of scalding steam. These little practical jokes amused us mightily, and doubtless afforded the pilgrims the gratification of considering themselves martyrs.

This short story raises very important questions for the reader: Is there a shortcut to Heaven? Why take the hard way if there is an easier one available? Is sanctification possible without suffering? Are much touted improvements actually “improvements”?

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