Pilgrim’s Witness

Pilgrim’s Witness

This article was first published in the Method issue of Common Place Quarterly.

Across the wide and varied spectrum of modern booklists and curricula inspired by Charlotte Mason, there seems to be a small set of books that always make the cut. First is the Bible, which Mason referred to as the “one source of illumination.”[1] Then of course there is Shakespeare, “the daily bread of the intellectual life.”[2] But there is another book, without which no Charlotte Mason education would be complete: Pilgrim’s Progress.

Much has been said about this Christian classic from 1678. Bunyan’s protagonist, the pilgrim, is named Christian. In his unforgettable journey he faces countless obstacles and challenges. But there is one steady theme from the opening page onward: progress. This pilgrim is always moving forward.

I don’t recall exactly when I first heard about the story of another pilgrim, an inhabitant of another allegorical world. This pilgrim’s name was John. Unlike Christian, however, John’s story is not one of all progress. For much of the book, he is in a kind of regression, moving farther and farther away from the faith of his youth. The descent is the motivation for this book’s title: The Pilgrim’s Regress.

This 1933 tale was the first book written by C. S. Lewis after his conversion to Christianity. Chad Walsh describes how it came to be:

Lewis’s return to Christianity suggested to him the possibility of Pilgrim’s Regress; his hostility to the spirit of the age gave him numerous foes against whom he could tilt his lance. He would convert his experience into that of an Everyman and trace the path, with all its ambiguities and perils, that led him back to traditional Christianity in the person of Mother Kirk.[3]

The book received a cool reception. According to Walsh, “many readers found it ill-tempered and too obscure.”[4] The story features an “elaborate symbolic system”[5] far more complex and subtle than the straightforward figures of Bunyan’s classic. Indeed, while “children of eight or nine will grasp a chapter in Pilgrim’s Progress at a single reading”[6] (at least according to Charlotte Mason), Lewis’s Regress was so complex that he felt obliged to add explanatory headers to the top of each page when he prepared a new edition in 1943.[7]

I probably first heard about the book from my friend Dr. Steven Hutchens, a senior editor of Touchstone Magazine. Hutchens explained to me that Pilgrim’s Regress is either your most- or your least-favorite book by Lewis. Having been greatly helped by Mere Christianity and the Screwtape Letters (not to mention Narnia), I was intrigued. In 2006, I ordered the book. This was about a year after I had ordered Mason’s Home Education Series and had made the decision to implement a Charlotte Mason homeschool. I had one child, a boy who at that time was seven.

I made my first pass through Pilgrim’s Regress and then returned to my friend Dr. Hutchens, a theologian, essayist, and critic. “I would like to learn from you one-on-one,” I wrote. He countered with an offer to lead a discussion group. And so for the next several months during the Sunday School hour, with a small group of fellow pilgrims, I studied Lewis’s loved and hated book.

I still have my 31 pages of handwritten notes from those lessons of 2006. “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Hutchens said, “is much simpler [than Pilgrim’s Regress], so [it] is more powerful.” Perhaps. On the final page of my notes, I wrote this:

“it is not for nothing that the Landlord has knit our hearts so closely to time and place” — connecting to the infinite thru the particular.

This was to foreshadow the power this book would later have for me.

Whether this became my most or least favorite book by C. S. Lewis, I cannot say. However, I do know that at that time I made a promise. I wanted my son, and my expected children of the future, to read this book. I made a promise to myself: He will read it before he graduates from my homeschool.

Although C. S. Lewis wrote the story as a chronicle of his own intellectual and religious conversion, he did try to “make his John into a potential Everyman.”[8] I thought of the challenges my children would face when they left home and experienced college and the world. I thought of all the assaults that would be brought to bear on their faith. I thought about the competing worldviews which could lead them astray. I wanted them to be prepared. And I thought this book should be part of that preparation.

But I was (and am) a Charlotte Mason purist. I wanted to do things the right way. I wanted to follow the right techniques. I wanted to have the right beliefs. And of course, I wanted to use the right books. And I was not aware of any Charlotte Mason booklist or curriculum that included Pilgrim’s Regress.

It wasn’t enough for me to read the book on the side. I didn’t want to assign it for “free reading.” I had written 31 pages of notes on the book myself! I wanted my children to study it. I wanted it to be part of their core curriculum in the senior year. It was a promise I made to myself when my child was only seven years old. I remembered for ten years. Ten years later I kept my promise.

It is the kind of choice that every homeschool parent or teacher must make. It is the tension between framework and freedom, between counsel and intuition, between general and personal. In so many areas I submitted to the wisdom of Charlotte Mason, the PNEU, and the contemporary curricula they inspired. But in this case, I chose my book.

Was it living? I didn’t know. Would my children understand it? I didn’t know. Would they be able to narrate it? I didn’t know. But I did know that we would try.

When senior year came, I assigned readings and required written narrations. To understand these narrations, it helps to understand a bit of the symbolism of the book. To provide this background, I’ll share from an essay my daughter wrote a few months ago:

The world of The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis, is full of things, characters, and places which all have their own counterpart in our own world.

As with every book, we are first introduced to the land in which this boy grew up in. Puritania represents the land in which lives puritan people. They teach John about the rules put into place by the Landlord and checked upon by the Steward that need to be followed at a young age, but he did not understand them because he was not old enough to understand. A few years later when John could better retain the meaning behind these rules, his parents take him to see the Steward.

The Steward represents the pastor of a church. His role is to teach others about the rules put in place by the Landlord. Because of how his parents talked about him, John was afraid of the Steward, but as he talked with the Steward, he began to feel more comfortable; that is, until the Steward makes John aware of the masks or fronts that the puritans put on thereby covering their true feelings with how a puritan is supposed to act.

When the Steward puts on his mask, he begins to talk of the Landlord and installs in John a fear of the Landlord. The Steward also tells John what would happen if he were to break the Landlord’s rules. After his first meeting with the Steward, John vows that he will abide by those rules, so as not be cast into “the black hole” known as hell.

Every inhabitant of Puritania was a tenant of something. But unlike the leases in our world, when their leases were up, they would be summoned to meet with the Landlord whose dwelling was up in the eastern mountains. We get an example of what can happen with John’s uncle, George.

The Island represents the end goal that we all wish to find. The ultimate reward, heaven. But the [temptation] he comes across is one of the many things that can come against us and lead us astray.  As will everything that comes to lead us astray, John is satisfied with [it] for only a short period of time.

The Landlord represents God. As the owner of every piece of land that [people] live on, the Landlord makes the rules, and by obeying those rules, when [their lease is up and they are] summoned to meet with the Landlord, they will not fall into the “black pit.”

But years before my daughter wrote that essay, I read my son’s written narrations. Did he grasp the meaning? Was he internalizing the story? Each week the story advanced and John faced a new conflict. And I read what my son wrote. Here is an example:

In this reading John met Mr. Enlightenment. This one was a different man in the line of Enlightenment than the one he had met earlier. He followed and talked to Mr. Enlightenment, who said that there was no landlord, and that the only object of life was to find the island. When John told of his previous failings with attempts to find the island the man just said that he was not going about it in the right way and that he had to get a new mindset, which he explained to John. This led John to the realm that belonged to the giant, Spirit of the Age. Some of the giant’s soldiers came and arrested John for trespassing and took him to the giant’s dungeon.

In the dungeon John saw many other horrible people in rags and quite a sorry state. The worst bit of the dungeon was that the giant looked in often, and when the giant looked in, everyone who fell under his gaze turned transparent, and John could see all of the organs and inner workings of anyone he looked at, including himself, and he drew away from everyone in horror, and sat in a corner and tried never to look at himself.

He was in this dungeon for quite a while, when he saw a beautiful lady named Reason, she rode up to the giant in shining armor. The giant’s men tried to take her down but she fought all of them off. The giant turned to her in a fury when she began to speak, she tore apart the giant with her words, until, eventually, Spirit of the Age fell to pieces, struck down by the words of Reason.

John met other adversaries besides Mr. Enlightenment: Mr. Halfways, Broad, and Sense. I definitely thought my son was grasping the symbolism. He seemed to be seeing the richness and value in the book that I had seen. But the confirmation came at the moment of John’s conversion. John comes to faith! I thrilled to read my son’s narration of this chapter, one of my favorite written narrations of all my years of homeschooling:

In this reading John woke up to the sound of a woman calling him. She told him her name was Contemplation and she told him to follow her. They left the cave and flew across the land, and at the sight of mountains in the east John began to be afraid. As they flew over the mountains John saw a castle and became terrified, he tried to escape the woman’s grasp but could not. They flew closer and closer and then he awoke to pouring rain of a thunderstorm.

He got up, shaking, and crawled out of the cave, he dared not stand up but continued to crawl along the path he had come when all of a sudden a voice shouted “Halt!” and a sword plunged into the ground in front of his face. He looked up and in a flash of lightning he saw Reason there in her armor, terrifying and strong. She told him to turn around, continue on the path he had been going or fight her. John could not turn, but he could not fight her, so he turned and crawled as fast as he could along the path. Reason told him that she could be his servant or his master. He could jump or be thrown, he could surrender or be conquered, it made no difference to her.

When John decided on the first, Reason pointed to a group of people sitting around a pool with an old woman crowned and sceptered standing over it. As John approached the people welcomed him as if he had been expected, and Mother Kirk summoned him to the pool’s edge. There he saw virtue, he had taken off his clothes and was sitting next to Kirk by the pool. Kirk told John to take off his rags and that he must dive into the pool. John said that he would rather jump, but Kirk said he had to dive with all his might or he would not reach the bottom. He must surrender everything and fall all the way to the bottom, in order to come up on the other side of the canyon.

Everyone who he had talked to on his travels told him it was not too late to turn back. He heard Mr. Halfways and his children telling him not to give up on the world. Mr. Enlightenment said that none of this was grounded in reality. Broad said this was too extreme. Sense said that this was all an illusion. Yet Virtue and John clasped hands and jumped.

Everyone told John it was not too late to turn back. But he took the plunge of faith—a plunge demanded by Reason. It was a plunge that my son took also, before going to college. Reason and witness together led him to a choice—his own choice—to walk a life of faith in college and beyond.

When my daughter reached her senior year, I made sure that C. S. Lewis’s allegory was again on the booklist. I read her written narrations and we had many rich discussions together. We reached the end of the book just as the time of her graduation was nearing. I knew that she, too, would be leaving home shortly to go to college. We read these words from the closing pages of Pilgrim’s Regress:

‘I am cured of playing the Stoic,’ said Vertue, ‘and I confess that I go down in fear and sadness. I also—there were many people I would have spoken to. There were many years I would call back. Whatever there is beyond the brook, it cannot be the same. Something is being ended. It is a real brook.’[9]

I too was cured of playing the stoic. I wrote these words with tears in my eyes:

My daughter’s last day of homeschool is Friday, and it is difficult to describe the emotions I feel. I taught her every math lesson in her life, from her first number to tomorrow’s final exam in calculus. I have memories for a lifetime, but memories can feel as intangible as dreams.

Are you homeschooling your children? Enjoy it for the dream that it is. You may wonder if you’re spending too much time with your children. Your neighbors or friends may tell you are being extravagant, that you should focus on yourself a bit more. You may ask yourself how much time is enough. I am sure the answer is that no amount is ever enough. There is a real brook, and these years will never come back. Give your children all that you have, even if it means taking them with you when you have to go to the other side of the earth.

Now I have one child left in my homeschool, a second boy; he is my last one on “this side” of the brook of adulthood. Senior year is still five years away. But I am sure he will be reading and narrating Pilgrim’s Regress when the time comes. The book is sitting on the school shelf, patiently waiting for us.

Have I settled into being a renegade by insisting on a book which doesn’t appear in any “official” Charlotte Mason curriculum? Not exactly. Over the years, I have come to see that this tension only exists if I conceive of a Charlotte Mason education as a system. “By means of a system,” writes Mason, “certain developments may be brought about through the observance of given rules.”[10] It’s alluring, isn’t it? “The observing of rules until the habit of doing certain things, of behaving in certain ways, is confirmed,” she writes, “and, therefore, the art is acquired—is so successful in achieving precise results.”[11]

I wanted those results. Therefore, I thought I should follow the rules. Except … “the educator has to deal with a self-acting, self-developing being.”[12]

Mason warns us against systems. She warns against rules and trusting in rules. She calls every parent and teacher to a much more difficult path:

Method implies two things—a way to an end, and step-by-step progress in that way. Further, the following of a method implies an idea, a mental image, of the end or object to be arrived at. What do you propose that education shall effect in and for your child? Again, method is natural; easy, yielding, unobtrusive, simple as the ways of Nature herself; yet, watchful, careful, all-pervading, all-compelling. Method, with the end of education in view, presses the most unlikely matters into service to bring about that end; but with no more tiresome mechanism than the sun employs when it makes the winds to blow and the waters to flow only by shining.[13]

Yes, I am a purist. To me that means following the integrity and unity of Miss Mason’s method. To do so faithfully means to give up the allure of system.

It means to press “the most unlikely matters into service.” Sometimes that means engaging in activities that no one else is doing. Sometimes that means employing books that no one else is using. Your choices, guided by the grace of the Holy Spirit, will surely be different from mine. But my choice was quite simple. I wanted to make sure none of my children left home without Pilgrim’s witness.


[1] Ourselves, Book II, p. 83.

[2] Formation of Character, p. 226.

[3] Walsh, C. (2008). The Literary Legacy, of C. S. Lewis,  p. 60.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 61.

[6] Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 260.

[7] Walsh, op. cit., p. 60.

[8] Walsh, op. cit., p. 63.

[9] Lewis, C. S. (2014). The Pilgrim’s Regress, p. 228.

[10] Home Education, p. 9.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 8.

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