Christians like conversion stories.
The plot of a conversion story usually goes something like this: we hear various bits of pre-conversion debauchery—and the better conversion stories usually include some juicy violations of the Sixth Commandment (or Seventh Commandment, for those who follow the Philonic, rather than the Augustinian numbering of the Ten Commandments).
As a result of these sins, the potential convert encounters a crisis:
Then, after some suitably dramatic experience, the convert realizes that only Christ can save him, embraces faith, and his life now looks something like this:
But I think it’s important to emphasize that stories of perseverance, while frequently less dramatic than conversion stories, are actually far more important.
In the parable of the sower, both the seed that falls on rocky ground and the seed that falls among thorns begin to grow. But the seed that falls on rocky soil immediately springs up, but then withers. And the seed that falls among thorns grows but then is choked. But it is not these seeds which sprout and then wither or are choked away that bear fruit.
All too often, the sort of conversion story that we might imagine ending with the painting above turns out to be seed sown on rocky ground: the convert embraces the word with joy and gladness, and their faith endures for a time; but it quickly withers and dies.
In fact, I have taken the paintings above out of context. These are images in a series of paintings by Thomas Cole entitled The Voyage of Life, which I saw a few weeks ago in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.
The paintings were displayed with commentary by Cole, which I have included in italics under each painting. I will offer some further comments on perseverance after the paintings and commentary.
A stream is seen issuing from a deep cavern, in the side of a craggy and precipitous mountain, whose summit is hidden in clouds. From out of the cave glides a boat, whose golden prow and sides are sculptured into figures of the Hours: steered by an Angelic Form, and laden with buds and flowers, it bears a laughing Infant, the Voyager whose varied course the artist has attempted to delineate. On either hand the banks of the stream are clothed in luxuriant herbage and flowers. The rising sun bathes the mountains and flowery banks in rosy light.
The dark cavern is emblematic of our earthly origin, and the mysterious Past. The Boat, composed of Figures of the Hours, images the thought that we are borne on the hours down the Stream of Life. The Boat identifies the subject in each picture. The rosy light of the morning, the luxuriant flowers and plants, are emblems of the joyousness of early life. The close banks and the limited scope of the scene indicate the narrow experience of Childhood, and the nature of its pleasures and desires. The Egyptian Lotus in the foreground of the picture is symbolical of Human Life. Joyousness and wonder are the characteristic emotions of childhood.
The stream now pursues its course through a landscape of wider scope and more diversified beauty. Trees of rich growth overshadow its banks, and verdant hills form the base of lofty mountains. The Infant of the former scene is become a Youth on the verge of Manhood. He is now alone in the boat, and takes the helm himself: and in [an] attitude of confidence and eager expectation, gazes on a cloudy pile of Architecture, an air-built Castle, that rises dome above dome in the far-off blue sky. The Guardian Spirit stands upon the bank of the stream, and with serious yet benignant countenance seems to be bidding the impetuous voyager “God speed.” The beautiful stream flows directly toward the aerial palace, for a distance, but at length makes a sudden turn, and is seen in glimpses beneath the trees, until at last descends with rapid current into a rocky ravine, where the voyager will be found in the next picture. Over the remote hills, which seem to intercept the stream, and turn it toward that cloudy Fabric, which is the object and desire of the voyager.
The scenery of this picture—its clear stream, its lofty trees, its towering mountains, its unbounded distance, and transparent atmosphere—figure[s] forth the romantic beauty of youthful imaginings, when the mind magnifies the Mean and Common into the Magnificient, before experience teaches what is real. The gorgeous cloud-built palace, whose most glorious domes seem yet but half revealed to the eye, growing more and more lofty as we gaze, is emblematic of the day-dreams of youth, its aspirations after glory and fame; and the dimly seen path would intimate that Youth, in his impetuous career, is forgetful that he is embarked on the Stream of Life, and that its current sweeps along with resistless force, and increases in swiftness as it descends toward the great Ocean of Eternity.
Storm and cloud enshroud a rugged and dreary landscape. Bare impending precipices rise in the lurid light. The swollen stream rushes furiously down a dark ravine, whirling and foaming in its wild career, and speeding toward the Ocean, which is dimly seen through the mist and falling rain. The boat is there, plunging amid the turbulent waters. The voyager is now a man of middle age: the helm of the boat is gone, and he looks imploringly toward heaven, as if heaven’s aid alone could save him from the perils that surround him. The Guardian Spirit calmly sits in the clouds, watching with an air of solicitude the affrighted voyager. Demon forms are hovering in the air.
Trouble is characteristic of the period of Manhood. In Childhood there is no cankering care; in Youth no despairing thought. It is only when experience has taught us the realities of the world, that we lift from our eyes the golden veil of early life: that we feel deep and abiding sorrow; and in the picture, the gloomy, eclipse-like tone, the conflicting elements, the trees riven by tempest, are the allegory; and the Ocean, dimly seen, figures the end of life, to which the voyager is now approaching. The demon forms are Suicide, Intemperance, and Murder, which are the temptations that beset men in their direst trouble. The upward and imploring look of the voyager shows his dependence on a Superior Power and that faith saves him from the destruction that seems inevitable.
Portentous clouds are brooding over a vast and midnight Ocean. A few barren rocks are seen through the gloom–the last shores of the world. These form the mouth of the river, and the boat, shattered by storms, its figures of the hours broken and drooping, is seen gliding over the deep waters. Directed by the Guardian Spirit, who thus far has accompanied him unseen, the voyager, now an old man, looks upward to an opening in the clouds, from whence a glorious light bursts forth, and angels are seen descending the cloudy steps, as if to welcome him to the Haven of Immortal Life.
The stream of life has now reached the Ocean, to which all life is tending. The world, to Old Age, is destitute of interest. There is no longer any green thing upon it. The broken and drooping figures of the boat show that Time is nearly ended. The chains of corporeal existence are falling away; and already the mind has glipmses of Immortal Life. The angelic Being, of whose presence until now the voyager has been unconscious, is revealed to him, and with a countenance beaming with joy, shows to his wondering gaze scenes such as mortal man has never yet seen.
Thomas Cole, 1840
One of the tensions I feel as I try write about my experiences is that many readers want me to paint a picture like that found in the “Youth” painting in Cole’s series, while writing honestly ends up producing a picture more like that in the “Manhood” painting.
I hope this is not because my faith is being choked by weeds.
That hope is bolstered by a study of the lives of the saints (beginning with St. Paul and the thorn in his flesh). A passage in the Screwtape Letters has always been particularly encouraging to me in this respect:
You must have often wondered why the Enemy [Christ] does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and much therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
It is in the early stages of faith—the first joys of conversion—that faith seems as it seems in the “Youth” painting above. It is later, when faith has taken deeper root, that we go through periods of dryness or even the “Dark Night of the Soul” (please do not imagine that I think that my spiritual struggles have brought me anywhere near the Dark Night that John of the Cross speaks of).
Conversion stories are interesting, no doubt. But the really interesting stories, I think, are the stories of those who have looked round upon a universe from which every trace of God seems to have vanished, and asked why they have been forsaken, but still persevered in obedience.
If we are to get past the stage of spiritual infancy, we don’t just need examples of those who lined up at the starting blocks: we need the examples of those who have run the race with endurance. And that means we need stories that, at times, look like the darker paintings above.