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Anglican Theological Review of Images of Pilgrimage
by Charles Hefling

Images of Pilgrimage: Paradise and Wilderness in Christian Spirituality. By RD Crouse. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2023. 96 pp. $18.99 (cloth). ISBN 978191541224 9.


The six chapters in this splendid little book could be said to belong to the venerable Anglican tradition of lecture-sermons. They are learned but not didactic, motivating but not emotional. After Robert Crouse had delivered them as addresses at a retreat for clergy in Nova Scotia, he was asked by some of those who heard him to allow their publication. Thankfully, he agreed.


His operative thesis is that pilgrimage is the “fundamental and all-encompassing theme of spiritual life”—every spiritual life. Human being is being-towards, being-onthe-way, and the images that describe this universal condition are themselves universal. This is not to say that Christian spirituality is just one of many equivalent expressions of a generic orientation to transcendence. But neither is it isolated in an enclave where only a private language is spoken. While, on the one hand, the images that articulate specifically Christian pilgrimage are not all specifically Christian, they are on the other hand images, not concepts; and as such they are open to a range of complementary interpretations, depending on how they are used. The Christian interpretation can be specified, perhaps, by “translating” these images into the technical language of theology. But though Crouse was himself a theologian, his properly theological essays on pilgrimage belong to a future volume in the same series as this one. Here, for the most part, he favors connotation over denotation, mindful that the concrete meaningfulness of primary images eludes static definition. If paradise is a garden, it is also a city. If wilderness is a desert or a dark wood, it is also Egypt.


It is through the deployment of these two polyvalent images that the spiritual reality of Christian pilgrimage has come to expression. In them the whole of revelation is encompassed. All else, Crouse writes, is exegesis—or perhaps better, it is eisegesis, the reading of one’s self into the revealed word. Either way, the process of articulating this pilgrimage is itself a pilgrimage, which begins, as Crouse expounds it, with the spirituality of what he calls pagan antiquity, but takes its bearings from the Old and New Testaments, and continues in Christian history. In the early church, the biblical book that catechists commonly used to guide neophytes into the faith they were to profess at their baptism was Genesis. The same book predominates in Crouse’s discussion of the Old 1226978 ATR0010.1177/00033286241226978Anglican Theological ReviewBook Review book-review2024 Book Review 2 Anglican Theological Review 00(0) Testament, for the same reason. Paradise in Genesis is not, as it was for the Greeks and the Romans, an unattainable goal, ever longed for but never achieved. It is the ever-present gift given by a Creator whose creation is wholly good. Wilderness too is present—as a possibility. There can be temptations in paradise. But it is also in the wilderness that manna is given, and it is the desolating wilderness of the cross that becomes the burgeoning tree of life. Paradise and wilderness are opposed only in that they define a tension which it is the business of pilgrimage to negotiate. They do not, in this life, exclude one another.


As all of this may suggest, the presiding genius throughout Images of Pilgrimage is Augustine: his assessment of imperial Rome, his two-cities teaching, his approach to the interpretation of scripture, his praise of amor as the very essence of deity, of grace, and so also of paradise. Augustine does not have the last word, however. For that dénoument Crouse turns to a poet rather than a theologian. Perhaps inevitably, the poet is Dante, whose Divine Comedy narrates a great pilgrimage, begun in a wilderness, undertaken with the help of pagan wisdom in the person of Virgil, and consummated, not in an earthly paradise or by any earthly means, but in the overwhelming vision of the divine love that moves sun and stars.


A set of retreat addresses cannot do everything, and Crouse does not suppose that ever since Dante the imagery of pilgrimage has been eclipsed. His final chapter mentions Milton and Bunyan, for obvious reasons, but also Marx and Kafka. Das Kapital is hardly a treatise on spirituality, yet the pilgrimage images infuse its pages. Alienation is a wilderness; utopian harmony is a paradise. It could not be otherwise, for without those images no serious thinking is possible. Christianity, informed by revelation, has deployed and interpreted the images of pilgrimage in its own way, though it neither invented nor discovered them. Grace perfects nature; it does not take it away.


And while retreat addresses cannot do everything, these addresses do a great deal. Crouse’s pilgrimage moves through a vast and various territory that is not much visited nowadays by writers on the life of the soul. All the more reason, then, to take him as a guide.


CHARLES HEFLING Boston College (ret.), Chestnut Hill, MA, USA

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