When the story begins, John’s world is very narrow and purposeless. He thinks that his reason for existing is simply to follow the Landlord’s rules. He doesn’t understand much about the world around him, and he hasn’t seen much because he hasn’t gone far from what is familiar to him. It is only when he ventures outside of what is familiar to him, when he goes a few yards farther down the road, that he experiences something that alters his life forever.
All of us are in a similar position. Like John, we don’t see very clearly and we don’t understand very much. We often obey our Landlord’s rules out of fear of the consequences rather than love for the Landlord. Like John, we need to hear a voice calling us, a beauty that draws us out of our common experience and fear into a new reality.
I submit to you that for those who have ears willing to hear and eyes willing to see, your humanities classes this year will offer many opportunities to experience the kind of Joy that came to John. Ask the seniors if they have ever had a moment in humanities class when they felt a “sweetness and a pang so piercing” it made them forget about everything else, a sudden shocking moment of a beauty that pointed beyond itself to that which is ultimately Beautiful. The same can happen to you if, like John, you are willing to venture a few yards farther down the road, a little way past the familiar, a little way beyond what you are used to.
It may happen to you when you read of Aeneas returning to rescue his people, helm afire and god-forged shield held high. Or when you read of Beowulf’s body, broken in his final battle. For some, Joy will come when Elizabeth finally sees that all the pride she had been seeing in Darcy was mirrored in her very own prejudice, and that she does love him, she does.
Perhaps Joy will come when you read of the simple obedience and faith of the early fathers of the church, willing to die joyfully for Christ, or read in George Herbert’s poetry how God uses our afflictions to tune our hearts to the key of his love. Or when you read of how the Redcrosse Knight’s first glimpse of the Celestial City breaks his heart with its beauty.
At some point, the moment for Joy will come, and the only question is whether you will be ready for it. Will you? Will you be ready to hear the voice say to you “Come”? Will you hear the sweet musical sound? Will you see the mist part and glimpse the island? Will you see the object of your nameless desire?
At the end of The Pilgrim’s Regress, John eventually realizes that the object of his desire cannot be found in this world. All the beauty and delight he found in objects in this world were signposts pointing him to a beauty and a delight of an object that transcended this world. At this point John realizes the truth of the words St. Augustine wrote in the opening of his Confessions, words addressed to God:
“You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is [restless] until it rests in you.”
John realizes that the voice he heard long ago, and the island he saw, and all the beauty and joy he had known from that day to this was all used by God to draw his heart to its proper place. God made John restless by design so that John would learn contentment in God alone and not in the gifts of God.
The same is true of each of you. God has poured numerous blessings into your lives. One of those blessings is that he has placed you at Petra this year to learn and grow in wisdom and virtue. But this year won’t be all beauty and joy and glimpses of islands. There are papers to be written, speeches to deliver, tests to take, conflict with friends to resolve, sins to confess. But this is all part of the work of planting and pruning apple trees so you can enjoy an abundant harvest of the sweet fruit of good education.
And rest assured that while you labor toward this harvest of education, God himself is at work in you, watering your weary roots, pruning your dead branches, and preparing you for the harvest of mature godliness.
He has made you restless by design, and he will not rest in his work until you find perfect rest in him.