Not all of the paths lead to “happy endings.” I almost wrote “fairy tale endings,” but then I recalled that some old folk tales conclude in a rather grim fashion.
Signposts stand as sentinels at the junctions. “Take this path to self-fulfillment.” “Follow this lane to explore forbidden pleasures.” “This way leads to power.” They offer promises aplenty, but their veracity is not guaranteed. In fact, the more outlandish the claims, the more suspect they become to the wise.
Speaking of wisdom, some of the most powerful words in the Book of Proverbs relate to this notion of choosing paths cautiously. Wisdom and Folly are personified as two women. One offers life-enriching knowledge and insight. The other proffers more carnal and transitory wares.
My son, keep my words
and treasure up my commandments with you . . .
Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend,
to keep you from the forbidden woman,
from the adulteress with her smooth words.
. . . and I have seen among the simple,
I have perceived among the youths,
a young man lacking sense,
passing along the street near her corner,
taking the road to her house . . .
And behold, the woman meets him,
dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart.
She is loud and wayward;
her feet do not stay at home;
now in the street, now in the market,
and at every corner she lies in wait. . . .
I have spread my couch with coverings,
colored linens from Egyptian linen;
I have perfumed my bed with myrrh,
aloes, and cinnamon.
Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
let us delight ourselves with love.
For my husband is not at home;
he has gone on a long journey . . .
With much seductive speech she persuades him;
with her smooth talk she compels him.
All at once he follows her,
as an ox goes to the slaughter,
or as a stag is caught fast
till an arrow pierces its liver;
as a bird rushes into a snare;
he does not know that it will cost him his life.
And now, O sons, listen to me,
and be attentive to the words of my mouth.
Let not your heart turn aside to her ways;
do not stray into her paths,
for many a victim has she laid low,
and all her slain are a mighty throng.
Her house is the way to Sheol,
going down to the chambers of death.
The power of this proverb is in its truth. I have actually known the seductresses (and seducers) described in these verses. Well, I’ve been acquainted with emanations of both female and male versions of Folly, since they are legion.
Despite the Lies, There is Still Hope
The key to journeying through life with the fewest deadly detours is to rely on a trustworthy guide. A compass, so to speak. A map or handbook that soundly advises which paths to take, and what precipices to avoid.
Of course, if we would rather take the risk, we can rely on human ignorance (is West to my right or my left?) . . . or worldly counsel (let us take our fill . . .).
The Bible lays out the safe and proven path. What’s more, our Savior—who calls himself “The Way,”—promises to accompany us on the journey itself.
One of C.S. Lewis’ least read books is entitled The Pilgrim’s Regress. It is modeled on the classic Pilgrim’s Progress, written by John Bunyan in 1678. The Pilgrim’s Regress was Lewis’ first published work of prose fiction. His protagonist goes through a period of disbelief, mirroring Lewis’ own. It is well worth the read, although, perhaps, it is best preceded by a reading of Bunyan’s original work.
Toward the end of his allegory, Lewis brilliantly describes the course of travel for many who sojourn for a season in foreign (unbelieving) realms. The traveler learns that all who earnestly seek the Truth ultimately find it in a single Source. I offer the following passage not as a “spoiler,” but to illustrate the importance of following the right path—and to entice you to consider reading The Pilgrim’s Regress.
“What do you see?” said the Guide.
“They are the very same shape as that summit of the Eastern Mountain which we called the Landlord’s castle when we saw it from Puritania.”
“They are not only the same shape. They are the same.”
“How can that be?” said John with a sinking heart, “for those mountains were in the extreme East, and we have been travelling West ever since we left home.”
“But the world is round,” said the Guide, “and you have come nearly round it. The Island is the Mountains: or, if you will, the Island is the other side of the Mountains, and not, in truth, an Island at all.”
“And how do we go on from here?”
The Guide looked at him as a merciful man looks on an animal he must hurt.
“The way to go on,” he said at last, “is to go back. There are no ships. The only way is to go East again and cross the brook.”
“What must be must be,” said John. “I deserve no better. You meant that I have been wasting my labour all my life, and I have gone half-round the world to reach what Uncle George reached in a mile or so.”
“Who knows what your uncle has reached, except the Landlord? Who knows what you would have reached if you had crossed the brook without ever leaving home? You may be sure the Landlord has brought you the shortest way: though I confess it would look an odd journey on a map.”