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Pilgrim’s Problem
C. S. Lewis
By now I should be entering on the supreme stage
Of the whole walk, reserved for the late afternoon.
The heat was to be over now; the anxious mountains,
The airless valleys and the sun-baked rocks, behind me.
Now, or soon now, if all is well, come the majestic
Rivers of foamless charity that glide beneath
Forests of contemplation. In the grassy clearings
Humility with liquid eyes and damp, cool nose
Should come, half-tame, to eat bread from my hermit hand.
If storms arose, then in my tower of fortitude--
It ought to have been in sight by this—I would take refuge;
But I expected rather a pale mackerel sky,
Feather-like, perhaps shaking from a lower cloud
Light drops of silver temperance, and clover earth
Sending up mists of chastity, a country smell,
Till earnest stars blaze out in the established sky
Rigid with justice; the streams audible; my rest secure.
I can see nothing like all this. Was the map wrong?
Maps can be wrong. But the experienced walker knows
That the other explanation is more often true.

C. S. Lewis, Clive Staples Lewis, is best known for his prose works but he wrote a fair amount of poetry as well. Born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1898, Lewis was a reader and writer from an early age. Raised in a Christian household, “Jack” (as he was always called) began to consider himself an atheist in his teenage years.
Always a brilliant student, Lewis received a scholarship to University College, Oxford, in 1916, on the eve of World War I. He entered the army and experienced trench warfare on the front line at the Somme Valley. He was injured in friendly fire and had a long physical and mental recovery. After the war he resumed his studies at Oxford, where, after gaining First Class honors in Latin and Greek, Philosophy and Ancient History, and English, he remained as a tutor.
Lewis’ rediscovery of his Christian faith was nurtured by reading—especially the works of George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton—and by conversations with believing friends, like J. R. R. Tolkien. He famously wrote of his conversion, “You must picture me alone in [my] room… night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me…. I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
C. S. Lewis became one of the most famous and prolific of Christian apologists. He died on November 22, 1963.
Lewis loved the natural world, and he loved to “ramble,” taking long walks – twenty miles, sometimes—in the countryside. In this poem, he describes the spiritual journey as a ramble, and at times playfully evokes the language of a guidebook. This ramble doesn’t go according to plan. It is late afternoon, and he has been walking a while already. Lewis writes: “By now I should be entering on the supreme stage / Of the whole walk.” The difficult part of the day—the heat, the mountains, the rocks—was supposed to be over by now, and nothing before him but beautiful views and easy walking.
This far into his spiritual journey, Lewis expected to have arrived at the Christian virtues: “majestic / Rivers of foamless charity,” “Forests of contemplation,” “towers of fortitude,” “Light drops of silver temperance,” and “mists of chastity.” But that hasn’t happened. “I can see nothing like all this,” he writes. “Was the map wrong? / Maps can be wrong.” The conclusion of the poem is tongue in cheek. “The experienced walker knows / That the other explanation is more often true.” The map wasn’t wrong – the rambler was.
“Pilgrim’s Problem” makes the point that the journey doesn’t get easier. In the spiritual life, most of us do not make steady, continual progress. We do advance, but we do not leave difficulties and temptation behind. If we think we will get to a place where the virtues come effortlessly, we are fooling ourselves—we are misreading “the map,” which did not promise consolations—just the cross.
Lewis’s poem made me think of medieval labyrinths, like the one at Chartres Cathedral in France. When we walk the labyrinth, we do not go straight to the center. Rather, we follow a circuitous path, which takes us very close to the center from time to time, but then moves away from it again. On the spiritual journey, there are moments where we feel very close to God, but there are also moments where the end seems far away, or where we lose sight of the goal altogether. We can give in to discouragement, and blame the map—or acknowledge, as the speaker in Lewis’s poem does, that “the other explanation is more often true”—and adjust our expectations.



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