The most famous of literary sloughs is found in John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress. The Hero of that book, Christian, encounters the Slough of Despond (or despair, as we often call it nowadays) shortly after he is first energized to abandon his life to escape oncoming damnation. Being convicted of his sins, and receiving a burden as a result, Christian heads out to find the gate that leads to eternal life. So focused is he on finding this gate that he fails to watch his step and he winds up in the slough.
In the slough, the burden of his sins makes it particularly hard to get out. The additional weight forces him deeper into the muck with each step. Further, it is the nature of sloughs that the more you fight, the deeper you work your way in. While Christian wallows, a travelling companion, less aware of (and less burdened by) his own guilt, manages to free himself and runs back to the City of Damnation from which he came. Christian, however, continues to struggle forward. Eventually Help (capitalized because it is a man whose name is Help (Bunyan ain’t subtle)) is sent to get Christian out of the mire. He pulls him up and sends him on his way to the gate.
I was thinking of this last Wednesday as I made my way through an actual swamp. I participated in the Mormon Society of St. James’s pilgrimage to Trondheim and the Nidaros Cathedral. On Wednesday, we walked from Gumdal farm to Skaun Kirke. We had a late start and after an hour or so of hiking, it began to rain. At first it seemed like a shower that could be endured (like all the rain we went through last year in Spain), but its intensity increased and it never let up. We all found a barn to hide in for an hour or two, but we had to leave eventually (we really wanted to make it to Skaun (it was the next place where food could be purchased)). So, when the rain seemed to lighten up, we left our shelter and proceeded forth.
The lightening was short-lived. At exactly the moment it became inconvenient to turn back to the shelter we had just left, the rain intensified again. But, by then we didn’t care because we were in the swamp. Initially, it didn’t seem bad.Boards had been laid out to help the traveller stay on path and relatively dry. The path was clear (and clearly marked) and it was easy to see where the mud was deepest and to walk around those spots. At a point, I was walking along on some boards when they stopped. There were more boards about 15 feet further along and between those boards and my boards there was just swamp. Taking my best guess, I stepped with faith into the future. My faith went unrewarded.
My foot sank into the muck, well above my ankle. I tried to run, but I was more Peter than Jesus. With each step, my feet sank in and my shoes filled with water. The earth below was a giant sponge. There was no firm ground. I wanted to stop and orient myself, but you had to keep going or you’d sink further. I made it to the next boards, but then discovered to my dismay that it was the last set of boards. There was nothing for it. To get where we were going, there was no dry path.
After another half hour or so walking ankle deep in the muck, I was in a strange state of mind. I knew that I should be miserable. I was carrying a heavy pack through a soggy bog on a blistering hike (in that I could literally feel a blister forming on my right foot). But I wasn’t miserable or grumpy; I was ecstatic. There is a kind of grace that can infuse you when you realize that this is as bad as it is going to get. It wasn’t as bad as it could be. The heavy rain actually made walking easier by making the ground less sticky (I only ‘almost lost a shoe’ twice). The temperature wasn’t that low, making the wet irritating, not deadly. Every time my shoe filled with cool water, it made the blister feel better. It turned out I was still on an interesting hike with friends and family. But it was as bad as this hike was going to get. Hitting the bottom is its own kind of freedom and joy; it won’t get worse (actually, it did, but we were out of the swamp by then).
Depression has been a sort of watchword this week, between celebrity deaths and more evidence of society’s breakdown in Missouri (why is it always Missouri? ;) ). It is so tough to get through it because when you are in it, it feels like it will never end. Logically, you may understand that this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way. You’ve been in the swamp forever and there is no way out. Bunyan, it turns out, was right about this. In these situations, a good kind friend may well be the best solution. Not everyone can or will take the outstretched hand, but many can be saved. We should try to be the Help that those in the Slough require.
In the barn, to pass the time, we sang the following. We didn’t, and couldn’t, know it was apt, until later.