I turned 35 last week. In the same week as my birthday, I went to see a high school performance of the musical I was in myself, 19 years ago.
19 years ago. That’s how long it’s been since I was 16 … in 2002.
The musical was ‘Pilgrim’, an original musical based on John Bunyan’s allegorical tale, Pilgrim’s Progress. (Well, it was a Christian school!)
At one time, Pilgrim’s Progress was second in popularity only to the Bible, and considered one of the best novels ever written in the English language.
The story is presented as the author’s dream of the trials and adventures of Christian (somewhat of an ‘everyman’) as he travels from his home, the City of Destruction, to the Celestial City. Christian seeks to rid himself of a terrible burden, the weight of his sins. On his quest to relieve these burdens, Christian’s pilgrimmage takes him on many dangerous adventures: through the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair and the Delectable Mountains. Along the way, he meets characters who help or hinder his journey. Two particular companions – Faithful and Hopeful – help Christian vanquish those who stand between him and the Celestial City.
In 2002, I played ‘Hopeful’, shortened to ‘Hope’ for an ostensibly more modern feel. My featured song was called ‘The Right Path’, with lyrics like,
The right path can be stoney
The wrong as smooth as clay…
Walk straight to the gate
It’s never too late.
As Hope, I met Christian while he languished in prison in Vanity Fair, a place built to ensnare pilgrims trying to get to the Celestial City. I helped him escape, singing along the way about true faith.
Sitting in the audience last week to watch this new version of the Pilgrim musical, I was almost overcome with emotion.
Sitting beside me were three men who had been boys when I first met them. My husband, Adam, was in the band for our own high school Pilgrim rendition. Our close friends Tim and Ross were also part of the musical in 2002, and had come to see this new version and to support our beloved music teachers who had written it and were now helping a new school perform it.
I met Adam, Tim and Ross in 2002, when we were in Year 11. We all loved music and our double-period music classes were the highlight of our week. Now, 19 years later, we all still love music and we have remained friends (and I married one of them!). We live in different parts of Sydney but have seen each other build our families and navigate peaks and troughs in our faiths. And as we sat side by side watching this musical and reminiscing about being 16, the message of John Bunyan’s allegorical tale felt intensely real to me.
Pilgrim’s Progress teaches the cost of salvation. Through Christian’s trials, we learn that the path to Heaven is not easy. In fact, Hope and Christian realise this themselves when their path gets hard and they take an easier road, then get lost and have to turn back.
When the musical was finished, I was approached by my music teacher to come and meet the girl who had played Hope. He wanted to get a photo of ‘The New Hope and the Old Hope’. In the week I turned 35, the description stung a little. 2002 might be 19 years ago but it feels like only yesterday that I was waiting in the wings, smoothing down my skirt and fixing my headset microphone before stealing onto the dark stage, ready for my scenes to begin. I could still feel the exhilaration of performance as I watched that musical last week.
But it wasn’t yesterday. It was half my lifetime ago. I am, I hope, more wise than my 16 year old self as the first and new Hope. But I am also less romantic, less ambitious; more tired, more anxious. I, like Christian, am getting ever closer towards the Celestial City. There have been trials along the way in those 19 years, and many more looming. My burden has, at times, felt very heavy.
After the photo opp with the New Hope, Yet I felt a renewed gratitude for my companions sitting beside me. They may not have allegorical names, but these lifetime friends have acted as Faithful and Hopeful to me, accompanying me on the journey, from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, from being the ‘New Hope’ to the ‘Old Hope’. Though, at 35, I wonder what I’ll be called if I make it to 70!
“This hill, though high, I covet to ascend;
The difficulty will not me offend.
For I perceive the way to life lies here.
Come, pluck up, heart; let’s neither faint nor fear.
Better, though difficult, the right way to go,
Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe.” – John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress