August 6, 2018—Born in 1592, John Comenius came from Moravia, within the modern Czech Republic. His life was marked with tragedy. His parents and two of his sisters died in 1604 from the plague. He was subsequently raised by and aunt. Poverty delayed his education. He began studies at the Latin school at age sixteen. Comenius was educated and ordained as a minister in the Bohemian and Moravian church. Several times he found himself exiled because of his faith and the religion of his community. His wife and two daughters died of the plaque in 1622. He strongly supported an ecumenical regathering of all Christians to the unity of one church. He served as the last bishop of the Bohemian Unity of Brethren.
Comenius is viewed as a forerunner of the pietistic movement. He was an early champion of universal education. He introduced a pictorial textbook to aid children’s learning. This book was widely used as it was translated into six European languages. Many consider him the father of modern education.
His most famous theological work is The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart. It addresses the conflict between the intellectual and the spiritual movements of his day.
The book also reflects the life experiences of Comenius. It is compared to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The book speaks of the journey of a Pilgrim as he wanders the world in search of honorable employment which promotes harmony and spiritual purity. Pilgrim is led through the world comparing all manner of employments and professions: ruling class, lawyers, judges, military, clergy, teachers, knights, doctors, newsmen, etc. He used character names such as Vanity, Ubiquitous, and Delusion to demonstrate the futility of his search. Even biblical Solomon appears with his great wisdom, only to be lost to seduction and deceit. Pilgrim searches the chaos of the world as he travels through the earthly labyrinth, but he fails to find the honorable goal he seeks. The book is recognized as a masterpiece in Czech literature, with its negative allegory, meant to “Strip meaning away, to expose a reality devoid of significance.”
Comenius taught the power of observation, experience, and testing. The book is organized into fifty-four chapters. It is only in chapter thirty-eight that Pilgrim is so disillusioned, that he wishes to flee the world. He cries, “God, have mercy on me a wretched man!” Then he receives instruction “Return whence you came, to the home of your heart, and shut the door behind you!” This is the second part of the book The Paradise of the Heart. Pilgrim finds the answer to his search through the questions, “Where should you have sought it but in God? And where should you have sought God but in his temple? And what is the temple of the living God but the living temple that he has prepared for himself, your own heart?” Upon this realization, he responds, “Here I am, my Lord Jesus, take me to yourself.” Jesus tells him “My light illumines simple hearts… When you serve me as I teach you, in spirit and in truth, then quarrel no longer with anyone about these matters… Therefore endeavor to collect inner riches, piety, and illumination, and I will give you everything else.”
Pilgrim admits “I found here much peace and good cheer in all who were devoted to God.” He shares that “the true source of knowledge is sacred Scripture. Its teacher is the Holy Spirit, and the goal of all is Christ, the one crucified.” Through the journey in the labyrinth and finding the center in the heart, Pilgrim teaches us to “Be in the world with your body but with me [Jesus] in your heart.” The last few chapters deal with service and submission toward one’s neighbors.
Labyrinth is not as intricate as Pilgrim’s Progress in its character development or visual details of the journey. Neither does the journey end in heaven. But Comenius is effective in comparing the evils of the world with the joy and satisfaction of finding God in your heart. The book is helpful for personal devotional practices as it suggests turning away from the world to find God through scripture and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.
Johann Amos Comenius, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart. Translated by Howard Louthan and Andrea Sterk. Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1998.
The Rev. Paul Sherwood is pastor of the Oakmont Presbyterian Church, Hoover AL and a DMin candidate at Columbia Theological Seminary.
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