Essay

Two Roads

I didn’t know her well, just enough to tip my hat maybe, if I’d ever worn one. Probably said “hi” is all. She lived on the southwest corner of the block, a widow, her husband gone before we’d moved into the neighborhood.

In those early years of our marriage, we had a place to live but not much for furniture, so I went to a lot of auctions. When she died, hers was right on our block. Her earthly possessions were spread out on the front lawn, among them a print of this curious bit of folk art, a Sunday School lesson in Dutch–cartoon men, women, and children walking one of two directions I recognized immediately, even though I knew no Dutch.

Two roads veer away at a striped cross that makes clear the eternal choice: Dood or Leven. Three dandies saunter handsomely toward the left behind a street sign that recognizes “the rich of the world.”

To the right, a less classy traffic cop/pastor points towards destruction while directing a mom and her kids up the path to a door they’ll have to duck to get through.

I needed no introduction, no gloss, to get the drama here recorded, all of it perfectly charming, despite the roaring flames. One quick glance and I knew the whole story. I remember thinking I could have cried because I found it, at once, so overstated and yet so cute, so lovely even.  I’d never seen The Broad and Narrow Way, but had never been without it.

The zany cartoon poster had me in it somewhere, and I knew it. Some part of me was born and reared in this cartoon, or somewhere not far distant. It was as goofy as it was grand, and perfectly graceless.

Someone outbid me, so I went home without it. No regrets, even though I thought it might have made a great gag gift. I left it behind, but it didn’t leave me. It never had.

*

Years later, the English Department got new digs, and we found ourselves with empty walls. I volunteered some of what I had stored away, and there I found the Broad and Narrow Way. Honestly, I didn’t remember buying it—where would I? Yet, somehow it just seemed right that I had it.

I didn’t know much until my son walked into the department pod one day and reminded me that I wasn’t to forget that the cartoon-y sermon on the wall belonged to him.

“You’re serious?” I said.

He’d bought it at a little touristy place “across the square from the church your great-grandfather attended,” he told me, Midsland, Terschelling, the Netherlands.

“Yours?” I said.

“Just as long as you remember.”

I told him I promised I wouldn’t forget. I haven’t.

*

Turns out this thing has been around. I could have guessed. 

A Brit street preacher, Rev. Gawin Kirkham, had the print reproduced and enlarged, so big he needed an guy with a pool cue to point out the mini-sermons, of which there are dozens, and more. One assistant claimed that by 1892 Kirkham had held forth on The Broad and Narrow Way 1018 times, the last, just six days before his sermons were forever stilled in the here and now.

Been around, this print had. The very first Broad and Narrow was the vision of a well-heeled German pietist from Stuttgart, Charlotte Reihlen, who knew she wasn’t blessed with the talent to put it down on canvas, so she found a fellow pietist, Herr Schacker, to bring her vision to life, which means the very first Broad and Narrow was auf Deutsch.

Ms. Reihlen’s booklet of explanation had the formidable title Erklärung des Bildes f Der breite und der schmale Weg’ , mit Anführung der auf dem Bilde meist nur angedeuteten Schrift, which I won’t try to translate because it’s just too much fun to try to read the original.

So a pastor from Stuttgart gave one to a judge from Utrecht, who passed it along to Amsterdam’s leading religious publisher, H. deHoog, who published it in 1867, in Dutch. That’s one year before my Terschelling ancestors hoisted anchor—and, let the record show, by all accounts, they were pietists too.

Later, the Brit street preacher brought the B and N back to its birthplace in Stuttgart. One of Pastor Kirkham’s able assistants remembered that Stuttgart homecoming:

“The lecture had been well advertised and on two successive nights a crowd of a thousand people crowded every corner of the Concert Hall, the finest building in Stuttgart. Mr. Albert Reihlen [Charlotte’s husband] presided. At the close the people crowded round Mr Kirkham, and at least five-and-twenty kissed him on both cheeks!”

Of course, I knew none of that back then. Neither did my son, I’m sure.

And now, for five years it’s been front-and-center on our library wall, as intimate as my father’s war booty, my grandfather’s high school diploma, and a needle point of the island of Terschelling, a precious gift long ago.

The woman who helped us decorate this new house told us we had such strange stuff, tons of it, including that weird Dutch print of pilgrims going to heaven. She was taken. Use it, she said. Put it up.

We did. It is.

*

But the truth is, I wouldn’t even be thinking about it, but just last week I ran into The Broad and Narrow Way again in an unlikely place, this one a Roman Catholic version (Martin Luther beckons on the left side of the fence.

The Jesuits who came to the Dakotas gave The Broad and Narrow Way their own name, Two Roads, and found it a great blessing on mission outposts among the Lakota. People seemed fascinated, drawn close by the drawings, not unlike their own winter counts. Black Elk, a Lakota holy man who was present at both Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee, found The Broad and Narrow Way convincing enough to become Roman Catholic himself, even though he had long before been known to his people as a holy man.

What many found in Two Roads, the Catholic version, was an evocation of the symbolism they’d always read into their own visions. “For fifty years I have looked for the road I should walk,” one old man said. “Now I have found it.” Those two paths meshed into the geography of their own inner cultural life and brought many to the church.

Black Elk himself became a renowned catechist, who, history says, created something of a religious awakening by toting with him his very own Two Roads. Throughout the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, he’d visit the tiny churches and preach the gospel.

*

For many years I couldn’t help but think that it takes many, many years to unlearn what you’re taught in Sunday School. Seems harsh, I know, but there’s some truth in it.

Then again, tonight I’m thinking that it’s a blessing some of the best of all that kid stuff never, ever leaves.

I’m in that thing, see? I really am.

But I’ve got to remember it’s my son’s. I will.

_____________________________________________

Should you be of the frame of mind that, like me, loves to get lost in the small print, go to https://www.swangallery.co.uk/view-print-image.php?sid=3c3b07b712189cdd91f97892ef2cd4a0&printid=1003245&catid=

You can create your own tour of the Broad and Narrow Way. Keep a Bible handy. English’ll do.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

9 Comments

  • mstair says:

    absolutely love your last line …

    “You can create your own tour of the Broad and Narrow Way. Keep a Bible handy. English’ll do.”

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

  • ASchipper says:

    Wow!

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    The either/or and the both/and constructs never cease to fascinate.
    Both are “true”. We just need to discern when to apply which. JRK

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Fascinating, Jim. This goes deep into our archetypal instincts across times and cultures, don’t you think? Edmund Spenser has a vivid poetic rendering of this, in his own way, in the Faerie Queene from the 1590s.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, James, for the reminder. I had a large copy (24×30) of this Two Roads drawing on my office wall for years. It was given to me by one of our first generation Dutch immigrant families that settled in Ontario after the second World War. It always reminded me of the John Bunyan allegory, “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Thanks or sharing.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    I love the gifted way you write about the foibles and particularities of our forbears while always maintaining respect and appreciation for their faith and humanity. Enjoyed this.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    I love this. Thank you for this delight.

Leave a Reply