You find yourself at the top of a flight of steps. Away they tumble, into the gloom. Only the first few are illuminated by the lamp in your hand. All around you everything else is dark, a blackness of the Stygian sort that no eye can penetrate. You can’t help but have doubts and second thoughts.
You were called to go this way, but it looks less easy than the broad open way behind you. Those places were garishly well lit and smooth-floored, but you didn’t like the look of the doors back there. Not though a noisy multitude were daily passing through them, eager to sample the manifold delights beyond. You saw how those who came back out were cheated and disappointed. They hurried on to another fair-seeming portal, only to repeat the process again. There must be something better, you thought, a way that satisfies. That was when you heard, heard the quiet voice calling amid the cacophony of all the others clamouring for attention.
That voice brought you to where you are now, at the top of these steps. It was quiet, short on detail, but it seemed better in your ears, more wholesome, more reliable. “Turn and follow me,” it said, and that was all. It gave you a lamp and left the rest to faith. Holding this lamp high you can make out only those first two steps, and even then only the first is clear and bright. You long to know what’s at the bottom, where the staircase leads. It would be easy to turn back now, there are enticements aplenty back there, and so few seem to be coming this way. There’s only one way to find out if this really is the right way. You have to step out.
One foot stretches out, down on to the first step below. It’s firm and holds your weight, so far so good. And look, another step is now in sight, emerging from the shadows as you bring your lamp nearer. You take another step, less hesitant now, and another and another. With each step you take another one below is revealed, but never more than one at a time. What’s further on is still a mystery, but the madding crowd is left behind.
On and on you go, down and down. Small obstacles you have to avoid, and here and there a snare or gaping hole. You negotiate each one at a time, learning to trust your lamp. A part of you wants to return to the easier well-lit place above – it seems less uncertain up there – but that urge diminishes with each onward step.
At last, with many a slip and often a stumble, you reach the bottom of the stairs and find what is waiting there. A dim and narrow corridor, running off into the distance, filled with shadows that lurk beyond your lantern’s reach. The voice had been proved right thus far, vindicated at every point, and now you’re able to look back up at all the steps you’ve come down. Something else illuminates them now, allowing you to commit them to memory. Learn their lessons well and mark how far you’ve come. Just think, had you seen the bottom from the top you would have rushed down heedless, casting your lamp away and going quicker than you ought. Then you would have hit the traps or fallen in the gaps, with only yourself to blame. This way took longer but you made it safely down, all in one piece and much the wiser.
It’s peaceful down here, though there’s plenty you could worry about if you let yourself. Were you right to come? What’s next? What lies ahead? Will you reach the destination you’ve been told about, or do anything worthwhile along the way? At least your lamp is still burning bright, defying your fears that it would fizzle out. If at times you let it slip, down by your side or to the floor, the darkness seems to press in closer and fear rears its ugly head. Now you must resist the temptation to go back the way you know. Instead raise that lantern high and see how the shadows are pushed back. Again, only a short stretch is illuminated, but enough to take each step with confidence.
Ahead you can see pinpricks of light where other lamps seem to hover, and from up ahead you hear the faint voices of other travellers. Sometimes you hear a panicking voice which has no lamp, stumbling around in panic after leaving its light by the wayside. Continue on and from the feel of the air and the echoes ahead you realise it’s a long corridor. Lifelong. But on you go. Something lies ahead, at the end, that’s worth persevering for.
The corridor is full of doors. Regularly on each side they appear out of the gloom and come into your sphere of light. More questions. Should you turn aside and pass through the doors or stick to the corridor and press on? Is the point of this to reach the end as quick as possible, or are there tasks to do along the way, opportunities not to be missed?
Decision time. You step aside and consider the nearest door. It seems sturdy and attractive, all polished wood and gleaming brass. No clue what lies beyond, but you seize the handle and push anyway. No, the door is locked, not this way. A fleeting thought occurs – what lies beyond this door, where might I have gone? but it vanishes into the dark and you step away again.
Maybe the door in the opposite wall, a little way along? Another well-made door, rich and surely leading somewhere nice. This one even has an image in the wood, a promise of riches within. It too is locked, and won’t budge an inch, for all your efforts. Once again you step away, disappointed and frustrated. What’s the point of all these doors if you can’t go through any of them?
There are many locked doors, many signs and sidetracks denied to you. You start to feel that you won’t get anywhere, and the light at the end of the corridor feels as far away as ever. Surely you’re ready, surely one of these doors is for you? It’s never clear, there’s no sign above each door saying ‘not this way’ or ‘only for some’; you simply have to knock on each one and see what happens.
In all the waiting and frustration, when your hopes and ideas are deferred and delayed, you can take comfort from this one thing: the oil in your lamp never once runs out. It keeps burning, and you never lack for light. You can always see what’s just ahead of you, if no further.
Finally you reach a door that isn’t locked, a chipped and peeling door. As you put your hand on the knob, ready to turn, you wonder if this is really the door for you. After passing so many fine and handsome doors, why settle for one that looks so shabby and sad? A flood of doubts seem to seep in from the darkness all around, and even a distant invite from the well-lit world above the stairs, but you’re here now. Give it a try.
You turn the knob, open the door and step inside. It looks dark and cold, and a surge of fear must be overcome. But once within everything is different. There is light and warmth and friendly faces. There’s a clear path to tread and many edifying things along the way. This is the right way to go. This is a place where you can grow and help others. This way is fulfilling. Despite all the empty words and threats of the other voices, this was the right way to come.
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. The way is rough in places and winds through dark bends. Sometimes you pause in weariness, tired of the way, and other times you’re striding strong. Sometimes it’s clear and easy; at others you wander off at a fork in the road and it takes you ages to find your way back. Others are with you for some of the journey, but very few walk all of it with you. People are coming and going through different doors all the time, but all you can do is follow the path laid out for you and try to make the most of it.
At times you find yourself back in the corridor, brought there by a door that cannot be opened again for going back. Then you start the process again, pushing on doors and seeing which ones open. For some there’s only one door, for others there are many, but all are making their way to the same end-point by the same light.
Keep on, don’t give up. Don’t turn back. Your lamp will keep burning until the end.