The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart
By Dr. Jerry Terrill The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart was written by John Amos Comenius (1592–1670) in 1623 with several revisions over his lifetime. It is still the most widely read book from medieval Czech literature. As an allegory it is often compared to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which was written fifty years later. It is quickly apparent that Comenius was greatly influenced by the book of Ecclesiastes. The first section chronicles the life of a pilgrim seeking his life’s vocation while seeing only vanity, futility, meaninglessness, and death in the world around him. It is a social commentary on the matrix of organized religion. In the second section, the pilgrim finds true meaning and paradise in his heart through salvation and devotion to Jesus Christ. In this manner it has been compared to the Confessions of St. Augustine.
Comenius began his writing shortly after the defeat of the Czech Protestants by the Roman Catholic army at the Battle of White Mountain (1620). The first draft was completed in 1623. By then Comenius was in exile leading his people as the last Bishop of the Bohemian Brethren (Unitra Fratrum) and Moravian churches, during the forced re-Catholicization of the Czech, Bohemian, and Moravian peoples during the Counter Reformation.
John Amos Comenius is the Latinized version of the Czech name Jan Komensky (“the man from Komna”). He was a true Renaissance scholar, who is widely regarded as the father of modern education through his book Didactica Magna. He developed the first illustrated children’s book, Orbis Pictus (“The World in Pictures”). He was also considered radical for advocating the education of women and peasants. Forced to flee his Protestant home land, he lived in seven different countries, and he wrote over two hundred books, including a seven volume scientific encyclopedia, before dying in Holland.
Comenius understood that true happiness is not found in this world. Comenius’s parents and four sisters died in 1604, he was then raised by an aunt. He did not enter a school room until he was sixteen years of age. His first and second wives and several of his children would die from plagues during the Thirty Years Wars.
The writing of Comenius inspired the Czech people over the decades of Nazi and Communist rule. It provided a refuge from a dark and soulless world, providing hope. His work has been compared to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch for its fantasy, symbolic imagery, and abstract representations. Comenius’s peasants, like those who appear in the paintings of Pieter Bruegel, understand the difficulties of living in a world that seeks to destroy rather than to praise.
Comenius’s legacy lives on in the UNESCO award bearing his name that honors outstanding education achievements. The Czech Republic honors his birthday, March 28, as a national day of recognition for teachers. Recently the University of Jan Amos Komensky was founded in Prague, specializing in educational training programs for teachers at the undergraduate and graduate level.
The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart is a much needed resource for living in today’s postmodern world filled with strife and discord. In an age of darkness and malevolence, Comenius provides in his labyrinth a ray of hope—the light that comes down and illuminates the city and its people.
Dr. Terrill is Director of the Counseling Program and Professor of Counseling at Houston Graduate School of Theology.