Diligence

We are now onto the second of the so-called Heavenly virtues as described in the book On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University. The format of her book and the model on which these messages are based is to provide a survey of thought on the meaning of a virtue matched to a well-known literary work as a form of illustration.

This week we are considering the virtue of diligence. Professor Prior provides the lineage of the word, beginning with its Latin origin concerning something or someone of great value, highly esteemed or dearly loved. Later it came to describe an attentive nature or carefulness in one’s behavior. Today we are more likely to use diligence to indicate a “steady, persistent effort.” The professor’s literary choice to help illustrate this virtue is John Bunyan’s 1678 novel The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The original publication had a subtitle to help us understand that the progress indicated in the title was “from this world to that which is to come,” making heaven the ultimate destination of an otherwise earthly journey. Prior’s use of this work is focused solely on part one of Bunyan’s final manuscript, covering the solitary pilgrimage made by a man known as Christian. Part two, published in 1684, was something of a sequel, following the similar journey made by Christian’s wife, Christiana, their four sons and a female companion named Mercy.

The Pilgrim’s Progress part one is regarded as the most often read English language book. It is an allegory, richly populated by people and places whose names convey their character. The protagonist, Christian, is often dissuaded in his travels by characters such as Obstinate, Pliable, Timorous, and Mr. Worldly Wiseman, while being aided in his trek by Faithful, Goodwill, Hopeful, Evangelist and the shining ones. His heavenly destination is called the Celestial City, but to get there he must avoid the snares of the Slough of Despond, the Hill of Difficulty, Vanity Fair and Doubting Castle.

For Prior, Christian’s arrival in the Celestial City is proof of his diligence. My own assessment of Christian, however, is that he perseveres. A diligent person is certainly not perfect, but is less likely to deviate from the prescribed path than someone else lacking in this virtue. Christian strays often. By contrast a diligent person’s attention to detail restricts the parameters within which they make decisions, no matter how difficult or unappealing the consequence of their decisions may be. They tend to tread a path that is straight and narrow.

Bunyan’s character is intentionally flawed so that through Christian’s ordeal the author can showcase the types of trials and tribulations a person of faith will encounter in life. Christian’s waywardness and occasional entrapment requires the need for redemption through the help of others. He lacks the kind of discernment one associates with the virtue of diligence. However, he does persevere despite his faults, exemplifying the grace of God available to those who believe.

You can see that I retain and emphasize two early qualities ascribed to a diligent person; an attention to detail and a careful ordering of one’s behavior. This can no doubt be attributed to my professional training as an accountant and more specifically to my role as an auditor. Success in this field reveals a person’s commitment to a goal of discovery, where evidence is pursued, tested, evaluated and thereby used as the basis for reaching conclusions about the financial health of an organization. Experience leads me to believe that a diligent person has a goal to which they commit and faithfully pursue. The goal is not always attained, hence the validity of a comment Prior makes in her text that “Although applied to a goal, diligence itself is not measured by outcome.” Diligence describes the quality of the effort. An engaging story will typically contain a gratifying ending to reward the quality of any pilgrimage.

My own offering for a literary work demonstrating the virtue of diligence is the Charles Portis 1968 novel, True Grit. While the grit in the title refers to the character of Sheriff Rooster Cogburn, Mattie Ross, the novel’s narrator and chief protagonist, is the personification of diligence. She is on a mission to bring her father’s killer to trial and throughout her own pilgrimage, the fourteen year old exhibits the qualities of a diligent person.

She introduces herself at the outset of her narrative as her father’s bookkeeper, a role that gives us an early indication of her attention to detail and the very careful ordering of her behavior. This image is emphasized later when Mattie finally encounters Tom Chaney, her father’s killer, and he identifies her as Little Mattie, the bookkeeper.

Her tenacious horse trading and thrift at the boarding house in Fort Smith, Arkansas are presented in a humorous light, as is her negotiations with Cogburn about a fair wage in bringing Chaney to justice. Mattie is as dogged in her recital of the terms of their deal throughout the length of the narrative as she is in reminding Cogburn, as well as a Texas Ranger named LaBouef, about the goal; bringing Chaney back to Fort Smith to stand trial in Hanging Judge Parker’s court for the murder of her father. Her intense focus runs counter to LaBeouf’s insistence that Chaney be taken to Texas to stand trial for killing a state senator and his dog. Mattie’s contemptuous response is that Chaney will not hang for killing a dog.

Technically, Mattie fails in her quest. Chaney is killed but not by hanging. The just result she sought is denied her. Prior’s insight bears repeating that “diligence itself is not measured by outcome.” Mattie’s diligence is unquestionable and that is the point to be made, at least as far as this message goes. A diligent person is recognizable by an unwavering commitment to a goal, faithfully pursued through one’s attention to detail, which subsequently guides all other well-ordered and compliant actions.

Outcomes may vary and in this life they likely will.

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