“The Book of Jonah”
We interrupt your regularly scheduled check-in with the heroes of Middle-earth to bring you a familiar story. Jonah and the Whale is perhaps one of the most well-known stories from the Bible, a tale and image that even non-Christians and post-Christians recognize. It appears in our Lenten journey because the translation of it for the Jerusalem Bible was done by J.R.R. Tolkien, and provides a different perspective into Tolkien.
The Lord of the Rings is not explicitly a religious story (though imagery and allusions abound), so in the translation of “the Book of Jonah” we have Tolkien directing his love of languages and his world-building talents to a place where God, prophets, and salvation make clear appearances. We see the broader work of Tolkien as an academic and translator, the more important part of his day-to-day for most of his lifetime. And, with a particular style and perhaps new appreciation of fairy-stories and the art of myth-making, we can see the lessons inherent in the journey of Jonah: of trusting in God, of disbanding grudges, of the broader perspective.
For “the Book of Jonah” is a radical tale, one with apt lessons for our own times. We must consider: where have I prioritized justice and vengeance over mercy and forgiveness? When have I narrowed the broad perspective of God? Am I in flight from the call of the Lord? Am I even now somehow trapped in the belly of a whale?
Year A: On the Holding of Grudges
Year B: On This Fish, of Which the Author is Fond
Year C: On Translations
Flotsam and Jetsam
A quintessential story-time (Source)
Though we can only live in the present, in some sense the way we experience life is through the past. So much of our interactions of the world are told through stories, in the most encompassing sense of the word. We tell our friends and families how our days were. We recount what our boss, teacher, or client said in order to fulfill their expectations. We watch movies, listen to music, and read books, all to experience a “story” not our own.
Stories are incredible things, an amazing intersection of human language, emotional experience, and shared perspectives. This chapter in the Lord of the Rings, similar to the earlier “Council of Elrond,” is basically a long story: Merry and Pippin recounting their activities. In their story are great deeds yet also small details of importance and significance. We can feel the urge to quickly turn the page, to rush through the story to see the next moment of significance. But there are limits to being hasty – we can miss so much of what makes the story worth telling.
In our era of omnipresent screens and noise, we have shorten attention spans and more distractions. We can feel the urge to rush from thing to thing. When reconnecting with friends, seeing family, or even reflecting by ourselves, we must be intentional about listening to the story. For all stories – whether told by Ents, hobbits, wizards, or kings – have the potential for tremendous beauty.
Year A: On Small Mysterious Details
Year B: On Being Positively Hasty
Year C: On the Paying of Debts and the Smoking of Pipes
The Road to Isengard
Don’t blame the poor calendar (Source)
Based on the complex calculations of Easter’s date, my wife’s birthday always falls within Lent. My own frequently does. If one has a birthday sometime in the late winter or early spring, one takes that chance each year. And if not one’s birthday, another celebration may suffer such a fate: perhaps anniversaries or children’s birthdays, sometimes Valentine’s Day and without exception St. Patrick’s Day. Feasts and festivities that fall in the dreary season. It can seem like such a bummer – an approach into Isengard, if you will.
Often, we call a day of exceptions: we treat the birthday or festivity like we would Laetare Sunday, shifting claims of fasting and abstinence over by a day or two and promising to make up for it with a “bonus” or “double” day of penance. And while such considerations are not wrong per se (in light of the eternal debate on how one should treat Sundays within Lent), perhaps focusing on the exception prevents us from being drawn into something profound. Perhaps there is a hidden beauty in celebrating one’s birthday in Lent.
For during a feast we, like Merry and Pippin, should enjoy a few well-earned comforts. But if we are forced to refrain from sweets, alcohol, technology, or gifts due to our Lenten observations – if our mind is limited in how food, drink, and material goods are used for the birthday celebration – perhaps those few well-earned comforts would manifest themselves in different ways. Perhaps we would see gift and comfort from a new perspective, and celebrate in deeper ways that touch the heart of what a birthday and a feast are all about.
Perhaps Lenten birthdays are the best birthdays of all. (I am not biased.)
Year A: On Being Drawn
Year B: On a Few Well-earned Comforts
Year C: On the Glittering Caves of Aglarond
Every moment of human life is a battle: every soul that exists is a battle field. The forces of good and evil are arrayed on either side: two standards in the midst of frequent turmoil. Every decision, every moment of the day influences that conflict within the soul: to live righteously or shamefully, to give or to take, to serve or to be selfish, to pursue virtue or vice, to choose God or not. The profundity of this perspective cannot be underestimated: we declare that the value of a soul is as great in the eyes of the Lord as the entire universe.
The battle of the soul is hard: it wears us out, as the Enemy is fierce. Offer we are battered in like at Helm’s Deep, faced with an onslaught of temptation, doubt, sin, and hateful destruction. While we put on a placid face, deep down we may often feel at the cusp of falling apart. We wonder if our preparations were enough. The force of this world seem too great for us to resist.
Yet, we must fight! We must never surrender! Every act of virtue, every choice of good, however small, is worthwhile as we await the dawn. For the grace of God often comes like Gandalf: promised yet unexpected, consisting of what we already had but thought lost, and in a brilliant light that shatters the darkness of our hearts for a while.
Year A: On Taking Stock and Making Preparations
Year B: On Spiritual Warfare
Year C: On the Dawn
The King of the Golden Hall
Amidst the darkness there’s still light (Source)
We, like Rohan, seem to live in dark times. Our enemies – whether they be spiritual, societal, economical, environmental, or even flesh and blood – seem to encroach upon our lives. Our leaders seem lethargic and insipid, taking to bad counsel and selfish action. Our people seem weary, on-edge, anxious, and fearful.
But if we stand up from the little thrones and halls we have built ourselves, and breath the fresh air of life, and see the vast plains of Creation, we realize that it is not as dark as we think. Like Theoden, we can realize that good still exists; that we still have friends and old relationships to ground us; that we are not the center of the universe, nor the only player. Yes, evils arise, challenges that need our reaction: we must be aroused to the defense of what good things. What shall wake up from our spiritual slumber and our bitter apathy?
We must listen for the horns and trumpets that draw us out from our self-centeredness. There are prophets like Gandalf and Aragorn in our own times. They remind us of various ills we face, and call us to service for some greater end. Discerning those calls is essential, but discernment cannot take place until we have stood up and taken in the light from outside our door.
What burdens or bad counsel has weighed me down and kept my mind in shadows? How can I excise those traps from my heart and life?
Year A: On Defending the Honor of One’s Lady
Year B: On Halls, Horsemen, and Horns
Year C: On Counseling the Doubtful
The White Rider
Same, and yet different (Source)
Frequently the return of Gandalf – and his Transfiguration into the White Rider – is viewed from a perspective of surprise, excitement, and hope. In the language of the book, in the cinematography of the movie, and even in the reflections of this blog, Gandalf’s unexpected arrival becomes the turning of the tide and a study into the unifying efforts of goodness against the division of darkness.
But another aspect of Gandalf’s return that stands out is his relationship with the Three Hunters: whether for the purpose of testing or out of a lack of memory, Gandalf is coy, distant, and aloof at first. In fact, in many ways Gandalf is a different person now than he once was: he alludes to this as much when he describes himself as Saruman as he should have been, or ascribes the name Gandalf to his old state. In this way, we (along with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli) begin at the beginning with Gandalf yet again, and though time and activity will bring out many of Gandalf’s older qualities, it is ever a mix of old and new.
We have many relationships in our lives, deep connections made by blood, by experience, out of love. When time and space separate us from that person, reconnecting can seem like meeting an entirely new person. This is daunting, and can be bittersweet, if we feel the person has changed into someone new: but we must seek instead to bring out the old aspects we loved while coming to appreciate the new characteristics into which the person has grown. In this paradox of gray and white can we embrace our Gandalfs again.
For reflection: is there someone I haven’t reached out to or connected with for sometime? If I rekindle that relationship this Lent, how can I prepare to respond to their growth and changes?
Year A: On Memory
Year B: On the Turning of the Tide
Year C: On the Division of Darkness
In many ways, Treebeard and the Ents are nature personified. The Elves woke up the original Ents from their natural slumber, and they maintain many characteristics we might described as “tree-ish” – their slow and deliberate pace, their longevity, their thirst.
But with the Ents, Tolkien also sought to illuminate the wisdom and power of natural world that is hidden from us due to our own trees’ inability to reason and speak. The natural world is strong but often reserved in showcasing its power. It judges not by promises and intentions but by action and consequences. It is a created good, but it has a parallel morality that, while often oriented toward the same causes as the hopes of Elves and men, cannot be presumed to follow the same steps.
We moderns has less and less a relationship with the natural world as we dwell more frequently in urban areas, indoors, and in digital spaces. Therefore, it is important we have intention in experiencing and reflecting on nature. For while our world has no Ents (that we know of), nature still shapes our lives. And we ignore its wisdom and power at our own peril.
How do I regularly view nature: as wilderness to be tamed, as resources to be consumed, as otherness to be avoided, as essence to be worshiped? What are the shortcomings and fallacies of these perspectives?
Year A: On Good Judgement
Year B: On Not Being Hasty
Year C: On Quenching the Thirsty