The Pyre of Denethor
Distress: extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain. Despair: the complete loss or absence of hope. Agony: extreme mental or physical suffering. Though we long not for them, yet they rise up at unforeseen times in our lives: the problems of pain, depression, and suffering. At any age, we understand them as concepts, as matters with which the mind wrestles and the philosopher muses, yet before the end we know them more deeply, as experiences of the emotional heart of which bleeds from the poet’s hand. Like C.S. Lewis, we journey from the academic arguments of The Problem of Pain to the soul-wrenching vignettes of A Grief Observed. Agony is an issue of the mind, of the body, of the soul.
How easy it is to fall into such despair as Denethor, Steward of Gondor! Who among us is not burdened with responsibilities, weighed and worn with worries, stressed by things beyond our small control? Who among us have not been torn between duty to family and country, and racked by the loss of spouse, or child, or friend? Who among us have not been tempted to gaze into the palantíri of our times and not been overwhelmed by the strength of the darkness, the grief of the multitudes, the ever-enduring presence of sin and death? Were such distresses multiplied, perhaps we would not have lasted as long as Denethor before we cried out ourselves “Pride” and “Despair” and “Vanity.”
For we know that agony is a feature of being human. Even Christ was burdened with it. The Agony in the Garden: “If possible, let this cup pass me by” and “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” God wrestles with Himself: so great is His suffering that Jesus sweats His own blood. What then distinguishes the agony of Denethor from the agony of Christ? Both lead to death: yet one in ignoble suicide, the other in transforming crucifixion.
“Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death” instead of “Not as I will, but as You will.” Even in the grips of distress there is work that can yet be done, lest despair make the victory of the Enemy sure. Life and death are set before us, and we are challenged to always choose life, even if that life should seem to lead to our death. Yet we are not to pridefully choose death in itself, but only embrace it as it comes through life, for we are not the Masters even of our own selves. There is a higher power at work in ordering of all created things, and it is to that will to which we ultimately answer.
Distress is a requisite part of the state of fallen man, and as such we should not shy away from agony. There is much sorrow and pain in this problematic world, and each of us will observe some grief before our pilgrimage be over. Though we can steady ourselves as best we can before its occurrence, we know not its coming, nor can fully comprehend its depths without having endured it. Yet, in agony, we seek to imitate Christ, not Denethor: to do so, we must never lose hope, for despair is the corruption of agony. We hope on then, even when our world seems ablaze, for we are not the author of all things, and there remains a higher will to which, even in agony, we can cling.