On Finding Oneself Suddenly Faced by Something One Has Never Met Before

The Bridge of Khazad-dûm


No, no, the other form of surprise… (Source)

Surprise is one of an assortment of reaction-unspecified emotions. Surprise can plunge headlong into joy and wonder, such as the surprise felt by a mother when her son appears on her doorstep returned from war. Surprise can also lean towards positive expression, as in the bewilderment and simple happiness of a birthday party unexpected. Yet surprise can also be negative, at times devastatingly so: the shock of a sudden diagnosis of illness, the inconceivable news of a betrayal by close friend or family member, the gut-punching devastation of an untimely death. In its darker form, surprise halts our steps and forces us to question our very substance because it vividly indicates to us that we now are facing something we have never faced before. If we had experience or foreknowledge of such a terror or obstacle, though we might flinch startled, it is a momentary and passing reaction, for we are either consoled by our prior thinking or resolved by our prior reflection. Pure terror comes forth from the unknown.

Gandalf is familiar with idea of a Balrog: in fact, they both have similar roots in the ancient powers of the world before the Awakening of Elves and Men. Yet in the Mines of Moria, as the Fellowship approaches the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, Gandalf found himself “faced by something that I have not met before.” The language that Gandalf uses – normally so comforting and confident and resolved in his wisdom – betrays his surprise: “I have never felt such a challenge”; “I have met my match, and have nearly been destroyed”; “It nearly broke me”; “I have never felt so spent.” Only when the Balrog reveals himself does Gandalf fully understand, and by then the surprise has lingered with the wizard for miles: it is no surprise he is already weary.

During Lent, and more generally on the pilgrimages of our lives, we are met with unwelcome surprise. Whether we feel a growing sense of dread as the drums beat out doom, doom, doom in the dark corners of our souls or it comes upon us like a thief in the night, that which we didn’t even know we feared most makes its presence known. When one finds oneself suddenly faced by something one has never met before, it can invoke terror, or hopelessness, or weariness. It can make us question our decisions, our strength, our very character.

It is for those very moments of gut-punching, inconceivable, shocking surprise that we embrace our moral and spiritual training. For we, like hobbits, are made of sterner stuff: “there is more about you than meets the eye.” We have in our possession on the mithril mail of Frodo that can turn back the spear of the great orc chieftain; we have in our being the courageous strength to hold the bridge against the demon of the underworld to save our friends. When surprise takes us, we cannot react with careful consideration and rational logistics; instead, we response with habit, with virtue, with training, with ritual. We can spend the whole pilgrimage of our life preparing for that one moment of defense-wasting surprise in which the darkness seeks to take the heart of us.

And so, in the pure terror of the darkest surprise, when we face the unknown fear which we have never met before, we must hold our ground and exclaim, “You cannot pass!”

2015’s Reflection: “On Being Already Weary


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