Farewell to Lórien
The third corporal work of mercy is to feed the hungry. This imperative is perhaps the easiest for a man to remember and comprehend: if someone needs food, another should provide it. When works of mercy, of Christian charity, or of service to others are brought forth in speech or conversation, the feeding of the hungry is the natural example, and the mind of the average listener paints such an image on the canvas of their imagination. In some sense, it is the work of mercy par excellence.
The Lord and Lady of Lorien are illustrious exemplars of the works of mercy in practice. In dressing the Fellowship in their Elven garb and opening up their city they clothe the naked and harbor the harborless; in offering rest and advice to the weary companions they comfort the afflicted and counsel the doubt; their gifts will pay dividends in mercy in the days to come. Yet time and time again Frodo and friends will depend upon the fortifying features of their food, lembas bread. Thin cakes “more strengthening than any food made by Men,” a small bite of such Elven waybread will “keep a traveller on his feet for a day of long labour.” Celeborn and Galadriel foresee the long roads ahead where hunger will plague the Fellowship, and with lembas they offer a Middle-earth mercy of unquestionable importance.
In our own world, the statistics on hunger are voluminous, and with almost a billion people still without adequate food, the problem lingers. While numerous programs exist for hunger reduction, and even comedic institutions are offering insight into the exacerbating nature of food waste and market manipulation, nevertheless there is a fundamental difficulty for the Western perspective on food: nearly all (98%) of the world’s hunger reside in developing countries. Without belittling those who struggle to provide throughout Europe or those school children of the United States who do not receive three full meals a day, nevertheless the question of hunger no longer lingers on the developed doorstep. How do we grapple with feeding the hungry in the abundance of modernity?
Therefore, re-approaching the charge to feed the hungry with new perspectives offers fruitful reflections. In one sense, food serves as a form of energy for daily life, and yet people’s access to beneficial energy in other forms – electricity, heating, for transportation – is often insecure: perhaps the work of clean energy engineers and energy development institutions now falls under the hunger umbrella. In another sense, in the developed world it is often not a physical but a spiritual hunger – for meaning, for purpose, for community, for understanding – that burdens the stomachs and shoulders of the masses: as Christ noted, one does not live by bread alone.
Lembas bread offers then a unique lens to consider the gnawing questions of feeding the hungry. It is not a solution to ending hunger indefinitely (if such a resolution exists, for it is written, the poor will always be with us), and it does not lessen the need to provide food where there is none. One can be hungry for lack of a diversity of “foods,” and lembas contributes to its own particular set of fuels. It is a reminder that feeding the hungry cannot end when stomachs are full yet spirits are empty, when bread is on the table though homes and hearts are without light. In its Elven “magic” lembas points to that greatest of food, that substance which shores up every act of Christian mercy: the Eucharist, God Himself in fuel-food form.
2015’s Reflection: “On the Gift of Three Golden Hairs”