An Epilogue to “A Lenten Lord of the Rings”

We come to it alas: the breaking of our pilgrimage. “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” Sixty days have we reflected: over a thousand pages have we read. We have traveled long roads between the Shire and Mt. Doom, there and back again. We have mused upon many matters: joy and sorrow, golden hair and golden flowers, mushrooms and oliphants, great kings, great rings, and simple hobbit courage. We have passed through ashes and alms, fasting and Fridays, prayer and penance, Cross and Easter. And now, it ends.

How can we conclude such a journey? About what has this ultimately been? In part, we have each engaged this text from our own place and person; yet in part we have taken this pilgrimage together. Woven through the pages of this text and these reflections are threads of the things that really matter, the highest things: the good, the true, the beautiful, and the need to defend them lest we lose them. At its core, The Lord of the Rings is about the final question: the struggle with life, death, and immortality. It is a story about the passing of wonderful things, about the changing of the world. That is why it has been so fitting to wander the paths of Middle-earth this Lent: for as C.S. Lewis so aptly noted, “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.”

Indeed, each time I return to Tolkien’s tale, I am moved in its telling: and I have been humbled to be able to share that passion and love which each of you these past sixty days in these reading and reflections. No words can appropriately express my gratitude for all of your support in helping me to realize this long-desired dream. And though each of you has helped turn the wheels of my heart in small and secret ways, I express particular gratitude for my parents’ encouragement – especially my father, who first introduced me to The Lord of the Rings when he read them aloud to me almost fifteen years ago – and my fiancee’s enduring support. I am truly blest.

In the joy of Easter, we bid farewell to this our great endeavor. And yet this is only the beginning of the journey, for Tolkien’s pages are rich in their depths and demand a return. I invite you to make this an annual tradition of yours, and on the Reading Plan section of this site you can download for yourself a copy of the 2016 Lord of the Rings Lenten Reading Plan. Until then, I bid you all a very fond farewell: for then shall I say, “Well, I’m back.”

On What Lies Beyond the Circles of this World

The Grey Havens

The Grey Havens (Source)

The Grey Havens (Source)

There is something that stirs within our hearts that we cannot fully express: a longing and desire that lies beyond the circles of this world. The Sea! The Sea! “Deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing, which it is perilous to stir,” says Legolas, recalling Galadriel’s verse to him:

“Legolas Greenleaf long under tree
In joy thou hast lived. Beware of the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.”

The Sea calls us home. Within the encircling waters resounds the echoes of the song of creation. The Sea straddles the circles of this world: beyond it lies our hope unlooked for, our longing unsatiated, our desire most deeply known.

There are some wounds that cannot fully heal: some pains we bear for the remainder of our days. The joys of this world always are tinged with sorrow and grief: for they are passing, they are fading, they are fleeting from our grasp. There is a hard truth to mortal life, to living with virtue and for the sake of good:

“But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”

All of our just and righteous acts of service and courage, mercy and love, may be enough to defend many good and true and beautiful things in this world: but they cannot save ourselves. There are depths in man’s heart and soul that cannot be healed save beyond the circles of this world.

There is tragedy in death: yet therefore there is joy. For death takes beyond – in our passing we travel the straight way across the cosmic Sea – and in doing so lifts the burdens that we mortals carry. As much as there is grief in death, there is also grief in immortality: as Tolkien explains, “The Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness.” We do not know what lies beyond the circles of this world: from even the Valar is the doom of mortal men withheld. Yet from the Grey Havens we can look out across the Sea, swiftly stirring, seagulls in the air, and breathe in the hope of true restoration of our bodies and souls.

The Sea! The Sea! The Sea calls us home: home beyond the circles of this world. Our lives are but mere pilgrimages upon our passing lands, as has our Lenten pilgrimage within the boundaries of Middle-earth. For our ultimate destination lies on white shores, in a far green country under a swift sunrise. Sweet singing voices from that land mingle with the deep music from the beginning of time. We know what we cannot fully express: that we are called to a Good, a Truth, and a Beauty, and until then we are restless, until we can rest in Thee.

On the Things That Really Matter

The Scouring of the Shire

In the defense of the things that really matter: the simple joys and surprises of the Shire (Source)

In the defense of the things that really matter: the simple joys and surprises of the Shire (Source)

In the end, what really matters?

In Pippin, we see the cause of loyalty: loyalty to family, loyalty to king, loyalty to his friends. Pippin holds high the memory of the sacrifices and the glory of the days past, and would not see either his companion or his lord belittled or mocked by unworthy men. He stands by Merry in his leadership and trusts Frodo in his wisdom. He firmly believes in the loyalty of his people, the Tooks: and they do not disappoint as he leads them out to help cleanse the Shire.

In Merry, we see the cause of justice: an abhorrence of evil, a demand for righteousness, a passion to set things right again. Merry calls forth the hobbits of the Shire and rallies them around the Shire as it should be. His hate for the injustices of the swarthy men and his energy to restore the Shire into the hands of its people, who naturally know what’s best for it and for them, embolden his leadership. In his horn blowing-forth resonates the deep stirrings of men for order and virtue in their lives and communities.

In Sam, we see the cause of love: simple and unassuming love, love that seems so naive in the face of such wanton destruction and yet to precious in that form. Sam loves the Shire for all its humble beauty, and so is the most devastated by its destruction: his tears at the loss of the Party Tree, his anger at the treatment of Bag End. All of Sam’s actions are motivated by his love: for Rosie Cotton in rushing to her to ensure her safety and that of her family; for the Gaffer in his desire to bring him out of Hobbiton; for Frodo in his unfailing support for him even after the Ring’s destruction. Sam’s love is at the heart of the restoration of the Shire.

In Frodo, we see the cause of mercy: forged and solidified over the long journey to Mordor, now made even more meaningful here. His impassioned desire that not a single hobbit be slayed by another in their rage; his pity and concern for the fate of Lotho, who had never shown any care for him and who had originally instigated this mess; his kindness on Saruman and Wormtongue, even in their treachery: a seamless garment of forgiveness and mercy to all. Frodo, the most wounded in heart and soul, therefore becomes the one who cares most for the hearts and souls of his friends and community: never lifting the sword but only lifting his voice to console, to fortify, to alleviate, to make peace. It is the mercy of Frodo that helps prevent the hobbits from becoming that which they despise the most in order to drive out Sharkey.

Loyalty, justice, love, and mercy: as we finally conclude the War of the Ring, such are the things that really matter. Through the eyes of our small hobbits we see that such things pervading even the smallest of efforts. Life consists far more often of simple struggles and humble battles for good, truth, and beauty: far more often are we rousing the Shires of our own hearts and communities that riding out upon the Fields of Pelennor or holding the walls of Helm’s Deep. Yet every action, no matter how seemingly insignificant, plays a role in the War of the Ring: every moment of life, however far from shining Minas Tirith or looming Mt. Doom, has the potential for loyalty, justice, love, and mercy. In this, we are blest: such is the surprise and the joy of life.

On Returning Home

Homeward Bound

"The Return Home" by Jasper Francis Cropsey (Source)

“The Return Home” by Jasper Francis Cropsey (Source)

At long last, we return home. Much time has passed since we came upon the meadows and hills of the Shire, the realm of peace and content where, as Faramir noted, gardeners must be held in high honor. Now we approach again the lands of the “hungry as hunters, the Hobbit children, the laughing-folk, the little people,” as Treebeard added to the Long List. We had been anxious to leave it behind when we first set out on our journey, wondering why we wandered for so long in this quiet and simple country when great things were passing in the world outside. At our return, we long like Frodo to fall back asleep into the calm dream of home.

Yet, home is not the same upon our return. We have kept a memory of the Shire within our hearts upon our Quest, but time passes in every place and age, and no land is left unstained or unaffected by evil. Though the sins done upon the Shire are much smaller and less notable than the great wars and struggles behind us, yet they pierce our hearts more so because they happened in our own homes and to our own people. We set out long ago to save the Shire – not only the home of Frodo and Sam, but the Shire of our own minds and hearts – and though great darkness has been cast away, weaker shadow still lingers.

Things have changed. With the Ring destroyed and a King upon the throne, they cannot remain the same, even at home. With death destroyed and a King resurrected, our own Shire – whatever it was the drove our footsteps forward – cannot stay as it once was. Our Lenten pilgrimage has prepared us to return home – as we sought out Mt. Doom, we gained wisdom and courage, understanding and mercy, humility and hope. We have taken part in the cosmic struggle, the universal battle, the wars of rings and kings. Now comes the personal struggle, the local battle, the wars of hearts and souls. There is still much work to be done.

And there is a further challenge in returning home. For home can serve two very different roles for a person, as Hilaire Belloc wrote:

“Look you, good people all, in your little passage through the daylight, get to see as many hills and buildings and rivers, fields, books, men, horses, ships, and precious stones as you can possibly manage to do. Or else stay in one village and marry in it and die there. For one of these two fates is the best fate for every man. Either to be what I have been, a wanderer with all the bitterness of it, or to stay home and hear in one’s garden the voice of God.”

This Lent, we have seen the great wide world outside our doorstep. We have taken the road that goes ever on and on, and we have mused and considered many things that lie beyond the comforts of our home. In that our Shire has served as our strength in memory, our succor in the bitterness of the world. Now we seek to return home, to plant our garden and listen for something even greater than our travels. Home has changed, and so have we.

Yet there is a joy in returning home, even in the face of its changes and its stains. Our Shires also suffer, and there we shall need to labor to cleanse them of the filth and uproot the weeds that have been slowly growing while our hearts, minds, and souls were wandering the paths of the Fellowship and Quest. Nevertheless, this is our home: this is that thing of which we love so dearly. Our struggles are not over, and still there be things that may break our hearts. But in returning home we comprehend more deeply our own growth along the journey, and orient ourselves yet again to observe in the orchards the whispering of good things and God.

On the Long Defeat

Many Partings

"Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing. Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended; over death, over dread, over doom lifted out of loss, out of life, unto long glory." (Source)

“Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing. Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended; over death, over dread, over doom lifted out of loss, out of life, unto long glory.” (Source)

What is the Long Defeat? It is a philosophy, a perspective on the meaning of existence, suffering, and joy in a fallen yet redeemed world that has haunted me since I first read of Celeborn and Galadriel and how “together through ages of the world we have found the long defeat.” It is an optic on life that is tinged with sorrow yet not despair, woven with somber threads into a garment of radiant joy. It is a reflection on the continued existence of sin and death even in the aftermath of the Passion and Resurrection.

For truly, even still, all things fade. The good, the true, and the beautiful of this world continue to pass away. Even though God has become Man, still do men sin, and the city of the world continues to wage war upon the city of God: “the evil of Sauron cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been.” We cannot stop the passage of time, nor preserve fully the things we love: like Men we still taste death, and like Elves we still experience the fruitless victories. No matter how hard we labor for good and how diligently we resist evil, yet in our society and in our hearts the darkness abides.

This is the titular yet deep truth of the Long Defeat: that ultimately we cannot win this war, no matter how hard we strive and how virtuously we live. Whether by law or politics or culture or community, whether with Orwellian power or Huxleyan subtlety, whether today, tomorrow, or years from now, we shall lose the battle for morality, for faith, for the soul of humanity, for good. Men have sold themselves, but not for greatness whether good or evil, but for Wales. The power of the Three Rings dwindles, and “many fair things will fade and be forgotten.” We feel the sadness as Théoden did that “however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass forever out of Middle-earth?”

Yet the Long Defeat is not a philosophy of despair or an excuse for retreating from the world. Still we seek to live righteously and labor for the good, for we march out as Treebeard did, considering that it is “likely enough that we are going to our doom: the last march of the Ents. But if we stayed at home and did nothing, doom would find us anyway, sooner or later.” Though sin and peril are pervasive and many places of the world dark, yet there remain some fair things that are worthy of defending. We shall be defeated in our work because:

“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

The human condition is not to seek good in order to rebalance the cosmic scales: for our good cannot outmatch the darkness. Instead, it is to be like a Dúnedain of the North, preserving what good we can by our small and secret acts of valor. For our hope lies not in ourselves, but in something beyond us.

Tolkien himself described it best: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” As men and women we live the Long Defeat: but such a defeat is not the end, for the Long Defeat denies the universal final defeat. We shall be defeated, but God shall not: even in our loss, God has already won. In our living to preserve what is good, true, and beautiful in the face of its passing, we add our voices to the foundational cosmic song: that all things shall, at length, be defeated, so as to be made new by Christ.

On the Need for Justice and Mercy

The Steward and the King

by Laura West

"And he took her in his arms and kissed her under the sunlit sky, and he cared not that they stood high upon the walls in the sight of many." (Source)

“And he took her in his arms and kissed her under the sunlit sky, and he cared not that they stood high upon the walls in the sight of many.” (Source)

“There are no tidings… save that the Lords have ridden to Morgul Vale; and men say that the new captain out of the North is their chief. A great lord is that, and a healer; and it is a thing passing strange to me that the healing hand should also wield the sword.” – Warden of the House of Healing

At the opening of today’s reading, not all those who have played a part in the vanquish of Sauron know the ending as we the privileged readers do. The citizens of Gondor anxiously await any hint of news about the fate of Frodo and the army that set out for the Black Gate. No one is more tormented by the watch than Éowyn, who spends her days in agony, longing to have ridden out to battle with Aragorn and his company. Éowyn, the shieldmaiden of Rohan, spurred by a desire to fight and avenge, is tortured by her captivity in the House of Healing as she recovers from her battle wounds.

“But I do not desire healing,” she said. “I wish to ride to war like my brother Éomer, or better like Théoden the king, for he died and has both honour and peace.”

Can we not sympathize with her yearnings and her sorrow? When our hearts burn with a desire for justice, a desire to fight for those causes that we hold true and noble and worthy of self-sacrifice, do we not condemn those who stand in our way? Her zeal for her kin and her cause is admirable – it stirs within her loyalty and courage – and not without reward. Perhaps if she had not sought the glory of the battlefield so ardently, the final words of the Witch-King of Agmar would not have been so fatal. Recognizing this, we understand her torment and we, too, desire for her to be “uncaged.” And yet her sorrow results not only from her confinement.

Enter Faramir, the foil to her honor-loving soul. He, who encounters Éowyn in the House of Healing, is not so easily enraptured by her love of the glory of war and not afraid to be frank with her. He challenges her perception that death for a just cause is the only way to achieve glory or attain righteousness.

“You desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn. Because he was high and puissant, and you wished to have renown and glory and to be lifted far above the mean things that crawl on the earth. And as a great captain may to a young soldier he seemed to you admirable. For so he is, a lord among men, the greatest that now is. But when he gave you only understanding and pity, then you desired to have nothing, unless a brave death in battle. […] Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart.”

For Éowyn, to be pitied is to be labeled weak. For Aragorn and for Faramir, to be pitied is to be forgiven, to be healed, and to be nurtured. Thus, the mark of the true victor is one who is both just and merciful. One who fights bravely and one who heals tenderly. Glory is not won only on the battlefield, but also in acts of restitution and forgiveness. With this conviction, the proclamation of the Warden rings ever more true. “A great lord is that and a healer; and it is a thing passing strange to me that the healing hand should also wield the sword”. True to this judgment of him, after his coronation, Aragorn pardons and makes peace with those who sided with Sauron. In another instance, he judges Beregond appropriately for abandoning his post, but commends him for his loyalty to Faramir.

But in focusing on the glory of Aragorn, let us not think that greatness is only achieved singularly. In a beautiful way, the marriage of Lord Faramir and his Lady Éowyn unites in love (that most sacred bond) the just and the merciful, the soldier and the healer. Each completes what the other lacks and by their commitment to each other, they are made whole. And so we as readers are comforted by the knowledge that while only a few are singularly great, in partnership, many can approach a similar level of renown.

On Glory

The Field of Cormallen

"Then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land" (Source)

“Then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land” (Source)

A great Shadow has departed – it is Easter, and the Enemy has been defeated. Our weary Lenten pilgrimage is over: the Ring has been destroyed, and beyond all hope we have escaped the fiery doom that seemed to engulf us. There is laughter, spring, and joy in our hearts. As we awake in the new light of Easter, we like Sam can find ourselves asking, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Yet, things are not the same as they once were: we do not find ourselves again in the Garden of Eden, and even in Middle-earth are there evils that still need to be dispersed. Though Sauron has been defeated, good and beautiful things of this world pass away. The power of the Three Rings fails: the Sea still calls us home. The resurrection does not restore the past: instead, it restores the future. On Easter we do not return to our pre-sin status, but instead obtain a far more remarkable post-sin state. As the Exultet from the Easter Vigil so aptly proclaimed, “O happy fault, o truly necessary sin of Adam, that won for us so mighty a Redeemer!” In sin we have lost the glory of the past world, of our origin and our longing: in the resurrection we gain the glory of a better world, of our telos and our hope.

Hence, our journey has not ended yet. The Quest has reached its happy conclusion, but the Fellowship remains bound together. Labors yet remains: to drive out the effects of evil from our persons, to offer healing and rest to those who have suffered greatly, to broker peace with those who have been misled by the darkness. Much there is to repair: much there is to rebuild. We have travelled far this Lent, and in these early days of the Octave of Easter, we still have need to return home. Easter is not the end of our travels: although the power of the Evil One has been broken, yet there is life still worth living.

Nevertheless, we can celebrate: we can take the time to sing for joy in the tongues of Elves and Men. “Long live the Halflings – I will sing to the Lord, triumphant is he, the horse and the chariot he cast into the sea!” Our greatest fears have passed, and though our work has not concluded, nevertheless we know that the victory has already been won. The great King of our lives has returned – and he has come to take back all his ancient realm, rule over all his ancient people. Great and glorious things have we done, and far greater and more glorious things have been done unto us. No song can fully express such joy and wonder: and yet we sing all the same.

Here then is the Easter glory, the glory we find on the field of Cormallen: that all our wishes have come true. Things are not as they once were – they are better than they have ever been. Things have not been restored as we would have once had them, but as they should now be. There is work yet to be done, but the ultimate war is won. The great Shadow has passed – for behold! The tomb is empty.

On the End of All Things

Mount Doom

The Last Temptation of Frodo Baggins (Source)

The Last Temptation of Frodo Baggins (Source)

“We reach the brink of the Fire, and the whole plan fails.”

So wrote Tolkien on the end of all things. The movements of the entire Council of Elrond, the aid given by Elves and Men, the sacrifices made by king and wizard and hobbit alike, were predicted on a very simple assumption: that should the Ring-bearer reach Mount Doom, then the Ring could be cast into the fiery crevice. And yet, in the end, Frodo fails: he tragically falls to the last temptation of the Ring, and in the heart of Sauron’s stronghold he claims it for his own. At that moment, all is lost: just as on this Good Friday when God is broken upon the Cross, it seems like everything we had longed for and worked towards has come to naught.

And yet, despite such a failure, the Ring finds its way into the fissure of destruction. Not by strength or wisdom, but instead by the choice of Gollum and the chance of a misplaced foot is all of Middle earth saved. Providence writes straight with crooked lines: when all seems entirely lost does occur indeed the finest hour of all. The pride and division of evil ensures its own downfall: the very strength of the Ring itself – temptation and control – is the final folly that delivers it over the edge.

Is Frodo the hero of this story? Does Frodo succeed in his quest? In the view of the world, Frodo has failed to complete the task as he foresaw it: at the end of all things, he had not the strength to resist. We should not be surprised – time and time again throughout the Quest have we uncovered hints and glimpses of the growing corruption of Frodo’s spirit. On many occasions it was only the bonds of friendship and love of Sam that kept them on the path. And yet, Frodo has brought the Ring so far and through such trials, resisted its allure in so many contexts, and shown the mercy that was ultimately necessary to cast down Sauron’s reign. In the end, the decision of Frodo – and at the last moment Sam – to spare Sméagol time and time again was the most important choice of all.

And so, when nothing is left, what are we left with? What endures the end of all things? Choice. Chance. Sacrifice. Friendship. Love. Mercy. On this Good Friday, as we solemnly behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the world, we remember such things. For in the greatest of losses – the most devastating of moments – when all seems in vain, even then can the Quest be achieved in the most remarkable of ways. On this day, as we take down the body of the Lord from the Cross, we might for a moment gaze upon his face, and what shall we see but a countenance of peace and of love for us. And then we shall be glad to be here with Him, even at the end of all things.

On Hell

The Land of Shadow

A hell that we can see with our own waking eyes: Mordor (Source)

A hell that we can see with our own waking eyes: Mordor (Source)

Dante described it as nine downward-spiraling concentric circles of varying punishments in relation to those that dwelled within them. For Milton, it was a land of flames, and yet “from those flames, no light, but rather darkness visible.” Great theologians have described it as the absolute absence of God, a place of utter nothingness, the non-occurrence of hope. In the popular imagination, we have an underworld of flames and forked-tongued demons, prodding at sinners for all eternity.

All of this, however, stands as speculative. As Christians, we know almost nothing about hell, and much of what we believe is open to interpretation and the imagination. The nature of punishment, the presence of souls, the personification of Satan and his demons: all remain subjects of reasonable critique and open perspective. In our culture today, even the little we do hold as evident and clear – the existence of hell and its contrasting nature to heaven – comes under heavy skepticism and judgment. Such are the dangerous times in which we live, for as Plato first understood, if there existed not a place following death for injustices to be punished and rectified, then the world would have no justice, and therefore could not be good. As James V. Schall, SJ, notes about the potential of ending up in hell in his work At the Limits of Political Philosophy, “without the realization of this risk, of the seriousness of this freedom, human life would be trivialized.” Paradoxically, hell must be a serious option for men and women to choose if free will is to be deemed a serious component of rational life.

Mordor is not hell: but it aspires to such an end, and beyond the Mountains of Shadow upon the plains of Gorgoroth and within the valleys of the Morgai we experience relative intensities of the absolute struggles of the inferno. Within the Black Lands the ash chokes our breath and dries out our mouths; the sun hardly shines and even night is a haze; little water flows and only the hardiest of plants contend fruitlessly. Under the unsleeping eye of Barad-dûr, bickering and feuding orcs and wicked men camp crowdedly upon the desolate earth. Hope itself seems hardly able to endure.

Such are the qualities of hell on earth, the physical hell we ourselves can create without proper stewardship and care for creation and the land. Yet spiritual hell cannot be expressed with confidence upon the pages of the written word. People who have experienced a taste of such darkness are loath to recall it. Frodo and Sam have not totally despaired: though stunted and oily, some life does remain in the land of Mordor, and through the dust the stars still remind us of a hope that lies beyond. In Sauron’s domain we, like our hobbits, encounters the boundaries of hell, the limits that the human mind can comprehend.

On this Maundy Thursday, at the Feast of the Last Supper, hell may not seem the appropriate topic of reflection. Yet it is hell that reminds us of the ultimate purpose of everything we now experience as we begin the Triduum. Every ridicule Christ endures, every stripe Christ bears, every pound of the Cross Christ carries: all are done in defiance of hell and its hold on us mortals. None but Christ Himself can undergo the tribulations of death and  hell and rise again still whole. In his exhortations, his examples, and his Eucharist this day, God provides that which we need to survive the lesser hells we experience in our waking, and to turn away from the greater hell that would seek to transform all the world into a far more desolate Mordor.