A Postlude to “A Lent of the Lord of the Rings”

And so ends another year of a Lent of the Lord of the Rings, and over the course of the last sixty-odd days, I hope you have enjoyed taking up J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As I hope my reflections have shown, it is a tale with depth, a story that forces one to ponder the good, the true, and the beautiful. And though I have not shied away from Christian considerations and Catholic contexts in these posts (hopefully honoring therefore the memory of Tolkien, himself a lifelong Catholic), nevertheless, they are musings meant for everyone, provocations and thoughts I hope helped enriched the book at hand and that will linger with you over the days to come.

To that end, I also impart my humble and sincere gratitude for another year of support and encouragement. It is truly my honor to be able to share my passion and joy for Tolkien’s tale with such a diverse audience, and your reading, comments, and sharing are ever appreciated. Particular thanks belongs to my wife, Laura, for suffering my early hours and audible brainstorming needed to complete this daily task. If you have enjoyed these posts or have stumble upon this site in later days, please consider taking the time to download a copy of the LOTR Lent Schedule 2017 and sharing it with friends and family you think might be interested. I do not know what next year will have in store, but if you “like” the A Lent of the Lord of the Rings page on Facebook or follow @lotrlent on Twitter, you will be the first to learn.

Many days ago before we began this journey, I reflected in my post “On the Return of the Lent” on the “growing darkness” and the “cracks beginning to show.” Alas, the view from the end of these wanderings through Middle-earth seems little brighter or more secure. Time and time again as I read through this beloved volume and penned words upon the digital page I found myself returning to a few lines spoken by Tolkien at a party held in his honor in 1958:

“I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron. But I see that Saruman has many descendants. We Hobbits have against them no magic weapons. Yet, my gentle hobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.”

I too look out: East to politics; West to economics; North to culture; South to technology; and neither do I see the menace of Sauron, pure and overwhelming evil unbridled. Instead, I see the descendents of Saruman, also possessing minds of metal and wheels, who speak well and offer tempting opportunity but would betray us to our ruin. As they gather power all about me, I too feel powerless to stop them from uprooting and destroying many of the things I love the most. And though powerless in these times, wishing that they were not mine to endure, nevertheless do Gandalf’s words return to my heart: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”

For me at least, that will be the challenge of the comings months: discerning what to do with these days that you and I have been given. And though many lands have and may yet be touched by darkness, there still endures a light which we should harken to. To quote (film-version) Samwise Gamgee, “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

The road goes ever on and on….


2015’s Conclusion: “An Epilogue of a Lenten Lord of the Rings

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On the Simple Rewards of a Good Life

The Grey Havens

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The Final Joy (Source)

In the end, we are back to where we began: in the Shire, with Frodo and Sam. Much has transpired, many long journeys taken, and many transformations occurred in the roots of both land and people. Yet, ultimately, the hobbits’ desires has not changed from the that with which they set out, that which Bilbo wrote so long ago: peace, quiet, and good-tilled earth.

The Shire cares little for the great adventures and exciting news of the world, no matter how much terror it may have spared them. The fall of Saruman and the scouring of the Shire brings not about great political upheaval and reformist reordering, but a return (as best as possible) to old ways and structures. Frodo is held with little honor among his own people. Life goes on as it always has, with the brief period of occupation fleeting into memory.

And yet, these are the simple rewards of a life well-lived, the things we deep down most desire. Peace and quiet. A safe and bountiful home. Companionship and marriage. Family and community. Strawberries and cream. These are not the boundless riches of gold and jewels, nor the great glories and honors that might be worthily laid upon us. They are instead the very things that we have always wanted, even if we did not realize it. The transformation that comes from the Lenten journey to Mt. Doom is not the revelation of what matters, but how much it matters to us. Whatever our Shire be, we set out in life to save it, not because we are not sure if it is worth saving, but because we are not sure yet how much we are willing to sacrifice to save it.

For some, like Frodo, the costs will be great, and they will have to give and lose much so that the Shire may thrive and others may enjoy it. We may not be whole again until we cross the boundaries of this life into the next, and see with our own eyes what lies beyond the circles of this world. Nevertheless, we must not see Frodo’s rewards as any less than those of Sam’s, for both are good and simple. Whether we feel the air of the far green hills under a swift sunrise from the steps of Bag End or on the Shores of Valinor, nevertheless, we still feel it. Whether we dwell with Rosie in our humble gardens and take once more the road with Bilbo onto the white ships, nevertheless, we still have love. The rewards are simple to remind us not over think what we truly desire, and whether we begin to comprehend them now or must patiently await for the days to come, yet do they mend together our hearts cast asunder.

The ship sails for the horizon; the hobbit returns to his wife and child. Abruptly do we conclude here, for only here has the eucatastrophe achieved its finale. For here ends friendship, Fellowship, and all that we have embraced these Lenten days, and “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” Yet from such losses emerge lasting happiness, healing, and joy, whether with sea air on one’s face or Elanor on one’s lap. These the simple rewards of mercy, of service and of sacrifice; blessed are they worthy of such an honor.


2015’s Reflection: “On What Lies Beyond the Circles of This World

On Bearing Wrongs Patiently

The Scouring of the Shire

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Two of the greatest wrongs borne: “Pieta” by Michelangelo (Source)

At last, we complete our considerations on the works of mercy with the seventh spiritual work of mercy and the final overall: bearing wrongs patiently. And what wrongs we discover as we finally cross back into the borders of the Shire! We learn of trees chopped down with wanton, fires kindled for sport, homes torn down for industry, honest hobbits imprisoned or impoverished. These pains strike deeper than most, and these wrongs are more sorrowful than most we have experienced on our journey, for they are evils done to our homes.

To bear wrongs: not to solve them, not to struggle against them, not to cry out against them, but to carry them with us. To bear wrongs does not discount the solution, the struggle, or the cry, but it is a different service. It is the waiting of Farmer Cotton for a banner that will rally the people; it is the slow ride to Bag End amidst the devastation and ruin of Hobbiton in order to reach the source of the wrongs. Bearing wrongs is an internal orientation towards mercy and relationship: to not wish death upon even your worst enemies, and to hope (like Frodo) that one might find a cure to their fallen state even if that cure seems impossible. In the words of Frodo himself, “It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing.”

Not only to bear wrongs, but to do so patiently. It is so easy to let emotions take control, to respond to wrongs with anger and righteous rage, to act in haste. At times, time is of the essence: at times, only a small window for justice is open. But patience is not limited to the measure of minutes and hours: patience is a conscientious decision. It is patience that stays wrath, that allays bitterness, that remembers the costs of suffering. To bear wrongs patiently strengthens every other mercy and every other service, but it also opens the soul to every grace and gift: solidarity, understanding, compassion, love.

And so it is a fitting end for the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. As we have wandered Middle-earth, we have seen these fourteen services in action, and we have considered their challenges and opportunities in our modern age and society. The world has change, but women and men have not. There remains injustice to be rectified, brokenness to heal, sin to contend with. For every increase in technology and infrastructure to provide material needs, there is a cold efficiency and personal-less distance to overcome. For every increase in connectivity and innovation that offers interior support, there is relativity and anonymity to undermine. Among men and women there will be those who don’t understand, those who try to stymie or prevent such service out of ignorance, misunderstanding, or selfishness. Without the capacity to bear such wrongs patiently, we shall never be able to see the Shire in spring again.

The world is in need of mercy more than ever, but a mercy that is true and deep, not superficial. We must reject the easy path of declaring all things equally good and defining love to be the same as indifferent tolerance. The more challenging road of mercy is paved with the stones of service, of engagement with the struggles of our fellows, of lifting up the sinner while casting down the sin. As we conclude our Lenten journey and enter into the long light of Easter, this remains our rallying cry: “merciful like the Father.”


2015’s Reflection: “On the Things that Really Matter

On Ills That Linger

Homeward Bound

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That which holds the promise: “The Empty Tomb” by Bob Baker (Source)

It is a frustrating revelation for both hobbits and humans. The Ring has been destroyed; the Tomb has been found empty. Darkness has faltered, and good has triumphed. Why then do the ills of the world linger? After witnessing the defeat of Sauron and sin, why is the Shire in turmoil, and our own lands still suffering? Has the Easter promise deceived us? Isn’t the story nearing its happy end?

Our tale may be nearing its conclusion, but many pages remain to be written, and chapters to unfold. For though the King has reclaimed his throne both in Middle-earth and on Earth, nevertheless ills linger. Some, like Butterbur, have not yet heard of the great feats accomplished, the great victories won, the great promises restored, and so have not changed their perspective and ways. Some, like the Saruman and the swarthy men of the North, have rejected the rule of the King and have sought to flee from him, causing discord and hurt along the way. And some, like Frodo, carry the scars of ills once suffered, wounds that do not fully heal, remembrances of a darkness that has only left its offspring in the mind. A new age has dawned, but it remains an age of the world.

This revelation can dishearten our Lenten souls still weary from our journey to the mountain, yet we must take comfort: even if the battles still rage, we know the results to come. What evils still exist are lesser than the ones that have already been defeated. The great menace of Sauron has been dispersed; Hell has been harrowed, and the captives of the shadow lands have been freed. The derivatives of death may still harass, but their captain has been slayed. One day the King shall make his way up into our lands and hearts and order them, and drive the evil things into the wilderness.

Until that time, we have been given responsibility over the Shire. Though the ills that linger may not have the same magnitude as those already defeated, nevertheless they remain harmful and should be righted. Having witnessed all that has happened, having walked with Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin there and back again, we have been fortified and trained to combat the evils that we uncover in our homeland. Gandalf’s work is done, and now we must settle the task ourselves. Daunting, perhaps, but we take courage: we have grown up, and Gandalf has “no longer any fear at all for any of you.”

And so, though the climax of the story has been achieved and the resolution of all things is near, nevertheless there are still pages yet to turn. We may not fully drive out the ills that linger in our lives and world, but nevertheless we are tasked to do what we can. For this we have been trained; for this we have journeyed: to transform our hearts and communities, and encourage good things to grow again. One day the King shall return to these lands and set them fully aright, but until them, out of love for him and our neighbors, we labor. Whatever unfolds in that labor, however, cannot cause us to despair: for such ills cannot long linger, and Easter promises a happy ending.


2015’s Reflection: “On Returning Home

On Burying the Dead

Many Partings

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The St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearers Ministry of St. Ignatius Cleveland (Source)

As we begin our journey home in the midst of the Octave of Easter, we consider the seventh and final of the corporal works of mercy: burying the dead. We bring with us the body of King Théoden, honored in Gondor and draped in gold. At Edoras, we check our haste to take up the trail again to participate in the funerary rites, to weep before the grave, to hear song and story told, to raise a toast in memory of the good king, the father figure, the noble warrior. As we gaze upon the green mound already bringing forth white simbelmynë flowers, the words of Théoden’s death lingers in our minds and hearts:

“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.”

Burying the dead is perhaps the most peculiar of the corporal works of mercy. Of the seven, it is the only one to not appear in the Judgement of Nations (Mt. 25:31-46), instead being derived from the Book of Tobit. By its nature, the service also only engages another in relationship after the person has died, thereby neither ameliorating pain or promoting justice directly as do the other six. It is therefore the forgotten work of mercy: a worthy gesture, perhaps, and a comfort to bereaved family and friends, but not on par with the efficient and socially-minded acts such as feeding the hungry and caring for the sick.

Perhaps this is why burying the dead has not been co-opted by secular society in the same way other mercies have. We moderns, of course, bury (or cremate, or do something to) our dead: a large industry of funeral homes, crematories, cemeteries, and memorials have developed because of it. Yet more frequently than not we reject the basic principles of burying the dead. We shield ourselves from viewing or interacting with the deceased, outsourcing the rituals around preparation of a body and hiding them out of view. We reject notions of funerals and replace them with celebrations of life; we dress ourselves not with formal black and weeping but instead with casual color and vague indifference. We do not burying the dead to honor their dignity with the hope for the resurrection; we instead craft unusual and attention-grabbing displays that speak to their worldly accomplishments and remind ourselves to remained focus on the living. Overall, it is incredible how much we filter out death from our lives.

Burying the dead, however, is a work of mercy, a service as valuable and grace-filled as any other act of social justice. In burying the dead, we perform something beyond mere sanitation. In burying the dead we affirm our belief in something beyond death, of a lasting relationship that mortality cannot severe. In burying the dead, we reject both extremes of nihilistic materialism and gnostic spiritualism, for in preparing with care a body and burying it with dignity, we claim that there is something beyond the body that matters, and yet the body matters too. In a certain sense, burying the dead is the most noble and purest form of service, for above any other mercy it is one we are incapable of doing ourselves, and one in which doing we cannot expect any mortal reward.

As such, it is a perfect act to consider as we conclude the corporal works of mercy. For burying the dead blurs the lines between the world that was, the world that is, and the world that is to come. It reminds us that mercy is not limited to this life, and that our choice ripple beyond the realms of material and time. Overall, to bury the dead is a service most loving, most humble, most grace-filled, especially for those who have no one to bury them. In this age of death-defiance and funerary commercialization, we must break the ice that encrusts our relationship with the dead. For one day each of us will long for another to perform this mercy upon us, and such a longing lingers near the core of what it means to be human.


2015’s Reflection: “On the Long Defeat

On Willingly Laying Down One’s Office

The Steward and the King

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Cincinnatus yields up his office (Source)

It seems that the only thing more rare than the rise of a great and powerful leader is his or her willing departure. The idea of “surrendering” one’s office willingly – not because of term limits, or external pressure, or even for retirement, but for the office’s own sake and the common good – is more lauded in theory than bore out in practice. Exemplars are held in high historical esteem – Cincinnatus the noble Roman and George Washington the virtuous American – but infrequently are such models imitated. That yielding one’s power to another without coercion or sacrifice courses roughly with modern Hobbesian notions and individualist self-esteem.

Yet such is the standard set by Faramir, fulfilling his stewardship as once envisioned: surrendering his power, his authority, and his high office to the coming of the King. Such is the purpose of stewardship, yet as Denethor so aptly displayed, the laying down of long-held and practiced rule is not a matter of ease or timidness. In it lies the temptation for pride and vainglory, for envy and jealous, for mistrust and bitterness. It is a gesture woven with such inherent danger and risk that it can only be reasonably performed once signs of Aragorn’s lineage and right to rule are shown, once victory on the field has been achieved and good-will amongst the people foster, with ritual and symbol that connects the act to the promises of the past and the hopes for the future.

It is a hard choice, one that requires courage and discernment, yet one that each of us might face in our own time: to yield authority to its proper source or representative, to sacrifice our own accomplishments for the common good. We may find ourselves elected or appointed to high office, with political power, civic control, or religious resources at our disposal, and perhaps like Faramir a natural nobleness or cultivated honor that desires only the best for our brothers and sisters. Even so, that may not be our task; the very pinnacle of our life’s work may be the giving up of all that we have worked for. Such is the great paradox of Christian service, of self-sacrifice, of deep wisdom.

For we are not even the true rulers of our own lives, no matter how much we delude ourselves. We did not fashion our own bodies or kindle our own souls: we are fair lands handed over to ourselves to foster and to bloom. As we enter into the Easter season, we may recall the hardest mastery which we must yield: the office of our own selves. For the King has come – He has risen indeed! – and has laid his claim over each of us. No matter whether we obtain worldly offices or material power in this life, every one of us does have to choose: to resist the authority of our Creator or to surrender willingly to him. The laying down of our own office, our own mastery, our own authority can seem an act of folly, but instead it is one of liberation, for like Faramir our office does not end when the King enters his city. Instead, it is transformed, renewed, and restored: it strengthens our will, augments our freedom, makes worthy our actions and decrees.

And so, there are many offices to lay down. Like Cincinnatus, we can willingly lay down our offices when our work is fulfilled, and so return to peace and quiet and rest. Like Washington, we can willingly lay down our offices so that we turn not into dictators and tyrants, setting precedents and examples to guide future generations. And like Faramir, we can willingly lay down our offices at the approach of a higher authority, a noble lineage, a true King, and recognize such lordship over ourselves. It is quite likely that only in such a surrender can we possess any hope for both our city and our soul, letting it blossom with gardens and flow with fountains once again.


2015’s Reflection: “On the Need for Justice and Mercy

On Hearing the Story Told

The Field of Cormallen

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“The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung, that once went singing southward when all the world was young” (Source)

It is Easter morning on the Field of Cormallen: the day has dawned into unexpected joy, for the shadowy hand of the Enemy has been shown impotent, and his forces have been scattered and subdued. Upon awaking, there is much to celebrate: reunion of relationships, good things set aright, a new hope for man. Yet of all the great and glorious things to occur, what most moves our beloved Samwise to tears? A simple, seemingly insignificant request: “I will sing to you of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom.”

We too have been in quite the tale, and on Easter (especially at an Easter Vigil Mass) we hear the story told in full. We hear of the creation of the world and the fall of man, the burden of sin and the toils of slavery, the trust of Abraham and the obedience of Moses, the miracles out of Egypt and the promises of Isaiah, and finally we conclude with the Resurrection itself: the empty tomb, the angelic enigma, the unexpected appearance. It is a lay that rouses our souls to both merriment and tears, woven with the words of Hebrew, Latin, and our own native tongues. It is a ballad that pierces our hearts with its beauty and overflows our being with joy. It is the story of salvation, of “great glory and splendour,” of blessedness. All our wishes have also come true.

For though we have been part of this tale, to hear it told is an entirely different experience. In listening to the lay of salvation, we realize its scale and its scope, its depths and its detail. For we who have walked with Frodo and Sam now come to know the trials and triumphs of Merry and Pippin, and we who have followed in the footsteps of man, dwarf, and elf in the south learn of the valor and victories of the war in the north. Every person has played a role in the story, whether great or small. And while our attention naturally lingers on the actions of Frodo, and Gandalf, and Aragorn (that is to say Christ), nevertheless in this tale we hear do we in some capacity appear.

And the story continues. For though lay concludes on the slopes of Mt. Doom, there is still work to be done. The victory has been won, but there remain the walls of dark fortresses to cast down, and towns to rebuild, and hurts to heal. The power of death has been broken, yet the mission remains: the Gospel, the works of mercy, the repairing of the world. Though the Ring has been destroyed and the Tomb found empty, nevertheless there remain pages yet to turn.

That is the beauty in hearing the story told, why such words should move us to tears. For in the song of salvation we remember the trials and travails, the hardships and the sufferings, and we weep in recalling their pains. Yet we also relive the joys and wonders, the marvels and the awe, and we weep with happy laughter in recalling their delight. It is the greatest story ever told, a story that stretches back and continues forward, a story in which we all are born, and live, and die, and are reborn. Such a story inspires us to renew our work and recommit our lives. For the victory has already been won, and all our wishes have come true, and now matter the sorrows and sins that linger, nevertheless with Easter spirit is everyday a celebration of blessedness.


2015’s Reflection: “On Glory