A Conclusion to a Lent of the Lord of the Rings

Three years.

It is incredible for me to reflect on all that has passed and transpired since I first put (digital) ink to (digital) paper on this reflection series back in the spring of 2015. The Lenten read of The Lord of the Rings dates back even earlier: to 2014 on paper, to years beyond that in my mind. I read over the sentences and thoughts I transcribed back at the start of 2015, of 2016, even this year, and it is strange how things have changed. In 2015, I was a young unmarried teaching in San Jose in a world reeling from economic crisis with political strife building. In 2017, I am an older, married research in Washington DC in a world struggling with political chaos and an uncertain future.

Yet, for all these, much has remained the same: the desire for pilgrimage; the longing for the good, true, and beautiful; the recognition of the value of tradition, ritual, and the wisdom of path times; the long defeat. At the core, the most foundational and lasting fact is my appreciation for The Lord of the Rings and my conviction that reading it – especially during Lent – can bring out meaningful insight and deep reflection. Three years in, we have traveled with Frodo and the Fellowship through all three gospel cycles; we have gone there and back again with over 180 reflections; and on over 6,000 instances has a fellow traveler paused to consider the quest for Mt. Doom here.

What, then, is the ultimate message of “A Lent of the Lord of the Rings” this year? The same message it has always been: that there are good things in this world, and they are worth fighting for, and though the victory has already been won for us, sometimes we must sacrifice the things we love so that others may have them in due time. In is the gospel, the eucatastrophe, the mingling of Cross and Ring, Mt. Doom and Calvary. But, as I scan over the individual reflections of the past year, I think there is something slightly different, for in topic and in word there has been a heavy emphasis on strongholds. Woven through this year’s journey was a growing sense that things were growing more tenuous and more dangerous, and that though the world could not be abandoned, fortified places – Rivendell, Lothlorien, Helm’s Deep, Minas Tirith – were needed where we could find rest, succor, and wisdom for the long roads ahead. We recognized that we could not linger forever in these islands amidst the storm, but nevertheless we treasured them.

I do not know what that rightly means for the days ahead. Nevertheless, I hope that you, dear reader, dear companion, dear fellow pilgrim, have enjoys these past days of stories and musings. I especially wish to thank those who contributed their own reflections, as well as my wife, who had to put up with my early risings and audiobook listenings. This is an annual journey, and I encourage you to download the reading plan for 2018 so you have it ready to go for next February 5th. May the blessings of elves, men, and all free folk go with you, until our next meeting.

For the Purposes of Remembrance

The Grey Havens

60_Red Book.jpg

The Red Book of Westmarch (Source)

Time passes. Memories fade. The Third Age ends. The Elves are passing into the West, taking their wisdom with them. The great minds of our story – Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, even Bilbo – go with them.

History is long, but memory is short. Already a generation of hobbits are born that will not know of the Scouring of the Shire. Already are too few of the little people interested in the tales from beyond Bree, of the downfall of the Dark Lord and the return of the King. Already things evade thought and recollection.

Yet, we must remember. We must remember for what we fought and sacrificed. We must remember what we almost lost and incredibly won. We must remember nine-fingered Frodo, and Samwise the Brave, and the party tree, and the beauty of Lorien.

How shall we remember? What should we put forward for the purposes of remembrance?

A tree: the only mallorn east of the mountains and west of the sea, a fair golden symbol, a remembrance of a fair land now lost to the legends.

A book: the writings of Bilbo and Frodo, the recounting of the great deeds of the little people, the remarkable adventures, the going and the coming, the story as we know it.

A girl: the daughter of Sam and Rosie, with the yellow hair of a blessed year, with the name of simple flower made even more beautiful for the memories it recalls.

Some must leave us. Some must give up good things so that other may have them.

Some will remain. We that remain must do what we can for the purposes of remembrance. We must not be torn but whole. We must read from the tales to our children and friends. We must right the small wrongs that abide the triumph already accomplished. We must keep the memory of the older days alive so that what was good, and true, and beautiful shall not perish so swiftly in relentless flow of time.

Already, how much have we lost. Already, how endangered is our ancient knowledge, our ancient wisdom, our rituals and traditions, our history and our stories. In the age of instantaneous and accessible knowledge, the threat of forgetfulness is all the more startling. We do what we can – planting the tree, reading the book, naming our children – for the purposes of remembrance. It is all we can do, until the grey curtain of the whole world is turned back to a new green country in a swift sunrise.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Simple Rewards of a Good Life
2015’s Reflection: “On What Lies Beyond the Circles of This World

On the Care and Concern for All Creation

The Scouring of the Shire


As men would made in the likeness of God, so too does nature reflect God’s glory (Source)

It is a strange mark of our times that things that should seem so obvious are so tenuous and controversial. It is a bitter burden to consider that such fundamental realities – that reasonable people might disagree on matters without vile intentions; that technology is only a tool, not an inherent good; that life in all its forms deserves to be preserved – are not self-evident. Especially in recent times, another once clear point of agreement has become muddle in conflict and disagreement: the stewardship of the earth, the care and concern of creation.

It is inhumane to desire that wanton destruction of nature; it is orcish to fell trees and uproot gardens at random, leaving them to rot or burden just to despoil the soil or scar the land. We roared with anger alongside Treebeard at the devastation outside the gates of Isengard; we clench our fists with fear along with the hobbits in the tainted lands of the Shire. Rational people do not dispute this; instead, our conflicts seems to rise around the question of balancing the needs of human communities with the needs of nature, with discerning the impact of human action on creations capacity, with recognizing the larger ramifications of the small modifications we seem to make. In this space, there is room for reasonable disagreement: on the particulars, on the protocols, on how the balance should be struck. However, as is so often the plight of our days, the discourse has been poisoned with ideology and political gamesmanship, so that one side is blind to facts, and the other has trouble with nuance.

Here is the great paradox: the science, amidst all its controversy, doesn’t fundamentally matter. Before we knew the inner workings of the cell or the immense patterns of the atmosphere, we knew our responsibility to preserving nature, allowing creation to thrive. Before we understood the impact of human industry and built climate models of varying complexity, we knew that we lived in relationship with creation, and that we poisoned it at our own peril. At its best, new scientific discoveries, new environmental revelations should galvanize us, helping us to put things in perspective and discover new ways to live in tandem with the world around us; at its worst, it should not retard. For the care and concern for all creation stands as a value that dates back to ancient days, enshrined in religious texts and moral codes. We, like the hobbits, shouldn’t need complex studies or detailed reports to convince us that all creation is beautiful, and that we have a responsibility to steward it.

Somewhere along the way we lost that understanding. Then environmental evangelists, concerned by how industrialization, urbanism, and de-localization had obscured this perspective, sought to revive the spirit within us. With rational thought, scientific study, and emotional pleas they made the case for a new investment in the created world.

Alas that the results have been mixed at best, and arguments that should not have needed to be argued have been so. Perhaps, therefore, what is needed is a return to basics, the first principles of stewardship. For the hobbits saved the Shire because it is their home, not because someone told them it was worth saving. If we bring the nature back to the people – connecting them once again to it in their communities, in their work, in their daily lives – then perhaps no complex facts will be needed to convince us to fulfill our stewardship. For from the Garden of Eden to Pope Francis has the message been clear: the care and concern for creation is a moral imperative, not because nature is inherently good, but because it reflects the goodness of the creating God.

2016’s Reflection: “On Bearing Wrongs Patiently
2015’s Reflection: “On the Things That Really Matter

On the People Who Did Not Make the Journey

Homeward Bound


The peaceful village hides many a great need (Source)

It has been many days since we left the Shire, since we set forth from Rivendell, since we began our Lenten journey to the fires of Mordor. Many have been the adventures, many were the trials, many are the memories: we catch all of them up now in Easter bliss, returning home from our pilgrimage have hopefully reflected deeply on our condition and committed ourselves more fully to the Christian way. The even longer days of Easter lay ahead, a liturgical time of joy and celebration, of reveling in the happiness that is the resurrection of our Lord, of marveling at the victory already won.

Yet, as we return from our high holy days, back into the reality of our world, we come more frequently back in touch with those who did not make the journey. Lent is a cultural phenomenon, an annual event that even the most secular among us knows a little about. The build up to Easter – in particular, the Triduum – brings out many a hidden Christian, inspires quite a few to return to churches and parishes, and narrows our focus to those events long ago. As they pass, we find ourselves again in places like Bree, where the people care rather little about the events “away off” in time and space, even if they fundamentally impacted them. Barliman and his neighbors have their own little concerns – small in comparisons to the great deeds of Pelennor and Cirith Ungol – but concerns nevertheless: of brawls and bandits and bad times all about. We find ourselves among those who did not take the pilgrim road, and it can be incredibly frustrating.

Yet, we should not be surprised. After all, we set out on this journey for the sake of these small concerns. The Rangers of the North long defended the Shire so that the folk here might only have to dwell on small concerns. Now that the Rangers have gone off to their great errand, the concerns have grown bigger. The world is a more fragile and dangerous place than we might think, and evil touches every land. Sacrifices and struggles are necessary for the sake of the good, true, and beautiful, no matter how far off in time or space the war is waged.

We have returned from our pilgrimage, and like the hobbits, we are changed. A pilgrimage requires that one not linger at the holy site, but return home transformed by it. We have been clothed in the garment of the resurrections and fortified by the obstacles overcome. The Lenten journey has prepared us for this moment itself: to engage with the people who did not make the journey with us in all their states – disbelief, distrust, ignorance, wonder – and do our part to help resolve the concerns we find back home. In that, we bring the pilgrimage back with us, sharing its gifts with others around us, while also strive to repair the wounds in the lands and people we care so deeply about.

It is not an easy task – it may not earn us as much praise or lead to any great songs. We may find those who did not make the journey to be similar to Barliman in their incomprehension that a great victory has been won and a King has returned. Nevertheless, it is the task set before us, and one which we must take on: for these are our people, and if not us, who will work to spread the good news and set things aright again?

2016’s Reflection: “On Ills That Linger
2015’s Reflection: “On Returning Home

On Gifts

Many Partings


The gifts overfloweth (Source)

Easter, whether because of the focus of the holiday or its lesser commercialization, has not become as associated with gifts as Christmas has. However, there remain some gift-esque traditions – Easter baskets, candy hidden within eggs, etc. – that signal to the larger gift at hand: the resurrection of Christ, the gifting of new life.

In The Lord of the Rings, as the journey home begins, we witness the giving of many gifts. And each gift provides a window in a relationship, into an emotion, into a symbol of a thread woven throughout the story.

Consider the white stone: a gift to Frodo from the Queen Arwen. It is a simple present, yet imbued within it is much meaning that may pass over our heads as we first learn about it. The white stone hearkens back to the green stone of Aragorn, and his name of Elfstone. Therefore, a gift of a stone is a natural extension of the authority and love of the King and Queen, a perfect embodiment of their union. It is a gift from the Elf, a woman we haven’t seen often throughout our tale. Yet Arwen is the granddaughter of Galadriel, and her white stone parallels the phial the Lady of the Golden Wood: where the phial produced external light in dark places, the white stone brings about internal light in troubling spirit. Somehow, Arwen knows the deep wounds that Frodo carries, and provides the perfect gift to help aid him in this new “quest” – for healing.

Consider the horn of Rohan: a gift to Merry from the Lady Eowyn. It is a simple present, yet Merry would take nothing else in honor of the King whom he loved. She offers this horn as an expression of her companionship, and it bears in it the long history of Rohan from the treasure hoards of the North. In giving this gift, Eowyn seems to foresee that Merry might need to stir up his own heart or the hearts of others in the times to come: that the adventures may not yet be over. Nevertheless, the horn also connects the hobbit to the people of Rohan yet again, renewing the bond that may have been sundered by Theoden’s death.

Consider the pipes of Bilbo: gifts to Pippin and Merry in the house of Elrond. They are simple presents, yet meaningful in all they represent. Here are the crafts of the Elves brought about for the services of hobbits – for the Elves do not smoke pipeweed and therefore would have no purpose for such tools. Therefore the gifts of pipes were pure excess, true gifts from the Elves to the hobbit they most love, and he in turn passes them down to those who might use them most (along with his gold to Sam, for a purpose he seems to suspect). With these pipes Bilbo asks the young hobbits to smoke them in memory of him, and so in the gifts in the longing of remembrance, and the recognition that the ages do change. It’s a touching gift, the finest gift the Shire-folk might exchange.

And so we are left with gifts: of pipes, horn, and stone. Each gift, thought simple, expresses something deeply meaningful, as all true gifts do. And so let us know approach the giving of gifts with spite and greed, as Saruman did along the road, but with the response of Aragorn before the wedding of Eowyn and Faramir: to be in wonder of the amazing things one might give to another, and honor and treasure the gifts so gifted in love.

2016’s Reflection: “On Burying the Dead
2015’s Reflection: “On the Long Defeat

On the Secret Fire That Kindles the Heart

The Steward and the King


An Ignatian approach (though perhaps wrongly attributed) (Source)

After all the pages, all the trials, all the journeys we have traveled alongside Aragorn, since we first met him so seemingly long ago in Bree, we finally understand. Though it has been hinted at obliquely, with passing reference and subtle inclination, now it has been clear: the kingship, however noble in and of itself, was for Aragorn the final accomplishment necessary to obtain what he secretly had for so long desired and nurtured. Arwen, daughter of Elrond, the evenstar of her people, has come to Minas Tirith. Now, with the downfall of Sauron and the fulfillment of the quest, Aragorn and Arwen may finally have what they have for so long planned: their love fulfilled in marriage.

Though we did not know the inner workings of Strider’s heart, we did recognize there was something driving him forward, even step of the way. At times, it was his duty, or his dedication to friends and fellowship, yet there was always something deeper. This is true of most of the other members of the fellowship: Sam’s love for his master, for example, or Frodo’s commitment to Gandalf and the Shire, come to mind. However, the reality of that secret fire – the details, the nuances, the particulars – were not known to us, even omniscient readers, let alone the other members of the Fellowship. Only Elrond knew what this quest meant for Aragon, or so it was written. Yet the Fellowship benefits from that love that inspired in Strider all his many great deeds.

As we enter into Easter, and as the pilgrimage comes to a close and we think about the journey home, we might wonder ourselves about the secret fire that kindles our own hearts. What is it the wakes us up in the morning in joy and allows us to rest each night in peace? What is it that we work for, that we desire to know or possess, that drives us unceasingly to labor amid hardships?

For some, it may be obvious. Yet for other, it may not be known. We live in unreflective times, where things that are most valued – money, fame, success – do not meet the needed standard of the kindling of the heart. For these are not the sparks that will, flaming from us, set the world ablaze. For what does the money, the fame, the success in the end actually serve? Where do we wish it to take us before the end?

The crown of the kings is fair, and the throne of Gondor strong, and the city of Minas Tirith beautiful to behold. But these are not the things that allowed Aragorn to overcome the weakness of his ancestor and face off with the Dark Lord himself. Instead, it was the secret fire of love that kindled within his heart the unshakable commitment and dedication to the cause. Out of love and service to another Aragorn loved and was a service to all. And in the bliss of marriage and family that now comes to him, it is little wonder that we could consider his days blest.

2016’s Reflection: “On Willingly Laying Down One’s Office
2015’s Reflection: “On the Need for Justice and Mercy

On Relics

The Field of Cormallen



Relics of the Catholic tradition (Source)

In the overwhelming joy of Easter, what we experienced over the last few nights (and many weeks) can seem like a dream from which we are waking. Like Sam, we may forget all the steps (of our pilgrimage) we have trod, the long hours (of the Easter Vigil) we have experienced, the many burdens (of our sins) we have carried. The victory has been won, and great is our joy, but our joy sublimely combines the laughter of our happiness with the tears of our sorrow. For Frodo’s hand is still missing one digit: there are costs and losses even in the final victory. The hobbits tattered clothes from the journey may seem insignificant now, but Gondor will remembered them.

For, in the appropriate manner of Middle earth, these garments have become like relics. A relic (from the Latin relinquere, “to leave behind”) is a material object left behind by someone, usually a holy person or saint as in the Christian tradition. Because of the known holiness of the person associated with the material, relics became sources of strength and symbol of faith-like inspiration, even at times bringing about miracles for the prayerfully pious. These relics could range from clothing that the holy person wore (like the cloaks of Frodo and Sam) to objects from a major event (like the Last Supper or the Passion) to, most normally, a piece of the body of the person. For some of us, such a devotion to a piece of bone or hair might seem ghastly, but there is little question that, had Frodo’s finger not gone into the fire with Gollum, it would have been honored for long-years in the city of kings.

Why fret so openly and with such energy over the proper care of old garments, the preserving of material from these times? In part it is because they are necessary for memory. Like the proclaiming of song or the writing of words, the maintenance of relics provides a tangible symbol and meaningful recollection of the great deeds of the past, of the men and women who did or live in such a way as to make the present time possible. Knowledge of the past is fleeting: we know that only the wise remembered the history of the Ring at the Council of Elrond (and who among us today has much recollection of the great wisdom of our ancestors?).

Yet also, relics serve as inspiration. They are materials of memory but also sources of encouragement. The the halflings could have taken the Ring into Mordor and completed their quest impresses on us that the course of the future can be changed by even the smallest of persons. The tears and stairs of the garments humble us in seeing with our waking eyes the bitter pains and sacrifices that such a journey of good may recall.

There are many relics in the Christian tradition, and if you have the chance to visit or venerate some, it is a worthwhile experience. And though they may lack the saintly holiness (and paperwork) that true relics possess, if each of us pauses in reflection, there may be some things like relics in our own lives from our own journeys: materials at the core of our pilgrimage, symbols of both memory and inspiration. Let us hold onto such things, however small they might be, and so encourage both ourselves and others not to forget the Lenten road now complete, and the great deeds that were accomplished, and the victory that has been won for us.

2016’s Reflection: “On Hearing the Story Told
2015’s Reflection: “On Glory

On Carrying

Mount Doom


Carry Him, not it. (Source)

On the slopes of Mount Doom, we come to it at last. “I can’t carry it for you, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you.” The will fails in the final stretch, and companionship proves more valued than any personal strength. The weight of the Ring does not translate to Samwise, and out of some hidden source of love, the capacity to bear his Master upon his shoulders is revealed.

On the slopes of Calgary, we come to it at last. “As they lead Jesus away they took hold of a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country; and after laying the cross on him, they made him carry it behind Jesus.” The weight of sin that Christ carries does not translate to Simon of Cyrene, only the physical burden of the Cross itself. Christ carries the greater, and we are called to assist with the lesser: to bear our own crosses as Simon did, in imitation of Christ.

On the slopes of our own lands, we come to it at last. “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the world. Come, let us worship.” It is Good Friday, and we have carried much up to this point. We have carried supplies which we have possessed since we set out on Ash Wednesday. We have carried memories and joy that have allowed us to recall our own Shires. We have carried burdens and regrets that have weighed us down along the way. Yet, in the end, there is only one thing that needs to be carried.

The Ring. The Cross. Our fellow man. We come to it at last.

We can’t carry it for Him. But we can carry him. In our pockets, in our homes, in our relationships, in our hearts. With ashes on our foreheads we set out; in the ashes of the end we lift high that which we can carry. The lesser of the matters, yes, but borne by our own pilgrim hands in the unwrapping of salvation history.

Not our will, but thy will.

Let us never forget our Crosses, and never forget how much more we would bear (beyond our strength, beyond our hope) had we no Cross to carry. Let us never forget the acts of Samwise and Simon, and always seek to imitate them.

The earth is silent; a change is in the air. Something is happening, and the world will never be the same again.

We come to it at last. The pilgrimage concludes. It is finished.

2016’s Reflection: “For the Sake of Mercy
2015’s Reflection: “On the End of All Things

On the Lamentations

The Land of Shadow


The Prophet Jeremiah by Rembrant (Source)

Behold the lamentations of the hobbit Frodo:

How endangered she is now, the once peaceful Shire! Entrapped is she who was fair over lands; The quiet land within Middle earth has been made a toiling slave.

Bitterly we weep at night, tears upon our cheeks, With not one to console us from all our Fellowship; Our guide has betrayed us and become our enemy.

Gondor has fled into exile from temptation and cruel slavery; Yet where he lives among the nations he finds no place to rest: All his persecutors come upon him where he is narrowly confined.

The roads to Mt. Doom groan with the footsteps of soldiers, going off to war; All the gateways are full, the orcs shout, the Nazgul cry; we are in bitter grief.

Our foes are uppermost, Our enemies are at ease; the Children of Iluvatar punished for our many sins. Our little ones have gone away, hobbits into the shadow.

How the gold has grown heavy, how the pure gold burdens! The kingly stones lie scattered at the head of every path.

The precious sons of elves and men, worth their weight in valor, how they are regarded as weak, the lesser of older days!

Even the birds find food, the beast shelter; but for hobbits the land has become cruel, like the darkness of the ends of the earth.

Our tongues stick to the roof of our mouth for thirst; we long for food, but there is none to find.

We who once feasted in Rivendell now wander; we who rested in Lorien now sleep on ash heaps.

For the journey of the hobbits of the Shire has been harsher than the punishment of the Elder Days, which were against greater evil, before the Ring was forged!

Middle earth, Middle earth, resist the evil one, cast away this burden at last!

2016’s Reflection: “On Comforting the Afflicted
2015’s Reflection: “On Hell