On Having Never Seen the Sea

Lothlórien

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How far off, and yet so near, the seas of our lives often are? (Source)

When I taught high school in California, there was no small number of students in my class who had never seen the sea. It was a startling realization for me, for though there are many in the interior of the United States who have likely not had the opportunity to visit the coast, I did not think any in my city were among them. For this community was merely on the other side of the Santa Cruz mountains, the ocean a short 30 minute drive away. My students dwelt so near the shores of the sea, and yet had never seen them.

Some, I know, were constrained by poverty, by lack of means and access to visit a place so far out of their normal surroundings. But others were like Merry, and had never been out of their own land before. They had gone up to San Francisco, perhaps, or even traveled to a somewhat far off tourist site, but had never left their own place for lands unknown and unprepared. And if it was not the sea never seen, it was something else so simple as to be profound: snow, for instance, was another.

For we who have been blessed to see the sea, there is something else that stands in its place. There is a haven, a feature, a profound beauty to which we have dwelt so close and yet have never seen, even as others who are far off long to know it. It is something we should know, something we should be able to express when another asks us to tell of it. There are many reasons for us never having see the seas of our lives. Perhaps, like Merry, we were fearful of what lay outside our comfort zone. Perhaps, instead, it was ignorance, not realizing something so great and magnificent was so near us. Perhaps, instead, it was complacency, a sense of that such a wonder would always be there, not needing our immediate time and attention, and that eventually we would make our way to it.

“Happy folk are you to dwell in the havens of freedom,” says the man from far off: but do we who rise and sleep in such freedom really know it and appreciate it? “It is long indeed since any of my folk have looked upon democratic and fair institutions,” says the persecuted woman: but do we who assume such civic powers actually consider them with any serious thought? “Yet still we remember the joys of learning in our tales,” recalls the person long-removed from school: but do we who have such education understand what fortunate it is to have it? “Tell us of your faith as we walk,” say those who have long felt empty and alone: but do we Christians, we believers of any background, have anything in confidence to say?

The world is indeed full of peril, and many things that were once certain and obvious can no longer be assumed as given. The Sea, the Sea, it is the Sea that calls us home! And we who have long dwelt by the Sea, the most fundamental calling of our essence, must no longer ignore its beckoning and assume it shall always be there, waiting for us, a little off West of our lands. For now we are upon an island amid many perils, and the way to the Seas of our lives may soon be cut off for a time. Now it the acceptable hour: now the time is at hand. Let us go to the shores of the things that matter and take them in fully, so that we may share them with those who have no the opportunity to know them in these days.


2016’s Reflection: “On Harboring the Harborless
2015’s Reflection: “On Elanor

On Tombs

The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

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And what shall be written? (Source)

A tomb: that is all that remains of Balin and his company of dwarves save for the scattered swords and bones around it. A stone, with only the barest of details: a name, a lineage, a title. Were it not for the discovery of the book of the history of the expedition, this would be all the anyone would ever know of the great attempt to retake Moria, and the dwarves that made up it. A name, a lineage, and a title.

Even with the book, very little can be made out. It is not clear what happens to the book after the Fellowship take it, whether it ever made its way to King Dain and to the people of the Lonely Mountain for further study. It disappears into Gimli’s pack, perhaps lost or damaged even further in the adventures that lay ahead. In those brief (yet perhaps unwise) moments that Gandalf has to skim the book for clues, we gain some little insights: key words and phrases, fortuitously spared paragraphs and un-cracked leaves. It is enough information for the purposes of a narrative, but not nearly enough knowledge to soothe the concern of a dwarven heart, the uncertainty and grief Gloin brought to the Council of Elrond.

Yet this is all that remains of Balin and his dwarven brethren: a tomb and a book, a name, a lineage, and a title. How little that is: and yet how much more than what many of us will leave behind! As our deaths melt into the passing of time, what will be remembered of us? If there is any text left behind, will it remained unaltered and un-ravaged? Or will it instead having missing pages and lost sections, words guessed at and hypotheses laid down? No one remembers that predecessor and successor of the Roman governor of Judea in the time of Christ, and Pilate is only remembered for his role in what he probably thought was a small, insignificant, and passing affair. How many more are like Balin, buried in the depths under rubble and rock?

A name, a lineage, and a title: that was what was on Balin’s tomb, and what remains ingrained in the memories of the Fellowship. It what recalled the fond relationship between Bilbo and Balin to Frodo’s mind: we are left to wonder what pleasant experience or joyous occasions flickered up in the thoughts of Gimli or Gandalf. That is what little remained, even at the end. We who know that such an end will be ours – in unknown season, by unknown means – must consider the tomb, and what is written upon it. For Balin, it is himself, his heritage, and his aspiration. What shall we inscribe upon the tombs of our lives?

For even as we pass, we leave behind such tombs: half-destroyed books and dusty stones that may only surface a few tantalizing details of what lay behind them. They occur, both between verses and at the song’s final conclusion, and though they may fade, they linger long. And in the end there is only one everlasting book, one stone upon which is etched that which cannot be forgotten. The great Christian hope is to find our names there, in lineage of Christ, and with the title of our deepest aspiration: saint.


2016’s Reflection: “On Finding Oneself Suddenly Faced by Something One Has Never Met Before
2015’s Reflection: “On Being Already Weary

On Simple Learning in Suspicious Days

A Journey in the Dark

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What truths are hidden in desolate lands? (Source)

“Quite simple,” says Gandalf. “Too simple for a learned lore-master in these suspicious days. Those were happier times.” Such is the reaction the revelation of the riddle: mellon, the Elvish word for “friend.” Though dwarvish doors may become permanently closed should their makers forget their keywords, these doors seem to need only a seemingly straightforward and obvious input.

Those were happier times. It is a danger, especially in suspicious days, to glorify the past or cling to nostalgia. But at the doors of Moria such recognition is warranted, for the land is barren, the Elves and Dwarves long gone, the road that brought them together now in ruins. Those days were ones of people and prosperity and unity for those people, and yet out of them came the present threat the Fellowship now carries: the forging of the rings of power, and the betrayal of Sauron. These desolate and empty lands are the priced that was paid for hubris of the Elves. The Ring travels through both its pedigree and its consequence.

In suspicious days, that which was known in the past becomes unknown, but not always by ignorance or forgetting. Instead, that wisdom can be considered irrelevant or unsophisticated for complicated matters: too simple truths for advanced and enlightened days. We live in such times, where much from the past is considered incongruent or impossible in light of our progressive and innovative age. These are suspicious days, where nothing can be trusted: the age of alternate truth and fake news, where all knowledge is accessible to all and yet none of it can be believed. Mellon cannot possible be the answer, but instead we must craft long and complicated solutions.

Yet, we look around. There much good in the world, much improvement, yet there are lands now desolate. There are realms now nearly abandoned and forgotten, where the rocks still cling to the memory of marvelous deeds, where there were once happier days when great wisdom and works were forged. Perhaps it was in greatness that led to that downfall: humans are not immune to prideful craft or delving too deep for the wealth hidden from view. But these realms – of the mind, of the spirit, of the world – have a wisdom in them, lessons that even the most learned lore-master would be wise to heed in suspicious times, lest the doors through which we must travel be permanently shut.

We cannot forget the mistakes of the past, nor pretend as if we live in them. But we also cannot jettison from our memories those “happier times,” when simple truths could be made more easily known. In resisting the temptations of the Elves of Hollin and the Dwarves of Moria we raise up no further Saurons. To defeat the Saurons we already stand against, however, we must relearn the simple truths, the mellons of happier times.


2016’s Reflection: “On Mithril
2015’s Reflection: “On Darkness

On Failing After Having Just Started

The Ring Goes South

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A snowy defeat (Source)

At last, we begin: we have mused and prepared long, gathering companion and equipment alike to set out on our Lenten journey. We have considered the sacrifices to be made, mapped out a course of action for the days ahead, and brought into our council some wise family members or friends to help ensure our success ahead.

And then, having just started, we fail. Like the Fellowship, we may after only a short time try our hand at crossing a hurdle, climbing an obstacle, and it resists us. The snows of frustration build up all around us, and we find little warmth in our memories of how pleasant and profound our Lent would be. We may still have ashes upon our forehead and yet our bums be on the ground. Even with the best intentions – especially with the best intentions – the mountains of our life may defeat us, forcing us to regroup and reconsider matters.

It is not an easy experience to have. Failing after having just started is demoralizing and embarrassing. We give up some addiction only to find ourselves unconsciously in the midst of it. We commit to better relations and kinder words, and immediate a circumstance arises with another that brings out the worst in us. We stretch our arm out, only to pull it back in sudden realization.  We turn away from sin, only to find our sins behind us, waiting for us.

However, we must not give up, even if we fail mere moments after we have started. The road is long, and our hearts are untested. “Let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall,” says Elrond. We are in a strange land, and we like Sam might be quite out of our reckoning. The quest does not end at the mountain pass; the Fellowship will not return to Rivendell. There will be further challenges ahead, some even more dangerous or sorrowful. We must pick ourselves us, recognize our shortcomings, and plot our next step through the Lenten wilderness.

And here is where companionship is key. “Sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,” says Gimli. Many are walking with us, committed to the ultimate goal of the journey: Mt. Doom, Calvary, and what lies beyond them. They are both Men and Elves, both doughty ploughs and swift runners. They have words of encouragement like Aragorn, and draughts of unexpected strength like Gandalf. When the wind howls around us and our burdens seem too great, they can raise us back upon our feet. And perhaps we will do the same for them.

The journey is long, and they are many challenges upon it. We will all fail, whether near the end, having just started, or throughout it. But no mountain pass unscaled is a true loss while there are other roads to tread and strength still in us. The only true failure, when we  do fail, is to turn back and give up entirely.


2016’s Reflection: “On Considerations for an Ending
2015’s Reflection: “On Ashes Upon Our Forehead

On Harboring the Harborless

Lothlórien

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The Flight to Egypt by Eugene-Alexis Girardet (Source)

Had we approached Lothlórien not in winter, but in a different time and season, these lines might have had a different intention. After all, the second corporal work of mercy is now more palpably known as “Sheltering the Homeless,” a goodly if banal moralism swallowed relatively painlessly by donating to a shelter here or voting for affordable housing there. To not have a home is, certainly, a serious concern, and the plight of the homeless should not be disregarded. Yet, however politically unpopular, in this season of Syria and ISIS, of isolationism and Iraq, the looming magnitude of the harborless has reoriented this mercy to its original notion.

I will not recount the overwhelming statistics regarding the migrants from the war-torn regions of the world, for such numbers are impossible for our brains to comprehend. Nor will I linger on a particular story or person from the wandering bands, for such a spotlight is often disingenuous and manipulative. In a time where so frequently the exiles from the Middle East and North Africa appear in the headlines and yet so little is heard or digested, it can be challenging to consider the work of harboring the harborless. So let us instead turn to a new perspective: let us bring our gaze back to Middle-earth.

The Fellowship flees from destruction, darkness, and death, finding itself at the borders of a peaceful yet hidden land. Boromir doubts the way forward, for “by strange paths has this Company been led, and so far to evil fortune.” Yet, as Aragorn notes, there is no other way to safety than to the Golden Wood. Our assorted wanderers encounter the Elves, who are of good heart and yet constrained to aid them, for “it is not our custom to lead strangers through our land.” A portion of this restraint derives from past animosities and fears, for the Elves of Lorien “have not had dealings with the Dwarves since the Dark Days. They are not permitted in our land. I cannot allow him to pass.” Gimli retorts in pride, while Aragorn tries to negotiate a compromise, yet Haldir still grapples with “our law,” for he is “not the master of the law.” Ultimately the Fellowship finds passage and succor through the influence of kinship, kindness, and the intercession of the Lady, and in that moment Haldir, however held back by law, custom, and bias, reveals his true wisdom:

“Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.”

I suspect that very few of us, having read Tolkien’s tome thus far, would decline from welcoming the members of the Fellowship into our homes and communities. Perhaps then we need to look upon the teeming masses of migrants with the eyes of Iluvatar, and see amongst them those familiar figures: the man of hidden leadership and healing; the ancient rivals forced to make peace for the sake of the common good; the young and the small, forced by necessity from the lands that they love; the burdened, who may even carry the fate of us all. If we look out upon the uncountable masses, each person with their own story and fate, we can see Aragorns, Legolases and Gimlis, Merrys and Pippins, even Frodos. The heroes of the many a tale sail the Mediterranean fleeing Moria, or wander the borders of our own Golden Wood. Will we come to their aid?

For we are also upon islands amid many perils, and we all know of shores with shelters we would seek if the shadow comes. While there is much reasonableness in laws and customs, in protecting borders from enemies and ensuring the safe passage of those who enter, there is an orientation of the heart that much change. Whether we harbor the harborless by rooting out our biases, by critiquing harsh laws or unwarranted political plans, or by opening our doors to those who wander, nevertheless we must: always, for each. For once even Jesus fled with his parents to the foreign lands of Egypt, and in every Fellowship there is a Frodo who, by leaving unaided, we bring about great evil upon ourselves.


2015’s Reflection: “On Elanor

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

The Bridge of Khazad-dûm

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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

On Mithril

A Journey in the Dark

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Light as a feather, yet hard as dragon scales (Source)

“The wealth of Moria was not in gold and jewels,” says Gandalf, but instead in the substance whose secret name the Dwarves will never speak: mithril, true-silver, the material of kings. Considering its properties, its value comes as no surprise: malleable and yet impervious, beautiful and yet untarnishable, radiating the light of moon and yet as rare as a fallen star. Elves and dwarves loved it dearly, and all folk desired it, including more foul things. However, it did not take Sauron’s direct influence to manipulate mithril to his ends, for it was the dwarves own desire for the precious substance that led them to delve “too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin’s Bane.”

Precious – another object has been called that before, but not by dwarves. Each race of Middle-earth has its one desire that embodies their frailty and weakness, their common “One Ring.” For the dwarves it is mithril, bringing out their greed. For men it is power, bringing out their folly and fickleness. For the elves it is knowledge, especially that knowledge that would lead them to keep things from fading (especially embodied by the rings of power that they forged), bringing out their pride. The One Ring amplifies each of these longings, which is in part what makes it so tempting to wield. Each material in moderation has its natural beauty and goodness, but each when covetted in excess brings out the worst in created beings. The Ruling Ring simply lays out each desire more starkly.

Ages have passed, and the lands of Middle-earth have been molded beyond recognition, and still there remain deep veins of mithril. These desires allow for great feats and marvels, wonders of great beauty and actions of great benefit for all. Yet each also temptingly leads to folly. The resources and energy of the earth power our communities and raise women and men out of poverty and need, and yet bring out our greed, rousing up ecological disasters that rival the likes of Durin’s Bane. The goods we produce empower men in their abundance, yet such wanton consumerism brings out man’s folly and fickleness, casting aside fellow human beings as unproductive and insignificant garbage. Scientific accomplishments and technological progress, especially the knowledge that would lead us to keep things from fading (embodied perhaps best by the digital domains we craft), allow us to create new worlds in our image. Yet such knowledge brings out our pride, corrupting the very features that ground us in the world and make us human. We are not so different from dwarves and ancient men and elves.

Though such musing often trend toward global considerations, each of us individually too possess mithril, tempting us towards excess. Lent offers the opportunity to think seriously on the mithril in our own lives: the beautiful and good things that in their abundance or unchecked expression lead to our ruin and the ruin of others. We all possess that secret longing or desire that we dare not name too loudly: every man and woman holds in their mind a treasure sought for which we can possibly delve too deep. No mithril, however marvelous, is worth our own destruction.


2015’s Reflection: “On Darkness