On Shrove Tuesday

The Council of Elrond


So delectable you may need shriving thereafter (Source)

Today goes by many names: Pancake Day, Carnival, and perhaps most famously and well-known today, Mardi Gras. However, as a broad concept for a date, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and the final day before Lent is called Shrove Tuesday, the concluding day of the historic liturgical season of Shrovetide. It is a period of self-reflection before the penitential season, and a day of celebration, particularly around food. Communities would indulge heavily in butters, other fats, and sweets to rid their homes of them in preparation for the fasting and abstinence of Lent. In fact, the continual associate of Shrove Tuesday with victuals, a connection that seems to cross both borders and cultures, can make us feel like Bilbo at the Council of Elrond, wondering why we need so much discussion and contemplation before we make for our next meal.

Yet though perhaps many in New Orleans today prepare vigilantly for Mardi Gras and sleep through Ash Wednesday, and though perhaps Pancake Day has taken on a life of its own across the old British Commonwealth, yet it is worth recalling that Shrove Tuesday is only indirectly connected to donuts and chocolate. The term shrove is a derivative of the now-archaic English word shrive, which means “the act of a priest hearing confession and granting absolution.” How marvelous language can be in its succinctness, and what paucity we have of it in the modern era, where Google attempts to auto-correct this fascinating word to the name of a certain prolific political family!

At the Council of Elrond, there has already been much feasting, and more food and celebration will come before the Fellowship must depart: for the wise recognize how lean and challenging the road ahead will be, and how many simple pleasures will need to be sacrificed to reach the slopes of Mt. Doom. However, the Council of Elrond is much more than that: it is a period of instruction, of unveiling ancient history, and of shriving. Bilbo asks pardon for the misleading nature of his original account of the finding of the Ring. Gloin slowly reveals the true reason behind the taking of Moria. Legolas wishes the council to not find true fault in the Elves of Mirkwood for the escape of Gollum. And Gandalf seeks to absolve his absence, so that their (and especially Frodo’s) trust in him may not have been in vain.

Amidst the colorful and festive activity of this day, perhaps, there is an opportunity to imitate the members of the Council of Elrond. On one hand, perhaps we make time for an actual Confession, and set ourselves aright in front of both God and man before Lent begins. On the other hand, perhaps we take the time to reflect on the stories of our accounts. These may be sins at times, but they can also be something more uncomfortably gray. Have I, like Bilbo, misled myself or others in understanding who I truly am? Have I, like Gloin, held back the deeper reason that drives my daily actions? Have I, like Legolas, doubted myself for investing too much kindness into an ungrateful other? Have I, like Gandalf, found myself in unforeseen circumstances that require explanation to those with whom I have relationships?

There is much to be considered, and long days ahead. So have a pancake, donut, or other sweet today, but do so knowing that we must tighten our belts tomorrow.  

2016’s Reflection: “On Instructing the Ignorant
2015’s Reflection: “On the Long Strands of History


On Transparency

Many Meetings


“Like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can” (Source)

We have reached Rivendell, and all is peace and quiet for the moment. In the House of Elrond is time and space for rest, and reflection, and healing, especially for our brave hobbit Frodo, who has suffered so much since setting out from the Shire. The Old Forest, the Barrow, the Prancing Pony, Weathertop: all have left Frodo exhausted, both physically and mentally, and injured to various degrees.

Under the masterful art of Elrond and Gandalf Frodo now can recover, but not fully. As Gandalf sees, “There seemed to be little wrong with him. But to the wizard’s eye there was a faint change, just a hint as it were of transparency, about him, and especially about the left hand that lay outside upon the coverlet.” Gandalf further wonders whether Frodo “may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can.”

Curious remarks, and words perhaps obtuse. Without spoiling the unfolding story ahead, this “feature” of Frodo’s transformed body – this transparency, this unnatural nature of his left hand – does not reappear, either as a surprising aid in danger or as a major point of reflection. Certainly Frodo’s wound from the Black Rider will resurface, and he recall it (and that of another injury) on the anniversary of its occurrence every year he remains in the lands of Middle-earth. Yet what is the interest in the “transparency” of Frodo, and what insight does it dig up for us?

First, Frodo’s transparency is a reminder. Frodo should not have survived his encounter with the Black Rider, for he was foolish, and a combination of his own unknown strength and the aid of Elves and men barely allowed him to reach Rivendell in time. Should Frodo have succumbed to this evil poison, he would have become, as Gandalf notes, a lesser wraith: entirely transparent to the physical world, without form and substance and will. Great and perilous moments leave us not unchanged, and injuries received from them never fully heal: even when we are by all accounts cured, we carry the scars of them with us, reminders of evils and burdens borne. The end of such painful reminders may not occur here and now, but instead may dwell beyond the circles of this world.

Second, Frodo’s transparency is nearly imperceptible. Only the wisest and keenest of eye may notice it. This is certainly true of Gandalf in his otherworldly power, and though it is not explicit, perhaps it is true of the fond love of Sam, who in rushing into Frodo’s room immediately grabs his left hand, studies it, and calls out its return to warmth. There are injuries and changes that are almost unnoticeable to the naked eye, transformations that cannot be perceived by the physical senses, alterations to the soul, for good or evil. A patient and discerning eye is necessary to recognizing these subtle movements, a trait highly valued in spiritual directors and counselors.

Finally, Frodo’s transparency is just that: transparency. It is not as much a “thing” as a “not-thing”, not as much a new state of being then a state of absences. Frodo’s wound has left him open to be filled, filled with something that may take him to an end unforeseen even to the wise. The light that passes through Frodo’s transparency becomes something unexpectedly beautiful: a “potentiality,” a reflection slowly unveiled, a person to behold. In that, Tolkien points us to pay special attention to Frodo over the pages ahead. For over the course of the adventure not yet halfway through, we should not forget Frodo’s lingering transparency, the remainder of his wound: for we are fortunate enough to see it with an aided eye, and learn from it something just out of sight about the oft-veiled soul.

2016’s Reflection: “On Sheep and Other Sheep
2015’s Reflection: “On the Last Homely House East of the Sea

On the Black Pursuit

A Knife in the Dark & Flight to the Ford


Long is the expanse over which runs the black pursuit (Source)

Throughout the opening pages and first days of our journey they have pursued us: the Nine, the Black Riders, the servants of the Enemy. Their true nature is not yet known to us, but no explanation will truly unveil their forgotten origin and mysterious form. Such things are of little concern right now, for they are tracking us, hunting us across the wilds of the world, seeking to capture us and take us to where we wish not to go. For though not borne by black horses or cloaked in dark garb, the Nine are present in our own world, and we too are their target.

Like Frodo, we never expected to be caught up with them. We believed that we could have peace and quiet without concern for the bigger things; we thought we were too small and insignificant for their eyes. Yet our heritage has left us with both a burden and a treasure: a burden that draws them to us, a treasure they seek to take and use for their own nefarious purposes. We cannot ignore the servants of the Enemy, nor can we hide from them. Instead, we must flee them, we must resist them, until we can gather around us the strength of will and fellowship to drive them off.

Like Frodo, we have been wounded by them. Often we have been pierced by their daggers, and left un-whole. The weapons of the servants of the Enemy are diabolical and laden with foul concoctions, and therefore our wounds seem to not truly heal. The effects linger with us: with guilt and with sorrow, with weakness and with separation, with senses of worthlessness, temptation, obliviousness, self-justification. We carry the scars of our encounters, and the world seems more gray because of them. And while we can try to ease the pain, we seem to know no remedy for them.

Like Frodo, it all seems hopeless with them. The servants of the Enemy are too great for us. They will try to silence us, and we must not let them. They will break our weapons, but we must stand our ground. They will command us to resist no more, and the temptation will be there, at times too strong for our weak wills. In those darkest of hours we must have faith that there are things greater than ourselves, and the beyond our wildest dream will come the floods of the ford to wash the Black Riders away from us once more.

For truly, whether they are of physical or spiritual nature, of lesser or greater power, coming from within or without, they are here: we must not delude ourselves into thinking there are no servants of the Enemy. The burden of sin draws evil to us and into our communities, seeking to take from us our greatest treasure: our souls, our very selves, the gift of the image and likeness of God. Both in our resisting and in our shortcomings we take damage from them, and they shall never stop hunting us. Yet there remains hope, even in the darkest of days. There may yet be ancient healing in the House of Rivendell, in the church confessional. There may yet be fortifying substance in the elven flask, in the eucharist. There may be yet power to resist them ever in those that will not bow to the lord of Mordor.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Name of a Woman
2015’s Reflection: “On the Wilderness

On That Which Looks Foul and Feels Fair

At the Sign of the Prancing Pony & Strider


Strider (Source)

“You have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way that servants of the Enemy would,” says Frodo. “I think one of his spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand me.” We pause: do we understand Frodo here? Do we recognize the nature of that which looks foul and feels fair? It is an easy note of observation, but a harder kernel of wisdom.

Appearances deceive: that is common wisdom enough. Sometimes the heart senses better than the head: that too is oft-said, though perhaps with some reservation. Yet appearances are deeper than skin-deep, and the heart must be trained as much as the head. Might not a true servant of the Enemy “play the meta” to deceive us even further, or appear not a fair, but as known, or comfortable, or obvious? Might not the heart, encumbered with fear or discouraged by hardship, find it easy to look past misgivings and unsettled, unexplainable concerns?

Strider, perhaps, is not best understood by first glance or first interaction, but instead by the verses now known to go with his true name:

“All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost;
From the ashes a fire shall be woken, A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken, The crownless again shall be king.”

There is power in these words, and food for mind and soul. Gold can be hidden under grime and muck. Age does not correlate directly with decay. These are verses of promise, of hope that no shadow can ever completely overpower the light, and that the true Eternal Flame remains burning even if only in the potential of the ashy remains. They are lines of confidence in the return of the king, both in the pages of the story and beyond.

As we near approach Lent, they are verses that resonate so well. For we who walk the Lenten road likely will amass little glittering riches in this life, but hope to store up a different kind of gold elsewhere. We who walk the Lenten road are a wandering people, with no true home here to rest our heads, but we are not lost, for we know where we long to go. We that have aged in faith will find little that withers us at our core as time passes on, and we that have put down roots in charity will find succor amidst the stormy blasts that may come our way. Ashes soon will be on our forehead as we walk into a period of shadow, walking to rekindle the flame of Baptism and with an eye on the light of Easter. And though the blades of this world – the powers of politics and government, markets and production, culture and community, justice and peace – are broken all around us, there remains only one true King of all.

Yet, in our present moment, and in our present state, there is much that will look both foul and fair, and our discerning feeling may seem overwhelmed with uncertainty. In the most unexpected places we might find those who frighten us, but not as the Enemy does: instead, they bring forth truth and goodness and a deeper form of beauty, a reality which so starkly strikes us to our core. So let us be not afraid, and welcome in the Striders of our lives, when we are fortunate to find them on our journey ahead.

2016’s Reflection: “On Barliman Butterbur
2015’s Reflection: “On the Problems of the Man in the Moon

On Boundaries

In the House of Tom Bombadil & Fog on the Barrow Downs


A fence for reflection (Source)

The verb “deacon” is one of peculiar history. Though most naturally associated with its noun equivalent that signifies a Christian minister below a priest, the verb also has a seeming contradictory meaning (at least in tone) from the annals of American and English informal slang. To “deacon” was to water down liquor, or to hide a bad crop by putting the few attractive goods on top of the pile. But perhaps most interesting, a final use was “to filch by gradually extending boundaries or territorial lines.” A farmer who went out to plow his land after a long winter and felt that the stone boundaries that demarcated his land from his neighbor were noticeably nearer to his homestead might condemn the greedy man of deaconing. Let us hope to never be accused of such a perfidious deed!

Tom Bombadil, certainly, is one who would never been charged with the act of deaconing. He knows where are his boundaries: “Tom’s country ends here: he will not pass the borders.” Within the bounds that he has set, Tom is the Master; beyond those lines, marked on land or in mind, “my knowledge fails [for] Tom is not Master of Riders from the Black Land far beyond his country.” Within his land, Tom’s power is great: he recalls the past ages easily, he commands tree and rock and barrow, and he even negates the cloaking nature of the Ring. Outside his land, Tom shows little interest, seemingly unconcerned about potentially disastrous fate of Middle-earth should the Ring fall into the Dark Lord’s hand. Perhaps once Tom’s borders did change, but in a way quite the opposite of deaconing, for his boundaries have shrunk over the passing years, to a little patch of land in the Old Forest.

It is hard to know what to make of Tom, and what to learn from his brief appearance in our story. Tolkien himself wasn’t sure of who Tom was or how he stumbled into our hobbits’ journey. He is a person so selfless and contented that the Ring holds no tempting sway over him. Yet his boundaries and his limited concerns seem to run up against the wisdom that both Gildor and Gandalf shared, that one cannot fence the world off and ignore the fate of those around you. Should the reader therefore imitate Tom or reject him?

Perhaps, as with many things, the insights of Tom Bombadil are deeper and require reflection. For Tom does not lay down his borders as you or I might try. Tom may be the Master, but he is not the Owner: each thing within his bounds belongs to itself, for (as Goldberry relates) ownership would be a dreadful burden. Nor is Tom ignorant of what happens beyond his borders: he is aware of the hobbits’ families and journey, and whether by message of Farmer Maggot or the elves has been awaiting their coming. Nor is Tom heartless of things beyond himself: for he holds the memories of kingdoms of both nature and men now passed, and in remembering and relaying them, honors them in a mysterious way. “Fair was she who long ago wore this on her shoulder. Goldberry shall wear it now, and we will not forget her!”

Maybe, then, there is wisdom then in the strange resident of the Old Forest: to set out borders and master them instead of seeking ways to deacon more. In both our communities and our souls there is temptation for more, a seduction that must be rejected. Tom’s approach is the far better path: a mastery that brings out our true authentic self and aiding those without hesitation who should stumble within our bounds.

2016’s Reflection: “On Clothing the Naked
2015’s Reflection: “On One Whose Boots Are Yellow

On Songs Which I Have Never Heard

A Conspiracy Unmasked & The Old Forest


Word and note reunited (Source)

A small confession: I have almost always, as a habit, skimmed and skipped over block text. Long quoted sections, those over a couple of sentences and especially in academic works, seem to always explain the context in the preceding sentence and summarize the point in the following line. Only a really engaging book, or a quote from an author I knew well, convinces me to endure the set-aside section. And what is true with blocks is also true with ballads: songs and poetry within fiction infrequently garner my attention, even in books that I love.

It was for that reason that I considered listening to The Lord of the Rings instead of rereading it. And over the days that have followed we have heard quite a few songs and no less poems. And in them, I had a shock: for these were not the melodies I was expecting. Instead of slow, dramatic, and intentional, the cadences were quick, light, and sing-songy. The meters were different, and the tunes just off enough to force me to ponder. Not only was I lingering on the lyrics, but really hearing them for the first time.

Perhaps it was to be expected, given that in Tolkien’s work no musical stanzas appear alongside the words of the poems (and given how little knowledge or experience I have with musicology). Yet the stark difference in tone was startlingly: compare this narrated interpretation by Robert Inglis of “Ah Elbereth Gilthoniel” with the films’ versions of “The Lonely Mountain Song” or “Edge of Night” (which arguably is an interpretation anyway). The films have taken some clear liberties, but it is interesting to reflect on the overall character of the songs: do the darker, more mysterious, more unraveling natures of the modern renditions reflect something of our own contemporary tastes and styles?

Comparisons aside, the kernel remains the same: these poems of Bilbo and Frodo, these songs of Bombadil and River-daughter, were words I had never heard sung before. And truly, because of their lack of melody and tune, I had not really understood or appreciated them. They flowed, as all words due, over the contours of my mind to reveal the narrative’s unfolding picture. As they contributed little to the actual direction of the plot, however, they left little impact. However, taken in with the sense of hearing, not sight, the poems have not coursed over, but instead have sunk deep. They shape not the mind’s riverbed but instead fill the mind’s recesses. They don’t take our boat down to our ultimate conclusion – the Sea, the Sea! – but instead create little ponds and oases for us to savor and enjoy.

Now I am, as Samwise would say, talking poetry. Yet in an era where poems are often political and rarely proletarian, where concerts are common but walking songs are hard to come by, it brings me pause to hear songs which I have never heard sung. I wonder what else has passed without remnant through the passages of my mind.

2016’s Reflection: “On the Inquisitiveness of Friends
2015’s Reflection: “On Fredegar Bolger

On the Hopes of the Passing People

Three’s Company & A Short Cut to Mushrooms


“The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel” by Louis Daguerre (Source)

The Lord of the Rings is a story about the passing of things. Even before we reach the outskirts of the Shire’s borders do we witness the unfolding of that core theme.

Sam is passing: passing through the Shire, passing outside his small known world and into the great unknown. His hope? “What about the Elves? Can’t we go and see them?” Sam obtains his desire and more beyond it: an evening celebration with the Fair Folk, featuring song and food and merriment. Though such a small experience in the grand unraveling of the story, it nevertheless remains a chief event of Sam’s life, one surpassing words and memories to recall.

Frodo too is passing: passing out of the Shire, passing far from comfort and into a dangerous world. His hope? “I should like to save the Shire, if I could.” Frodo must sacrifice almost everything he has – home, material goods, community, even seemingly all his friends but one – to prevent danger from causing those things harm. In this passing, he portends that he may never see those sources of joy again, and it leaves him bittersweet. For though they are his loss, he finds comforting resolve in knowing they remain safe.

And Gildor is passing: passing, as with all the Elves, beyond Middle-earth, passing into legend and story. No one owns the world, and truly all things pass: “others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more.” The Wandering Companies pass in and out of this tale, and linger not long, for they “have their own labours and their own sorrows.” Yet as the Elves prepare to depart these shores, they find surprise delight in the simple ways of these hobbits. Gildor’s unexpected hope? “It is fair to hear words of the Ancient Speech from the lips of other wanderers in the world.” The Elf gains a glimpse of something he loves – the high language that can speak the name of Elbereth – remaining in the minds and hearts of others, even after he has gone.

The Lord of the Rings is a story about the passing of things. It is a chief reason why it resonates so well with us, and why the Lenten season evokes it. For our lives are ones of passing, and in Sam, Frodo, and Gildor, we can uncover some unknown hopes. Though passing, we can hope to experience those great desires we foster, even though they may happen at small, unexpected times that we cannot truly recollect. Though passing, we can hope that our actions help preserve our Shires, whatever they might be, from harm. And though passing, we can hope that some lovely things might long endure to cause delight, even in ways and with those we do not expect. The world’s passing brings all things to ruin, but even in their ruin can they inspire wonder and delight.

Such are the hopes of the passing people. Such are the hopes of all who pass.

2016’s Reflection: “On Mercy
2015’s Reflection: “On Mushrooms