On Temptation and Good Sense

The Breaking of the Fellowship

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The weighing of such things (Source)

In these pages we have stark contrast between Boromir the man and Samwise the hobbit. Their differences seem obvious: strong vs timid, proud vs humble, traveler vs local, independent vs follower. Yet on the slopes of the great river we see other aspects arise: the moral collapse of Boromir vs the sturdy loyalty of Sam. We observe Boromir’s fall into temptation, and Sam’s rise into good sense.

We have noted slow hints of the unfolding of Boromir’s mind, all the way back at the Council of Elrond. His pride has ever been on display, but so has his valor, and his sense of duty and commitment to protecting the Fellowship. He is a leader of men who is neither the first nor second commander of this Fellowship, and it clearly stings him to see his advice and perspective so often disregarded. Yet, it was not until he entered the secret woods and met the Lady Galadriel that a sudden change seemed to take place in him: the muttering, the nail-biting, the unshakeable concern. Was this the natural conclusion of the Fellowship’s continued approach to Minas Tirith? Or did the examination of the Elven queen break something inside of Boromir? Or, to think of it another way: was the fall of Boromir inevitable?

In his temptation, we glean interesting insights from observation and word. The justifications he uses; the arguments he makes; the see-sawing between friendly support and bitter resentment: these things are both like and unlike Boromir. They are aspects of his personality, deep-rooted. Yet they are also not in his nature, and in his image of himself as a man of Gondor, one who does not lie, or harm those in need of protection, or abandon his task.

Compare, then, the man with the hobbit. Sam may be young and out of his league, but what he does know he knows well. He knows his master better than Frodo knows himself: he understands what Frodo cannot put into words, and can therefore predict both before and during the breaking of the Fellowship what will unfold. And though Sam is both timid and weak, he nevertheless is both stout and brave, especially when it comes to the things he cares most about: the Shire, his Gaffer, Frodo. He dives after the boat (a vessel for which he has no liking) into water in which he cannot swim: he cannot know for sure that Frodo will save him. Yet, that’s where his good sense gets him: on a seemingly one-way journey to Mt. Doom.

What is there for us in these ends of both Boromir and Sam? Much, as there normally is, and things that cannot be addressed in full here: the choosing of the straight road over the easy one, the tragic dissent of a man weighed with much, the need for proper swim classes in the Shire. Yet, perhaps, we may note two things. First, Boromir shows us that what we consider our strengths may often times also be our greatest temptations. Second, Sam shows us that in moments of weakness and crises, pausing to let good sense guide us may help us obtain our goal. And as the Fellowship breaks, and the Fellowships of the Ring ends, these are simple yet valuable lessons to learn.


2016’s Reflection: “On News from the Seat of Seeing
2015’s Reflection: “On Sundering

On the Likenesses of the Kings of Old

The Great River

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Behold, the likenesses of the kings of old (Source)

There are some places that bring out a different side of a particular person experiencing them. An alumnus returning his alma mater and revisiting his old stomping grounds. A woman coming upon her hometown after a long period away. A dreamer who visits an exotic land often imagined but never seen with naked eye. The change in the person can take varying from: some combination of awe, excitement, nostalgia, and overwhelmedness. Yet, at the core, it is frequently a sense of fulfillment, of authentic living, of a part of oneself long hidden or unknown that the places bring back out into the sunlight. That aspect was always present in the person, but it took the location to surface it for observation by both self and others.

The Argonath is that location for Aragorn. As Frodo notes, under the shadows of these intimidating pillars Aragorn’s voice becomes strange, and though it is the same Ranger from the North sitting in the boat with him, in this place his form has changed: erect, proud, skillful, with a light in his eyes, kingly. It is implied that he has never seen this place before (he is unfamiliar with the river at this point, and he mentions his long-desire to see the Pillars of the Kings), but this is a location that has lingered in his dream nevertheless. It is a location that holds both his heritage and his future. It is a place of both inspiration and challenge. It is a feature of both passion and reflection. Though Aragorn has never seen the Argonath, it is nevertheless a place he is all too familiar with, and it has meaning because of that; Frodo, perhaps, has and will have a similar relationship with the Sea that he has never seen.

We who have been nourished by the stories of the Bible can also recall such places of unveiling: the locations of the Burning Bush, for example, or of the Transfiguration, or of the Last Supper. At each of these places occurred a moment of historic revelation, of a clear unveiling of some true thing. Yet in the likenesses of these places is their still power, for though most of us will never know these locations with our waking eyes, yet they still hold sway over our thoughts. They are like our Argonath, and we hold such a desire to look upon the likenesses of our ancestors and the kings of old. What Jew has not wondered at the overpowering sensation of taking off one’s sales before the living fire of God? What Christian has not meditating on how he or she would have responded had Moses and Elijah appeared alongside the Transfigured Christ? What Catholic, not to exclude any others, has not dared to dream to stand in the shadows of that first Eucharist, and in the awe and wonder of that location found nothing to dread?

Place has purpose and meaning. Even when the events that transpired there have long since passed, the rocks and stones remember. It is why pilgrimages are popular, and why holy sites hold such sway over us. It is why a woman loves her hometown, a man his alma mater. It is why even having never seen a place before they can appear so real in our dreams and desires. And in such locations we can be transformed, and in gazing upon the likenesses of the kings of old, we too can feel like exiles return at last to our own lands.


2016’s Reflection: “On Drudgery and Dreariness
2015’s Reflection: “On the Passing of Time

On Time and Timeless Longings

Farewell to Lórien

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“There long the golden leaves have grown upon the branching years” (Source)

There is something strange about time in the woods of Lórien. We know that time doesn’t seem to pass while in the Elven realm, a trait it shares in part with Rivendell and may be a feature of Galadriel’s ring of power. It is is winter in the outside world when the Fellowship makes its way into Lothlórien, and so when Legolas and Haldir note with disappointment that they shall not see the golden mallorn in their fullness, we do not think twice about it. But then Galadriel says that  the spring and summer have fully passed, not only for Lórien, but for the Elves as a whole. What is Tolkien trying to say about time?

Some of the allusions made in Lothlórien appear hidden in the two songs Galadriel sings, though they require a bit of knowledge about the history of the Elves that Tolkien notes elsewhere. Long ago, after the Elves first awoke in Middle-earth, they were led by the great angelic forces of the world west across the Sea to Valinor, an Eden-like paradise. There the first mallorn trees grew, in imitation of the Trees of Light, which were among the most beautiful objects ever brought into being. But after the Trees were destroyed and the Silmarils, jewels that held within the last light of those Trees, were stolen, many Elves left Valinor on a journey of revenge, and Galadriel was among them. But in their angry haste that set themselves apart from their kin and from their home, and the way back to Valinor was closed off, seemingly forever.

So now, beyond the Sundering Seas the Elves now rest, and watch as the beautiful things they create pass and fade, even though they in their immortality linger. While the Elf-realms were once great and fair, the Elves cannot hold back time forever, and so the leaves fall, winter comes at last, and even should the Fellowship succeed, nothing will stop the world from changing. And though the Elves long to return to Valinor and to the Elven-homes, there is a problem: even when the rare ship can set sail across the Sea, there is a chance that they will not be welcomed back. This is especially true for the most willful leaders of the original company that left, which includes Galadriel. Will a ship be able to take her back? Will the powers that she once scorned accept her once again?

Galadriel, then, and all the Elves, are trapped between time and timeless longings. They love the beauty of the world, the good things that have been able to create in Middle-earth, but immortality weighs on them, and they long for their once home. That is why the Sea has such an appeal to Haldir, even though he has never seen it. It is why Celeborn must drink the cup of passing, though he may never see his realm as fair again. And it is why Galadriel’s songs are full of beauty and of sorrow, of memory of beautiful lands long-lost and of the hopeful promise that one day she might find Valinor again.

What do Elven songs and concerns have to do with us? We may not be Elves, and our history might diverge from theirs, but we too are caught between time and timeless longings. We at times can wonder in our own creation, but we often see it fade in front of us, or recognize its passing that shall occur when we are gone. We too long for long lands, and wonder whether we will be welcomed back: is there something beyond the Sea of our life, and will we find a home there? And perhaps, in these challenging times, we feel that Winter has come at least, and Spring and Summer will only be a memory from now on. In those moments of profound sadness, when we reflect on time and timeless longings, we can take up Galadriel’s song as our own:

“I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew…”


2016’s Reflection: “On Feeding the Hungry
2015’s Reflection: “On the Gift of Three Golden Hairs

On Remaining Who We Truly Are

The Mirror of Galadriel

By Molly Egilsrud

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What shall we become otherwise become? (Source)

Why didn’t Galadriel take the Ring? It was offered to her willingly. Isn’t she more fit to wield it than a wandering hobbit? Unlike Gandalf and Elrond she would not be a Dark Lord, but rather a Queen. She has clearly pondered and looked long into her own mirror, imagining what she would be like with the One Ring, wishing to be a queen so beautiful that “all shall love [her] and despair.”

But when offered, when finally actually tempted, she refuses. “I pass the test. I will diminish and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.” She understands that the glimpse we see of the evil Queen is not her real self. If she took the ring, she would lose not only her autonomy, but her identity. Sure she would start by helping the good people of the world like Sam and the Old Gaffer, but before long she would answer only to the darkness and so be transformed into someone even she wouldn’t recognize.

This not say that it is easy or without sacrifice. Tolkien tells us that Galadriel says those words sadly. She understands that in order to remain herself, the beautiful things she has created must fade and she too must eventually go West. Moreover, she must give up the vision of everyone worshipping her beauty and of being stronger than the foundations of the Earth. But in this sacrifice, she will actually do more to protect the good and free people of Middle Earth. Of course, Frodo may have failed in his journey to Mount Doom, but he would certainly fail if she accepted the Ring.

In this way, Galadriel is not the “biggest tease this side of the Misty Mountains” as previously alleged by this blog, but may have a little bit of wisdom for us Lenten wanders as well, no mirror required. It is so easy for us to think the sins we feel trapped in or the vices we secretly aspire to are our true selves. But really, only when we cast these aside do we find ourselves. Then hopefully we have the joy of discovering that we are better, more selfless, gentler people than we had ever dared hope. But in order to do this, we must make peace with the reality that some of our grand dreams will not come to fruition and that we cannot desperately try to keep everything good and beautiful in our lives the same. Our own Lothlóriens will also fade, but to remain ourselves, we must die to ourselves. Only then can we keep evil people from digging up Bagshot Row.


2016’s Reflection: “On Love
2015’s Reflection: “On What Even the Wisest Cannot Tell

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