The Year of St. Joseph

The Choices of Master Samwise

Editor’s Note: Apologies for the delay in publishing, which was caused by unexpected medical complications.

In today’s Lord of the Ring’s passage we read:

‘No, it’s sit here till they come and kill me over master’s body, and gets It; or take It and go.’ Sam drew a deep breath. ‘Then take It, it is!'”

And in today’s Scripture we hear:

Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.” (Matthew 1:18-21, 24)

It is the Solemnity of St. Joseph during the Year of St. Joseph–therefore, consider St. Joseph. The Husband of Mary, the Foster Father of Jesus, Joseph says speaks no words in all of Scripture, and performs few deeds: accepting Mary, traveling to Bethlehem, finding Jesus in the Temple. What then do we learn from him? The profundity of holy anonymity. The wonder of playing one’s part in the divine plan, however small it seems. And also, the nature of intention. Joseph, like Sam, choose there course of actions as righteous people; it took a sign from above, whether delivered by orcs or angels, to help them forge a different way. The original intention matters: Sam prevents the Enemy from finding the Ring, Joseph preserves the links between the Old and New Law. But when presented with another path, Joseph and Sam both change, out of love for someone else. During this Year of St. Joseph, may we always pursue the best intentions, but always be willing to give more for those we love.

Want to Read More?
Year A: On One’s Own Folly and Acknowledging Our Grief
Year B: On Choice
Year C: On the Enigmatic Empathy for the Forces of the Enemy and Mistakes Were Made

Along Came a Spider

Shelob’s Lair

Editor’s Note: Apologies for the delay in publishing, which was caused by unexpected medical complications.

In today’s Lord of the Rings passage we read:

Already, years before, Gollum had beheld her, Sméagol who pried into all dark holes, and in past days he had bowed and worshipped her, and the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret.”

And in today’s Scripture we hear:

The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down at once to your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved. They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”‘” (Exodus 32:7-8)

There are gods and there is God. The act of worshipping something other than God–of crafting an idol, whether physically, relationally, or immaterially–is not a simple matter. To worship is not just to mutter words or perform rituals: it is to hold something above all other things, to make it the pinnacle of your attention, to sacrifice everything for its sake. When along comes a spider, or a serpent, or an errant thought, we might think we gain something more from the “partnership” than what we had gained with the God who is God. But it is never so: the false idols of both old and new ever promise but never fulfill, and instead of freedom, they limit our minds, our intentions, and our ways. Wealth, fame, power, scientific knowledge, equality–we must reject these when they become idols. We must destroy the molten calves of our lives, lest we to lose sight of the light.

Want to Read More?
Year A: On the Holding of Hands and The Lamp
Year B: On Waves, Arachnids, and That Which Haunts Our Steps
Year C: On Light and Be Not Afraid

St. Patrick’s Day

The Stairs of Cirith Ungol

In today’s Lord of the Rings passage we read:

Overcome with weakness Frodo wept. And still the host of Morgul crossed the bridge. […] Sam was urgent. ‘Wake up, Mr. Frodo! They’re gone.'”

And in today’s Scripture we hear:

Be serious and sober-minded so that you will be able to pray. Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” (1 Peter 4: 7-10)

There’s a great irony, perhaps intentionally arranged, that the readings for the Feast of St. Patrick should open with a call for sober-mindedness. The modern celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is anything but serious and sober, nor does it really call to mind any of the great virtues or deeds St. Patrick is known for. Where is the resolve to enter hostile territory and serve among skeptical people? Where is the spirit of evangelization and teaching? Where is the intense love, hospitality, and stewardship that allows for wonders to take place? They are cast aside, replaced with an unbalanced focused on excess and imbibing. There is much to celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day–the great legacy of the Irish is worthy of much joy–and this year in particular, as the pandemic seems to have nearly run the worst of its course. But we must also consider the legacy of St. Patrick and the other side of the Shamrock: the snakes and the Cross, the long labors and the eternal glory.

Want to Read More?
Year A: On a Place Wretched and Foul and Saying Yes to the Adventure
Year B: On the Sadness of Losing a Soul
Year C: On the Great Tales that Never End and The Allure of Evil

Water We Can Drink

Journey to the Crossroads

In today’s Lord of the Rings passage we read:

Faramir said, ‘You will have no lack of water as you walk in Ithilien, but do not drink of any stream that flows from Imlad Morgul, the valley of Living Death.'”

And in today’s Scripture we hear:

The angel said to me, ‘This water flows out into the eastern district, runs down into the Arabah and empties into the polluted waters of the sea to freshen them. Wherever it flows, the river teems with every kind of living creature; fish will abound. Where these waters flow they refresh; everything lives where the river goes.'” (Ezekiel 47:8-9)

From here until the end of our quest with Frodo and Sam, water will serve as an important motif. When water is abundant the hobbits are safe; when it is lacking they will be in danger. The discovery of water in unexpecting places will be a sign of hope and encouragement; the loss of their precious stores of water will be a moment of discouragement and fear. And there is also the unexpected water, the counter-water, that water of Imlad Morgul which is a mockery of the substance: where real water causes life and refreshes, and water tainted by the corrupt tower cause death and festering. As the Ring grows more heavy and the journey becomes more perilous, more and more the hobbits will not concern themselves with lofty musings and grand considerations: instead, they will focus on necessity, on perseverance, on where they can next find water to drink. Water in its abundance we underappreciate; in the desert we realize its value. Let us then reflect upon water and ourselves–on hope and discouragement, on life and corruption, on the sea and the desert–and then seek out the water we can drink.

Past Reflections
Year A: On Staves and Staffs and Though All Seems Lost
Year B: On Letters and the Truth in Stories
Year C: On Distinctions between Books and Movies and The Paths We Choose

The Proper Protocols of Mercy

The Forbidden Pool

In today’s Lord of the Rings passage we read:

Sam sighed audibly; and not at the courtesies, of which, as any hobbit would, he thoroughly approved. Indeed in the Shire such a matter would have required a great many more words and bows.”

And in today’s Scripture we hear:

Now there was a royal official whose son was ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, who was near death. Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe.’ The royal official said to him, ‘Sir, come down before my child dies.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You may go; your son will live. ‘The man believed what Jesus said to him and left. While the man was on his way back, his slaves met him and told him that his boy would live. (John 4: 46-51)

In our informal society, such extensive formalities as those performed by Faramir and Frodo (and further alluded to by Sam) can seem out of place. And they can be the barrier to greater justice and mercy when the signs of the protocols become more important than the act they carry–when the people want a sign more than they want the consequence of the sign. But formal protocols and rituals exist because of the weight they carry: they make it clear that the activity–a rendering of judgement, a passing of doom, a mechanism of mercy–exists outside of ordinary time and the bounds and limitations of ordinary existence. When we lack the authority and sheer faith-inspiring presence of the Messiah Himself, the proper protocols help ground us outside ourselves. As long as we don’t allow the signs to overshadow the act itself, they can be of use to us.

Want to Read More?
Year A: On a Trial and The Malady and the Remedy
Year B: On Faramir, Captain of Gondor
Year C: On the Bitter Realization of the Doom of Another and Things That Are Forbidden

A Break in the Trial

The Window in the West

In today’s Lord of the Rings passage we read:

After so long journeying and camping, and days spent in the lonely wild, the evening meal seemed a feast to the hobbits: to drink pale yellow wine, cool and fragrant, and eat bread and butter, and salted meats, and dried fruits, and good red cheese, with clean hands and clean knives and plates.”

And in today’s liturgy we hear:

“Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.” (Entrance Antiphon)

On Laetare Sunday, we rest amidst our Lenten journey: we take the time to focus on joy and exultation instead of penance and mourning. We dine and discuss with Frodo and Sam, taking advantage of long-forgotten comforts and relative safety. But we do not rest because the pilgrimage is over, or because our journey is any less urgent. For there is wisdom to be gained from the well-studied Faramir, and planning to be done with new intelligence and perspective. And there is great benefit to be reminded of the pale yellow wine, the bread and butter, and the good red cheese of our own lives: the things we are fighting for, the things that sustain us. On Laetare Sunday we rejoice and rest and are satisfied: for though the road is long, we are nearing its end.

Want to Read More?
Year A: On Laetare Sunday and Evaluation of Character
Year B: On Faith
Year C: On Praying for the Living and the Dead and Joy Amidst the Sorrow

Wounded Land

Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit

In today’s Lord of the Rings passage we read:

They had not come very far from the road, and yet even in so short a space they had seen scars of the old wars, and the new wounds made by the Orcs and other foul servants of the Dark Lord.”

And in today’s Scripture we hear:

Let us know, let us strive to know the LORD; as certain as the dawn is his coming, and his judgment shines forth like the light of day! He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth.” (Hosea 6:3)

Long after the transgression, the land remembers the hurt. Fire and flood, poison and excavation, demolition and destruction: all can permanently shape the lands around which they occur, influencing the growth of trees, the flow of rivers, the pathways of rockfalls, the patterns of animals. The art of stewardship is recognizing our role in these transgressions, at acting more orc-like than hobbit-like in our handling of created nature. That in and of itself is a good thing, but it also trains us to see the transgressions and hurts we carved into mountains and forests of the people around us. Our souls are like Ithilien, fair and yet damaged, in the midst of a struggle between good and evil: our lands are ever in danger of these passing and permanent wounds.

Want to Read More?
Year A: On Long Descriptions of Nature and Action in Confinement
Year B: On the Edible Virtues of Coneys
Year C: On the Correspondence of Conflict and What’s for Dinner?

A Shrewd Mind

The Black Gate is Closed

In today’s Lord of the Rings passage we read:

Sam frowned. If he could have bored holes in Gollum with his eyes, he would have done. His mind was full of doubt. […] While these doubts were passing through Sam’s slow but shrewd mind, Frodo stood gazing.”

And in today’s Scripture we hear:

Let him who is wise understand these things; let him who is prudent know them. Straight are the paths of the LORD, in them the just walk, but sinners stumble in them.” (Hosea 14:10)

Samwise, despite his name, isn’t the wisest of the Fellowship members. He possess neither great mastery of lore (despite his poetry on Oliphaunts), nor strategic intellect to overcome Frodo’s current predicament. He is neither a master of words or deeds: Sam’s strengths are his steadfast loyalty and resilient hopefulness. And a shrewd, if slow, mind. It is Sam who tallies the observations about Gollum and correctly guesses his intentions; it is Sam who recognizes the things that should and should not be said to keep Gollum from realizing Frodo’s true intentions. There is a hidden prudence about Sam–what might be called “common hobbit sense”– which grounds him and keeps him focused. While that may appear as simplemindedness, in these chapters we realize the sharpness of Sam’s keen mind.

Want to Read More?
Year A: On Finding the Gate Barred Against You and Hope in Hopeless Times
Year B: On Oliphaunts
Year C: On Discernment and An Impassable Obstacle

Bitter Reality

The Passage of the Marshes

In today’s Lord of the Rings passage we read:

Frodo said, ‘They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, and weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead.'”

And in today’s Scripture we hear:

Jesus said, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house. And if Satan is divided against himself,  how will his kingdom stand?'” (Luke 11:17-18)

Compare today’s description of the Dead Marshes with Elrond’s recollection of the Last Alliance and the battle against Sauron: for it is here that the battle took place, and these foul and rotting corpses are the remnants of those valiant Men and Elves. There is no doubt that Tolkien is channeling into these passages his experiences of WWI: the death and destruction, the stench and the decay, the bitter reality of war. That both the glory of the Last Alliance and the disgust of the Dead Marshes exist in The Lord of the Rings speaks to the philosophy of Tolkien: he is neither a pacifist nor a warmonger. The consequence of sin–the division of people from God and from one another–may require conflict, and there are noble efforts to fight off evil. But war is never a good thing in and of itself, and its consequences, however important, are always mixed with foul, rotting death.

Want to Read More?
Year A: On the Corpse Road and Swamp No More
Year B: On the Internal Monologue of Temptation
Year C: On Dead Grasses and Rotten Reeds and Unintended Devastation

The Long Chain of Mercy

The Taming of Sméagol

In today’s Lord of the Rings passage we read:

‘Very well,’ Frodo answered aloud, lowering his sword. ‘But still I am afraid. And yet, as you see, I will not touch the creature. For now that I see him, I do pity him.'”

And in today’s Scripture we hear:

Moses said, ‘However, take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.'” (Deuteronomy 4:9)

Arguably (and without spoiling the end of the story), the entire success of the Fellowship and successful conclusion of The Lord of the Rings depends on this moment here. The choice by Frodo to spare Gollum’s life–the mercy the hobbits show on one who had intended to kill them–will link in a chain of moments and choices all the way to the slopes of Mount Doom. But this choice by Frodo did not arise from nothing: instead, it links back all the way to Moria, to Rivendell, to the Shire, to the first conversation Frodo had with Gandalf about the Ring and Gollum. The seeds of pity and mercy were sown by the Wizard before Frodo had even left his hobbit hole, and they have germinated throughout his journey. Now they spring forth, and will bear fruit both sweet and bitter through the pages to come. Yet ultimately when that fruit ripens it will be for salvation of all. The chain of mercy is long and winding, and we often forget how it was first forged: but as Frodo and Gollum show us, it tethers us to unexpected hope.

Want to Read More?
Year A: On Forgetting About One’s Rope Until One’s Master is Half-way Down a Cliff Side and Law and Language
Year B: On the Book That No One Likes
Year C: On Admonishing the Sinner and The Gollum Within Us All