On Relics

The Field of Cormallen

 

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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

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On the Eucharist

“Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters

On Carrying

Mount Doom

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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

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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

On Bravery

The Tower of Cirith Ungol

Standing Bravely

Courage in many forms (Source)

Samwise the brave: it has a nice ring to it. Perhaps nowhere else do we get to see inside Sam’s character and experience his bravery than here, as he rescues Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol. While Sam’s assault on Shelob was more blind fury and passionate folly that true valor, here was have calculated, planned, and methodical courage. Yet it is important to distinguish the bravery of Sam, for it appears in three different forms.

There is the bravery of Sam in pursuing the course. Many a time on his march to the stronghold and up the tower was there a reason to turn aside: the exhaustion of the journey, the impossibility of the action, the weight of the ring. While warmed by some bouts of passion and loyal love, the vast majority of Sam road is chilled with cold fear and raw danger. Perhaps the moment of highest valor in this manner is before the gates of Cirith Ungol, confronting the Silent Watchers. These living statues are the embodiment of fear, the symbolic outside of bravery, and they seemingly cancel out Sam’s courage. But here was see the persistence and rationality of Sam’s valor that reveals itself not as passion but as bravery. For Sam walks on, unveiling the light of Galadriel as a supplement to his own raw hobbit courage. It burns brightly in his hands for it augments his own natural valor. In that, he can bravely cross over the threshold.

Then there is the bravery of Sam in handing over the Ring. The Ring’s power and temptation is immense. For Sam to yield the Ring back to Frodo requires three components of courage. First, there is the courage to give up something that has a hold on you. Second, there is the courage to suffer abuse unwarranted in the processes of handing it over. Third, there is the courage to give over something that you fear will do one you love some harm. Sam can see that there is no negotiation, no compromise with the burdened Frodo, and so he bravely accepts the suffering that is imposed on him at each level as the Ring returns to Frodo. It is a different valor, a valor internal, but it does not make the valor any less noble.

And then there is a strange sort of bravery: the courage to sing songs in the stronghold of the Enemy. This may seem less than shocking, but the act is one of immense, nearing foolhardy, bravery. For the songs not only reveal Sam in his presence but also confront directly the very essence of the darkness of the Tower itself. This is the same bravery that allows one to laugh in the face of one’s certain demise (as Eowyn did at Pelennor) or to stand firm even amidst great loss (as Pippin did at the Black Gate). It is the bravery of indifference, of acknowledging that the evil has no true power over you, of suffering whatever consequence for not succumbing to fear and despair.

So let us be brave – in act, in gift, and in song – and follow in the footsteps of Master Samwise. For valor appears in many forms to both the great and the small, and we would be wise to recognize courage in all its marvelous unfoldings.


2016’s Reflection: “On the Silent Watchers
2015’s Reflection: “On Betrayal and Loyalty

On the Eagles’ Coming

The Black Gate Opens

By Greg Fischer

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“The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!” (Source)

This is one of my favorite chapters in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The broken, but not yet beaten, fellowship of men, Dwarves, Elves, and hobbits sets off for the final battle, but in this chapter another member of the fellowship is separated from his friends. Merry is not fit enough to continue the journey and can only watch while his friends begin their final foray to an uncertain ending. It is with sadness that we see Merry left behind, while his companion Pippin (the last of our fellowship hobbits) marches off for his own place of honor in the brooding war, as a soldier of Gondor. While the vanguard cannot be certain of their fate, the initial journey seems one of promise with little resistance from the enemy. Nevertheless, Tolkien indicates that the lack of resistance from the enemy does not fool the group. Throughout this chapter, Tolkien provides a sense of foreboding in describing the mood of the land, including such phrases as “… a shadow and a gloom brooded upon the Ephel Duath” and “…the air was heavy with fear and enmity”. Similarly, Tolkien informs us of the disposition of the company with such phrases as “…the hearts of all the army, from highest to lowest, were downcast, and with every mile that they went north foreboding of evil grew heavier on them.”

So too we continue our Lenten journey along a similar path. On Palm Sunday, we hear of the throng who greet Jesus. John (12:12-13) tells us that “… the great crowd that had come for the feast heard that Jesus was to enter Jerusalem, so they got palm branches and came out to meet him.” We rejoice in the acceptance of the Lord with the crowd, but we have a sense of foreboding because we know how the story ends. We are well too aware that there is pain and suffering coming and this momentary exultation and inclusion will not last – and we cannot do anything to stop it. Like Pippin, our faith is tested during this Easter season.

Finally, the Black Gate is opened and, after Gandalf rejects the terms from the Messenger, the final Middle Earth battle of good versus evil begins. This chapter ends not with the outcome of that battle but instead with our hobbit-hero Pippin hearing voices that “…seemed to be crying in some forgotten world far and above: ‘The Eagles are coming!’” The rejection of the Messenger and the coming of the Eagles are a fitting tie to our baptismal promises, which we will renew on Easter Sunday by rejecting the Messenger of Sin – Satan, and accepting God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the resurrection of Christ and life everlasting.


2016’s Reflection: “On Deeds Within Measure
2015’s Reflection: “For Frodo

On the Last Throw of the Dice

The Last Debate

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But are the dice loaded in our favor? (Source)

We come to it at last: the final throw, the ultimate risk, the finale par excellence. Everything that has been done up to this point has led to this moment, where one side will be victorious, and the other beaten down into crushing defeat. All the plotting and planning in both camps boil down to this one last hurrah, before the Black Gates, on the fields where once this same battle was engaged before.

Except it is not the same, for the conditions of victory are different this time. For Gandalf, Aragorn, and the forces that they lead, strength of arms will not be enough. It matters not if they triumph against the forces of Mordor; in fact, by their own capacity it is impossible for them to do so. They are instead the bait, the distraction, the feint to draw off the Enemy and fix his eye on them, instead of the Ringbearer. Truly, this gambit is a last throw of the dice, for the outcome on which it rests will be outside their power to control.

They dice may come up sixes, and good things come again. They may live to see the Ring destroyed, Sauron overcome, and realms of men renewed. The dice may instead come up snake eyes, and they witness instead the total victory of darkness. Or, and perhaps most likely of all, they will perish before the dice are fully settled, sacrificing their lives to buy Frodo and Sam the time they need for their own last draw of the deck. Yet, as the counselors of the Last Debate conclude, in this they would rest in peace, knowing that their fall gave every opportunity for those the defend to continue to thrive.

We Lenten pilgrims now set off on our own final march: we have held our Last Debate, and in Holy Week we follow the footsteps of the apostle through Jerusalem, to the end set before us, to whatever end. The victory that we achieved on Palm Sunday – the crowds thronging to welcome us into the holy city – now, like the glory of the Pelennor Fields, seems fleeting. The forces that opposed us are undaunted, and they seek to ensnare us, entrap up, catch us in our words and deeds. And our leader, like Aragorn, seems to willing walk into that trap, heedless of the danger that lurks there. We may, like the disciples, feel uneasy; we may doubt the wisdom of such reckless confrontation. Yet, we place our bets on this one last throw of the dice, this one last chance of the divine to set things aright and renew us with love and grace.

Yet, there is this one difference between the men of Gondor and the Body of Christ: for we have seen the final victory already in faith. The dice are loaded in our favor, and though the roll may not land as we would have desired it, nevertheless, its outcome is all that we truly needed.


2016’s Reflection: “On Gulls and Other Birds
2015’s Reflection: “On the Promise of Men