Many Partings and Stewards of Gondor

In some ways, the ending of the Tolkien’s fellowship parallels our leaving college; we’ve all gone to Mordor and back again together, and now the time approaches for each of our own fellowships to end. That’s not to say we still won’t foster and cherish those friendships; on the contrary! But it would be naive not to admit that an age has ended; perhaps our own Third Age. First Age being childhood, the Second Age being adolescence, and the Third Age our coming of age in college. Now the Fourth Age, adulthood, approaches. Will you and I be up to the task at hand?

It’s told that the stewards of Gondor received their power from the king, who gave them strict instructions to take care of the kingdom until his return. Sadly, the last king died with no heir, leaving the stewards to tend Gondor for centuries. Eventually, the Third Age and the War of the Ring came, culminating in the overthrow of Sauron and the restoration of the kingdom of Gondor under Aragon, son of Arathon, and rightful heir to the throne of Gondor.

You can see where the analogy is going; we’ve been given care of the kingdom by the King until His return. Each of us have unique gifts that we’ve hopefully been honing and preparing over the past years. But I’m not ready, is my response. Insert yourself into Frodo’s place in the following exchange:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. And already, Frodo, our time is beginning to look black. The Enemy is fast becoming very strong.’

We fear not being ready, not being up to the task. Our time in college was so short! If only we had another year or two – then we’d be ready! But our time is now. At the end of the Return of the King, the hobbits beg Gandalf to accompany them to help cleanse the Shire. But Gandalf refuses, telling them that they are more than ready. Now is the time to prove their mettle, to put to the test all that they’ve learned.

To all my fellow Ravens, or fellow graduates wherever your alma mater may be – do not be afraid! The time is ours to take; the chance, if you choose to join the Fellowship, is now. A new Fellowship is forming, to defeat the Sauron of our times. This Sauron is ours to battle with and defeat. A new Mordor looms on the horizon, threatening to take over our dear land. But this war is not to be won in some great battle far off; no, it’s to be won in the small daily victories. In the small Shires we create by welcoming others cheerfully, in making the lives of others easier through our joy, sacrifice, and witness to Truth.

It’s time for our own Scouring of the Shire. The ruffians are among the Gaffer’s cabbage patches, and Sharkey looms, bringing with him the shadow of Mordor. Yes, the King has already won; but there is still much work to be done. I stay purposefully vague because I don’t wish to give particular directions; they are not mine to give. Rather, they are for you to figure out by looking around you; what needs fixing, what ruffian needs running out? You’ve received the training – now put it to use! The King will return one day; but in the meantime, let’s make sure there’s something worth returning to. The stewards kept the kingdom of Gondor faithfully; can you do the same?

A Restless Heart and the Undying Lands

Our hearts are restless Lord, until they rest in You.

-St. Augustine

This world is a paradox. We’re pilgrims on a voyage to somewhere else – such is the path of the Christian. In some sense, we’re like Tolkien’s elves from The Lord of the Rings, neither fully in nor fully of Middle-earth. While we’re still physical beings in the midst of the world, the Christian is never fully home. I’m reminded of Tolkien’s Frodo, and his quest for fulfillment and peace that’s never fully satisfied until he leaves for the Undying Lands.

The fact that I’ve gotten two posts in without mentioning The Lord of the Rings should earn me blogging brownie points, if such a thing exists. I’m breaking that now to reflect on The Lord of the Rings in light of our human nature and longing for more. If you’ve read Tolkien’s saga, you know how the series ends. If you haven’t, major spoilers alert. Sorry.

We follow Tolkien’s characters through the saga, learning about all their desires and aspirations. In fact, Tolkien manages to create such vivid imagery that we become fully immersed in the characters. We cringe with Frodo when he first learns of Sauron and the One Ring; we rejoice with Gondor when Rohan’s horns sound the end of a long night. We trudge through Middle-Earth side by side with the Fellowship from Rivendell to Mordor. It’s enough to whet your appetite for a second breakfast. But like all good things, the Fellowship comes to an end. The Ring is cast into the fiery depths of Mount Doom, and Sauron is defeated forever. Eventually, the companions of the Fellowship disperse; Aragon to Minas Tirith with Arwen his new queen, and Legolas and Gimli to explore Rohan. The hobbits return to a devastated Shire where they must drive out Saruman’s ruffians.

Amidst all this heroism we remember Frodo, who has heroically carried the Ring at great cost to himself. Permanently broken, he remarks to Gandalf that “Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?” There’s an ache in his heart from where the Morgul blade pierced him on Weathertop. Hang on to that thought.

I’d like to focus more closely on the end of The Return of the King. The last chapter begins to wind down almost like the ending of a long story (because it is). It’s like the endings of those movies that narrates each of the character’s lives in the future. But it’s how the reader feels when they reach that final chapter. As we’ve become fully immersed in each of the characters’ lives, so we begin to feel this longing as the saga draws to a close. Tolkien writes:

Then Elrond and Galadriel rode on; for the Third Age was over, and the Days of the Rings were passed, and an end was come of the story and song of those times. With them went many Elves of the High Kindred who would no longer stay in Middle-earth; and among them, filled with a sadness that was yet blessed and without bitterness, rode Sam, and Frodo, and Bilbo, and the Elves delighted to honor them.

Frodo boards the ship, never to return to Middle-earth. And there’s this bittersweet, evocative longing for something. A longing to be with Frodo. A longing to be with Sam as he finishes his work in the Shire. A longing for something…more. What Tolkien has done in literature is to evoke the longing in our hearts that is the longing we have for Heaven. We long for the Undying Lands even as we long for the Undying Land. The Lord of the Rings is not just an excellent piece of literature, but the biography of a pilgrim who has been there and back again, and longs to be at rest. Yet, while we move towards the Undying Land, what we do here does make a difference. We can choose to carry the Ring faithfully like Frodo, or be corrupted in our pursuit of it like Saruman.

I close with a passage from Archbishop Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land:

Dante Alighieri…ends The Paradiso and the entire Comedy with these words: “The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” The Love which moves the sun and the other stars. That Love is the nature of the God we preach. A God so great in glory, light, and majesty that he can emblazon the heavens with a carpet of stars and call life out of dead space; yet so intimate that he became one of us; so humble that he entered our world on dirt and straw to redeem us…It’s only when we give ourselves fully to God that we grasp, finally, that we were made to do exactly that. Our hearts are restless until they rest in him. And so we should never be afraid to believe in God’s love and to make it the basis for our lives; it took even a great saint like Augustine half a lifetime to finally admit that “late have I loved thee, Beauty so old and so new; late have I loved thee.”

We hope to find this Beauty on earth, but while we might have a taste of the Undying Land, we’ll never fully reach it here. Nevertheless, we can still move towards it as we carry out our daily lives. May we also reach our Undying Land – but remember, it is only for those who have carried the Ring well. May we, like Frodo and Sam, carry it well and so pass into the West.

Silence and a Still Heart

Silence is something we all need, but so rarely get in this busy, tech-driven world. In some way, we’ve even tried avoiding it – I realize how often I’ve gotten into my and car and immediately turned on the radio or plugged in my iPod for some music. Being alone and absorbed by silence is something we find almost abhorrent. Having the ability to talk and make noise, we feel the need to do so incessantly.

But in all this noise, all this commotion, we often feel lost. Alone. Why is this? Shouldn’t I be comforted by the constant noise, the newest song from Coldplay? Look to Fra Angelico’s depiction of the Annunciation above, and think of Mary’s actions before the angel appears. She’s still. She’s quiet, giving room for the quiet voice of God to speak. It’s when she’s absorbed in prayerful silence that the angel appears to her, not in the midst of the marketplace. It’s by nurturing a still and contemplative heart that she’s better able to hear her Creator.

Silence implies stillness, rest in a world of motion. Think of a attempting to build a house – it’s a little hard to put any foundation down when the ground is constantly moving. We need stability, and the ground to settle before we can start building anything permanent. So too the human person. We can only flourish and grow with ample time for silence and reflection. St. Josemaria Escriva puts it very succinctly, writing “Silence is the doorkeeper of the interior life”. If we wish to hear better God’s plan for us, we need silence in order to start building. Maybe keeping that radio off for five minutes when you first hop into the car is a good start.

If we want to echo Mary’s Fiat! to whatever God asks of us, we first need to be able to hear what He’s saying. While it’s not totally impossible to hear him in the noise all around, it becomes much easier when we learn how to still our hearts. This can only be done through practiced silence, through stilling the heart to hear God’s Voice. Communication is key to any good relationship; but that involves listening as well as talking. So with God; listening is key, and if silence is the doorkeeper to the interior life, what better way to start than by stilling the constant noise around us?

If we Christians are to be the counter culture, let’s start by showing the world how to be silent, how to be still. If we want to bring Christ to others, we can’t bring Him if we don’t know Him; and that takes conversation. Take example from Mary and learn to cultivate a daily period of silence before God, perhaps starting with the daily readings. And in doing so, we may hopefully become better contemplative souls in a world that has sadly forgotten how to be contemplative. We’re roughly halfway through Lent, and the silence of the tomb approaches. Are you ready to enter into it so that you might rise on Easter?

Beauty, Burnt Cookies, and A Sky Full of Stars

“Beauty will save the world” (Dostoyevsky)

School is one of those love-hate relationships we have in life, at least for me. More often than not, I love it. Sometimes, however, being cooped up all day can be trying. Yes, I am speaking from personal experience here. I’m referring to a specific day a few weeks ago. A series of unfortunate events unfolded, as the sun ceased to shine, I was stuck inside all day working, and worst of all, my chocolate chip cookies had stuck to the pan that night during baking, despite my thick layer of cooking oil. Truly, it was…the worst.

I took a break to bring the trash out and get some fresh air. As I walked outside, trash in hand, I couldn’t help but to look up at the night sky; and I completely forget my grievances as I gazed at a beautiful night sky full of stars. Kansas, for all its quietness in comparison to Chicago, does have some of the most beautiful night skies around the Midwest. Isn’t it funny how often we forget to wonder at the natural beauty surrounding us? I know I did – and still do. There’s something in us that can’t help but be moved by a beautiful sunrise, or a dark night sky filled with stars.

Beauty is something to which we are attracted by our human nature. One of my friends from school often talks about “a pilgrimage to beauty”, drawing from the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. This pilgrimage to beauty is something that we’re all not just called to, but drawn to by our very nature. We’re drawn to beauty as human beings made in the image and likeness of God, with an imprint of our Creator on our souls. God is Beauty, right? If so, then we have an imprint of that Beauty upon us by our human nature.

Having the imprint of Beauty upon our soul, we can’t help but long to return to It; rather, to Him. Think of something that you think is Good. I don’t mean just an ordinary hamburger (although those are quite good), but someone or something that to you is a physical embodiment of goodness. This person or thing doesn’t need to be perfect (nothing in life is), just good. Why are you attracted to that person or thing? There’s something beautiful about it; and I don’t just mean aesthetically pleasing. No, there’s something more than that. Imagine a puzzle. It’s missing a few pieces, and doesn’t seem fully complete. Or, if you’d rather, a half-eaten pie on display. It isn’t nearly half as satisfying as a whole pie, sitting out to cool.

I use this analogy not to raise the question if you’re a half-eaten pumpkin or apple pie, but to make a point about our human nature. If God is Beauty Itself, the essence of beauty, then the perfection, or completion, of beauty must be found completely within Him. As we search for Him throughout life, we oftentimes find hints of that beauty spread around us: in people, art, food, literature, and so on. Think again about that person or thing you found good. There’s something about that person or thing that was, and is beautiful, insofar as it reflected the goodness and beauty of God. But most importantly, we can most easily see this beauty in the natural world around us, and in the people around us. Yes, I am referring to that one person you can’t stand. I’ll address seeing beauty in people at another time.

Pope Francis put it rather eloquently in his late encyclical Laudato Si, stating “The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.” As we look at this beauty, we experience, in a small way, the touch of a loving God. From the star-studded sky above, to the valley spread out below, we are given an opportunity to enter into a conversation with the Creator, a conversation of joy and gratitude at the gift we have been given: a gift of love that constantly overflows.  This gift of love, given to us in the beauty of the natural world around us, waits for us to encounter it.

Anthony Esolen, professor at Providence College, alludes to this idea in an article for First Things here. Drawing upon the imagery in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Esolen pointed out the souls that were ascending the mountain of Purgatory. They’re singing, eyes pointed upwards as they race to their heavenly home. There’s an excitement, an anticipation in their race upwards to Beauty. However, their awareness of that beauty becomes heightened through love. Esolen writes:

“Love opens our eyes, allowing one contingent being to reveal the mysteries of beauty to another. But it also gives us wings, prompting the intellect to soar in contemplation of that beauty. Throughout the Divine Comedy , Dante’s beloved Beatrice has been preparing the pilgrim for the ultimate and yet infinite flight, to see the Beloved face to face.”

An appreciation for beauty, nurtured through a sense of wonder, calls us out of ourselves. It calls us to something more, to look to the heavens, towards transcendence. Even as we continue on this pilgrimage to beauty, we retain a sense of anticipation, a sense of hope in the goal. It’s like the marathon runner, who knows that he’s almost made it as he sees the finish line ahead.

How many times have we forgotten to look up and wonder? I know I have – I was doing it the other night just before I took out the trash (what a mundane task, too!). But humans, made with the imprint of Beauty upon their souls, are made for more than just looking down. They’re made to look up and wonder. We’re made to look up and wonder.  Can we not help but wonder at this wonderful gift of creation given to us by a loving God? Next time you take out the trash at night, look up and wonder. Don’t just stop there – do it every night, every time you wake up, every breathing moment you have. A simple way I’ve found that helps is to write down three things I’m thankful for at the end of the day (repeats are not allowed). It’s easy to forget to be thankful and wonder at the beauty surrounding us. But when we rediscover how to start wondering again at the ordinary, therein do we find the extraordinary. If you never stop wondering, then you you’ll never stop falling in love with Beauty; and I promise you will be better for it.