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.