When You Come to Narnia, Your Worries Come Too

It’d be a little cliche to say I was reading something lately…that seems to be the going trend for how I write most of these articles. But I was reading something recently, and I am going to start that way. So ha.

I was recently reading an article  in The Atlantic on why we should read fiction by a fellow of the name of Lev Grossman here. Apparently he’s written some sort of “older” Harry Potter (Whatever that means). I’ve never heard of him before, nor have I read his works , so I post a caveat that this post is not a proclamation of his works. Merely of an article I read by him. So if I’ve accidentally introduced some modern Nietzsche, my apologies. There is more than the void.

So with that out of the way, I was reading this article about why we should read fiction by Lev Grossman. For Grossman, fantasy is something that helps us better learn how to deal with the world we live in. He writes:

I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they’re exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.

When you come to Narnia, your worries come too. There’s something about the world of fantasy that helps us see better what it is we fear, what we’re most afraid of confronting. Perhaps it’s the dragon under the Lonely Mountain. Or maybe it’s the Brain, sitting at the middle of its web of despair.

What reading good fiction shows is how human we really are; it flips things upside down so that we can gain a better perspective on things by putting us in someone else’s shoes. Even something like Jacques’ Redwall, mentioned in my earlier blog here, shows us how much we need good companionship and community through something like food.

I had a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago who was rethinking his school’s history curriculum. His grievance with the current history textbooks was that they simply transposed a series of dates onto a timeline. The problem when we do that, he said, is that we lose sight of why we actually study history. We study history (or used to) in order to learn something about the human person; that’s what history is, after all – a series of events involving the human person, right? People used to read Plutarch’s Lives not just because they were learning about a series of dates, but because they were learning about the human person. When we simply hear about the dates of the Peloponnesian War, we lose sight of what really happened. We lose sight of Pericles and his love for Athens, the city of beauty. Instead, when we learn history through reading the lives of those who came before us, we learn not just dates, but something more. We learn how about the human person as that human person reflects us and those around us. So too with fantasy.

By taking things and putting them inside out, we’re better able to get a sense of where the land lies. By exacerbating things, as Grossman put it, we’re forced to come to grips with things sooner. Edmund undoubtedly would have let things fester for much longer if he hadn’t been put on the line by the White Witch. Yes, sometimes fiction can help us to escape, for a little while, the cares of this world; and sometimes not. Sometimes it is to help us see clearly, to help us turn things inside out so we can get a better look. It’s meant to help us learn more about..us. About you  and me. Good literature, then, is one that helps us be better, to be more human. C.S. Lewis’ closing book in his Space Trilogy, entitled, That Hideous Strength, is a wonderful example of this. Within the pages of this book, Lewis paints the human person with all their struggles. One particular character, the scientist Mark, is caught in the middle of the battle between good vs. evil, but in this case, it’s a much more real, more “grey” evil. The evil of Lewis’ Hideous Strength is one that paints itself as “that group” that we all want to be part of; it’s the “inner circle” that we’re all afraid of being left out of. Marc so desperately feels left out, so alone, that he gives up his very soul to be “in”. And do you know what? We’ve done the very same, so many times. Like Mark, we come this close to forsaking what is most dear to us – to find out more what I mean, you’ll have the read the book. Cheers.

Reading then, is not just a path to some escapist reality. Rather, it helps us to see the world better, to get a better angle on things through characters with whom we’ve learned to laugh, cry, and love. Reading helps us see that the wicked prince we hate so much was once good. Really, he was; he just made a few bad decisions, surrounded himself with the wrong people. We see the dragon and realize that sometimes it’s okay to run away when we don’t have Gandalf to protect us. And we see the Pearl of Great Price, so valuable that a merchant would sell all he had to possess it.

So why read fiction? Why walk into the land of Narnia at all? Sometimes, a story can help us see what it is we really value most. It can help us turn our darkest corners inside out, so the light can help us better clean out those dusty corners. And sometimes, it can help us see that good really does win in the end, that we really are made for more.

So maybe reading fiction isn’t your thing. Fine. Good. Go read some history. Go read Plutarch’s Lives. But do think about what you read, and ask yourself this: am I more like Lucy, or am I more like Edmund? Am I like Alcibiades, or am I like Coriolanus? Where are my worries, and how am letting Aslan conquer my White Witch?

Take my hand, then, and take a step with me through the wardrobe. I guarantee you will not be the same.

Who knows? Even brats come back as mighty kings and queens. And sometimes the most unbelievable things really are true – like a lowly village girl becoming the Mother of God.

It’s a dangerous world out there. But it’s a beautiful one.

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On Eating Well (And Why God Enjoys Deep Dish Pizza)

I’m going to start this article by declaring I am not against fast food. In fact, it’s sometimes quite nice – who doesn’t like grabbing french fries from the golden arch at 10pm?

As humans, we’re a little obsessed with food. Just a little – we even have a holiday dedicated to it in America, called Thanksgiving. (I mean, let’s be real. We’re all about overstuffing ourselves and passing out on the couch after, as much as we’d admit otherwise. I will publicly admit to the sin of gluttony as well. This is not a civic virtue, for the record.) But there’s also something about eating that humans have peculiar to themselves – I mean transforming eating into a social event, into something particularly more than just the need of a creature. I refer back to Thanksgiving – we all look forward to the (hopefully) good conversation, time spent with friends and family, and general good will had by all. Food, something rather basic, becomes an opportunity to rise above the animal nature to something higher. The imagery of a feast is something included in many religions, whether it be the halls of Valhalla for the Norsemen, to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in Heaven for Christianity. The art of eating becomes, in some ways, a path to the Divine.

Now I don’t want to over spiritualize eating. After all, a hamburger is just a hamburger. Or is it? Does the way we eat trickle into our culture? Our modern American dream, founded on efficiency and one-night stands, is all about how little commitment we need to put into something. We’ve all done this – selected the “maybe” response on a Facebook event; it’s so much easier to say we might make it than to make a hard decision either way. Charlie Brown is, in some cases, the perfect reflection of this; he doesn’t really know which way he’ll decide on something, and waffles back and forth forever. It’s so much nicer that way, actually. No obligations, no prior commitments – it’s a millennial dream come true!

But in the midst of all this, something very human is being lost and forgotten – the art of eating well. Yes, I did say art; eating well requires practice, and a certain level of decorum. Just as the ancient priests of any religion needed to be brought in slowly to the inner sanctuary, so we as humans need to be taught the art of eating well. If you’ve seen Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,  you know exactly what I mean. The Beast, through years of neglect, has forgotten what it is to eat well. Belle has to re-teach him what it means, and he begins to remember what it meant to, well, be just a little bit more human. While scarfing down a burger may satisfy our stomach, it’s not a particularly transcendental experience. But think instead about sitting down to a meal with family or friends. Seems a little more…human, right?

As a kid, one of my favorite series to read was Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. If you find yourself smiling at the mention of that series, good. You’ve done something well. (And if you haven’t read them, it’s never too late.) In Jacques’ fictional accounts of mice, squirrels, and otters fighting against wicked weasels and savage stoats (alliteration, anyone?), we find numerous feasts being laid out in great detail. You never ate (excuse me, read) the books on an empty stomach – Jacques’ detailed feasts would set your mouth watering and your stomach rumbling. Yes, all would eat their fill. But they’d share favorite platters with each other, and share in something wonderful. Now imagine if we had the same thing – we do at weddings, at least. The greatest celebration for humans is to have a feast, where simply nourishing our bodies becomes something more.

So why don’t we have more of these? Is it simply because we’ve run out of time – the 21st century was supposed to give us all the devices that would enable us to have more time, not less. Perhaps it’s because we never learned. Or we’re simply not interested. But I dare you to try it sometime – find a recipe (previously tried, of course – no one wants to see if eggplant and pineapple lamb will be a hit), and invite a few friends over. Don’t be rushing on to something else after – take your time. Start the night off with some appetizers; cheese and crackers are easy and a simple start. Have a tablecloth and real plates, not paper (as wonderful as they are). Think. Listen to your friends and get to know them better – what are they interested in? Bring the conversation a level deeper than just niceties; you’re friends with these people, so hopefully you respect them enough to respect the fact that they know how to think. Use your brain – after all, you are human, and more than just a creature. You’ve got within you the Divine Spark. Realize it, as you feast with friends. Eat well, enjoying what is before you rather than acting as if you’re in a food eating contest. Take your time, and slow down a little. And in so doing, may you become a little more human.

Slainte.

Work and “Pushing the Bucket”

I’ve been reading Arthur Brooks’ recent book The Conservative Heart. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you pick up a copy for yourself. Brooks looks to create a sequel to Russel Kirk’s momentous volume The Conservative Mind, which followed conservative thought throughout the ages (Kirk somehow misses Madison and Jefferson in it, two of the greatest conservative minds for America, but that’s a different story for a different day).

In The Conservative Heart, Brooks attempts to make the argument that conservatives have forgotten to fully communicate why we hold work to be so important, and why economic issues are, at heart, moral issues. A brief snapshot from the book follows:

“We (conservatives) admire hard work, admonish people who slack off, and support policies such as work requirements for welfare. We understand that when society empowers people to work for social assistance, we help those people twice. First, through welfare, we are helping their immediate material needs. And second, through work, we are helping them earn success – the key to a fulfilling and dignified life.”

Sometimes we fail to properly argue these thoughts and instead, as Brooks points out, turn them merely into materialistic arguments. I don’t want to raise the minimum wage so I can line the pockets of billionaires, but because I want to help those people on the bottom rung of society that would be hurt by increasing the minimum wage.

Why haven’t we talked this way before? Is it something that we, as conservatives (sorry libertarians, but you’re getting thrown into the mix as well) are missing? So often we argue against something, rather than for something. Changing our arguments makes all the difference. With that in mind, I’d like to refocus on the meaning of work.

We all joke about winning a million dollars and never working again. But would we really? There’s something fused into the human person that craves work, something to do. We all look for meaning in life. Ultimately, that’s found in our Father God who, in the words of John the Evangelist, “So loved the world that He gave His Only-Begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Different story for a different time. But at the beginning we read in Genesis how Adam was put into the garden to care for it. Oftentimes we have this rather idyllic view of Eden, with Adam walking around as fruit literally falls into his hand; Adam didn’t have to expand any effort to make this happen.

This sort of narrative is, I think, wrong. It paints work as something to be shunned, something that became part of The Fall. Those today who are lucky to be rich enough to avoid work somehow have been able to conquer the Fall itself. I’d propose instead that it’s only the toil associated with work that became part of the curse of Original Sin. Work itself was good, in fact, was part of man’s original vocation. Adam was placed in the garden to care for it; the second Creation narrative in Genesis tells how the ground had no herbs coming forth as there was no man to till it. Creation is only complete with the work of man to care for it.

In light of this new narrative, work takes on new meaning. It’s something to be pursued, to be done well. Just as the Ancient Greeks saw doing things excellently as to be commended, so we too should once again turn to pursue work well. What does this look like for us daily? A cheerful smile, putting in 110% to something we may find dull or mundane, in short, doing our best. This is not an ode to workaholics; on the contrary, it is simply to working well. It’s an ode to stewarding well the gifts given us.

If we find fulfillment in work, why would we not want others to share in this same fulfillment? If you have good news, you want to share it, right? So in this new understanding of work; those who perhaps are unable to find work, how can we help them better their position? Unfortunately, in today’s age of all things college, the focus has shifted to mostly white-collar work; somehow any working with one’s hands has fallen below us. But there’s something quite fulfilling and human in working with one’s hands all day, whether that is anything from construction to plumbing. All have potential for discovering more one’s own inherent dignity. There are different types of work for all according to their talents and abilities; their work does not make them more or less human than you or I. If the office janitor didn’t do their job well, we’d be walking around in piles of trash. Thank them for the hard work they do; look them in the eye and see them as another human being.

Brooks tells the story of an organization in New York City known as the John Doe Fund. The John Doe Fund’s goal is to help the incarcerated get back on their feet and off the streets. It all starts with “pushing the bucket”, or cleaning the streets of New York City. These men start to realize something as they work; they feel wanted, needed. They give directions to people, keep the streets clean, help remove snow in the winter months. But they begin to hold their heads higher; in seeing that they can do something simple well, they begin to realize their human dignity. Eventually, they learn a skill that will help them place a skilled job in the workforce. In giving them a chance at working, they begin to realize their own inherent worth.

So the moral of this story is simply work hard, and the rest will come, right? Wrong. There’s undoubtedly something wrong with the way we currently help the homeless as a country. Perhaps more John Does need to spring up around the country. But I think it’s something more. It’s our very attitude towards work – how often have you and I complained about having to get up for work on a Monday? Work is a wonderful gift – can we learn to appreciate it, and so open a dialogue with others on how we can thus help others learn to appreciate this same gift?

The moral that’d I’d like to draw, then, is this: as conservatives who promise a lower tax rate, greater economic prosperity, better governmental spending, are we truly communicating that we care about these because we fundamentally, at the core, care about the human person? Do we communicate that we care not really about how much money a person makes, but more about his finding meaning in work, because it reflects his original vocation here on earth? Do we look someone in the eye and see a human person, rather than a number that’s “eating tax dollars”? If so, then we are no better than the person across the aisle from us. No, we are no better than a certain Ebenezer Scrooge, who was so caught up with money that he lost what was most precious to him, his very soul. Only through the intervention of three spirits did he eventually come around; may we never have to come to such a point.

Let us not be Scrooges. Let us be John Does, realizing that not only do we have worth, but that the lady taking our coffee order does too. By your example, show others that there is something distinctly, beautifully, human in work. Take the following words from Martin Luther King to heart:

“And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.”

You profess to have heard the Good News? Go and act like it. Go be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.

Witness to Truth

We exist in strange times; as someone once put it, “something is afoot”. The similar remark was made that Christianity is now entering into a new age, an Apostolic age. This comes as no surprise to many of us; the general culture is undoubtedly no longer as Christian as it once was. Instead of former Christendom, we’re now moving back into the Apostolic age, closer to the early first centuries of the Church.

If this is so, what does this mean for us politically? Since politics reflect to an extent how we are culturally, is it possible we need to readdress the existing political paradigm? In previous ages, much could be argued from a theological standpoint; now, with Christianity ever on the attack, this no longer seems to be the case. If we are indeed moving back into the Apostolic Age, it might be wise to briefly reflect on what attributes were found in the early Church, and then see if those apply to our modern “political problem”.

First of all, the Church won cultural victories through two ways: personal example and baptizing the local culture. Personal example could be the early Christians going to their deaths in the Coliseum singing, or bringing joy into a culture that had largely forgotten what true joy was. Baptizing the local culture meant finding what was good in the local traditions and claiming it for Christ. Taking the pagan celebration of Saturnalia and instead replacing it with Christmas was one way the early Church would do this.

Secondly, arguments could be made about the good simply because, well, it was good. Society benefitted if a man and woman stayed in a faithful relationship, i.e., marriage; local communities would benefit from this union as the man and woman would look to invest in each other, and the local communities around them as they become more stable and began to put down roots. Similarly, a society that valued its children generally fared better than one that did not; children were formed better, thus became better adults, and would grow up to be well-formed and invested citizens. In turn, they would then pass on the gifts they had been given as children to the next generation. All this meant that society flourished, and with it, the human person. People saw that there were some things inherently good for man That is to say, these things were to be pursued by man simply because they were good for him as a human being. Because of that, things could be argued for simply by reason; we look t Aristotle, who reached that virtue was inherently good for man despite having no revelation.

So what does this have to do with Christianity, in particular the Catholic Church?

The Catholic Church brings something distinct to society that no one else has ever, or will ever, do. In this case, proclaiming human rights, individual dignity, freedom, and a call to something higher. All these will disappear if the Church is forced from the public square. The Church stands for every human being because she sees each individual person as precious. The bigger she keeps the public square open for herself, the larger it becomes for others; and the reverse stands as well. If the Church is forced from the public square, then one of the last checks on government has been removed. Men then only have the incentive of Hobbes’ Leviathan to force its citizens into quiet servitude.

Living out our personal witness is crucial for the times ahead; people are not going to be won over if we’re always moaning and dour about life. Honey attracts more flies than vinegar (not to draw a perfect analogy, but still). But even as we live out our own lives well, we need to take what is good from around us and baptize it. America’s culture still has remnants of good left in it; it’s up for us to extract what we can from the culture around us just like the early Church (if you think I’m giving up on my annual summer Marvel movie, you’ve got another thing coming).

A recent story was circulating around Facebook about a priest that had recently passed away. Fr. Arne Panula, a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, had worked for years at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., pursuing his vocation amid professional life to bring others to Christ. George Weigel penned the following comments about him in National Review here

Father Arne became, for many, the embodiment of what Saint John Paul II called the “New Evangelization” in the nation’s capital. He could do that because, like the witnesses the Church will read about during Easter Week, he had met the Risen Lord. And that made all the difference.

An encounter with Truth can only happen if we ourselves encounter Truth, Christ Himself. Yet, even if we ourselves experience this, we cannot then shy away from it, from proclaiming that same Truth to others. Charles Chaput, then Archbishop of Denver, reflected on Pauls’ example in using the language of the times to bring the Gospel to the culture in an article for First Things here. Written shortly after Obama’s first election in 2008, he speaks tellingly to our current situation:

There is a second practical lesson we can learn from Paul, for he refused to fear. If “Be Not Afraid” became John Paul II’s motto, it is because fear is the disease of our age. And Catholics are by no means immune to it. Paul wasn’t afraid to bring to the Areopagus the new and profoundly radical idea that God and truth could be known through a person—Jesus Christ—and ultimately in no other way. Finding this one way to truth matters eternally for each of us. Elegant, academic discussions may appeal to us as an intellectual exercise. But the only thing that finally matters is truth.

I would posit that John Paul II was one of the most admired and influential men of the 20th century. Yet, here was a man who was unafraid to proclaim the Truth. In doing so, he helped to topple one of the great evils of the 20th century – Communist Russia. Proclaiming the Truth boldly, with both joy and personal witness, can do much in today’s world.

I return to my thoughts at the beginning of this essay, and close with a thought about politics. Humans are by nature political animals, according to Aristotle. We are endowed with reason, and use it in entering into political life. As the Church moves back into the Apostolic Age, those of us in the beloved US of A should not despair. Personal example goes a long way, and true, authentic joy is something our world craves. We have a vast array of knowledge at our fingertips to help us better know and understand Truth. Our Catholic Faith is something built on both faith and reason; as we enter into public discourse, let’s make sure to use both. We can argue things from reason, and thus need to be well-formed intellectually if we are to be ready to engage in debate when necessary; prudence would dictate when and how. More importantly, however, are we ourselves living out what we preach in our daily lives? If not, we fall short of being a witness to Truth. And that makes all the difference.

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.