Friday, March 8, 2019

II. Can the Singer Enter the Tale? Tolkien and the Sacraments, Part 3

In this series of posts, I am trying to articulate what might be called a "language of beauty."

In the first post in the series, I shared a rather autobiographical prologue of my early awakenings to beauty in the world and in the Word.

In the second post in the series, I laid some groundwork in the form of a thesis: The classical Christian approach to art, poetics, and wonder must be understood in light of the Incarnation. The great Christian artists have possessed something I have called the "sacramental imagination" that was born out of the basic confidence that the world (created or sub-created) could be a real means of communion with God. In other words, if there is a Christian "language" of beauty, the sacraments are its grammar.

In the previous two posts, I began an examination of how this "sacramental imagination" works itself out in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Today's post concludes those reflections.


I would argue, the thing that held all of this together for Tolkien was the Blessed Sacrament itself: the Holy Eucharist. Writing once to one of his sons, who was undergoing a crisis of faith, he said,
“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 on earth…” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p.53)
Elsewhere, speaking of a dark period in his life and of his own failings as a father, he wrote,
“But I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning – and by the mercy of God never have fallen out again: but alas! I indeed did not live up to it…Out of wickedness and sloth I almost ceased to practice my religion – especially at Leeds, and at 22 Northmoor Road. Not for me the Hound of Heaven, but the never-ceasing silent appeal of Tabernacle, and the sense of starving hunger. I regret those days bitterly (and suffer for them with such patience as I can be given); most of all because I failed as a father. Now I pray for you all, unceasingly, that the Healer (the Hælend as the Saviour was usually called in Old English) shall heal my defects, and that none of you shall ever cease to cry Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.” (Ibid. no. 250).
Between this, and the Reformed-Puritanical-Protestant approach to worship, there lies a fundamental epistemological difference. As a devout Roman Catholic (and particularly a pre-Vatican II Catholic), Tolkien did not go to Church to meet God merely in a sermon, but in a sacrament--not with his head only, but with his whole being. The Eucharist, like every Sacrament (and perhaps especially as the Sacrament of Sacraments), is the Recovery of the ordinary to its proper place. In it, the materials of bread and wine are caught up into the true myth of the God-Man who gave himself for all and on behalf of all. And even though the elements be changed, yet we are never quite able to look at "ordinary" bread and wine the same way again.

Flannery O’Connor, another Catholic author who wrote numerous times on her deep love for the Eucharist (and who attended Mass daily), said once that anyone who expects a writer to preach does not believe in the sacredness of the writer’s calling. The Evangelical really does expect the writer to preach just as he expects the preacher to preach. But for Tolkien, creation and sub-creation require not just a mind, but an Incarnate mind. To really experience truth we must live it, we must meet it in the flesh.

So Tolkien didn’t make sermons. He made myths. In doing so he worked out his absolute confidence in the Incarnation, of humanity caught up into the Godhead, and he had the virtue to Hope that by doing so he might restore his own humanity—and ours—to its priestly role by partaking in the sacramental act of sub-creation.

That is what he means by the closing lines of On Fairy Stories,
So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

Currently reading: For the Life of the World, Fr Alexander Schmemann
Current audio book: The Brothers Karamazov
Currently translating: The Aeneid, Virgil

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