Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Sacraments of Middle Earth

Guest post by Isaac Fox

"...those who have dwelt in the Blessed Realm live at once in both worlds, and against both the Seen and the Unseen they have great power." "Yes, you saw him for a moment as he is upon the other side: one of the mighty of the Firstborn." Thus Tolkien has Gandalf describe the Elf-lord Glorfindel in The Fellowship of the Ring. 

I have long suspected J.R.R. Tolkien of being one who lived in both worlds at once. Witness his keen perception of and appreciation for both physical and spiritual realities. But I think that this is a common trait that is (or should be) shared by all Christians. And if  I may say this without being seen as indulging in some divisive prejudice, I find that this is especially observable in the Catholic Church. The Mass is seen as heaven on earth, the realities of the spiritual world intersecting and mingling with the clear realities of time and space. During the Sanctus we are called upon to realize that our voices singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" are truly joined with the voices of the angels as they sing in another realm. We are made to realize that we are living "at once in both worlds." And perhaps this is nowhere more true than in the Sacraments, those great mysteries of our Faith. We see the material reality of water poured out upon one's head, as Grace is simultaneously poured out into one's soul. A person can smell the incensed "oil of gladness", and  feel it upon upon one's hair and skin, as one is confirmed interiorly in Holy Spirit. We know that the Priest that absolves or consecrates is simply a stand-in; it is Christ absolving, Christ consecrating. And most of all, we may hopefully come to see our Lord hidden under the appearance of bread and wine.

What does all of this have to do with Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings? Simply this: I believe that Tolkien's works are fundamentally sacramental. I believe that a sacramental understanding underlies and breathes through page after page of Tolkien's works. It is easy to go to extremes in reading him. We may be tempted to deny any hint of allegory, since the author denied that his works were allegorical. But remember, he was insisting upon this in response to the idea that one of his chapters was meant to be an allegory of post-WWII England ("The Scouring of the Shire"). After all, in another place, Tolkien says that the books were "at first unconsciously, then later consciously Christian, and specifically Catholic." (Take the quotes loosely here, I'm quoting from memory, but I think it's fairly close.)  It is also possible to go to the other extreme and read too much into Tolkien's intentions and make the books strictly allegorical. But I do not think that it would  be wrong to recognize the underlying sacramentalism in the Trilogy.

I was deeply attracted to The Lord of the Rings as a boy, but for years I knew nothing about the author.

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Comments always welcome .  Here; or better yet, with Isaac himself.