There be dragons!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

An Exchange

This was a recent exchange with a student:

Hi Mr. A,

I was just procrastinating (my last final is a take-home due tomorrow morning), and I was reading through your Tolkien quotes via your blog. I happened to notice the one I was expecting to find wasn't there. I'm sure you've read it before and perhaps didn't think it fit among the quotes about LOTR and his other works... So on the off-chance you actually haven't stumbled upon it, I thought I'd share it with you. And if you have, I figure it's always great to read some beautiful thoughts on the Eucharist. It comes from a letter he wrote to his son, I believe:

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, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires.

Sincerely,
A Studentia

Dear Studentia. How excellent to hear from you. Do stop by and witness all the wonderful produce of my teeming brain and all the gripes fit to share with grads.

About the Tolkien quotation: I don't recall if or why that quotation was excluded, possibly the author of the blog was unfamiliar with the corpus of JRRT's work (including his letters). For my part, that quotation has always had a place with the other great words about the Eucharist. Tolkien, unlike Lewis, had a phenomenal vision about what the world was and how love should relate to it; perhaps born of his suffering at the Somme, perhaps simply a byproduct of his remarkable literary intellect. One of the most striking things about the quotation is that it is in the context of a letter to his son about girls and relationships. How, then, did Tolkien view the conjugal relationship, romance, marriage, and the Eucharist as interconnected? I certainly think he did. The Eucharist is “…the one great thing to love on earth…” but not the wafer; rather “the Blessed Sacrament.” So what does that mean? What is the sacramental vision of life? Is it that, as Hopkins said, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” or as Aquinas pointed out the world and everything in it is good? Test all things and retain what is good, said the Medievals. Sacramental vision means that one sees the order, structure, and goodness of the world even amidst the “horror and frustration” the filth and disappointment; amidst pedaphiliac priests and indifferent congregations – even in the midst of the mire of man’s sweatiness, there too is the Christian divinity “... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth…” The focus must remain on the Eucharist and one clings tenaciously to that vision that man is inherently good, the world is inherently good, despite every sorrow that speaks contrary to this. Moreover, one is not simply Pollyannish in this vision, for the vision is one that also finds “Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all.” We find beauty, joy, sorrow, pleasure, love, terror, success and failure, all drawn toward the person of Christ and thus made comprehensible.

There was a time when I ceased to believe in the Divine Presence… that we consume a wafer of bread? That we venerate a wafer of bread? To do a double kneel to the wafer of bread in a monstrance? How preposterous, silly, infantile. Such thoughts still plague me on bad days, but here’s the deal; the wafer of bread, like all created things, has a connection to the divine realm --- it has become the representative of all things as charged with the divine presence of the LOGOS, the order. Thus it isn’t the bread I venerate, it is the LOGOS, of which the bread is but a conduit or representative. “Why bread and not cheese?” asks the skeptic. But that’s the point. As all created things are connected to the divine, each thing has in its construct a reason and purpose, a symbolic quality; trees are trees and eggs is eggs. Why? Why is an egg eggie? Why is a tree “treeish”? And what is it about bread in that shape with that quality that separates it from a loaf or a shoe or a dog? Why is man man? If the LOGOS has a purpose it’s purpose is learned by looking at the creations and asking such questions as “what makes the red man red?” Bread and not cheese is the perfect representation for a something which the LOGOS wants to make manifest and it’s my job to figure out what that thing is; in fact, it’s my salvation and eternal lifelong task to figure out what that thing is. Sure, there are questions in the back of the head which gnaw at belief and threaten to overthrow all religious sentiment, but the real questions are not “why ought I to believe this crap?” but rather, “how does my belief and the understanding of that belief strengthen who I am? What must I do? Why is a dog not a god?” The threat of these questions is like looking into death; confronting a dragon, or that evil force that wants us to despair and fail (like the Nazgul lord at the gates of Minas Tirith or Sauron in his dark tower probing Amon Hen). But I must allow that peering into death question if I am to also be open to the honest questions which make a man a man. As Tolkien put it “…and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires." All is beauty, all is gift, all is love, and that sustains me (and, I hope, contributes a bit to my salvation).

Thanks for the letter.

Stop by anytime.

AbecedariusRex

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