The other day, I found myself in a cramped waiting room dominated by a television much too large and loud for the space. After the third or fourth depressing “newsworthy” tidbit in a row, an old man glanced over at me and smiled ruefully.
“Why can’t they have a whole channel that only plays the good news?” he asked. “I’d like to watch that one for a change.”
I returned the man’s smile, and we settled back into a sort of fatigued silence.
Constant bad news, especially in the Church, is emotionally exhausting. And this past year has been particularly depressing, with a steady stream of headlines that have left Catholics hurt, confused, numb, and betrayed. This year’s litany of bad news has further bruised many good Catholics already spiritually anguished by the inroads of modernism and relativism that have plagued our parishes for more than a century.
I have found over the past year that my fellow Catholics often remind each other of all the other times evil has entered the Church. Remembering the pillaging iconoclasts, the Avignon Exile, the excesses of the Borgia popes, has been a healthy reminder that our troubling times are not unique in Church history. The Barque of Peter has weathered many storms in its two thousand years. The gates of Hell shall not prevail… but it sure feels as if they have won more than their fair share of battles lately. Why can’t we watch that good news channel for a bit?
But as Advent is now upon us, and we look forward to the birth of The Good News Himself, I find myself responding in another way. All of this bad news is necessary for us exiles in the vale of tears to truly experience the real joy of good news. As St. Augustine put it, “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.”
Towards the end of his pivotal essay, “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien introduces the concept of “eucatastrophe,” the sudden, unexpected, joyous turn of events. The world may be dark, the news increasingly evil, but the happy endings of fairy stories deny the pessimism of a “universal final defeat.” The eucatastrophic moment gives us “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
It is very tempting to view history as an inexorable march toward a particular earthly end—with no sudden turns allowed. Many of our fellow Christian denominations have fully surrendered to the evil of the times, and any sudden turn from ruin seems like a naive wish. The bad news stacks up; the culture war gets harder to fight; the list of allies grows ever shorter. I know many Catholics who harbor similar fears—is there any going back, once certain bridges have been burned? The deck—and the College of Cardinals—might seem stacked against Tradition, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy.
Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe is vital to combating such dangerous pessimism. Eucatastrophe is not found in grand events only: the fleeting glimpse of Joy can be found in tiny corners as well. One of my favorite scenes in The Lord of the Rings is when Frodo and Sam encounter the desecrated statue of one of the old kings. Orcs have decapitated it and have placed a lewd object on the crumbling shoulders. These days, I cannot help but recall the modernist wreckage inflicted on the beautiful interiors of many churches. There are orcs to be found outside the borders of Mordor.
Frodo finds the king’s head hidden in the weeds, crowned by star-shaped flowers and sunlight. Inspired, the hobbit exclaims, “They cannot conquer forever!” The moment passes, the sun sets, and night falls again. But Frodo has seen the promise of Joy unsoiled.
Tolkien has been accused of unrealistic optimism, but he was more than casually acquainted with bad news. Most of his readers are, of course, familiar with his deep suffering during both world wars. However, those wars perhaps did not pain him as deeply as did the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. A faithful son of the Church and a daily communicant, Tolkien agonized over the enthusiastic abuse and iconoclasm that ravaged the Church in the 60s and 70s. He confided in a letter to one of his sons that Mass, which had been an oasis of peace in the midst of the storm, was now an occasion of sorrow and anger. Still, he was there every day, on his knees.
Tolkien drew his idea of eucatastrophe from the real world, created by God, and only included it in his fantasy world because it is and must be true. The connection between the promise of victory in Tolkien’s world and that in our own is most overt in the story of Eärendil in The Silmarillion. Faced with utter defeat and abandonment, the mariner Eärendil sailed to Valinor to beg for help. The Valinor (godlike beings who themselves are the created servants of the One) answered his prayer by setting him in a celestial boat to become the Morning Star.
The Morning Star can be found in both Tolkien’s world and ours—you might know it better as the planet Venus. It sets just as the sun rises (hence the Morning Star) and appears again just as the sun sets (hence its other name, the Evening Star). As the Morning Star, Eärendil becomes a symbol of hope for the children of Middle Earth: a “light in dark places, when all other lights go out.”
Tolkien took both the image of the Morning Star and the name Eärendil from an Anglo-Saxon poem celebrating the advent of Christ. Traditionally attributed to the poet Cynewulf, “Christ I” hails the star Earendel as the brightest angel sent to shine over the men of our middle earth. The Morning Star, unlike the “fixed stars,” wanders through the sky as if sent on a celestial errand. For Cynewulf, this errand is, of course, the eucatastrophic moment of the birth of Christ. Tolkien echoes and honors this moment in his own mythological use of Eärendil as a beacon of hope and joy in the darkness.
There are many examples of eucatastrophe at work in history. Secular histories might downplay them, but thousands of earth-shattering turns have given the lie to pessimism. The unlooked-for victory at the siege of Vienna, Pope Leo’s courageous meeting with Attila the Hun, the miraculous intervention at the Council of Nicea where Athanasius stood against the world: all eucatastrophic moments. There is no time so evil that eucatastrophe cannot give victory to the faithful who endure. There are also thousands of tiny glimmers of Joy that creep into our own lives to remind us to not lose hope. Tolkien reminds us that God can speak to us with a whisper—in flowers—as well as with thunder.
Those of us who feel abandoned, alone, spiritually shivering on the battlements and trenches of the culture wars, would do well to gaze up into the heavens and find the starry messenger of Joy. The bad news may be incessant. The dark may be drawing near. But eucatastrophe is the foundation of our Catholic faith. Advent is here, and our Morning Star is with us. The light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.