Most of us will never be Aragorns, or Gandalfs, or Frodos, or even Sam Gamgees. The vast majority of us will be the hobbits who never really understood what was going on and perhaps were even oblivious to the danger they were saved from by the heroism of a few unknown adventurers fighting a long, long way from home. But the temptation to be distracted from our own precious plots of land is terrible, as every man, looking into his pocket palantír, sees the forces of evil arrayed to destroy the world he loves.
What can we do? How can we avoid abandoning our duty to follow a call to save the world which is not rightly ours? We can do this by rediscovering how the small material realities—because of our Lord’s incarnation—can “become part of a large business which may lead to Beatitude”; how weak and fragile things are actually stronger and more enduring than the machinations of those who seem powerful in this world.
In an essay entitled “A Remaining Christmas,” Catholic apologist, historian, and political theorist Hilaire Belloc wrote of the way cherished and venerable Christmas traditions can give continuity and solace to the transient and sorrowful events of mortal life. Belloc lists a multitude of bereavements which plague the life of man: “The threats of despair, remorse, necessary expiation, weariness almost beyond bearing, dull repetition of things apparently fruitless, unnecessary and without meaning, estrangement, the misunderstanding of mind by mind.”
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Knowing that Belloc lost two of his sons in the World Wars adds poignancy to his words as he continues to his climax, writing that despite the sorrow of
young men perished in battle before their parents had lost vigour in age, the perils of sickness in the body and even in the mind, anxiety, honour harassed, all the bitterness of living—become[s] part of a large business which may lead to Beatitude.
This quotation of Belloc’s is an excellent and poetic statement of the incarnational reality of our religion: sanctity is acquired and God glorified through the ordinary and difficult things of life; and not only the ordinary and difficult things but the beautiful and joyful aspects as well.
In our day and age, when incredible confusion and darkness permeate every level of society, it is easy to forget this truth. Between political corruption, the push for a global reset by who knows who, and Pope Francis’ universal synod, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the small and weak things of this world have been made powerful by the incarnation of our Lord. St. Paul writes,
But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong. And the base things of the world, and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen, and things that are not, that he might bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his sight. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)
This truth is wonderfully depicted in Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien’s hobbits are quintessentially domestic and unadventurous. Yet, as Gandalf repeatedly remarks, there is more to a Hobbit than meets the eye. Despite their quiet and rustic lives, hobbits have hidden strengths, unknown even to themselves. When the Ring comes into the hands of Frodo, we see a symbol of concentrated, duplicitous evil falling into the care of the simplest folk of Middle-earth. But though Frodo and his three hobbit companions eventually save their world from Sauron, the rest of the inhabitants of the shire have little or no part in the epic. They remain tending their fields and families, oblivious to the looming disaster.
Do we fault them for this? No. They were doing their own duty, following their own vocation. Frodo would have done the same had he not been approached by Gandalf. He did not choose to be Ring-bearer. Few of us will be Ring-bearers. And when we are, it will not be because we chose that role. Rather, the majority of us are called to be fathers and mothers, siblings and friends. We must work in our own small field to nurture the world’s future through loving our families and Catholic heritage, through teaching the truth, and creating beauty and order as best we can. Though the book focuses on the fellowship, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings does offer a few poignant and beautiful passages which can help and encourage us in our stay-at-home hobbit lives.
After the battle of Helm’s Deep, King Théoden marvels at the Ents who assisted in the battle, having thought them only creatures of legend. Gandalf replies,
You should be glad, Théoden King, for not only the little life of Men is now endangered, but the life also of those things which you have deemed the matter of legend. You are not without allies, even if you know them not.
Théoden responds with one of Tolkien’s most true and sorrowful passages:
“Yet also I should be sad,” said Théoden. “For however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass for ever out of Middle-earth?” “It may,” said Gandalf. “The evil of Sauron cannot be wholly cured, nor made as if it had not been. But to such days we are doomed. Let us now go on with the journey we have begun!”
It is true, I think, that the modern world has seen the destruction of things which will never be again. And more is destroyed every day. But that does not mean we are permitted to despair, as Denethor does:
Didst thou think that the eyes of the White Tower were blind? Nay, I have seen more than thou knowest, Grey Fool. For thy hope is but ignorance. Go then and labour in healing! Go forth and fight! Vanity. For a little space you may triumph on the field, for a day. But against the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed. It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves.
To this diatribe, climaxing with “The West has failed,” Gandalf replies, “Such counsels will make the Enemy’s victory certain indeed.”
What are we to draw from all of this? We must know that we have allies whom we do not know; we must realize that much is passing from this world which we may be the last to preserve the memory of; and we must recognize that doubting the strength of our Western culture—founded upon Christendom—to the point of abandoning it will make the enemy’s victory all the more likely.
This disbelief in the riches of the West is, I think, at the heart of the failures and half-successes of so many modern apologetic and catechetical techniques of Catholics since the 1960s. It is also why so much of our patrimony was easily abandoned and is still insufficiently valued. If we really believed in the greatness of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, if we really believed in great sacred art, if we really believed in the Church’s traditional teaching on faith and morals, wouldn’t we be proud and excited to share them? Wouldn’t we expect them to attract people through their intrinsic truth and attractiveness?
Instead, we claim that we must “meet people where they are at,” “speak their own language,” or “become relatable.” We would never do this with a gourmet ice cream, a favorite brand of beer, or an exotic pizza topping. Instead, we would say, “You’ve got to try this” and then we’d force our friend to take a bite and see what he thinks. Likely as not, if he were not thrilled, we would say “What’s wrong with you?”
And yet, while we are confident enough in our tongue’s taste buds to foist ice cream, beer, or pizza on a friend, we are not confident enough in a 2,000-year-old tradition of arts, belief, and liturgy to offer it to modern man as something he might like. In fact, despite John Paul II’s admonition “Be not afraid,” we have been afraid of so much we have to offer.
But this brings us to my final point—that our task lies in the fields we know.
Gandalf says of the Ring, “If it is destroyed, then he [Sauron] will fall…And so a great evil of this world will be removed. Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary.” Then the wizard continues, perhaps formulating the battle cry and motto of all of us stay-at-home hobbits:
Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
Each of us has a field, each of us has years, each of us will have successors, students, and children in one way or another. For some—and perhaps this is the best way for most—it will be literal fields, years of hard work, and many children, all the fruit of dedication to land and family along the lines of the Catholic homestead. For others, there will be true if not literal fields of action and labor, perhaps shorter years, and other people influenced in a parental way through teaching, mentoring, or spiritual direction.
On another level, we must look within ourselves for evils to uproot. As Paul McGuire wrote in 1946, “There is a solution to the modern dilemma. It strangely is in the hands, heart and mind and will of every Christian” (Integrity: The Second Issue November 1946). For these fields are in our heart, and if there is any evil, we can always do something about, it is in ourselves.
When will we wean ourselves from the palantírs of smartphones and social media? When will we seed the ground of our souls with daily prayer? When will we deny ourselves and take up daily manual tasks to clean and order the spaces we live in? “We are the mediocre; we are the half-givers; we are the half-lovers; we are the savorless salt,” Caryll Houselander wrote so piercingly in her poem “Afternoon in Westminster Cathedral.” Let us regain our savor. Let us become full-givers and all-lovers.
But to whom, and of whom?
We are most obliged to give to and love our family. The obligation to love neighbor as self finds its fullest extent in our spouse and children, whom we have both unique and frequent ways of loving and giving ourselves to. Recognizing the “universal call to hobbitness” should give us an even fuller appreciation of this as we remind ourselves of how the incarnation has transformed the ordinary things of this life.
In an article on Catholic Worker principles, Donald Hessler wrote:
“It is a great law of nature and of grace,” writes Pius XII, “that similarity opens the door to rapprochement and to affection.” God became man to save man. Christ became a worker to save the workers. St. Francis and Peter Maurin became poor to save the poor. Thus the Incarnation is continued.
In our day and age, it is often humanity in its most fundamental aspects that needs to be saved; in the family, in the very nature of men and women. Let us become human again to save humanity. Let us love and respect our natures as men and women. Let us (as Dorothy Day says) be among those who are open to being inspired to “lower their standard of living and raise their standard of thinking and loving.” This need not be terribly unpleasant—for if Belloc’s sorrows become “part of the large business of beatitude,” Dorothy Day reminds us: “I believe firmly with St. Catherine of Siena that all the way to heaven is heaven, because He said ‘I am the Way.’”
Let us rediscover our families, our hearths, our fields, and ourselves by not being afraid either of the sublime realities of our faith, nor the most basic things of our humanity. Houselander’s poem weeps:
We have been afraid
of the searching ray
of the simple laws
of our own life.
we have feared
the primitive beauty
of human things—
and of birth
and of death.
These “human things” of “primitive beauty” may seem so weak in the face of the global zeitgeist. But these weak things of the world have been made strong. We have, in fact, the most powerful weapons against the globalized Saurons of our own day: morning kisses, scrambled eggs, campfire songs, homegrown vegetables, and crying children are more powerful than the best laid plans of the EU or UN, the most secret schemes of Bill Gates or Cardinal Roche.
These little things are full of grace because Mary became full of grace. The Lord was with her. And the Lord is with us; with us in the unconquerable Immemorial Mass; with us in our devotion to the liturgical year and traditional devotions like the Divine Office. As we enter this Advent fearing the advent of so many grotesque and fearsome events, perhaps we can make Houselander’s prayer our own:
Let us hunger and thirst;
let us burn in the flame;
break the herd crust
quicken in us
the sharp grace of desire.
Shine in us,
flame in us,
Fire of Love:
burn in us,