What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.

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Easter, 2014

hughest-1896-mary-at-tomb.jpg

Go ye forth, His Saints, to meet Him!
Go with lamps in every hand!
From the sepulchre He riseth:
Ready for the Bridegroom stand:
And the Pascha of salvation
Hail, with His triumphant band.

From Ode V of the Golden Canon of St. John Demascene

Against the dull calumnies of the modern scholar, his mind woven about with clichés as it were with the chains of Mephistopheles; against the hoary heresies, which even in their dotage blow vainly upon their trumpets in an endlessly repeated refrain; against the tumults of Men, and the proud legions of Revolution in their mighty thousands; against all these stands the central Fact of the Christian religion: the empty tomb.

The fountain of what the Christian man calls joy is this single instant in the river of time. On this bitter point is balanced the whole hope of his civilization. What the Christian man calls his faith rests on the real intersection of myth and history, and that is why he is both more mythological and more philosophical in his orientation than either the pagan seer or the Marxian historian. His form of worship was a liberation, justified by his knowledge of this singular Fact, which even in the glory of the rites is recounted through the most un-poetical recitation of historical witness.

Thus the empty tomb is not only a Fact of history, but a mythical Sign of the door left open to us which, if we but follow Christ, will lead us out from this present darkness to light and life eternal. Not since the flight of the Israelites from Egypt was so great a hope given such sweet and simple sustenance.

May that hope light you home and give you joy during this time of triumph and of exaltation. A Happy Easter season to all!

Comments (24)

Thanks for such a lovely Easter meditation, Sage.

A glorious Easter to all!

He is Risen!

Happy Easter, Sage (and all our friends here).

Thanks so much for this Sage and a belated thanks to Lydia for her powerful Good Friday post.

I'm lucky to have such wonderful colleagues.

God bless you all and Happy Easter!

Don't touch me! Noli me tangere

Thank you, Sage, for an excellent Easter meditation.

He is risen indeed!

Christ is risen!

Indeed He is risen!

Thus the empty tomb is not only a Fact of history, but a mythical Sign of the door left open to us which, if we but follow Christ, will lead us out from this present darkness to light and life eternal. Not since the flight of the Israelites from Egypt was so great a hope given such sweet and simple sustenance.

I had before never noticed quite so distinctly the descent of the Israelites into the bed of the Red Sea as a type of the tomb. Certainly the "redness" of the Red Sea serves as a prefigurement of being washed in the blood of the Lamb. Or maybe what we see is that the symbol of the washing and cleansing is itself tied to the symbol of the death and rising up again: as we have in the reading from St. Paul for the Easter Vigil Mass, being baptized (and thus washed) is being baptized into Christ's death and into His resurrection, and thus the Red Sea and the baptism at Jordan are not only types of baptism but also of voluntary death and resurrection, all at once.

Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. [Romans 6:3]

And, no doubt, this informed Tolkien's "Paths of the Dead" sub-plot, in which Aragorn shows his power even over the dead, and Gimli portrays the virtue of going forward on faith (and love) without any sense of personal security of life on the path.

Sage, this is one of the nicest depictions I have seen of the women approaching the tomb. Good job.

Tony, I thought it was a really bracing work. It's He is Risen (1896), by Arthur Hughes. I wish very much I had a print of it for my house.

Thank you for that explication, too. It's made for interesting discussion here. :)

As for Tolkien, there's also Gandalf's passage into the black tomb of Moria, during which he descends into the abyss, does battle with the Balrog, and arises again in the second act, transfigured and clothed in white. It's interesting that he does not settle on one "Christ figure," which really was not his style, but permits all his heroes to emulate Christ through their own trials. (It's also interesting that alone of all the heroes in the story, Frodo actually fails, his quest being achieved only by Providence and the friendship of Samwise Gamgee.)

It's also interesting that alone of all the heroes in the story, Frodo actually fails, his quest being achieved only by Providence and the friendship of Samwise Gamgee.

And, very importantly, the mercy he repeatedly showed to Gollum. Indeed, in a way Sam jeopardized the whole quest by treating Gollum the way he did. I believe Tolkien said that if Sam has treated Gollum well he still would have bitten off the ring, but instead of trying to steal it for himself he would have cast himself into the fire willingly.

LotR is fascinating because nothing that happens in it is truly black or white or truly cookie cutter. In the first half of the book we have a figure risen from the dead and riding to Gondor as a savior to herald the coming of the new King, and ultimately the best he can do is hope that maybe, if they're lucky, they'll distract Sauron enough so that two hobbits can literally crawl their way to Mount Doom and complete the quest. His biggest role in the story of the ring is ultimately, with all of his power and wisdom, as a decoy.

And the quest was completed because of the mercy shown to a wretched creature and two hobbits who refused to stop crawling.

And, very importantly, the mercy he repeatedly showed to Gollum.

That's quite true, the mercy shown earlier is critical. From Gandalf's foreshadowing of Gollum's role to Frodo's mercy to Sam's reaction to Gollum, this is a very important role.

I have, in the last few years, been troubled by Tolkien's portrayal of what appears to be Frodo's moral failure in the last moment of his trial, as if Tolkien were suggesting that grace cannot not "make good" by fixing the defect in the will, but rather (at least sometimes) by fixing the event's outcome in spite of the defect in the will. And maybe this is indeed how God acts to make right some of the ills of creation, but since the ills of the moral and spiritual order are to the ills of the physical order as the infinite is to the infinitesimal, such a fixing would seem to be superficial. Why couldn't Tolkien have made Gollum's attack alter, or prevent, Frodo's moment of final temptation so that he instead had a burst of repudiation of the ring's power?

I am a naive and superficial fellow, so I often find that I am no good at all in discerning the second or third layer of conceptual portrayal that an author has. I suppose I am missing something. Sure, as Sage suggests, Tolkien has numerous characters who come right in different ways. I assume that Frodo's choice at the Crack of Doom is the climactic choice, and I would suppose that Frodo’s failure to reject the ring’s temptation is, like Eve’s and then Adam's, a moral failure of world-shattering dimension…except that it doesn’t. Shatter the world, that is. The mercy Frodo shows earlier is what providentially allows for there to be a Gollum who makes the event come out right even though Frodo chooses ill. Couldn't Tolkien have had Gollum "providentially" present, two moments earlier, enough of a goad to Frodo that Frodo rejects the ring and throws it in, as a completely different kind of mercy?

In the end Frodo cannot be healed of his hurt in Middle Earth, he must travel to the Blessed Realm for that. Is the hurt really that of his ill choice, of which forgiveness can only be had from a higher power? That sits poorly with me, since the higher powers across the sea are not "The One", Iluvatar, but rather the high archangelic Valar. The kind of fixing that Christ does to men in the world is one in which, eventually, man's will has the defect removed in the crucible of fire, so that the will itself becomes orderly. Where is this fixing done in LoTR, if not in Middle Earth?

I think what we see at the Crack of Doom is Tolkien's ultimate understanding of grace. Frodo was mortal. He was a creature. He literally could not do it.

Frodo, though a hobbit, was really like all humans. None of us can do it. We're all going to fail in the end.

UNLESS...

Unless...

We, perhaps, love our enemies, treat the weak with compassion, and understand that in the grand scheme of things our role is ultimately slight, and creatures like Gollum are a part of God's creation as well.

Yes, Frodo failed. But the quest succeeded, and it succeeded because, ultimately, the mercy repeatedly shown to Gollum was not a "normal" sort of mercy. Bilbo, and Gandalf, and Frodo several times over would have been more than justified in killing Gollum. He was a constant threat and a menace. But they did not, and ultimately God used their mercy in order to finish what they could not.

Right now I'm having trouble articulating it, but what I'm trying to get at is that the book echoed life. We can't do it. The Old Testament is proof of this. We will fail, and ultimately we only "succeed" because of God's mercy, not because we complete the quest ourselves. Like Christ's mercy, Frodo's had a salvific power. Frodo was not God, and ultimately he himself could not truly save Gollum, but like God's mercy it is Frodo's mercy that allows the journey to be completed - not his strength.

We are called to carry our crosses, but more importantly we are called to trust that, when we fail, God will not. And there lies meaning in the Resurrection: It is a perverse event representative of the ultimate human failure, the result of sin and an all-consuming reminder of the tragedy of the human condition. For millenia mankind has tried to figure out a way to "conquer death". But we failed; we couldn't do it. We followed Christ to the Garden and fell asleep, or we washed our hands of his death, or we joined the cheering mob at the release of Barabbas.

But Christ completed the journey for us. He conquered death Himself, and therein lies our salvation.

An interesting note from Tolkien himself:

I think that an effect of [Gollum's] partial regeneration by love would have been a clearer vision when he claimed the Ring. He would have perceived the evil of Sauron, and suddenly realized that he could not use the Ring and had not the strength or stature to keep it in Sauron’s despite: the only way to keep it and hurt Sauron was to destroy it and himself together — and in a flash he may have seen that this would also be the greatest service to Frodo.

Frodo in the tale actually takes the Ring and claims it, and certainly he too would have had a clear vision – but he was not given any time: he was immediately attacked by Gollum

Perhaps, given time, Frodo WOULD have succeeded, in a sense, after all....

At any rate, I always thought the most problematic aspect of LotR was the orcs and their salvific state. Tolkien, I've heard, struggled mightily with this, and I think eventually came to the conclusion that certain orcs who hadn't yet been completely sucked dry of all hope might have a chance at salvation, though they'd be incredibly few in number.

Sorry, up until right after the bolded part should be blockquoted.

Fixed the blockquote.

MA, I can certainly see that Tolkien is concerned with the necessity of grace. We CANNOT do it on our own, and you are right that the Old Testament is a picture of that truth writ large. What I doubt is that this makes sense of the way Frodo's choice is depicted.

None of us can do it. We're all going to fail in the end.

On our own, we are all going to fail. But we are not all on our own. We have grace that lifts us - lifts us not only extrinsically by allowing us to reach the end (purpose) of the journey, but lifts us interiorly, lifts up our wills to the strength needed to choose arightly on the journey. Thus: Abram rightly chose to sacrifice Isaac, Daniel rightly stood up to Darius in the face of the lion's den, etc.

Maybe Tolkien is showing that if we are left in the state of constant torture, we are certainly going to give in eventually. Everyone has a limit to how much torture he can hold out against. But this too is problematic: If it is really pain and pain alone that pushes us beyond our limit, then we cease to be responsible for the act, torture allows pain to overcome reason itself, and it becomes no longer a free human choice. Whereas with insidious temptations what is precisely so awful is that eventually the tempter wears down not our rationality but our will to do the good, so that we FREELY choose to do the evil thing. The insidiousness of temptation is that IT DOES NOT undermine the freedom of the will. And what is troubling about depicting Frodo to show that "everyone fails in the end" is that what is spiritually more true is that eventually grace will come and put a stop to the temptation, nobody is tempted beyond the limits of their strength as aided by grace. It would be truer to life for Tolkien to show Frodo's temptation being interfered with - even to be blocked by a separate evil, such as by Gollum attacking.

Unless Tolkien is trying to show us something about sin and forgiveness. But I am not seeing in how the story plays out that Frodo's aftermath is that of guilt and then being forgiven.

and suddenly realized that he could not use the Ring and had not the strength or stature to keep it in Sauron’s despite: the only way to keep it and hurt Sauron was to destroy it and himself together

This too is troubling. It might well depict the real kinds of things people do, but it is not a real kind of depiction of regeneration by love. At least, it isn't a fully regenerated soul that realizes "I have not the power to to keep the ring in the face of Sauron's might, so in order for me to keep the ring I have to destroy myself and the ring together.

The part where he wills to "keep the ring" is an unregenerated soul - he could have just as well decided to let go the ring and throw it in the fire, and live. Tolkien's alternative picture of Gollum is like that of pagan princesses who kill themselves to prevent someone from raping them. This is precisely contrary to the righteous Susanna's (in the Book of Daniel):

Let me rather fall into your power through no act of mine, than commit sin in the Lord’s sight.

And St. Augustine in the City of God shows that the pagan Roman women who killed themselves to prevent their rape were not acting virtuously by doing so.

Hmmmm, I'm looking at it differently then, Tony. I look at Gollum as the instrument of grace in this case, made even more symbolically relevant because the mere fact that he exists at this point of the tale is because of the mercy showed to him by people like Bilbo and Frodo and Gandalf.

We say that Frodo failed, and in a major way this is true, but God simply did not let his actions be in vain.

Perhaps this can be looked at as a particularly Catholic "through works and not by faith alone" interpretation of salvation...

I see Gollum as an instrument of grace too - just grace of a different sort. And explanatorily for the story this comes about because of the mercy shown him. We agree on that part.

What do you make of Frodo's comment after the Scouring of the Shire that they went out to save the Shire and indeed the Shire was saved, but it wasn't saved "for" everyone, like him?

I don't see Frodo's failure of will at the Cracks of Doom as any more problematic than Peter's failure of will in his denial of Christ in that most important hour. In both cases, the role of Providence is made more clear and poignant. And in both cases, Providence turns the marring of good things (Roman law & the Levitical priesthood on one hand and Smeagol on the other) into sources of salvation at the precise moment when all appears lost. The Eagles also were a sign of Providence, and it's notable that even Samwise the Steadfast did not have strength enough in him to complete the quest without their aid. And anyway, we don't know what Frodo's final choice would have been.

The way I see it, these things do become more problematic if we want to interpret the text as more allegorical than thematic, but of course the reverse is true, as Tolkien was at pains to emphasize.

Gollum's role in advancing these themes is crucial, and there's a sense in which the story is about him more than it is about Frodo--indeed there's a sense in which it is much more about the nature of evil than it is about good, which is why it is called The Lord of The Rings. That's of course a reference to Sauron (whom we never see), and not to Frodo (whom we follow throughout). The title is also interesting because it is ironical, and it is Gollum who brings this out. Gollum is a slave to his desire for the Ring, such that in his grasping he loses not merely the object of his desire, but himself also (which is why he no longer can say "I," but only "we," like the daemoniac). In his revelry he casts himself into the fire, thus destroying both himself and the thing of his desire. Anyone who would be "lord" will suffer this fate, which is why Denethor casts himself into the flames (the fact that the film version changed this to have Gandalf kill him instead demonstrates the screen writers' complete incomprehension of the major themes of the book).

So I'd say that if for reasons of thematic purpose, Tolkien thought it necessary to permit Frodo to fail in that moment, it shouldn't trouble us overmuch.

Oh, one other thought: If we want to look to a character who demonstrates a non-fatalistic, or non-deterministic, conception of grace, we can always look to Samwise. He had the title of Ring-bearer as well, but freely gave it up. But we can't look to that for ultimate or final vanquishing of evil.

Sage, I agree that we shouldn't try to put an allegorical model on LotR, given TOlkien's distaste for allegory. And I wasn't attempting to draw that sort of parallel with Frodo, sorry if I gave that impression.

I don't see Frodo's failure of will at the Cracks of Doom as any more problematic than Peter's failure of will in his denial of Christ in that most important hour.

Well, not any more problematic, but not less, either. There is a tradition (or maybe pious myth) that Peter had tear tracks driven into his face for the rest of his life, from his grief at failing our Lord and the Truth so signally at the moment the world stood still. Certainly for Peter, the event was a critical moment, and without assuming forgiveness, Peter would never have come out of the disaster. Without forgiveness, Peter's failure would have ended like Judas's. But Tolkien doesn't seem to craft either a person to do the forgiving nor a manner for forgiveness to show up as an explicit part of the story.

Well, he did lose his finger...

"...Frodo of the nine fingers and the Ring of Doom..."

He had the title of Ring-bearer as well, but freely gave it up.

I thought this once too...but not quite, actually! When it comes time for him to give the Ring back to Frodo, Sam hesitates and tells him that it might be a good idea for them to share the burden. Frodo actually snatches the Ring from Sam unwillingly.

Obviously Sam thought his intentions pure, but it just goes to show exactly how powerful the Ring's influence was at that point.

Bilbo, by story's end, remains the only Ring-Bearer to give up the Ring willingly. Grudgingly perhaps, but willingly.

I've long thought that Frodo's failure was, among other things, a blow against Pelagianism. On the other hand, I don't think JRRT was a Jansenist, so "deterministic" notions of Providence probably don't apply.

Interestingly enough, these same questions often come up when discussing Flannery O'Connor's fiction. The sense of drivenness in her narrative style can be confused with a driven, Jansenist understanding of grace: Christ not only follows you and stands on your porch knocking, but eventually will kick the door in if necessary. But I think that in both Tolkien and O'Connor grace is relentness, but not inexorable.

What do you make of Frodo's comment after the Scouring of the Shire that they went out to save the Shire and indeed the Shire was saved, but it wasn't saved "for" everyone, like him?

This is a common theme found in the "hero's journey". Now that Frodo has undergone this incredible ordeal and suffered this literally unbearable (as we have been discussing, he did in the end crack under the strain) temptation he can no longer be satisfied with "life as it was". Frodo is simply too damaged by his journey. Sam came out of the journey with much less psychological scarring, and thus he can enjoy the fruits of peace far better.

This isn't just a fictional phenomenon. We see this with war heroes all the time.

MA, I think there's something to the war analogy. Tolkien saw a lot of men of his generation who had gone off to defend their own little Shires only to come home too broken to enjoy the fruits of their victory. It was perhaps the cruelest of all the horrors of the Great War that so many who "survived" the trenches spent their remaining years in a sort of walking death.

Marc Ferro's The Great War includes this journal entry of one Lieutenant Gaudy, a French infantryman, describing the men lately returned from the front:

The men were now beyond speech; they no longer had strength even to complain; when they looked up at the roofs of the village, you could see in their eyes an abyss of grief, a petrification through dust and strain. These dumb faces proclaimed a martyrdom of hideous proportions. Territorials beside me looked on and wept, silently like women. On the road back there was even some shelling, and these wretches were sometimes killed just when they thought they were safe.

Moreover, the men returned to a homefront that was transformed and in many ways unrecognizable, the old institutions and the old ways laid waste. In a sense the home they had left behind was now gone, and the good things they fought so hard to preserve, they could never again taste in life. Britain was saved, but not "for them."

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