Concerning Tolkien’s Faith Pt 3: The Principle of the Eucharist


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. – Tolkien, Letters


Well before I was Catholic, I felt an allure to Catholicism via Tolkien. To this day, I attribute a substantial part of my conversion to his influence. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it was, but I believe it to have been something like the strange attraction of the Eucharist, an intuition of great profundities, of a never-ending realm of latent joy beyond all sorrow.

Like Catholicism itself, the heart of Tolkien’s faith was the Eucharist, what he calls here the Blessed Sacrament. The quote above, taken from a letter to his son Michael, serves as a final word on fatherly romantic wisdom. Simply put, Michael had asked his father for advice on women. What is particularly surprising about this quote then is how Tolkien does not make the Eucharist simply a matter of “happiness fulfilled,” a fairy-tale ending (as it were), but instead a way of seeing all realities finally fulfilled, even the harsh ones. After all, as soon as he claims that one will find noble and virtuous things such as “romance, glory, honour, and fidelity” in the Eucharist, he makes a great deal of the fact that in the Eucharist one will find “Death” as well. How can this be, and furthermore, how can this lead to happiness?

tolkien-eucharist
Última Cena – Joan de Joanes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Hidden Cosmos

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Indeed, in most cases, to walk into a Catholic sanctuary is to walk into the presence of the Eucharist. [1] Furthermore, to live as a Catholic is to center one’s life around the ritual way founded in it. The Catholic faith as a way of being begins and ends in the perpetual presence of Jesus Christ, the one who is “with us always.” The Church exists to serve the Eucharist, and she exists to receive it all the same. The Eucharist is a whole universe, a hidden new reality, in and of itself, drawing all things to itself.

What is the Eucharist? The simplest way to describe it is as the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. To the naked eye, it appears as simple bread and wine. To the eye of faith, it is beloved as the glorified body, blood, soul, and divinity of the Second Person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ himself. And this point is important, for though the Catholic admits the Eucharist to be a sacrifice, it is an unbloody sacrifice, a sacrifice made freely and out of love. It is the sacrifice that transcends and conquers death, yet passes through it all the same. It is divine food, that which is capable of elevating the human soul to the greatest heights of heaven. It is the humble food capable of transforming sinner to saint from the inside out.

A Happy Death

Thus, when Tolkien admits that “Death” is to be found in the Blessed Sacrament, he is not being morbid, but expounding upon the deep hope to be found therein: death leading to abundant life. Like the grain which must be ground down and the grape which must be trodden upon, so Christ must die in order to show forth His life-giving potential in the Resurrection. Like the bread and wine on a natural level, the Blessed Sacrament, the very presence of Christ, is the supernatural food that rises from destruction in order to give divine life to humanity.

It is also, as Tolkien identifies, the willing “surrender of all” that nonetheless leads to total fulfillment “of every man’s heart’s desires.” Why is this? Because though we must lose everything in order to gain Christ, in gaining Christ we gain the eternal, and the source of all things. To possess Christ is to possess the entirety of every good, even if now that possession seems hidden from our eyes, as Christ himself seems hidden in the Eucharist. 

Middle-earth’s Modus Operandi

It should come as no surprise then that Tolkien could speak of The Lord of the Rings as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” for in it we see time and again the same law in operation, that to die to oneself for the greater good is not really to lose one’s life but to gain it more fully (though perhaps not exactly as we would have imagined it). We find the ancient tale of Lúthien on the lips of Aragorn, the She-elf who gave her own immortality for the sake of her beloved, gaining for them both a greater glory yet unknown. We see the resurrection of Gandalf after his fall into the depths of Moria, no longer the Gray Pilgrim, but now the true White Wizard replacing the treacherous Saruman. And we see, of course, Frodo himself, the little hobbit with the weight of the world placed on his shoulders, losing the Shire but gaining the Blessed Realm.

For Tolkien, the Eucharist is the principle always in operation, the very “secret life in creation” drawing all things to their end. Indeed, throughout Tolkien, we find that wonderful, alluring, and strangely comforting paradox, that in order to gain and possess our life in full, we must be willing to lose it.

Where else do you see the “eucharistic principle” in Tolkien’s works? Please feel free to comment below.


FOOTNOTES

1  – Just look for the soft glow of a little red candle. Christ is somewhere close by.

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2 thoughts on “Concerning Tolkien’s Faith Pt 3: The Principle of the Eucharist

  1. I’d really like to understand that Tolkien quote better. I come from a Protestant faith tradition, but it was one that did Communion weekly. We understood it as being important and took it very seriously. But I’m not sure we would ever put it like he does, especially as he goes on to say a little later: “There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth”. I would say he is simply exaggerating, but I don’t think Tolkien would speak anything less than reverently about this subject. So there is something going on here I don’t understand!

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    1. The letter I reference is #43. It’s worth reading the whole thing to gain a deeper understanding of his meaning here.

      While I try to be careful about presuming to speak on his behalf, as a fellow Catholic I feel like I know where he’s coming from, and I think it would be inappropriate to call it exaggeration. Instead, I would say that he is speaking of the deep mystery of the Eucharist, of the Real Presence of Christ, and of the Catholic belief that in it we have, as it were, the nexus linking earth with heaven itself. It is difficult to wrap one’s head around, but in a way, I guess you could say that all of the work I’m trying to do with Tolkien somehow involves developing a Eucharistic understanding of his life’s work. I believe that his faith and his creativity were inextricably connected.

      I might also encourage you to investigate the many things the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about the Eucharist. This might be a good starting point. Hope that helps!

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