Concerning Tolkien’s faith, as depicted in letter 250…
Hey there fellow travelers! Welcome to The Tolkien Road, a long walk through the works and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien. On this episode, we begin a discussion of Tolkien’s letters by considering a 1963 letter he wrote to his son Michael. In this letter, Tolkien seeks to help Michael work through a period where he felt depressed. In doing so, Tolkien opens up about his own faith, and how he keeps his head afloat in the world. By the way, if you haven’t already, please leave The Tolkien Road a rating and feedback on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of the podcast. Enjoy the show!
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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?
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.  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.
1 – Just look for the soft glow of a little red candle. Christ is somewhere close by.
These days, there’s a lot of emphasis in Catholic circles on the importance of beauty in evangelism. I’m a big fan of this notion. Beauty has played a massive role in my faith from the time I was only a child. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe basically led me to make my first profession of faith in Christ.
However, I’m concerned that with it being repeated so often, the notion of the beautiful and its role in evangelization is in danger of becoming a cliché, a trite little saying that makes us all feel a little better but doesn’t really do anything for us. That would be tragic, because nothing else can fulfill the human desire for beauty like the Catholic Church. The bottom-line is, Catholics, wherever they are, can and should lead the charge of cultural renaissance and aim to effect every human being.
Most people would probably not associate the words “spiritual giant” with J.R.R. Tolkien, but in my mind, he is exactly that. Over the last few years, I have come to see so much insight and wisdom in Tolkien’s view of the world and of our humanity. Few people have influenced my faith and outlook like Tolkien.
Even before I was Catholic, I had begun to feel a spiritual kinship with J.R.R. Tolkien. There was just something about his ability to look at the world and see a “real magic” in it that captivated me. Since becoming Catholic, Tolkien has enriched my faith like few others. Here are five ways in which he has done so: