The Choice of Suffering

LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

The Choice of Suffering

Well, I've said Catholicism is paradox friendly, right? How do you move from the enjoyment of creation found in Babette's Feast and the Shire to the monks beating themselves on the head with boards in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? I wouldn't pick the latter movie as a great example of the Catholic worldview on anything, but self-flagellation (whipping) was practiced in some Catholic religious orders until the mid-twentieth century even in the United States. For centuries, hair shirts were a reality for some pious lay people, because they could be worn undetected under "worldly" clothes.

A lot of this chosen suffering is specific to certain cultures, so I can't discuss it from inside the mindset. Some seems frankly bizarre, such as the men in the Philippines who undergo (non-fatal, but barely) crucifixion on Good Friday. I read an article, though, paralleling that practice with that of passionate Civil War re-enactors. Their exercises are also non-lethal, but they experience much of the same suffering as soldiers of that day: long marches in rain, cold, and oppressive heat while wearing nineteenth-century shoes; living in the open, with meager field rations; doing the hard physical labor needed for basically pre-technological warfare. When the author of the article asked the men why they do this, the answer was that it helped them feel closer to the men whose lives they act out. The shared suffering forms an emotional bond. It's not too difficult to see how, in some cultures, experiencing some of the same suffering as Jesus did would have a similar effect. It's not uncommon for organizations to raise money to feed the poor by having a fast; besides the money that would have bought the participants' food going instead to the poor, the organizations hope to form a bond of awareness with the hungry that will affect the participants' decisions in the future. During the first round of LotR cult status during the 1960's, there were readers who wore around their necks not beautifully inscribed and expensive rings but heavy small, metal objects, in order to experience some of what Frodo did. Like hair shirts, they were often worn under clothes; they weren't worn for show, but for the private effect they had on the individuals who wore them.

Another reason for choosing some forms of suffering - or, at least, self-denial - is that it's seen as spiritual exercise for the will. When the Catholic Church dropped the requirement of not eating meat on Fridays (except during Lent), it was replaced with the statement that individual Catholics should choose some practice that was specifically meaningful to them. Humans being what they are, a heckuvalotta Catholics don't seem to have heard the second part of the deal, and the more traditional Catholics who mourn the loss of meatless Fridays worry that we're becoming "soft" - which might be true. I find it interesting that some non-practicing Catholics* still religiously (pun intended) follow the custom of "giving up something for Lent," although they may not do anything else of a religious or spiritual bent all year; they evidently feel they gain something from the practice. I don't know if the argument's still going on in Catholic grade schools, but when I was in elementary school there was a yearly debate about which way of giving up candy for Lent was more difficult: passing up all candy opportunities for the 40 days or accepting candy that came your way but saving it for Easter. I won't go into the philosophical arguments on each side (and 8 year olds can be very philosophical), as you can figure them out yourself, but it was a matter of some importance that everyone thought the way that they did it was harder: like doing "boy" push-ups instead of "girl" ones.  

I was of the save-it-for-Easter sect. Having the candy around and not sneaking a bite of it now and then was more difficult than not having it at all. So it's kind of surprising that it wasn't until the movies came out that I realized how carrying the Ring in his pocket unused for seventeen years would have strengthened Frodo's will against it. One complaint many Tolkienites have about the movies is that Frodo gives in to the Ring too easily on some occasions. I don't think the movie-makers had this intent, but I chalk it up to movie-Frodo losing those seventeen years of will-strengthening abstinence.

If carrying the Ring unused in his pocket for seventeen years strengthened Frodo's will against it, I'd also suggest that carrying the label of "cracked" for most of his life helped prepare him to accept an even worse evaluation when he encourages the belief that he's leaving Bag End because he's run through all his (and Bilbo's) money. In The Shadow Returns, the first volume of the "History of Middle-earth" series that deals with the writing of LotR, Christopher Tolkien shares a note of his father's (penciled in quickly, as many of his important notes seem to have been) that sent a shiver down my spine the first time I read it. I believe the thought behind it is the quantum shift that changed Bingo, who leaves the Shire out of boredom, into Frodo, who leaves the Shire out of love. In the version of the story JRRT was then writing, Bingo is leaving because he wants an adventure and because he thinks he might find a treasure or, at least, be able to live more cheaply on the road than in the Shire - a consideration because he has run through all his money. The penciled-in note reads "Should Bingo spend all his money? Is it not better that he should be sacrificing something?" which is the part that gave me chills; the note continues, "...he must give out that he has spent it," which, of course, is the way the story was published.    

I'll end this part of the essay by noting that both of these Catholic-friendly reasons for choosing suffering - to bond with the suffering of others and to strengthen the will - are quite different from the thinking of Babette's Protestant neighbors, who see enjoyment of the senses as dangerous in its own right.  

But, in reality, that's the simple side of suffering. It gets complicated when choosing to undergo suffering is inseparable from choosing to love God and our neighbor.  

Jesus' word choice can be as precise as Tolkien's. He doesn't say a follower of his should "deny himself, pick up my cross, and follow me," but "deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me." In many ways, we don't have to go looking for suffering to choose because it turns up without an invitation. Chosen suffering is most useful when an area of life gets a bit too easy; if most Americans weren't so affluent, we wouldn't need improvised fasts in order to relate to the hungry. Some of the more traditional Catholic forms of chosen suffering came into being after Emperor Constantine ended the Roman persecution of Christians; when choosing to be Christian no longer carried the threat of imprisonment and death, many Christians felt the need to find other ways to express their commitment.

[More on how the end of the Roman persecution affected the concept of living a Christian life.]

Physical forms of self-imposed suffering aren't too popular today, even among Catholics. Is this because we're getting soft, as the traditionalists fear? That might be part of it, but I believe it's more related to the complexity of life these days, where simply living (or living simply) has plenty of challenges. I also believe that Christians have more challenges than most folks because we really do live in a secular, "post-Christian" society. We may not get thrown to the lions, but following Christian norms instead of societal norms isn't always easy. I work in genetic research at a Catholic University that meticulously follows Church guidelines on such things as stem cell research and cloning. Even when we work with other departments at the university on projects I'm not as familiar with as our own, I don't need to be concerned that I'm even indirectly contributing to the destruction of fetuses or the creation of a "clump of cells" - that I consider to be a human being - to be used as research material. A few years ago, I was asked to apply for a similar job at a much more prestigious institution - one whose name would be recognized even in non-scientific circles as being at the top of the game. More prestige, more money (both in pay and in research funding), even the chance to live closer to some of my long-distance friends. It was pretty exciting - and flattering. What's not to like? Until I started looking at their research projects and realized I couldn't in conscience be involved with some of them, even indirectly. So I'm still working where I have for a dozen years, at an institution whose name would be impressive to someone in my specific field but would draw blank stares from the world at large, writing grants and hunting for funding sources to try to keep the work going, and living with the reality that working at a Catholic school - even a university - pays less than working elsewhere.

I'm just giving an example, not asking for sympathy, because I think most Christians today face similar decisions, in such things as acceptable business practices, citizenship activities, investing and spending money (do you know what companies your 401K holds stock in?), personal relationships, family life, and just plain fitting in. We might have to accept the fact that to members of the predominant culture we do seem "cracked."

But suffering that comes as an inherent part of loving God and neighbor is also chosen suffering. We make those decisions through our free will, and there's usually a way out of the suffering - a way to drop our cross - if we decide to take it. That choice very often means abandoning someone (physically, emotionally, or spiritually), hiding the truth to protect ourselves, doing things we know will be harmful to ourselves and others because doing them is easier or more profitable at the time than avoiding them, and/or turning aside from the Road that God is calling us to because the way ahead looks too painful. The last one, especially, is a decision that members of the Fellowship had to make again and again. From "A Journey in the Dark," just after they have been forced to turn back from Caradhras:

'We cannot, of course, go on tonight,' [Gandalf] said. 'The attack on the Redhorn Gate has tired us out, and we must rest here for a while.'

'Then where are we to go?' asked Frodo.

'We still have our journey and our errand before us,' answered Gandalf. 'We have no choice but to go on, or to return to Rivendell.'

Pippin's face brightened visibly at the mere mention of return to Rivendell; Merry and Sam looked up hopefully. But Aragorn and Boromir made no sign. Frodo looked troubled.

'I wish I was back there,' he said. 'But how can I return without shame - unless there is indeed no other way, and we are already defeated?'

'You are right, Frodo,' said Gandalf: 'to go back is to admit defeat, and face worse defeat to come. If we go back now, then the Ring must remain there: we shall not be able to set out again. Then sooner or later Rivendell will be besieged, and after a brief and bitter time it will be destroyed...'

'Then we must go on, if there is a way,' said Frodo with a sigh. Sam sank back into gloom.

But Sam seems to have come to understand things better by "The Stairs of Cirith Ungol":

'I used to think that [adventures] were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folks seem to have been just landed in them, usually - their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on - and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end...'

And I believe that last distinction is important when choosing to undergo the suffering that comes joined with loving: There's only One who knows the true "good end" of our individual stories, because He sees them from outside time.

Catholic commentators often connect the term "redemptive suffering" to what Frodo undergoes, especially in Mordor. This has nothing to do with him being a Christ figure, but everything to do with him being in some ways Christ-like. Suffering accepted out of love is one way we participate in making the Kingdom of God present in the world. There will be more discussion of this in the section on '...the best hobbit in the Shire', not because it's relevant only to Frodo, but because we need to consider a few other things first.

*There's no such thing as an "ex-Catholic" (from the Catholic point of view), just as there's no such thing as an ex-priest. Baptism and ordination have permanent effects.