Geeks Like Us

LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

Geeks Like Us

On the main part of this website, a geek is defined as someone who's passionately interested in something that normal people pay little or no attention to. There's a perfectly logical reason for the existence of Tolkien geeks. Tolkien's cosmos is so detailed, internally consistent, and multi-layered that it takes a lifetime to explore, giving readers the opportunity to not only be fascinated by all the geeky facts involved but to grow into an interest in how the pieces fit together. JRR and Christopher Tolkien have provided a paradise for geeks through the availability of the former's copious notes on his writing and, less abundantly but IMHO more importantly, his letters. "The History of Middle-earth" tells us how Tolkien's fiction came to be what it is; his letters tell us why.

Tolkien's cosmos is so vast that readers can even be selective in their geekiness. I have about as much knowledge of the First and Second Ages of Arda as I do of ancient Greece, and even that limited knowledge is important to me only insofar as it sheds light on LotR. Other Tolkien readers are fascinated by the sweep of history and the operatic stories of The Silmarillion, or the deceptive simplicity of The Hobbit. What originally drew me to LotR and held me there was the characters, especially Frodo and Gandalf. But I think the reason I'm still there after all these years is precisely because it is the book where Tolkien himself saw his faith the most involved in the story. Some people spend a lifetime studying the impact that Tolkien's interest in early languages had on his fiction - learning more about those ancient cultures as they get deeper into how he incorporated them. I get some useful insights from those studies occasionally, but  my own focus is on how Tolkien's faith impacted his fiction; and I've learned much about faith and deepened my own through that study.
I'm primarily putting this essay here to have something to refer to when my liturgical geekiness gets a bit out of hand. Catholicism has two millennia worth of geeky facts to revel in, for people who like that kind of thing, and there's definitely enough there to be selective. I'm particularly interested in the geeky details of liturgical prayer - the patterns followed, the history regarding how bits and pieces developed, etc. I don't want to leave the impression that this is something all Catholics are expected to know, or even that knowing them makes anyone a better Catholic than someone who doesn't! Even other Catholic geeks will choose different areas of Catholic geekiness, including some that I know very little about - and, in line with the definition given above, most Catholics aren't geeks at all. But since I've accumulated so much background on liturgy through pure geeky interest, it turns up in these essays when I need, say, an example of something.

As an example of this, I'll relate a conversation I had with a normal, non-geeky Catholic regarding the Liturgy of the Hours*. The only Catholics required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours are priests, deacons, and cloistered nuns. But ever since it was put into English following Vatican II, it's become more popular among lay people. One of its drawbacks, though, is its complexity, because some of the prayers are for the time of year (Advent, Lent, the Easter season, etc.), others are for the specific date, and the psalms to be prayed rotate on a four-week cycle. It takes a good four ribbons to keep track so you can flip from one of these sets to another. To the joy of the geekiest among us, there are other details, such as knowing when the prayers for a special feast day overrule the prayers for a Sunday, or vice versa. That all of this is done for specific reasons and following specific patterns, rather than willy-nilly, just makes it all the more geek-friendly.

But, for non-geeks, there's a booklet published each year called the Ordo (from the Latin for "order," I assume, although I've never asked). The Ordo lists all the days of that specific year in order, giving the page numbers needed to properly pray the Liturgy of the Hours for that day. True liturgy geeks consider the Ordo wimpy - "Ordo? We don't need no stinkin' Ordo!" We like to figure it out for ourselves. (Of course, this attitude is spiritual pride, and we try to tamp it down as much as possible - but, hey, we're geeks!)

But the real reason behind this geekiness was revealed to me when I was talking with a non-geek about an upcoming special day that needed some "expertise" in manuevering through the Liturgy of the Hours. My non-geek friend said, "Oh, I don't need to know all that. I just use the Ordo." My first thought - and I was very, very conscious of it - was: "But that's no fun!" So now that I understand the reason I like "to know all that" is simply because it's fun, I have a much easier time tamping down my spiritual pride. If you've been reading the footnotes in these essays, you've already run into some of these fun facts - for example, the note in this essay about the Jewish roots of the Liturgy of the Hours, or in the next one about the Kyrie never being in Latin.

I do think there's an actual useful purpose for dropping in these geeky facts occasionally when writing something that non-Catholics will be reading. They're little reminders about how much history there is behind most things that make Catholics "different" from many other Christians. But knowing them is no more important to someone's Catholic faith than knowing the names of the sons of Fëanor (which I don't - because it's outside my area of interest) or exactly how all the main Fallohide LotR characters are related to each other (which I do - because I'm fascinated by hobbits) are to someone's appreciation of Tolkien's spirituality.

*As is true with many features of Catholic liturgical prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours is rooted in the practices of our Jewish ancestors in faith, who prayed at specific times of the day. In Acts, when Peter and John were going up to the temple "at the hour of prayer," they were on their way to join with other Jews in praying what Christians later developed into the Liturgy of the Hours.