Enchantment and Sacrament
Throughout his book The Catholic Imagination, Fr. Andrew Greeley repeatedly says that Catholics live in an enchanted world. There's another side to the world we know through our senses - another side that is always there although we're not always consciously aware of it. Fr. Greeley takes as evidence of this such things as statues, rosaries, and holy water. Importantly, though, this enchantment isn't limited to things we'd consider "religious"; it's in creation as a whole and in all its bits and parts. Because creation is in God (as opposed to God being in creation - although the Incarnation has made that true, also), any contact with creation is contact with God, who holds it in being. If I want to get freaked out, spiritually speaking, I reflect on the fact that God holds me in existence at this moment. If God weren't thinking about me right now, I'd go out like a candle that had never been lit. The corollary to this is that if I'm in existence, God is thinking about me in this moment.
In his book on Enchantment, Patrick Curry (a Tolkien scholar who's decidedly not Catholic) stresses the idea that mortals aren't meant to live continually in an enchanted state. It would be too much for us. Even though I know that God is always holding me in existence, if I tried to think about that all the time I wouldn't be able to function. And any experience I have of that fact is pure gift. Peter wanted to put up tents on Mount Tabor for Jesus, Moses and Elijah - he wanted them to stay and he wanted to stay with them. He didn't want the experience to end, but it had to if everything else that needed to happen were to happen. The Fellowship had to leave the enchanted world of Lothlórien. In "Smith of Wootton Major," perhaps Tolkien's purest "fairy tale," Smith is blessed because he understands this. His accepts his experience of Faërie as a gift and is able to let go of it when it's time for him to return to the mortal world. The result of the experience is with him ever after, of course, affecting the kind of person he is and reminding him that Faërie always exists even if he's not experiencing it. But the experience itself he passes on to the next recipient. ("Experience" occurs, in one form or another, six times in this paragraph. This isn't a mistake.)
I'm disappointed and a little surprised when a book like Fr. Greeley's doesn't mention Tolkien.* How can you talk about the "Catholic imagination" and an "enchanted world" without referring to the Catholic who gives us such effective glimpses of them? One of the best illustrations of what I'm talking about is the moment in Lothlórien when Frodo places his hand on the trunk of a tree and has an immediate, profound experience of the very life of the tree. Every tree has this life - in the Shire as well as in Lórien - but we can safely say two things about Frodo's experience: 1) he didn't have it every time he touched a tree; 2) it affected how he thought and felt about trees ever after.
At the same conference where I heard Dr. Curry speak on enchantment, a Franciscan priest, Guglielmo Spirito, spoke on "The Influence of Holiness: The Healing Power of Tolkien's Narrative". He talked movingly of glimpses of light and holiness that shine through Tolkien's writing, something he saw as sacramental.
During a discussion at the end of the conference, one point of realization was that this idea of temporary experience of a reality that's constantly present had been a common thread through many of the talks - although the speakers hadn't planned it to be. Dr. Curry's enchantment and Fr. Spirito's sacrament are two ways of describing the same thing. As Merry says, we "cannot live long on the heights," but our lives are enriched by having experienced them. And the heights are there forever.
For a visual representation of this idea, see the painting by René Magritte on the next page.
*I think the main reason for this is that Father Greeley tends to focus on America.