Sacramental Spirituality

LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

Sacramental Spirituality

Incarnational spirituality is very closely tied to sacramental spirituality which, in its broad sense, involves physical signs of invisible realities.  Catholics recognize seven specific Sacraments (with a capital "S")*, but sacramental spirituality, in its broader sense, affects how Catholics look at pretty much everything.  It permeates Tolkien's writing. In Middle-earth, as in our primary creation, what we see, hear and touch is what it is; it has reality, beauty and purpose in itself without needing to be a "symbol" of something else. But it also points to something deeper, in somewhat the same way that a secondary creation points to the primary creation from which it flows. This isn't a question of allegory or symbolism - it's a statement of fact. Consider the difference between the crown of the King of Gondor and that same king's healing hands. The crown is a symbol of the kingship. It has no intrinsic tie to the kingship itself. Someone simply having the crown in his possession doesn't make him the king. The healing hands, on the other hand, can be seen as sacramental: they show in an outward way the inner reality of the kingship, and can't be separated from it.

This is one of the areas in which some evangelical Christians seem to run into difficulties when reading Tolkien's fiction. Part of the problem, I think, comes from the fact that as a Catholic since childhood, Tolkien used imagery and vocabulary that Catholics would be likely to both use and understand unconsciously. That's why it caught me so much by surprise when I first started encountering people - especially other Christians - who didn't look at things this way; it can also catch Catholics at a loss for words, because such things tend to go beyond what can completely be explained, especially when we're dealing with sacramentality rather than symbolism. To pick one of the strongest examples in LotR, I can't imagine anyone with a Catholic background, even if it's been decades since that person last considered himself or herself to be Catholic, who wouldn't immediately (perhaps subconsciously) make a sacramental connection between lembas and the capital "S" Sacrament of the Eucharist, based only on this short passage:

The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It did not satisfy desire... And yet this waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travellers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.

I can completely understand Tolkien's horror at a scriptwriter's plan to call lembas a "food concentrate"! Even in its short description above, this physical bread is obviously not just physical: "It fed the will and it gave strength to endure..." No matter how good a food concentrate is, it isn't going to feed the will, which Tolkien considered a core element of being human. Lembas is physical but its effects point to a deeper kind of nourishment. In traditional Catholic vocabulary, especially for someone of Tolkien's generation, the very use of the word "waybread" is a hint that this bread has something in common with the Eucharist; when a Catholic is fortunate enough to be able to receive Communion just before death, in Latin it's called viaticum - "food for the journey" or, by a more literal translation, "food for the way." The idea that the potency of lembas increases when not combined with other foods calls to mind saints who lived for parts of their lives on nothing but the Eucharist, and even the general Catholic practice of fasting for a period of time before receiving Communion. For a Catholic to read that description and not think of the Eucharist would be like trying to not think of a pink elephant.

Flannery O'Connor on the Eucharist:
Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.
Does that mean lembas is the Eucharist? That when Frodo and Sam munch on it they're taking Communion? No. But it's more than a symbol of the Eucharist, as a plain piece of bread or goblet of wine might be, because its effects go beyond those of a plain piece of bread or goblet of wine. In a way, you could call it a sacrament of a Sacrament: it points to the Eucharist, which points to the presence of Christ. In the pre-Christian setting of LotR, the Sacrament hasn't yet arrived, but the sacrament foreshadows it. Even Christians who don't read John 6 literally (Catholics do) can certainly see the description of lembas pointing to the Bread of Life, Who feeds our will and provides spiritual strength beyond our own mortal ability.

Gollum's reaction to lembas is telling. In letter #328, Tolkien speaks of it as a way to discern spirits:
...If sanctity inhabits [a man's] work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him. And neither of you would perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also. Otherwise you would see and feel nothing, or (if some other spirit was present) you would be filled with contempt, nausea, hatred. 'Leaves out of the elf-country, gah!' 'Lembas - dust and ashes, we don't eat that.'

The sanctity that is "with you also" is the presence of the Holy Spirit. Someone not in touch with the supernatural would "see and feel nothing." If an evil spirit was acting, a person would be "filled with contempt, nausea, hatred," which is the usual response of an evil spirit to something holy. The fact that Tolkien uses lembas as an example here shows that he considered it to be something more than physical - it is also spiritual and holy, even though it doesn't hold the presence of Christ in the way that the Eucharist does.

Also interesting is Frodo's response to Gollum at this point in the story: 'I think this food would do you good, if you would try. But perhaps you can't even try, not yet anyway.' Frodo isn't speaking of only the good of becoming physically stronger; there's a deeper layer to his statements, as is typical when referring to something in a sacramental way.

Looking at the world sacramentally, as Tolkien's traditionally Catholic mindset does, requires seeing things on more than one level at the same time. Like living with mysteries and paradoxes, it requires a fair amount of comfort with not always being able to quite get our hands on something - or our minds around it. This is the kind of ability I was referring to when talking about non-Christians who "get" Tolkien at a level that's below the surface of the story, even if they don't recognize its specifically religious aspects. It's not too surprising that I'm having a very difficult time figuring out how to describe this. It's hard to explain something when the very purpose of that "something" is to speak about a reality so deep that there are no words for it (or, more precisely, that infinite words could be spoken about it).   

In order to understand The Lord of the Rings as a "fundamentally Catholic and religious work" (emphasis added), it's essential to realize that in Tolkien's Catholic way of looking at things, the world that we know through our senses flows from the deeper reality of God's presence. There is nothing that is non-religious: All creation proclaims the glory of God. There is nothing that is not touched by Christ: Without the Incarnation, "creation groans and is in agony." There is no aspect of human life that isn't profoundly related to God. There is no human being - past, present, or future - that God isn't fundamentally concerned with, even if that human being doesn't know it. The primary creation from which Tolkien's secondary creation flows - that is, our own primary creation as Tolkien understood it - is a reality that exists in, with and through God, and under the Kingship of Jesus Christ. When incarnational spirituality and sacramental spirituality are joined, it doesn't take fantasy or allegory or even arbitrary symbolism to see the divine working in everyday life and everyday people; it's just how things are. For an author with Tolkien's sacramental worldview, it would simply be part of the story.

It's obviously not how we always experience things. Part of the purpose of Sacraments - and sacraments - is to remind us of the reality of God's presence in creation and in our lives when we're not feeling it. I've been surprised at how often I've found myself referring in these essays to the idea that faith involves believing something to be true even when not directly experiencing, sensing, or feeling the truth of it; maybe it surprised me because I take it so for granted. Not that this is an exclusively Catholic understanding, but we might emphasize it more than some other Christians do. In the part of this book that will look specifically at Frodo's spiritual journey, we'll talk more about what's often called the "dark nights": those times when someone who's growing spiritually loses any physical, emotional, or spiritual sense of God's presence or, indeed, of God's reality, and must go forward relying only on faith - or not go forward at all.

But the feeling of the complete absence of God that defines the dark nights can be looked at as a heightened and deepened form of what most of us experience most of the time. Having a continuous and profound sense of the presence of God would be more than most of us could bear during our life on earth. Being attuned to sacramental spirituality gives us glimpses of the presence of God that surrounds us and sustains us completely in every moment of our existence.

One concept found in sacramental spirituality is that of efficacious signs, that is, signs that actually do what they signify. Water affects our lives in many ways, so it's not surprising that the water of baptism is a multi-faceted physical sign. Water isn't just cleansing but lifegiving: "I saw water flowing from the temple," is a piece of Scripture sometimes used during the celebration of baptism. In baptism by immersion (the preferred form of baptism for Catholics, BTW, although not normally used for infants), we're even reminded of water's potential to take away life: It's a sign of a person going down into death with Christ and rising with him to new life, as the person dies to the world but comes to life in Christ. But in all of these, the water of baptism isn't just a symbol to make us reflect on such things; the Sacrament actually does cleanse and give life, and the person being baptized really does die to the old life and rise to a new one. The water of baptism is an efficacious sign, bringing about the deeper reality to which it points.

We can see a similar efficacious sign in the king's healing hands. In LotR, the light of Eärendil is a sign of hope, but it's much more than just a symbol that stands for something other than itself. Its presence actually imparts the hope it signifies. Let's carry that thought into the next essay...

*Baptism, the Eucharist (Communion), Confirmation, Reconciliation (Confession), Matrimony, Holy Orders (Ordination), and the Anointing of the Sick.