The Way of Perfection

LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

The Way of Perfection

Other Christian traditions don't explore how spiritual growth occurs as much as Catholicism (and, I would add, the Eastern Orthodox).  My own thought, based on absolutely no solid evidence, is that this is related to the presence of what you might call "professionals" in the process of spiritual growth.  It's not necessary to be a hermit or part of a monastic community to be on that path, but those have usually been the people who've had the time, ability, and inclination over the past two millennia to reflect on questions such as, "What's the difference between meditation and contemplation?" "How do you test a vision to be sure that it's from God?" "Am I having a difficult time in prayer because God is asking me to grow, or because I'm being lazy?"

And being the finite, temporally-challenged creatures that we are, we tend to want to understand all of this in some linear way.  Because our relationship with God is an infinitely knowable mystery, there are many different "systems" that try to make some sense of it all, not contradicting each other, but coming from different points of view. One that a lot of people have heard of is from St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic. He wrote about it in a thick book called The Dark Night or The Dark Night of the Soul, so that's how it's usually referred to. Although I've read and studied the book, I'm not going to pretend to understand it all, but I'll try to give a brief description before we look at how the concepts in it are reflected in Tolkien's writing, particularly by seeing how they're acted out in Frodo's character development. When I returned to John's writing specifically to prepare these essays, I was overwhelmed by how much of it could be applied directly to Frodo's spiritual growth. It's tempting to go into a discussion of all that here - simply because I find it so fascinating -  but it would become a huge digression from our main focus. That will have to find another outlet, and the essays in this section of the collection are limited to the concepts that are most directly applicable (in the Tolkienian sense of the word) to LotR. In revising this section of the essay collection, I've added concepts from John's mentor, St. Teresa of Avila, because I think the combination of their "angles" gives a more balanced view of spiritual growth.  

I want to be very clear that I'm not saying that Tolkien meant to base anything on the writings of John of the Cross, or that he had even read them, because I have no knowledge of that. But the concepts involved are ones that are embedded in the Catholic view of "the way life works," and both John of the Cross and John Ronald Reuel would have been drawing from that same well.  The advantage of looking at the process of spiritual growth through John of the Cross's writing is that he explained the concepts more than anyone else that I'm aware of.

As we use concepts from John and Teresa, it will be noticeable that they involve a lot more "God language" than "Jesus language." This isn't surprising, given that they were members of the Carmelite order. If we were talking about Franciscans, we'd find the opposite emphasis. One of the gifts of the various religious orders to the Catholic Church is that, like individuals, each one plays a somewhat different part in the Body of Christ, and their spiritualities look at things from different directions. Because Francis of Assisi was centered on Jesus and the Gospel, so are Franciscans. Carmelites are more Trinitarian in their spirituality, centering on the One Who is Three. Franciscans certainly believe in the Trinity and Carmelites certainly accept the saving power of Jesus; after all, they pray the same liturgy and hear the same Scripture readings that keep the rest of the billion Catholics in the world together. It's just a different emphasis - which in itself emphasizes the mystery of the human union with God, which no one can completely comprehend. Catholics following a call to the religious life will most likely be drawn to an order whose emphasis resonates with their own. (Writing this paragraph has made me realize that I've overlooked something very important in not studying the spirituality of the Oratorians, who basically raised JRRT and his brother after their mother died. I'll have to look into that.)

The Carmelites consider the Prophet Elijah to be their spiritual father, so it seems fitting to be looking at the spiritual life of a fictional pre-Christian from their point of view, through the writings of John and Teresa. Much as I'd like to claim Frodo as a fellow Franciscan, our emphasis on Jesus and the Gospel makes that difficult to pull off for a character living millennia before the coming of Christ, although LotR as a whole has a lot of Franciscan-friendly aspects to it.

To have courage for whatever comes in life - everything lies in that.
- St. Teresa of Avila
It's a basic Catholic belief that each of us is called to have a profoundly deep relationship with God, and that each of us is capable of having that. It's pretty obvious that the vast majority of us fall short of what we're capable of, but that's because it's a tough Road and most of us find somewhere to stop and settle down before we make it to the end. That doesn't mean the vast majority of us are bad people; we just don't reach spiritual perfection this side of death. (Thank God for purgatory!) The Dark Night of the Soul looks at the especially tough spots along the road. John says there are basically four kinds of them, in an increasing order of difficulty: the active night of the senses, the passive night of the senses, the active night of the spirit and the passive night of the spirit. They all involve letting go of something. In the nights of the senses, we're letting go of physical/temporal things we've depended on; in the nights of the spirit, we're letting go of spiritual things we've depended on. The end result is John's "nada" - nothing.  Nothing, that is, but God, who, of course, is everything.

In the "active" nights, we decide what we need to be detached from, and consciously let go of it; in the "passive" nights, we're asked to let go of things not of our own choosing. Looked at this way, it's easy to see why the passive nights are tougher than the active nights. But if we're not making any choices, how does this process help us grow spiritually? Going through tough times doesn't automatically make someone holy. It's a cliche/platitude/truism that we can't always decide what happens to us, but we can decide how we respond. Like most cliches/platitudes/truisms, this one has some truth to it. We can respond to tough times in ways that help us grow, or in ways that cause us to regress.  When we're talking about spiritual growth, there's often a third option: to stay right where we are.  Find a nice plot of land and settle down, and simply decide not to go any farther as we see the Road rising more steeply ahead of us.  

As with anything involving the mystery of a relationship, especially our relationship with God, John's nights aren't a neat and simple formula to be followed in precise steps of 1, 2, 3, 4, in progression from less difficult to more difficult. Things can move in reverse, or a step may be repeated, or there might be any of a multitude of ways an individual life can follow the Road. Because the text of a book - even one over 1000 pages long - is less complicated than an actual human life, it's perhaps easier to see the pattern in Frodo than in real people in the real world. Even so, the way I've arranged things in this section wouldn't be the only way to do it. In fact, my arrangement has changed over the years as I've reflected on it.

If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder You have so few of them!
- St. Teresa of Avila
John and Teresa were contemplatives writing for contemplatives, so their focus is on the person's interior relationship with God. Not that they didn't have difficulties in their exterior lives (among other things, they did expect the Spanish Inquisition), but that's not what either of them wrote about. From their point of view, the most important part of whatever happens to a person - physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually - is how it affects that inner relationship with God. A vocation to be a contemplative, someone whose life is dedicated to prayer rather than to active works, makes sense only within a strong group that recognizes different roles for different people, depending on their calling. An authentic contemplative, even a hermit living alone in the desert, isn't seeking that deep relationship with God in prayer for himself or herself, but for the good of the entire Body of Christ. Thérèse of Lisieux, who was named for Teresa of Avila as well as belonging to the order she founded, said, "In the heart of the Church, I will be love," and she's one of the patron saints of missionaries even though she lived and died in a cloistered convent. But without other members of the Body of Christ carrying out their own callings, the role of a contemplative would be a selfish, or even sterile, one.

This doesn't mean Christians who aren't "career" contemplatives can't have a deep inner relationship with God; they just follow a different path. Or, perhaps more truthfully, they follow the same path in their own way, being asked to let go of (possibly, but not necessarily, to lose) what is most central to their own calling. For the spouse of an alcoholic, the process may begin with acceptance of the first of the Twelve Steps: Admitting they can't control what alcohol is doing to the person with whom they've chosen to walk the Road. For a parent, the opportunity to let go of everything but God will often come through a child, or children (in such a variety of ways that I won't even begin to list them). Someone who has spent a lifetime building a business may find it in retirement - or by watching the company be taken over by someone else. For Francis of Assisi, it was seeing the order he had founded go off in a direction that wasn't  the one he would have chosen for it; stepping out of the leadership role had been an active choice, but it was followed by the passive night of accepting what came afterward. We're still a little too close historically to make any definite statements, but it seems to me that the personal darkness and the profound doubts about his entire legendarium that Tolkien experienced toward the end of his life have the hallmarks of a spiritual dark night.

In looking at these few examples, it's easy to see how each step along the Road gives the person traveling it decisions to make, both about their own actions and their responses to situations they can't control. Of course, it's usually easier to understand that when we're looking at it from outside, rather than when we're the person who has to make the decisions - which include not only deciding to follow God's will but even discerning what God's will is. Some years ago, I watched a television evangelist weeping on his program because if his followers didn't contribute more money he would have to end his ministry. I remember thinking, "Maybe it's time." But I wasn't in any position to know whether God was asking him to let go, or to fight all the harder to hang on.

This is one place where people who are members of a strong group have an advantage, because discernment of God's will isn't the isolated job of each individual but is the responsibility of the community. I felt kind of sorry for the television evangelist having to make this decision on his own. At the Council of Elrond, Frodo had just heard those in authority turn down Bilbo's offer to take on the Quest. It would seem to me that the refusal of Bilbo's offer would have given Frodo some faith that if he weren't the right one for the job, his offer would also be turned down, which can be a comforting thought. I've always failed when I've tried to explain to non-Catholics (usually non-Christians) who are in favor of the ordination of women that a man can't just "decide to be a priest"*; there are a lot of other people responsible for discerning whether or not he's called to that vocation. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who reformed one branch of the Benedictine Order into the Cistercians, counseled a man interested in the monastic life to stay away from one specific monastery because "Everyone goes in and no one comes out." That is, there was no discernment going on about who belonged in that community and who didn't.

John of the Cross says one more thing that we need to keep in mind as we look at Frodo's spiritual development throughout LotR.  Someone who's passing through one of the nights feels abandoned by God, because of the darkness.  But, John says, the nights aren't dark because God is absent, but because God is so close. He compares it to being blinded by a light that's too bright for us to look at directly. If someone's in a true dark night, knowing that John said this doesn't make the person feel any less abandoned by God. But it may help the person persevere in faith and keep going, knowing that what we feel isn't always the same as what is true. It's the person's willingness to be totally dependent on God when God seems the farthest away that leads, in the end, to nothing but God.

The title of this essay is actually that of a much thinner book, written by Teresa of Avila. Later on, she wrote another book called Interior Castle; the original Spanish would be more literally translated as "mansions," and the concept is reminiscent of Jesus' statement about there being many mansions in His Father's house. The image Teresa uses is of many dwelling places within the soul; as we grow in faith, we move deeper and deeper toward the central mansion where we become one with Christ. As I was preparing a slide presentation on Frodo using John's concepts, I realized that it works a lot better to look at them with Teresa's. Between John's dark nights and Teresa's mansions, we get a more balanced view of the Christian spiritual life as seen by traditional Catholicism. There are times of joy and times of darkness, and as we travel the Road of perfection the two more and more become one:

And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears, the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

*I've never needed to explain this to any Catholics, even those strongly in favor of the ordination of women. They wouldn't expect a woman to be able to just "decide to be a priest" any more than a man is able to.