Incarnational Spirituality


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

Incarnational Spirituality


"Incarnate," in its broad sense, means "enfleshed."  It comes from the same root as "carnivorous."  In its more limited sense, the Incarnation (with a capital "I") refers specifically to the Incarnation of Christ: God becoming "enfleshed" as a human being. The truth of the Incarnation is important not only because of how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus affect us and our lives. In addition, it makes all of physical creation holy, because God has chosen to irrevocably be part of it, through Christ. This isn't a specifically Catholic belief, of course. The way it affects how we look at the world, ourselves, and other human beings is really a matter of degree. But the degree to which the Catholic mindset takes it is shown by our affinity for the physical, in statues, paintings, incense, rosaries, visible rituals and symbols, etc., and for seeing the spiritual in things created by humans such as music and stories, even if the works aren't overtly religious. It paves the way for Tolkien's concept of subcreation. Someone with a negative view of humans would never have come up with Tolkien's philosophy regarding subcreation, which says we create because we are made in the image of a Creator; it's part of our nature, and we have the right to create.

All that is true, by whomsoever it has been said has its origin in the Spirit.
- St. Thomas Aquinas
I've read more than one discussion of Tolkien attempting to divide the Christian concepts in his writings from the pre-Christian ones (Anglo-Saxon, for example), with the idea that the former are good and useful and the latter are (at best) worthless. Tolkien would find this extremely odd, and so would most Catholics. Tolkien had great respect for the pre-Christian people whose languages and stories he studied. Although, as Christians, we believe we've been blessed with a fuller knowledge of Truth, that doesn't mean earlier peoples were completely wrong or evil. We can even learn from them. This obviously fits in with the Eternal Now; God was always present to our pre-Christian ancestors, although their understanding of that was more limited than ours. It's entirely possible for non-Christians and pre-Christians to be holy.  And even though this concept was affirmed by the Second Vatican Council, it's by no means a new Catholic teaching or a specifically "liberal" one. The most traditional Catholics base their theology on the writings of Thomas Aquinas, and Thomism is in large part a "Christianizing" of pre-Christian Greek philosophy.

This is essential to understanding Tolkien's attitude toward pre-Christian myths and legends, and Story in general. His poem "Mythopoeia," from which the title of this section of essays is taken, was a response to C.S. Lewis's statement (before his conversion) that myths and fairy-stories are "lies breathed through silver." Tolkien replies that these stories contain some light of truth, even though it may be "splintered light."

Perhaps Catholicism is more comfortable with pre-Christian symbols and stories because it's so old. In most of Europe, at least, a culture's first step from polytheism to worshipping one God would have been into the Catholic Church. There are symbols understood by many human cultures that aren't limited to one religious tradition. If the winter solstice celebrates the birth of the sun, what better time to celebrate the birth of Christ? An egg clearly speaks of a new kind of life, so has a natural connection to the Resurrection. That those particular symbols were previously used in other traditions makes them no less applicable to Christianity.   

I suspect much of the Catholic proclivity for using physical things also comes from just how old the religion is. The printing press helped spread the Reformation, and was invented at just about that time, so Protestant denominations have tended to have a relatively high percentage of literate members throughout their existence. On the other hand, for at least three-fourths of the history of the Catholic Church, books were scarce and very few people could read. Stained glass windows in medieval cathedrals were Bible stories to be "read" by the people who worshipped there. Some of the priest's actions and gestures during Mass that might seem theatrical are there because they are theatrical, and so were able to "say something" in a visible way to everyone in attendance; some have been retired in recent years, but some remain because they still have value in saying something to us. The original purpose of the Rosary was to take the place of the Liturgy of the Hours for those who were illiterate; a complete Rosary has 150 "Hail Mary's", to equal the number of psalms read in the Hours by those who could read. Even though literacy is widespread now, the Rosary remains popular in large part because of what the rhythm of repetition can do for centering us in prayer, as Eastern Christianity has found with the Jesus prayer, something else that is a connection with the physicality of our bodies.
 
There was an exchange some years ago on PBS that immediately struck me as a great example of one of the differences between the Catholic way of looking at the world and that of many Protestants. It was one of Sister Wendy's art appreciation programs, and at the end of it she was being interviewed by Bill Moyers, who's Methodist in much more than name. In the earlier part of the program, one of the artworks she had shown and discussed had been a painting of the artist's mistress - nude.  Sister Wendy, as usual, had explained the painting with enthusiasm, not shying away from the subject matter but pointing out techniques of color and line the artist had used to communicate the sensuality he found in the woman. During the interview that followed, Mr. Moyers asked Sister Wendy if it didn't "bother" her to display and talk about artwork of that kind. She looked at him for a moment as if she couldn't comprehend the question. Then she replied, as if it were the most basic of statements, "It's the beauty of the human body." (For those who aren't familiar with her, it should probably be mentioned that Sister Wendy wears a veil and a full-length habit and isn't about to go around displaying the beauty of her own human body in a way that would "bother" anyone.)

Even a mistress is made in the image of God.