Everyday Mystics


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

Everyday Mystics

This essay grew out of a discussion that showed me I needed to do a better job of considering mysticism throughout LotR and in a variety of its characters.  A statement was made about not wanting to overly sanctify Frodo, because he really is meant to be something of an "everyhobbit."  And when we look specifically at Frodo's spiritual development in the next section of the book, it's important to remember that Tolkien's mystics are every bit as nontraditional as his heroes. Frodo is both a mystic and a hero, but so are many other characters, and most of them remain everyday people. I believe that Tolkien wanted it to be clear that if all of us are made of the stuff of heroes, all of us are also born to be mystics.  

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.
- Flannery O'Connor
It's pretty hard to define a mystic. In fact, a definition of mysticism just might be an oxymoron. How do you define the indescribable? It's even harder when we're looking at the Third Age instead of our own, because of the lack of a concept of a personal God. We can say now, and Catholics do, that each one of us is capable of and intended to have a deep relationship with God. A relationship of the heart and not just the head, which may be as good a definition of Christian mysticism as we can get.  How fundamental is this?  According to my memory (which may be off a page or two), it was the second question and answer in the Baltimore Catechism. The first was:  Who made you?  God made me.  The second was: Why did God make you?  God made me to know, love, and serve Him in this life, and to be happy with Him in the next. We learned this at the age of six, before any of us showed a particular affinity to mysticism. I think that's important, because it says that it's not just a special few who are called to know God (note that love comes second and serve is third - know is first).  What does it mean to know God? That's as hard to answer as it is impossible to define a mystic. But it's an inherent part of being human. According to the Baltimore Catechism (and who could doubt the Baltimore Catechism?!), knowing God is the primary purpose of our existence as human beings. In Letter #310, written as a response to a schoolgirl's question "What is the purpose of life?" one of Tolkien's statements is, "So it may be said that the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks." The fact that Tolkien's response is so close to that of the Baltimore Catechism, which he most likely never read (it was written specifically for Americans), shows how fundamental this belief is.

But that's easy for us to say (well, relatively speaking). What about the inhabitants of Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age? Those who know of Eru's existence think of Him as so distant as to be unreachable, certainly not as someone they could know intimately. The Valar fill that gap somewhat, as Eru's intermediaries within the created world, but they're in the West. They might be called on in need, or sung to by the Elves, but I don't know of anyone in Middle-earth besides Gandalf who could be said to have an intimate relationship with any of them. So how can we call our heroes living at that time "mystics"?

This goes back to a statement about "Non-Christian Truth" from the Core Concepts page: "God was always present to our pre-Christian ancestors, although their understanding of that was more limited than ours." Tolkien is very clear that Middle-earth is meant to be our own world at a much earlier time in its history. The inhabitants at that time didn't know much about God, but that doesn't mean God was with them any less than with us. When various characters in Middle-earth have dreams, visions, prophecies, or unexplainable feelings about something, they don't say that Ilúvatar spoke to them - but that doesn't mean He didn't. In fact, if knowing God is the primary reason for human existence, it must have been the primary reason for the existence of not only people who lived after Abraham, but of those who lived before the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was revealed to humanity. Their knowledge of God was much more limited than ours, but that may have been fitting for a species gradually learning to understand itself and its Creator.