01 November 2015

On J.R.R. Tolkien and the saints

What keeps each of us from becoming a saint? What keeps us from hastening after them? What keeps us from imitating their example? The answer, I suspect, is an improper understanding of who the saints are.

The saints - according to those unfamiliar with them - are those who lived perfect lives, who never grew angry or impatient and always acted with wisdom and dignity. Those who think of the saints in this way see them either as guides impossible to follow or as personifications of boredom or obnoxiousness. If this is how a person views the saints, it is no wonder he does strive to join their rank.

But those who read the accounts of their lives know this assumption to be quite false. Rather, the saints are, as J.R.R. Tolkien once described them, "those who have for all their imperfections never finally bowed heart and will to the world or the evil spirit" (Letter to Christopher Tolkien, 30 January 1945).

The choice of words Tolkien employs is really just another way of saying what he hear every year at this time but seldom believe: the saints are like you and me. They were tempted and struggled and sinned and repented. What, then, is the difference?

The saints, we might say, kept the end goal always before them. They knew they would struggle and sin, yet they never lost sight of the merciful love of God because they knew his hand would always catch their repentant hearts and set them back on the narrow way that leads to the Father's house. This is what Tolkien means when he says that they never finally bowed heart and will to the world or the evil spirit; they did not, in the end, keep the focus on themselves but on God.

Having died in the service of God as his friends, the saints have received "the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10). We see the bestowing of these crowns depicted in this manuscript image:

The circle of Johannes von Valenburg, ca. 1299
What I especially like about this image is the smallness of those receiving their crowns from the hands of the Lord as the Blessed Virgin Mary and (presumably) Saint John the Evangelist look on. Jesus even - through his eyes - seems to confer with Saint John as to who is worthy of a crown.

The size of the figures awaiting their crowns, some already hallow-ed, reminds me of some of my favorite words of Tolkien found in his essay "On Fairy Stories," namely, that "in God's kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed man is still man."

Here on earth, we tend to be intimidated by the presence of the greatest, saints though they be, because we are too afraid to fully entrust ourselves into the hand of God. This need not be so! If the saints, with their multi-faceted personalities and, yes, imperfections, could do so, so can we!

The only thing standing in the way is ourselves. Let us, then, stretch out our hand like children to be led along the way the saints, either gently or with prodding, that we, small as we are by comparison, might stand among their company to wear the same crown as they.

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