07 December 2015

Tolkien and Colbert on Death, the Doom and Gift of Men

A friend yesterday brought to my attention one of Bishop Robert Barron's videos on Stephen Colbert and Providence, which I somehow missed. In the video, Bishop Barron comments on a question Colbert asked in an interview with Joel Lovell published in GQ Magazine on August 17, 2015. The question is a paraphrase of something J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote: "What punishments of God are not gifts?"

The striking question is perhaps better understood within the context in which Colbert used it. His question comes near the end of the interview:
“I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died.... And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.
“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that's why. Maybe, I don't know. That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien's mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn't mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I'm grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.

“It's not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can't change everything about the world. You certainly can't change things that have already happened.”
As soon as Bishop Barron quoted Colbert's words - "I love the thing that I most wish had not happened" - I knew exactly what he meant. My father also died when I was young, as did my mother. Through their deaths, I came to know the love of God and, at least in some small way, perceived something of a call to share that love through the priesthood. Their deaths that brought so much pain have also brought so much joy and I, too, love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

The actual quotation of Tolkien comes from a draft letter he wrote - and seems not to have sent - to Rhona Bear in October of 1958:
A divine 'punishment' is also a divine 'gift', if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make 'punishments' (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained: a 'mortal' Man has probably (an Elf would say) a higher if unrevealed destiny than a longeval one.
We have to go back to Genesis to understand what Tolkien means here, because, as he wrote just before this sentence, "This is therefore an 'Elvish' view [of immortality and mortality], and does not necessarily have anything to say for or against such beliefs as the Christian that 'death' is not part of human nature, but a punishment for sin (rebellion), a result of the 'Fall'." The Elvish view may not have anything to say about the Christian view, but I am confident that Tolkien's Catholic views had much to say about the Elvish view.

As Tolkien rightly notes, death, in the Christian view, is a punishment for sin, a punishment for the rebellion against God by Adam and Eve, our first parents. As God said to Adam:
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:17-19).
Had Adam and Eve obeyed the command of the Lord and not eaten of the tree in the middle of the garden, they would not have died (cf. Genesis 2:17). Whereas we so often think of death as a natural part of life, it was not so in the beginning; death is not part of our original nature.

Saint Ambrose of Milan - whom Holy Mother Church providentially commemorates today - reflected well on the nature of death when he wrote on the death of his brother, Satyrus, from which we read each year on All Souls' Day in the Office of Readings:
Death is not something to be avoided, for the Son of God did not think it beneath his dignity, nor did he seek to escape it.
Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life was condemned because of sin to unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow and so began to experience the burden of wretchedness. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.
Anyone who has suffered early in life - as did Tolkien, Colbert, and I - understands all too well the truth of these words and sees death not as an enemy, but as a friend and even a gift. Tolkien's Elves understood this, as well, and so they called death, as Tolkien wrote in this same letter, "the gift of Ilúvatar (God)".

In a different letter to Milton Walman sometime in the later part of 1951, Tolkien says something more of the doom of Elves and of the Doom (or the Gift) of Men:
The doom of the Elves is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when 'slain', but returning - and yet, as when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to 'fade' as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed. The Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world. Since the point of view of the whole cycle is the Elvish, mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God of which no more is known than that 'what God has purposed for Men is hidden': a grief and an envy to the immortal Elves.
But why should the Elves be envious of the mortality of Men, when we so often desire  their immortality?

The reason can be found in a letter Tolkien wrote to C. Ouboter on 10 April 1958 in which the Professor writes:
But certainly Death is not an Enemy! I said, or meant to say, that the 'message' was the hideous peril of confusing true 'immortality' with limitless serial longevity. Freedom from Time, and clinging to Time. the confusion is the work of the Enemy, and one of the chief causes of human disaster... The Elves call 'death' the Gift of God (to Men). Their temptation is different: towards a fainéant [idle or ineffective] melancholy, burdened with Memory, leading to an attempt to halt Time.
The Elves envied the Gift of Men because they came to desire a release from this unending melancholy burdened the Memory of all time.

As Tolkien wrote in the original draft letter with which we began, "To attempt by device or 'magic' to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly and wickedness of 'mortals'." How many people today are seeking or striving for an ever greater elongation of life, even for life as we know it without end? But such a life would grow tedious and burdensome and would be more than we could bear. Is this not why Job asks, "Is not life on earth a drudgery" (Job 7:1)?

It is here, then, that the punishment of death becomes a gift, a release from limitless serial longevity and the entrance to, as Tolkien says the Elves would say, "a higher if unrevealed destiny." This we call the Beatific Vision, being in the presence of God, of him who alone can satisfy the deepest and truest yearnings of our hearts, forever. This is why death, if accepted, becomes the object of ultimate blessing.

From the deaths of his father and brothers, Colbert received the ultimate object of faith and joy as found in the example of his mother; without the experience of so great a sorrow, he may not have received these gifts, these foretastes of what is yet to come if he accepts the doom and gift of men. This is why he loves the thing that he wishes most had not happened. This is why a divine "punishment" is also a divine "gift."

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