(One of my early articles. This first appeared at Catholic Exchange on January 24, 2003.)
“In the last resort faith is an act of will, inspired by love.” Sound familiar? I hope so. These words illustrate the light by which faithful Catholics will successfully navigate the current scandals. But these words weren’t written with today in mind, nor by a prophetic pope or canonized saint. J.R.R. Tolkien addressed the problems of scandal, faith and despair in both his letters and his fiction.
Loss of Faith
People, even Catholics, are still sometimes surprised to learn that Tolkien was a devout Catholic whose masterpiece Lord of the Rings was fundamentally inspired by his Catholic worldview. Tolkien struggled with the Vatican II changes in his beloved Church and yet remained a faithful and obedient Catholic, and his insights about weathering difficulties of faith are valuable still today.
In the ordinary sense of the word, scandal refers to outrageous incidents or behaviors that offend our moral sensibilities. But the Catechism defines it as any “attitude or behavior that leads others to do evil.” Scandal, then, does not depend on the sinfulness of the first behavior. For scandal to occur, there must be a second behavior which is sinful. Tolkien understood it as the Church does when he noted that “‘Scandal’ at most is an occasion of temptation…. It is convenient because it tends to turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scapegoat.”
The “second behavior” to which Tolkien was referring is loss of faith. Tolkien’s particular challenge was the atmosphere surrounding the Second Vatican Council. He found the “trends” in the Church distressing, as he was “accustomed to find in it a solace and a “pax” in times of temporal trouble, and not just another arena of strife and change.” Our challenge today is the sexual abuse crisis and its roots.
Some of our moral teachers have betrayed the faith in their keeping; they are wolves, or have let wolves in among the flock. People throw their hands up and say, “God, this institution is beyond fixing.” They say, “You have abandoned the Church.” They say, “It’s up to us to make something new and better of it.” They despair of God’s grace. Even the people who cling to this Rock sometimes feel with Tolkien that “the Church which once felt like a refuge, now often feels like a trap. There is nowhere else to go!” He speculated about the Apostles frequently sharing this sentiment, and he does, after all, sound like Peter saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”
Remember the Good
In Lord of the Rings the characters face the same kind of choice — to maintain faith and hope, against the wisdom of the world, because they recognize that all other choices ultimately lead to defeat. The temptation to despair is a powerful theme. Each main character faces a seemingly hopeless quest. They feel too small, helpless, or otherwise inadequate to make any difference in the evil fate that seems to beset Middle Earth. Theirs — as well as ours — is a difficult task, impossible but for God. He is never named in Lord of the Rings, but make no mistake — He is known to exist, to be supreme, and to have a hand in all that comes about. When he is beyond understanding, that is when faith becomes an act of the will.
This act of the will is imperative, because despair is an instrument of the Enemy — indeed, it is his goal, because our despair is his victory. The words of Tolkien’s characters reveal this. In the last book of the trilogy, Gandalf speaks about a ruler’s death amid flames the ruler had set himself: “He was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power, he saw nonetheless only those things which that Power permitted him to see. The knowledge which he obtained was, doubtless, often of service to him; yet the vision of the great might of Mordor that was shown to him fed the despair of his heart until it overthrew his mind.” Well can the scandal of despair be called spiritual suicide.
So what can be done? Tolkien said that loyalty “only becomes a virtue when one is under pressure to desert it.” He knew that to leave the Church was to leave Christ, and that if Christ is to be believed, then “this spectacle is alas! only what was to be expected: it began before the first Easter, and it does not affect faith at all…” When we are tempted to leave that faith behind because of trials, remember that the faith safeguarded by the Church is eternal truth. That is when our virtue grows.
Tolkien’s experience suggests several ideas for maintaining perspective. We have heard them before, and they bear repeating. One is to remember our own sinfulness, “associating ourselves with the scandalizers not with the saints, not crying out that we cannot ‘take’ Judas Iscariot, or even the absurd and cowardly Simon Peter, or the silly women like James’ mother, trying to push her sons.” We must not be too eager to point fingers. The abusive priest, or the bishop who chose expediency over integrity, or the women and men whose motive is ambition rather than service are no more the reason for the Cross than we are.
Remember, also, the good — the faithful priests who selflessly follow Christ’s example. “I have met snuffy, stupid, undutiful, conceited, ignorant, hypocritical, lazy, tipsy, hardhearted, cynical, mean, grasping, vulgar, snobbish, and even (at a guess) immoral priests … but for me one Fr. Francis outweighs them all,” he said of his guardian. Fr. Francis became a father to Tolkien, raising him after his mother’s death from the priest’s own private finances. Do we appreciate the lives our priests have devoted to us?
The True Answer to Crisis
But Tolkien’s true answer to the crises of the Church, wherever they appear in history, is two-pronged: the Blessed Sacrament and prayer. He recommended the Eucharist as the “only cure for sagging or fainting faith… Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.” Within the canon of the Church Triumphant are saints who lived on no other nourishment than the Eucharist. Tolkien was no doubt familiar with them (the Elvish waybread called lembas had a potency to sustain the body that grew as lembas became the only source of sustenance) but he was more likely speaking from experience — he received communion frequently, almost every day at many points in his life.
When desperate feelings encroach, he said that there is nothing to do but pray, “for the Church, the Vicar of Christ, and for ourselves.” But, then again, prayer is everything. In the midst of frustration and helplessness, prayer is our most powerful weapon. Our prayers help build the Kingdom of God, especially when they start with personal holiness.
Tolkien makes an important point in his writings. When his characters reach an apparent dead end, Gimli says, “This is a bitter end to all our toil and hope.” Aragorn responds, “To hope, maybe but not to toil.” Sam Gamgee, one of his simplest and finest characters, “did not need hope, as long as despair could be put off” by devoting himself to his task — to serve Frodo, as he had done for years. It is for this reason that Tolkien spoke of Sam as the real hero. A well-trained faith will supply us when hope seems to fail, strengthening our will and directing our steps. We must train ourselves in the faith if we want to exercise it with faithfulness.
Tolkien described faith as a permanent and indefinitely repeated act rather than a momentous, final decision. Our task is prayer, and our prayer should be to love with the love of Christ for His Bride, His Church. As Tolkien knew, “Our love may be chilled and our will eroded by the spectacle of the shortcomings, folly, and even sins of the Church and its ministers, but I do not think that one who has once had faith goes back over the line for these reasons (least of all anyone with any historical knowledge)… We must therefore either believe in Him and in what he said and take the consequences; or reject him and take the consequences.”