The Monsters and the Critics

[Side note – this post is connected with the first week of my reflections for Lent/Easter 2021, with the theme “Imagination in Action!”]

JRR Tolkien is best known for writing The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. However, his main career was not as an author – this was a sort of side-hobby for him. Instead, he was a professor of Anglo-Saxon language (aka Old English) at Oxford. Beowulf (an epic Old English poem) was a key area of study for him. It tells the tale of a hero named Beowulf that arrives to save a kingdom from the attacks of a demonic creature named Grendel (and Grendel’s mother), and then at the end of his life must also defend against an attack by a dragon. Beowulf slays the dragon, but dies of his wounds.

Tolkien gave a famous lecture on this story, which was later published as an essay called “The Monster and the Critics.” Here Tolkien responded to critics that complained that the story of Beowulf was too simplistic for an epic. Rather than the grand travels of something like the Odyssey by Homer, it only talked about a couple of battles against monsters. In response to this critique Tolkien argued that by limiting its scope it actually widened its applicability. He wrote that, “It glimpses the cosmic and moves with the thought of all men concerning the fate of human life and efforts.” The monsters could be seen to represent the struggles of the beginning and end of life, and hinted at the supernatural aspect of faith. Putting the “monsters” in the forefront of the story was a deliberate choice based on what the author wanted to convey.

This connects with a general principle that Tolkien believed about ancient myths/legends. In one of his letters he wrote, “I believe that legends and myths are largely made up of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode.” He is not saying that Bilbo Baggins or Beowulf existed historically, but that their stories tell true things about our world. Some of these truths might be obscured by the complexity of life. By setting the stories in a fictional world, an author can help us to see our world in a different light. Tolkien sought to follow this ancient pattern of myth and legend in the way that he wrote the Lord of the Rings. He wanted a story that highlighted many of the real struggles of life through the “sub-creation” of an alternate reality.

My appreciation for Tolkien has only grown as I’ve read these other works of his that explain his vision and philosophy of “myth.” It sparks my imagination to enjoy stories both in themselves and in the ways they illuminate reality. It also explains why certain stories, very simple in themselves, can have such a powerful impact on us. And, ultimately, I think it helps us to understand why the Word was made Flesh, and lived among us. The life of Christ brings together all of these glimpses at truth in the actual course of human events, and invites us to see our life in this larger dimension.

“The Search” Parish Study

This week we are beginning an online study called “The Search!” I thought I’d give a little explanation of it here to help build connections.

It is produced by the Augustine Institute, and available through their formed.org streaming service. This is a great, user-friendly way to connect with a lot of high-quality materials for growing in faith (it uses the same interface as Netflix, which probably helps for many!). It can be used through your web browser or through an excellent app. St Malachy/St Elizabeth parishioners can get a free log-in by noting that they belong to the parish on the log-in screen, otherwise you may need to check with your local parish to see about availability.

Out of all of the series on the website, why did I choose to start with “The Search?” I think it provides an excellent step-by-step reflection on our search for God, and therefore is a great resource for anyone, no matter where they are on the spectrum of faith. As we go through the seven videos in the series, we are asked to begin our reflection on the desires of the human heart and our identity. The topics then move through the encounter with God, our encounter with Jesus Christ, and our encounter with the Catholic Church. Along the way we are able to reflect on the reasons for our belief as well as make/deepen a personal connection.

Each Sunday I will share a link to the next excerpt on my social media (see the links on the sidebar of the main page of this website), and each Thursday I will host a discussion on Facebook live at 5:30pm (6pm en español). All are welcome! If you’re not able to join this live, the recap will be available to view on Facebook/YouTube.

Here is a short excerpt (four minutes) from the first video, which should be accessible to all: http://watch.formed.org/videos/the-search-excerpt-what-do-you-seek (the full twenty minute version is available on formed.org).

También hay una versión en español: http://watch.formed.org/videos/thesearch-ep1-formed-esp-1

I hope you can take part in this reflection, God bless!

Who was Blessed Miguel Pro?

Miguel Pro was born in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico in 1891. He entered the seminary to study to be a priest in 1911, but had to leave when anti-Catholicism in Mexico caused the seminary to close in 1914. He snuck out of the country and was able to complete his studies in Spain. His family wasn’t able to attend his ordination and so after the Mass he blessed pictures of his family instead.

In 1926 he was allowed to return to Mexico, despite the fact that President Plutarco Calles had effectively outlawed practicing the Catholic faith. Miguel Pro had been known for his sense of humor, and began to use his skill at disguises to continue his priestly ministry. He would dress as a janitor or other worker to gain entrance to houses. My favorite ruse was that he carried a police officer’s uniform and at times was able to change into it when the authorities arrived, and escape by joining in on his own search!

Eventually, however, Calles created false charges that he had been involved in an assassination attempt on one of his officials. He arrested Miguel and had him executed by firing squad without trial. Calles even had each step of the execution photographed in an attempt to scare off others protesting his persecution of the Church. Miguel asked for permission for time to kneel and pray, forgave his executioners, and then stood facing them with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross (holding a crucifix and rosary in his hands). He declined a blindfold and died proclaiming the motto of the Cristero movement: “¡Viva Cristo Rey! – Long live Christ the King! Forty-thousand people attended his funeral. Rather than crushing opposition to Calles’ rule, Miguel served as a powerful witness against him. He was declared “blessed” (the step before sainthood) as a martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

It can be difficult to imagine why someone dedicated to the simple life of celebrating the sacraments for his people should have met with such firm resistance and a brutal death. Unfortunately, all too often Christ’s words have proven true: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Christianity calls its members to serve as “salt and light” in the world, but history is full of times that governments have found this way of life unacceptable. Why is this? There are different reasons at different times, but we see the patter of Christ’s life repeating in them. By proclaiming a limit to human authority the Gospel stands as something opposed to absolute claims of power made in this world. It challenges every one of us to examine our own heart, and then proposes this challenge to the culture at large. Miguel’s love for Christ over-flowed into sacrificial love for his people. May his example continue to shine for us.

Why believe in Christ? Part I: What sets him apart

Today I thought I’d post on the “second level” of belief. I’ve done a couple of posts on the “first level” (belief in God in general), and so now we move on to the question of Jesus Christ. Why believe in him among other religions? At this point I am not distinguishing between different groups of Christians (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, etc), but looking at Christ himself. I think the first point is to understand the basic difference that we believe separates Christ from other prophets or holy people. It is well portrayed in a passage from Matthew 16:

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” [The disciples] replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

The question here centers on his identity rather than any particular action. Usually a person is significant to us because of what they have done. It is the opposite for Christ—his actions are significant because of who he *is.* From eternity he is the Son of God (the Second Person of the Trinity). In time he takes on human nature as the Son of Man (born of the Virgin Mary). He is therefore true God and true man, one Person with two Natures (divine and human). A nature is a source of action, so by his divine nature he knows and loves in an infinite way. By his human nature, though, he is able to share in suffering and death (and to know and love in a human way). Therefore, he is able to live a human life but filled with a perfect charity.

What problem did he come to solve? The separation between mankind and God. We see, then, that in his own Person he reconciles the two! The work of redemption involves the joining together of these two realities. Salvation involves sharing in the divine life. Divine life overcomes the limitation of death, sickness, and sin. It offers an invitation to hope and love in a manner that surpasses human nature alone—as seen in the lives of the saints. As Athanasius put it, God became man that man might become God. Christ possesses divine life by nature, but we can possess it by participation. It is not something that we can create ourselves—it transcends created things. We believe that God has freely chosen to offer this to us through Christ.

This, then, is why we believe Christ is worthy of belief. He doesn’t just claim to be a prophet or a holy man, but claims to be God incarnate. This means that there is something unique and fundamentally different about his actions. In other posts I will look at reasons to believe that this claim is true, and at the question of different Christian communities/churches. But, from the beginning we need to be clear on this fundamental claim of Christ: he is truly the Son of God and truly the Son of Man.