Unspoken Sermons: Christ the King: Angels and Poverty (Mt 25.31-46)

David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
Christ the King
23 November 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I have decided to begin a series of “unspoken sermons”, a title, if not an idea, I have stolen from George MacDonald. In truth, I am still in the process of discerning my vocation. Am I called to be an academic theologian, a theological priest, a poet, an author? I honestly don’t know. However, I know that of ultimate importance to me is the feeding of God’s flock, sacramentally, theologically, and spiritually. I will be “preaching” through the Gospel texts in the Revised Common Lectionary.

Matthew 25.31-46

In today’s Gospel reading we are reminded of a hard truth. We are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. It seems that it is at least partly on this basis that we will be judged when Christ returns. For some, this is an uncomfortable truth. We think of our salvation being conditioned on the choice to follow Christ, and of course, it is. Yet there is more to it. Remember, Christ tells us to pray for forgiveness in the same manner in which we show forgiveness to others. Well here, Christ reminds that our actions within this world, caring for the lowly, is caring for him and is a condition for being part of his flock. It may be a hard truth, but it is the truth nevertheless.

Now this passage seems rather pragmatic in focus. When Christ returns he will separate the wicked from the righteous. His standard of measurement will include righteousness toward the marginalised. Many would perhaps set the focus on the charitable part, that righteous acts are essential for one to have a life in Christ and stop there. Some, might choose instead to focus on the apparent reality of Hell by noting that there is a separation between the wicked and the righteous. Some might want to emphasise that righteous acts are an outflow of our life in Christ and not a condition for it. But there is yet another aspect that I wish to bring out, one that, I hope will tie together all the others.

The passage begins, “‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.'” Those who know me well will know that I have something of an obsession with angels. Angels, for me, represent the enchanted aspect of the cosmos. They serve as reminders that the world of the senses is not all that there is, that another world upholds this world, is the foundation for this world. So there is a cosmic and enchanted aspect of this passage that I think we often miss since our general culture does not view the world this way. For many in our culture, the world is reducible to matter, to what we can see, feel, smell, hear, and taste. The worldview of the Scriptures of the church up to the late Middle Ages, is one of order and enchantment. Angels can come and break you out of prison as they did for Peter. Water can be turned into wine, as Christ did at Capernaum. Wine and bread can become flesh and blood. Churches can be truly sacred spaces where eternity and time meet in the liturgy. What, however, has all this to do with the rest of this passage, the feeding and caring for the poor and the oppressed?

Perhaps first and foremost it allows for a more literal reading of this passage, that is taking the words for what they say. Christ tells us that it is him we are feeding, clothing, warming, etc., when we do these things for the poor. In a sense that we cannot fully comprehend we are truly rendering these things to Christ himself insofar as he is actually present in the poor and oppressed. Second, the Scriptures are quite clear that angels serve many functions. One of those purposes is caring for, guiding, and guarding us. If the angels, who are so much higher than we are in our current state, care for us, how much more ought we to care for those who are human like us, fallen like us, and simply in poorer circumstances than ourselves. Third, and finally, the opening passage tells us that it is when Christ comes in glory and sits on his throne of glory that he will call us to account for the care of the poor. Clearly, therefore, the glory of Christ in part subsists in justice for the downtrodden. When all is made new, this will include the enrichment of the poor, and quite possibly the impoverishment of the rich. So the worldview evident in the opening passage of today’s reading is actually the foundation for our caring for the poor.  Today we celebrate Christ the King. In Christ’s Kingdom, there are to be no poor. To this we are called, so this we must do.

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.

Sincerely yours,
David

The Sacramental Imagination of Smith of Wooton Major

David Russell Mosley

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Ordinary Time
19 November 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I venture into the books I didn’t read as a child. I think this is important because I came to many of these books both as a Christian and often as a theologian. This means that what I see in these books is in no way coloured by my childhood experiences of them. So, the first book I want to write to you about is one of my favourites, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wooton Major.

The story behind Smith of Wooton Major is actually really funny. Tolkien had been asked to write an introduction for a new edition of George MacDonald’s ‘The Golden Key’, another excellent story that I will likely feature in this series. The problems are twofold, however. For starters, Tolkien was a perfectionist. The Hobbit first came out in 1937 and he was soon asked for a sequel. The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 1954, seventeen years later. The other problem is that Tolkien isn’t always very good at explaining things. Dr Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor himself, were discussing this aspect of Tolkien just last week. What Tolkien is rather much better at is telling stories. So, in the process of writing this introduction to ‘The Golden Key’, Tolkien decides to undertake to define what a fairy tale is. In order to do this, he decides to construct an example. This example became the story Smith of Wooton Major and the introduction was left unfinished.

The story, Smith of Wooton Major, tells us the story of a person called Smith who lives in a town called Wooton Major. Wooton Major has a rather prestigious position of Head Cook. The Cook is expected to cook various meals throughout the year, but every twenty-four years he is expected to cook for the Twenty-Four Feast. At this feast, twenty-four children are in attendance. The pièce de résistance at this feast is the cake. It is on this cake that the cook’s reputation is made or falls. One particularly year, when Smith is a child and in attendance something strange happens at the feast. The Head Cook, a man called Nokes, who had taken over from Smith’s grandfather, rather than the apprentice Alf decides to put treasures inside the cake for the children to find, including a star which Alf tells him comes from Faërie. Smith finds, or rather, doesn’t realise he finds this star in his piece. One day he coughs, the star pops out and he claps to it his head. From this day on Smith is transformed. He sings as he works. He works of ironmongery are beautiful, he makes no weapons, and best of all, he has gained access to Faërie.

Smith makes many adventures to Faërie, trying to scout out the whole of the land and experience everything he can. He eventually meets both the King and Queen of Faërie, as well as many of its inhabitants (all of whom are human in shape and size, though they are Fairies). He is frightened at times and goes places he shouldn’t. Perhaps what is most interesting, however, is that eventually, Smith must give up his star. Alf, the apprentice, had become Head Cook some time before and was preparing for his second Twenty-Four Feast and asks Smith for the star. With the star, Smith gives up some of the light it gave to his eyes and has, it would seem, lost his passport into Faërie. We feel the hardness of this for Smith for we are like him, most of us. We are ordinary people and yet we have gained access into Faërie as we have followed Smith into it. Yet it is not all bad, and I think this an important aspect.

When Smith returns from his final visit to Faërie, after he has returned the star, he meets with his son. His son, it would seem, has taken on the lion’s share of the work as of late, what with his father taking frequent trips into Faërie and all. His son tells him he hasn’t been able to go to a family party for all the work and wouldn’t go to the Feast the next day. Smith, however, tells him to make it a holiday, for there would now be four hands at the work. I have always argued that one of the key things fantasy does is render the world around us strange so we can see it for what it really is, so we can see it with fresh eyes. I think there is a relationship here to the function of the church (the building as well as the gatherings) and the celebration of the Eucharist. Smith still has work to do once his time in Faërie is done. Life isn’t over now that his time in Faërie. In fact, it almost seems that Faërie was a preparation for the rest of life. Similarly, our celebration of Eucharist is, in part, a preparation for the rest of life. Sunday is the first and eighth day of the week, both the beginning and the end and out from it flows the rest of the week. Now, unlike Smith and Faërie, Sunday sends out into Monday through Saturday only to return us to Sunday. Smith, it would seem, is not intended to return to Faërie, but we are intended to return to Sunday and one day to that Eternal Sunday that we practice in worship, the Son of God come down in glory. Faërie enabled Smith to be a better blacksmith, to be better in general. The Eucharist similarly enables us to go about our lives, taking Christ with us and reclaiming the rebellious and false kingdom of this world for the Kingdom of God.

Sincerely yours,

David

Musings of a (Ginger) Theophyte: A New Blog You Should Read

David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
17 November 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

I just wanted to write you a quick note. A new friend and one of the pastors at the church I currently attend has started a blog. Adam is a seminarian whom I like to kid about being ginger (really I’m just jealous of how much hair he has). His interests, like mine, are varied, but not always so strange as mine. He writes about his life, faith, pop culture and I’m sure more is to come. His blog is brand new, but already has a healthy number of posts to read. So make sure you check him out.

Some of his more recent posts include:

Fasting: The oft’ Forgotten Spiritual Discipline

Reconciliation: The Best Thing I’ve Learned From Facebook

Godzilla: A Franchise Lost

And perhaps most importantly: What is a Theophyte?

So make sure you check out and follow his blog.

Sincerely yours,
David

The (Not So) Shocking Beliefs of C. S. Lewis

David Russell Mosley

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Ordinary Time
13 November 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

This morning as I was reading through my Facebook feed I came across a link about one of my favourite authors: C. S. Lewis. So many things are written about Lewis daily that I don’t have time to read them all, so most of them I tend to skip. This one, however, caught my eye because of the title: The Shocking Beliefs of C. S. Lewis. The author, Frank Viola, was encouraged by a minister friend of his to point out to people the “shocking” beliefs of those they might hold in high esteem. The worthwhile point is not to downgrade these heroes in the eyes of others, but to show others that even those we account great have flaws and are, like us all, works in progress. I laud Viola for these worthy intentions, however, his selection of shocking beliefs were, to me at least, not shocking. Not only did they fail to shock me, but on most, if not all points, I agree with Lewis on these views. Furthermore, Viola casts these views in the light of things an evangelical might want to discredit all of Lewis’s work for, but shouldn’t. I want to write this response to Viola’s post to point out two things: the first is, as I have said, the unshocking nature of Lewis’s beliefs; the second, is to serve as a reminder that Lewis does not (rightly so, in my opinion) conform to many American, conservative, evangelical descriptions.

Purgatory

The first shocking belief Viola ascribes to Lewis is a belief in purgatory. Now, this may very well shock his protestant audiences, I concede. But it is not so shocking that someone steeped in the Tradition and history of the Church might agree with one of the teachings of that Church. Protestants, and even some Catholics, have a lot of misconceptions about what Purgatory is. Somehow, we’ve come to view as an antechamber to Hell, a place of retributive punishment for our sins. However, as both Lewis, Dante, and Tolkien conceive of Purgatory it is a place of purgation. True, in Dante’s Purgatory there is a continuation of the kinds of reversal punishments seen in Hell. That is, the proud are brought low by having large stones set on their shoulders, the sexually immoral, chasing after lust, are now set to run in circles, away from their desires. In Tolkien’s ‘Leaf By Niggle’, Niggle must work, and work hard. Even in Lewis’s The Great Divorce, there is pain for those who choose to remain in Heaven. However, for all, the goal is not punishment, or at least not retributive punishment, it is purgation, a burning away of our imperfections (like dross from silver). The Scriptures are replete with imagery that suggests we must be cleansed before we are fit for eternal life. This is why, for me, Lewis’s belief in Purgatory is unshocking.

Praying for the Dead

The next shocking belief is that Lewis believed we ought to pray for the dead. This again is rather unshocking. Again, the Scriptures make it clear that we ought to be mindful of the dead, there is even that enigmatic passage in Paul concerning being baptised for the dead. Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by the dead, that great cloud of witnesses. The early churches often met in cemeteries or catacombs and it wasn’t long after that they used to set up their altars above the bodies (or relics) of the martyrs and saints. We are, as one rather Goth church I once attended was called, a Church of the Living Dead and ought not only to be mindful of them but pray to God for them, just as we did in life.

Those in Hell Might Journey towards Heaven

This one, I will grant, will be very shocking for many. After all, the parable in Luke 16 suggests that there is an unbridgeable chasm between the abode of the righteous and the abode of the wicked (in death, anyway). Lewis was influenced on this point by George MacDonald who was, in turn, influenced by Origen (as well as Plato). The key here, however, is that this is through Christ. It is noteworthy, that the bus driver in The Great Divorce is Christ himself, the only one who could make himself small enough to enter Hell. However, this view becomes even less shocking when we realise that for many in the early and medieval Church, Christ, in his death, descended into Hell. Some will seek to counter this by noting that even in the Apostle’s Creed, the word used is Hades, a general word, they argue, for the abode of the dead. However, both Luke 16 and interpretation of this statement throughout the centuries are against this narrow understanding of Hades. There is, therefore, nowhere where Christ’s redeeming work is absent, whether this may continue after death or even after the return of Christ is not really for me to say. But I hope.

Christians Do Not Have to Be Teetotalers

Drunkenness is evil, no two ways about it, but abstinence for the sake of abstinence is not the solution (this goes, by the way, for sex as well). Rather, just as for sex there is an appropriate context, namely marriage, so too is there an appropriate place for alcohol, and even the early effects alcohol has on your brain and body before drunkenness occurs. The Scriptures are, it is true, replete with condemnations of overindulgence (of alcohol and other things), but they also contain many passages praising the benefits of it. Think of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to take wine for his stomach problems. It should also be noted that Lewis was a smoker. He primarily smoked pipes and cigarettes, and thought tobacco (though not necessarily the additives put in cigarettes) was beneficial as well. Consider the works of J. R. R. Tolkien where nearly every good character smokes a pipe (Bilbo, all thirteen dwarves in The Hobbit, Gandalf, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gimli, Aragorn). Even Trumpkin the dwarf smokes a pipe in Prince Caspian, as well as Mr Beaver in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Not to mention that Mrs Beaver hands round a flask that likely contains either brandy or whiskey.

A High View of the Eucharist Is Valid

Viola frames this as Lewis saying that a Zwinglian (that is, purely symbolic remembrance) view of the Eucharist is just as valid as the Catholic View (of transubstantiation). Actually, he says the reverse, giving the priority to the Zwinglian view, and then he cites Letters to Malcolm. In fact, I agree, largely, with the Catholic view and think the Zwinglian view incorrect. Lewis is not so obvious. What he says, rather, is that both views are inconceivable, that is, he has trouble believing either of them. His emphasis of disbelief, however, resides more with the purely symbolic remembrance than it does with transubstantiation. Lewis wants to take seriously Christ’s words, this is my body, this is my blood. However, he ends, rather unshockingly, with this notion: the command is to take and eat, not take and understand (Letters to Malcolm Chapter 19). Whatever happens in the Eucharist transcends our knowledge of it.

It is also worth noting that Lewis, as a member of the Church of England, would have received the Eucharist in the form of wafers of bread and one large cup of wine shared by all. This is likely to shock many evangelicals who use small crackers or bits of pie crust and small cups of grape juice. Equally problematic would be that Lewis would have received these elements at the hands of another, not taken them from a passing tray. This should not shock, however, since the modern practice is an innovation, and certainly not how Christ and the Apostles would have celebrated this meal.

Job Is a Work of Fiction, and the Bible Has Errors

Viola gives little support to this, but simply recommends readers look at Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms. He also misleads his readers a bit. While Lewis may well have thought Job to be fictional, it was a work of theological fiction and no less a part of the Scriptures because of it. Equally, while Lewis may have thought the Bible contained errors, these were not errors (I.e. He would not say the Bible is inerrant), this more has to do with occasional historical errors (who was king and for how long and after whom, etc.) and other small errors. This did not, however, mean that the Scriptures did not have one divine author as well as many human authors, or that the Scriptures are not God-breathed. Again, this is the position of much of the Church over history.

In the end, perhaps these facts are shocking to Evangelicals, but they shouldn’t be. Equally, these should not be little foibles Lewis had that ought to be criticised alongside the aspects of Lewis that ought to be lauded. Instead, we ought to consider how these supposedly “shocking” views informed and were informed by his “acceptable” views. Perhaps if we do that, we will see that we cannot have “Evangelical” Lewis without also having “Catholic” Lewis, that Catholic and Evangelical ought and do go together.

Sincerely yours,
David

The Sacramental Imagination of Harry Potter

David Russell Mosley

The Harry Potter Series: British Editions

The Harry Potter Series: British Editions

Ordinary Time
Pope St Leo the Great
10 11 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

The Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling, are the last books from my childhood that I will be examining in this Sacramental Imagination series. I hope to turn my attention to a few books I read after my childhood, but which are still children’s books, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wooton Major; George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, as well as some of his fairy tales; and perhaps others you might recommend.

I have written about the Christian nature of Rowling’s Potter books before, but today I want to spend a little time discussing how they might help children form a sacramental imagination. There are, however, some problems with Ms Rowling’s works that I would like to lay out at the forefront. First is something I have noted before, the almost Calvinistic system of how one becomes a witch or wizard. Following along relatively covenantal reformed lines, one primarily becomes a witch or wizard by being born from parents where at least one of them is a witch or wizard. This is a major plot point for the books commencing with earnest in book 6. However, whether one has wizard parents or not one still must be born a witch or wizard. It is not something one can claim for oneself. Muggles cannot learn magic, nor can squibs. This, therefore, suggests that the preferred way of living presented in the books, as a witch or wizard, is entirely outside of one’s control just as one’s salvation is outside of one’s control in a stringently Calvinist system. There are even those born of wizard ancestry who cannot do magic, who are not part of the community in the same way as everyone else, namely, squibs. This is, for me, a non-Calvinist, fairly problematic, though Rowling does back pedal a little in her The Tales of Beedle the Bard. In a footnote by Albus Dumbledore it is noted that research in the Department of Mysteries up to that point (likely somewhere around the mid-90s in the story’s chronology) that even those with Muggle parents who themselves can do magic likely have a witch or wizard somewhere in their ancestry.

The second problem I have is Rowling’s more or less Cartesian understanding of the human person. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, we learn that Dementors can suck out your soul. Your body would continue to function with your soul gone, but the person would no longer be there. Rowling’s books are based in an essentially Christian cosmos, but it is, in many ways, still a modernistic one, subject to post-Enlightenment thinking.

That being said, there is much that can be gained for children in Rowling’s Potter books. Perhaps the primary thing is how Rowling’s magical world gives us back our own world made strange. Wizards and witches do many of the same things we do: they shop, cook, throw parties, go to school, communicate with one another, and more, but each is rendered strange as we experience the magical world through Harry’s equally unaccustomed eyes. Harry’s first encounter with a magical being is Hagrid, a man too large to be allowed. As we later find out, not only is Hagrid big and a wizard, he’s even half-giant! Harry’s first shopping experience involves an apothecary, a wand shop, getting fitted for late-medieval/Renaissance style robes, and buying a pet owl.

What I find most interesting is how, even with magic, much of what the witches and wizards do would seem to us, slower. They don’t email one another or communicate by telephone, they write letters and send them by owls. It is almost astonishing how ultimately non-magical this is. The letters themselves, in fact nearly all the writing they do, with the exceptions of the newspaper, more recent books, and posters/cards, is done by hand, with a dip pen in the form of a quill. They actually dip a quill in a pot of ink and write, with their hands, on paper. The only magical element is when they send letters, the carriers are owls, but this is almost accidental to the whole process. They might just as well be carried by people. I think this is important. Rowling gives us a world with little technology and even less machining. Magic often takes the place of machines, but in the writing of letters or homework, neither magic nor sophisticated technology is used. Rather, the quill is a tool serving merely as an extension of the person holding it in order to effect a change in the world around them by the generation of something new, namely written words. It is interesting that wands serve the same basic function. They are tools, possessed of little magic themselves. Again, in the same footnote in The Tales of Beedle the Bard (footnote 4 in the notes after ‘Babbity Rabbity and the Cackling Stump), Dumbledore notes that a muggle picking up a magic wand might be able to do a random bit of magic, but only because there is a residual magic left in the wand by its owner. However, in the hand of a witch or wizard, it serves as a conduit for performing magic, magic which comes not from the wand nor any other external source, but from the wielder. Rowling, I think, is teaching children something about words, both that there is something magical, we might even say, sacramental about writing and the use of words (hence the magic spell). There is a relationship between the sign, the word or words, and the thing signified. In writing, the relationship is between the words and their author, with the quill/person as the conduit or sacrament and the letter the effect. In performing magic it is the word or words and their relationship to the change affected in the real world, with the wand/wizard as the sacrament and the magic performed the effect.

There is much more that could be said, particularly about human/animal relationships with the magical animals (like owls), and cosmic/terrestrial relationships (astrology as taught by Firenze the centaur). However, I have waffled on long enough. In the end, despite the flaws, Rowling’s Potter stories can help children see something magical in words, something sacramental in the relationship between words and what they represent, something that isn’t simply accidental. This makes her books immensely helpful in growing a sacramental imagination in children.

Sincerely yours,
David

The Sacramental Imagination of Narnia

David Russell Mosley

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Ordinary Time
05 11 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I want to continue our discussion of the formation of Sacramental Imagination in children. The world I want to look at today is C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. I thought about how I wanted to do this, and there may come a day soon where I’ll look at each book in turn, but today I want to focus on Narnia as a whole, dipping in and out of the various books as I see fit.

Narnia is world I didn’t come to right away. Unlike The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia were never read to me as a child. I still remember having them recommended to me by a classmate as we sat, not paying attention, during choir when I was in about the fourth or fifth grade. I can’t remember what my first reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was like, but I remember sitting at my desk in my bedroom, pouring over The Silver Chair with my desk lamp on. I loved Puddleglum. I’m not sure why. I’m not of a sour disposition myself, but I loved him all the same.

One of the key things Narnia taught as a child was a love for animals, not in a zoological way, but as friends. Every squirrel I met, every bird, cat, dog, toad, snake, whatever, was my friend, someone to whom I could talk and be understood. In fact, I used to believe I had a special way with animals. Even at university, when there was a mouse in my dorm room, I could have sworn I had nearly talked it into coming to me so I could rescue it from the mouse traps all over the place. Sadly, it didn’t listen to me. What Narnia taught me about animals extended the rest of creation (granted Tolkien was also helpful here, but I’m not discussing The Lord of the Rings). Every tree, every field, every flower became special, even while I longed for my own doorway into Narnia.

Narnia did more than simply give me an appreciation for creation, though that is an excellent starting place if one is going to have a high view of baptism, the Eucharist, or chrismation (all Sacraments involving physical objects often used for other daily purposes as well). It also began to form my imagination about the universe as a whole. One of my favourite scenes in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is when the company of the Dawn Treader land on Ramandu’s island and meet the retired Star and his daughter. Eustace, who’s total transformation hasn’t been fully effected yet, blurts out when he’s told what Ramandu and Coriakin are, “In our world…a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu repsonds, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” There is a hint, that stars in our world might be similar to stars in Narnia, especially since we’re not told what Ramandu is made of, only what he looks like (one could, of course, delve deeper since Caspian later weds and sires an offspring with Ramandu’s daughter, therefore she, nor her father, can be made of huge balls of flaming gas, but that is not the point Lewis or I are trying to make). Not only does Narnia teach us to view the Earth differently, but the whole cosmos. Stars might be persons, animals might be able to talk, and the death of a creature who is also God by nature might be able to undo all the evil, slowly, of fallen world. If this is possible, then why might not bread become a body, wine, blood, or oil a seal from God.

There is, of course, much more one could point to: the liquid light at the edge of the world, the way this world connects to the next, etc. At heart, however, what Narnia does, what all good fantasy does, is show us that things may be more than they appear and this because there is one who created them and they show forth their creator and participate in him. In short, that the cosmos is enchanted.

Sincerely yours,
David

The Sacramental Imagination of The Hobbit

David Russell Mosley


Ordinary Time
Richard Hooker
03 11 2014
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Today I want to continue our conversation about forming a sacramental imagination in children. As I said before, I want to focus on the works the helped form my imagination as a child. The first book on the list, therefore, is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I am limiting myself to The Hobbit because attempting a brief overview of the sacramental imagination in this book will be hard enough without also delving into The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, or what’s more, the History of Middle Earth series. Therefore, if you read this post and see that I’ve left out Ents, Galadriel’s Mirror and phial, silmarils, etc., you will understand why.

As I’ve said on multiple occasions, there has never been a particularly long period of my life where The Hobbit has not featured in it. It is one of the earliest books that was read to me in the cradle and his been my closest companion these many years. The book, for those who haven’t read it or seen the first two films of the trilogy based on it, is about a hobbit, a creature of about three and half to four feet tall called Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo lives a rather bourgeois life. He’s a bachelor, has a well stocked larder (pantry), doesn’t seem to need to work any longer at the middle age of fifty (hobbits living to 100 as like as not). He doesn’t have much use for anything he can’t see with his own two eyes and anything fantastic he believes in, say dragons or goblins or even wolves, merely frightens him at the possibility of their existence. He is, for all intents and purposes, a rather standard, post-enlightenment, upper middle class gentleman. Then all of a sudden he encounters a wizard and not long after thirteen dwarves who convince him to go on an adventure.

Bilbo is meant to represent us in the story in many ways. Even in height he rather matches many of the children who would about his stories. Of course most of them, and us, would not be quite so stolid as Bilbo, bemoaning missing handkerchiefs, desiring pipe tobacco (from experience anyway), etc. But still, like Bilbo, most of us have never seen dwarves or wizards or elves or goblins or dragons or great kingdoms carved out of mountains. If we knew the dangers, I dare say most of us would rather stay home and eat bacon than go attempt to steal treasure from a sleeping dragon. And yet, like Bilbo, we don’t know the danger and so, as he goes on his adventure, we join him, and we, like him, gain something in the end.

It is obvious, when you reach the end of the book, that Bilbo has changed. He has encountered goblins, Gollum, a dragon, dangerous elves, rock giants, and more. And yet, he does not leave behind his old self completely. He still loves good food and drink more than treasure; he still dreams of bacon and enjoys throughout his adventures smoking his pipe (the very scene with which the book ends). Yet as he sings his song, ‘Roads Go Ever, Ever On’, as Gandalf notices, he is not the same hobbit he was at the beginning. He has been transformed. The narrator casts this transformation in two different sets of terms. The first is prose versus poetry; the second, Took versus Baggins. In the Took and Baggins dichotomy, nothing is lost. Bilbo is as much a Baggins at the end as at the beginning, but he is a Tookish Baggins or a Bagginsish Took. He still, as I’ve said, loves good food and pipes by the fire, but now his guests are not simply other hobbits, but dwarves, wizards, and even elves. From prose to poetry, however, there is truer transformation. Bilbo takes no part in the songs sung throughout the book, though he is at times moved by them. I think it striking that Bilbo does not, so far as we know, sing until the very end of the book where he not only sings, but sings a song of his own creation and what’s more, his own creation on the spot! Bilbo, the narrator tells us, was never so prosy as he imagined, but at the end he no longer even imagines himself prosy, he is now a poet.

I think it is this that helps us form a sacramental imagination, the dual recognition that we need not leave this life behind in commitment to a sacramental cosmos, just as Bilbo must not leave behind Baggins to become a Took. We can still love food and comfort, but now because we know the depth of these things, because now we know with whom we dine for Christ is present at every meal, though much more so and in a different way at one in particular. Nevertheless, the more we give in to the sacramental cosmos, the more we become poets, leaving behind pure prose. Thus, not only how we see the world has been changed, but how we talk about it has been changed as well. This is, in part, what we, like Bilbo, gain at the end of the story, a wider context in which to live our lives and new language in which to describe it.

Sincerely yours,
David