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The Birth of a Child: A Transformation by Stradford Caldecott

The Birth of a Child: A Transformation

EpiphanyThe birth of a child is not a completely new beginning but it changes everything. It is a revelation that transforms us. The baby existed before, but now we can see its face. In this case, the unique case of Jesus, it is the face that God turns towards us, and also the face that we turn towards God – the mystery of two natures.

When Jesus comes into the world, all things turn towards him. The star representing the heavens leads wise men towards the baby. The peoples of the earth flock towards the stable where he shows his face. Everyone wants to gaze into those eyes. Mary and Joseph are the privileged ones. They live in his presence, surrounded by his aura, full of his joy.

The child begins to cry. He needs us, as we need him. He gives a voice to the cry of the ages, the cry of the world itself – the people, the animals, the rivers, the mountains. He gives a voice to the cry of God, who calls us to return to him, across such a great distance, over which there is now a bridge. The cry of God has never been heard before. The long ages have been silent. The bridge begins with a cry of need, and it will end with a cry of rejoicing, as the peoples of the world enter their Holy City.

This essay originally appeared on All Things Made New.

The Catholic Tolkien and the Knights of Middle-earth by Stratford Caldecott

The Catholic Tolkien and the Knights of Middle-earth

catholic tolkien

This month, fans around the world will flock to the cinema to watch the first of three installments of Peter Jackson’s adaptation ofThe Hobbit—the “prequel” to the award-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy that was also released in three parts between 2001 and 2003 (The Hobbit:An Unexpected Journey will be released in U.S. theaters Dec. 14.). Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novels, the films depart from the original storyline in significant details, but goes to great lengths to respect the author’s vision of Middle-earth—a world of great natural beauty and intense moral drama, set in the distant past.

Many will argue that translating such a story from book into film, no matter how impressive the result, is a mistake. A movie presents the audience with the filmmakers’ visualization, not the author’s or the reader’s. Conversely, reading or listening to a story engages the imagination at a deeper level than watching it on screen. Yet if a film had to be made, we should be grateful that efforts have been made to remain faithful to the spirit and texture of Tolkien’s stories.

The Catholic Tolkien

The spirit of Tolkien’s hugely successful fantasy novels is deeply Christian. Born in 1892, the author was a devout Catholic who grew up under the influence of Blessed John Henry Newman’s Oratory in Birmingham, England. All through his busy life as an Oxford professor and popular writer, he tried to attend Mass every day. His eldest son even became a Catholic priest. The stories that Tolkien wrote were more than entertainment; they were written to express a profound Christian wisdom.

In a letter Tolkien drafted to the manager of the Newman Bookshop in 1954, but never sent because it sounded too self-important (Letter 153 in the published collection), he admitted that his aim in writing the stories was “the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in this real world, by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments, that may tend to ‘bring them home.’” In another letter to a Jesuit friend in 1953, he explained that while he had consciously “absorbed” the religious element “into the story and the symbolism” (because he had no intention of making religious propaganda), The Lord of the Rings remains “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”

Tolkien’s Christian wisdom can pop out at readers in unexpected ways, but most often it simply sinks in at a deep level without distracting our attention from the story. I noticed an example as I read The Lord of the Rings to my youngest daughter recently. The story concerns the attempt to destroy a magical “Ring of Power” that threatens the freedom of all the peoples of Middle-earth. As the little hobbits Frodo and Sam struggle up Mount Doom in the final stage of their quest to reach the volcanic furnace in which the Ring can be unmade, Frodo comes to the end of his strength—drained by the ever-growing weight of the Ring he bears around his neck and the constant temptation to claim its power for his own.

His faithful servant Sam, who knows he is not permitted to bear the Ring, invites Frodo to climb onto his back. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get!” Staggering to his feet, he finds to his amazement “the burden light.” Tolkien writes, “[Sam] had feared that he would have barely strength to lift his master alone, and beyond that he had expected to share in the dreadful dragging weight of the accursed Ring. But it was not so. Whether because Frodo was so worn by his long pains, wound of knife, and venomous sting, and sorrow, fear, and homeless wandering, or because some gift of final strength was given to him, Sam lifted Frodo with no more difficulty than if he were carrying a hobbit-child pig-a-back in some romp on the lawns or hayfields of the Shire. He took a deep breath and started off.”

Does this not remind you, as if in a faint echo, of a certain well-known passage in the Gospels? I am thinking of the one where Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30).

The echo may be faint, yet the whole journey of the two Hobbits across Mordor—including descriptions of the Ring and Frodo’s many falls under its weight—recalls the Way to Calvary, where Jesus bore the weight of the world’s sin. Those who are familiar with the Gospels can hardly fail to recognize a similarity. If the Ring is analogous to the Cross (because it represents sin), and Frodo as Ringbearer is analogous to Christ, then when Sam hauls the burden up onto his shoulders he finds exactly what Christ has promised: It feels light because Christ himself is still bearing the major part of the weight.

The link to the Christian story is even reinforced by the calendar date. The Ring is destroyed on March 25, which in our world is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the day Christ was conceived in the womb of Mary to bear our sins away.

Nobility of the Soul

There are plenty of other parallels with Christianity in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but as the author insisted, the important point lies deeper than this. The story is meant to be enjoyed for its own sake, not merely decoded. A story is a way of exploring the way the world works. No author can avoid bringing his own understanding of free will and fate or providence, not to mention some conception of good and evil, to his writing. Tolkien’s understanding was shaped by his faith, which is the truth revealed by God about the way the world really works — and not only this world, but every possible world.

An important part of Catholic wisdom is the ethical tradition that rests on the natural laws of our nature, made in the image of God. This tradition could be called “nobility of soul” or “spiritual chivalry.” We see both in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a learning process that Tolkien called “the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble,” which he believed was an important theme of his writing as a whole. In both novels, the hobbit heroes (Bilbo in the one, Frodo and Sam and their friends in the other) are lifted from the narrow, comfortable world of the Shire into a much vaster landscape to play key roles in battles that decide the fate of Middle-earth. This was a process that Tolkien observed among the soldiers he fought beside in the Battle of the Somme, in the First World War.

Through suffering and trial, the hobbits are fashioned into heroes, empowered to save their little world of the Shire from the spiritual evil that has corrupted it while they were away. Gandalf the wizard tells them, “That is what you have been trained for.” Although the film versions of The Lord of the Rings unfortunately omit this last stage, it is still clear that the hobbits have attained greater maturity and courage through their adventures.

After all, Tolkien wove the idea of “nobility of soul” very deeply into his mythology. This concept is represented partly in the Elves. The human beings and hobbits who are closest to the Elves by influence or nature are the noblest: Frodo (named “Elf-friend”) among the hobbits, Aragorn and Imrahil and Faramir among the men. The “elvish” tendency in man is always towards physical beauty, artistic ability and respect for creation. It is associated with a love for God’s creation that seeks to improve, protect, celebrate and adorn.

The “chivalry” that reveals this nobility is shown in behavior towards others, such as kindness and mercy, the refusal to mistreat even prisoners of war, and the showing of honor to the bodies of the dead. We see this, for instance, when Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor and leader of the fellowship of the Ring, insists on a proper funeral for Boromir before they continue with their quest. The knights of Middle-earth defend the weak from their oppressors and remain faithful to friends and liege-lord. Such behavior outwardly signifies the presence of heroic virtue within the soul, especially the cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice.

It is with these virtues that we are equipped to defend the truly important things, the little things, the domestic world of the free family, and the love that binds people together in fellowship.

Aragorn exemplifies all of these virtues in the highest degree, but we see them develop in the hobbits, too, as they learn to submit to discipline and overcome their fear to achieve great deeds without hope of reward — just because it is the right thing to do. This is Tolkien’s challenge to us: to become, in our own way, the knights of Middle-earth.


Faith and Marriage Under Attack by Stratford Caldecott

Faith and Marriage Under Attack

 
 by Stratford Caldecott
 
February 7, 2013
 
On both sides of the Atlantic, we are witnessing a concerted attack on Christianity and on the institution that the Church deems the fundamental cell of society, namely the family founded on the marriage of a man and a woman. In the US, Archbishop Chaput and other bishops have reacted strongly to the “contraception mandate” – the plans of the Obama administration to force Catholic agencies indirectly to fund contraception and abortion services. In the UK, the High Court ruled “unlawful” the practice of local town councils to open their meetings with a prayer. A government scheme permits girls as young as 13 to receive secret contraceptive implants at school without the knowledge of their parents. Meanwhile the Archbishop of Canterbury has warned against the movement to legalize assisted suicide or euthanasia as representing a disastrous shift in the “moral and spiritual atmosphere”. In both the US and UK, where homosexual unions are increasingly regarded as normal, pressure is growing for the right to homosexual “marriage”, contrary to the dictionary definition as well as the longstanding universal tradition that marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman, ultimately for the sake of offspring. (The question of offspring has been blurred by the development of IVF and surrogacy, and the question of same-sex unions by gender “reassignment”, whether by legal decree or by surgery.) See Christian Concern for these and other relevant news stories.
 
All of this is predictable, and has indeed been predicted for some time (along with various disastrous outcomes) by many cultural observers. Of course, one can become unpopular by referring to a “slippery slope”, but no other metaphor seems more appropriate in this situation. Once we have left the “level ground” of common sense on these matters, there is nowhere to go but down, and in a world where every handhold is rapidly demolished the speed of our descent can only increase. Common sense, here, is defined not only by the universal and perennial principles of an ordered society, but by the philosophy of natural law and virtues that underpinned that consensus, based on the intrinsic connection of truth, goodness, and beauty.

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Themes of Beauty in the Word (IV) by Stratford Caldecott

Themes of Beauty in the World  (IV)

 
by Stratford Caldecott
 
9/12/12
 
[My recent book, Beauty in the Word, a sequel to Beauty for Truth’s Sake, is quite dense and complicated, so I thought it would be helpful to readers if I produced a “study guide”. So, in a series of posts, I look at some of the key themes and ideas in the book.]4. The Mother of the Liberal Arts. In the ancient sources, Wisdom or Sapientia (Greek Sophia) is sometimes identified with Christ, and he is shown standing or seated on the lap of Mary as the Seat of Wisdom. But often Sapientia is a female figure, and as such she is regarded as the “mother” of the seven liberal arts by Cassiodorus and Alcuin.

In the book, there is a section – the Endnote starting on p. 153 – where I explore this idea, along with the meaning of Beauty and the other Transcendentals that converge on God. I argue that the “Wisdom” of God can be identified with Beauty as something inherently “liberating”. The Beauty or Glory of God corresponds at its highest point with the divine Infinity, the fact that God’s own being is inexhaustible and therefore he is a continual delight to himself, a source of eternal rejoicing, of bliss. So the joy we associate with Beauty is a pointer to the depths of Being in God. And this Beauty is ultimately the same as that “Wisdom” described in the Books of Proverbs and Wisdom as being by God’s side from the very beginning, perhaps as the divine idea of creation itself, or as a sort of “uncreated nature”.
“For wisdom is more moving than any motion: she passeth and goeth through all things by reason of her pureness. For she is the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty: therefore can no defiled thing fall into her. For she is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness” (Wisdom 7:24–6).
 
The book tries to trace the way each of the “ways” of the Trivium contributes to the growth in wisdom. Through the mastery of language in memory, thought, and conversation, we become able to grow into our humanity, discovering a wider world and able to discern truth from falsehood, astute in judgment, in communion with others. But the process of education can be corrupted when its aims are lowered from the attainment of wisdom and subordinated to that of a career, or when the very possibility of attaining truth is denied on all sides.Wisdom is the inspiration and the goal of the Liberal Arts, which are the “seven pillars” of the house of rejoicing, and love, and freedom. Each of the Arts was meant to prepare the ground of the body, soul, and spirit of man for the freedom in truth that comes from the knowledge of God, only finally attained when philosophy and theology give way to contemplation and union. For “we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, since we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). 

 
Reprinted with the permission of Beauty in Education.

Themes of Beauty in thye Word (II) by Stratford Caldecott

 

Themes of Beauty in the Word (II)

 

by Stratford Caldecott [My recent book, Beauty in the Word, a sequel to Beauty for Truth’s Sake, is quite dense and complicated, so I thought it would be helpful to readers if I produced a “study guide”. So, in a series of posts, I look at some of the key themes and ideas in the book.]

2. The Transcendentals. I find the triad of the Trivium (Memory, Thought, Speech, or if you prefer Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric) echoed in many others, from the Trinity of divine persons on down through the various levels of creation. The Trivium is therefore intimately bound up with the divine image in Man, which is a Trinitarian image. God himself is the source of Memory, Thought, and Speech (Being/Father, Logos/Son, and Breath/Spirit).One of those triads is composed of the so-called “transcendental properties of being”, meaning properties that are so “general” that they can be found in varying degrees in everything that exists. The three I mean are Goodness, Truth, and Beauty – although one might also look at the threesome of Unity, Truth, and Goodness. As I explain (Beauty in the Word, p. 157), such triads are impossible to align definitively with particular members of the Trinity, because they can be looked at under different aspects. In fact each is one of the Names of God, and applies to all three divine persons. The human being who searches for any of them is on the road to God, on whom these three roads converge. The Transcendentals are vitally important if we are to understand the world as a cosmos and build a civilization worthy of our humanity.I want to propose an idea that came to me after writing Beauty in the Word, that might serve as an interesting footnote, or open up another avenue to explore. It is this. Human civilization seems to have three pillars: Law, Language, and Religion. It is these that make us into a community or nation. And in each case the aim or goal is one of the Transcendentals, even if they cannot reach that goal without divine assistance. The aim of the Law is goodness, the aim of Language is Truth, and the aim of Religion is (spiritual) Beauty -– that is, holiness. Culture is the result of all three; of Law, Language, and Religion acting in concert (body, soul, and spirit, as it were).

But how does this relate to the Trivium? Law it seems to me aims to recall us to our true nature, or encourages us to rise to our highest nature. In that sense it corresponds to Memory or Grammar. (The moral or natural law, as Pope Benedict has written in his little book On Conscience, may be equated with Platonic “reminiscence”, which is in Christian terms an awakening to our true nature in God’s intention.) Language then corresponds to Thought, meaning the human quest for truth in all things. (For in order to understand reality we must discern the Son, the Logos of all things.) Thirdly, Religionin the sense of a tradition or path of holiness is what gives the spirit that animates the community. It is this that makes us aware of our intimate relationship to each other, able to speak “heart to heart”.This is an extension of an idea I put forward in the book, that before we reform our schools we need to understand more deeply the goal of education, which is a truer humanity and a civilization of love.
 
Reprinted with the permission of Beauty in Education.
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