By Thomas Plant
They were alone in a grey formless world without mark or measure. Only far away north-west was a deeper darkness against the dying light: the Mountains of Mist and the forest at their feet. — The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have reached the land of Rohan. Not long ago, they were resting in the timeless Eden of Lothlórien. Now they are in a realm of fast-paced men, the Rohirrim horse lords who rush about their business over featureless and empty plains. Here, the enchanted realm of elves, dwarves, ents and hobbits is dismissed as a naive fable of old. The elven light is dying, and in turn the dark seems dim enough to be negotiable, distant enough to be safely ignored for now. Men must make their own ways, their own choices.
“Nothing can we see to guide us here,” says Gimli, and this seems to me a pretty parable for the disenchanted realm of secular modernity, in both its spatial and temporal dimensions.
Space in Europe was once oriented deliberately around symbols of transcendent good, Lothlórien-like havens, temporal conduits of eternal rest. Churches were at the heart of our settlements, their towers and spires pointing upwards to show that all our life was focused on and guided by that which is beyond our naming and making. Their beauty was uplifted by the piercing arrow of the Gothic arch and cascaded down from vaulted ceilings; a Platonic aesthetic deliberately intended to lift up the soul with the eyes toward that height beyond existence from which all potential flows down into actuality.
Spatially, the churches acted as literal waypoints punctuating the landscape for the traveler, who first from afar might spy the village tower or the cathedral spire. Once within, one could orient oneself from the churches’ dedications: St. Peter’s in the east, by association with heaven and his keys to its gates; St. Stephen just outside the walls, since that is where he was martyred; St. Giles nearby, safe refuge for lepers; St. Bartholomew’s for the sick or injured pilgrim; St. Ann’s for soothing drafts from her holy wells. By both the spires and names of churches, wanderers found their way, whether topographical or spiritual.
The sacred space of our older land was not confined within church walls. The guilds of work and trade, law, medicine and learning, fed into the churches as the Church fed them with (in Tolkien’s terms) the life-giving lembas bread and miruvor of her sacraments. Their buildings grew to echo the shape of the churches, their architectural forms singing a common language, articulating their common source and common aim in the common good.
Even the space between the churches and the civic buildings, homes and shopfronts was marked by a signpost of the transcendent: the market cross. The routing of transcendent value from the marketplace is a modern innovation which would confuse our European forebears in the medieval village or the ancient Agora or Forum. But now the public square is disenchanted, traded “goods” are good in name alone, stripped of any transcendent value, their value bestowed by nominalist brokers’ utilitarian metric. Nothing has enduring value. Money is the measure of all things.
Not only has space been stripped of its markers. Time, too, has been razed like the forest of Isengard. It can be measured only by counting the rings on its dead stumps. When the elves lived among us, we marked the passage of time annually with Christian feasts, weekly with Sunday observance, daily with the Mass and Hours. On festivals and saints’ days we shared our common story with plays, songs, games, foods and drinks, unique to their season. The atrophied stumps of Christmas, St. Valentine’s Day and Easter are all that remain of that woodland, with Hallowe’en, twisted into a morbid bacchanal of transience, overshadowing all. The life-giving fruits of time are desiccated down for their market value, shredded, shrink-wrapped, shelved. The traditional foods, once markers of the season, arrive so prematurely that much of them, unwanted and untimely ripped, end up in supermarket dumpsters. All the signposts have been turned toward profit, our only common destination now.
My government-approved daily walk through the streets in Holy Week alerted me to just how grey time has become. Today, time is nothing but money, punctuated by self-determined periods of holiday and leisure. But now even these modern markers are gone. People clutch at online lifestyle regimes, but already the impact of disordered isolation is becoming clear in increasing reports of domestic violence and divorce petitions. Space, too, is bereft of signs of eternal and unchanging order. The new housing estate I live on has no church. If it had, it would be closed. No bells mark the unsaid Mass and hours.
Happily, I have an old and trusted remedy at hand. In my 1662 Book of Common Prayer are clear markers for the hallowing of hours and seasons: a calendar of feasts and fasts, times for celebration and for abstinence, times for blessing of the harvest and the parish bounds, times for work and times for rest, times and readings for daily, honest and uncensored prayer. It offers a pattern, a measure, a rule of life. In comparison, the synthetic concoctions of modern liturgical committees seem bound up with the myth of progress, their already tired formulae lacking sense of urgency in the choice of light and dark, the work of grey men for a grey world. Against their unbounded sprawl of volumes and supplements, the simple canon of the 1662 prayer book shines like Andúril, Aragorn’s sword.
The prayer book can ground us in unchanging rhythms of life which cannot be shut up by bishops, canceled by governments or erased by market powers. It is a tragedy that the Church itself has colluded in removing this repository of wisdom from the hands and minds of Anglicans. Yet its tradition is sorely needed now, to open our eyes to all our craven obfuscations.
The Rohirrim think themselves fast enough to rush between the dark and light without choosing. Yet there can be no deals with the Dark Lord: we must either submit to the shadow of modernity’s value-stripped realm, or strengthen ourselves to withstand it, lest it grow too late for us to realize with the Lord of Rohan:
Long we have tended our beasts and our fields, built our houses, wrought our tools, or ridden away to help in the wars of Minas Tirith. And that we called the life of Men, the way of the world. We cared little for what lay beyond the borders of our land. Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom.
It is time for the songs of our Scriptures and ancient liturgies to rise again and walk in the sun. With the words of our fathers on my heart and lips, I feel the elves can still be conjured; I sense the tremors of the ents uprooting; I know that even dim and distant, Lothlórien’s light and peace remain. Sometimes, I even catch a glimpse of it.
It is enough to keep me walking.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Plant is chaplain of Lichfield Cathedral School, England. He will further address the problem of relativism in Christian education in his forthcoming work, The Iconic School. His most recent book is The Catholic Jesus.