By Ian Olson
“I am weary, O God,” the compiler of Israel’s wisdom complains, “I am weary, O God, and worn out” (Prov. 30:1), summoning the cavernous fatigue we all experience, perhaps even now, as speech directed to his maker. Our extension in space and time, by which we interface with the world, makes enjoyment possible, but is always subject to depletion and enervation. There are delights that can provide respite from this weariness from time to time, but they can never banish it entirely. Work does not cease; parenting does not cease; fools abrade our wits and our souls; pandemics persist and mutate; and the tenuousness of our hold upon our sanity drives us to ask, “How long, O Lord?”
There are times we are especially aware of being engulfed within mania, and the temptation to abandon our responsibilities insinuates its necessity. In our efforts to resist the impulses that pull us away from the good, we sometimes fetishize the toil as though there is virtue inherent in being subjected to burden and erosion. And when we are most broken down and dejected, we fantasize about escaping the confines of creaturely need altogether. But there can be no such escape: that which we are, we are, and though the eschaton may transform the conditions of our being in some way, it will not change the fact that we are creatures. We were created to need.
We are in need of escape, all the same — escape from absurdity and meaninglessness. These are things worth escaping; we must, or else we wither and contract upon ourselves into nothing. J.R.R. Tolkien decried the fatalism that makes a virtue of acquiescence by protesting that escape is not always or necessarily desertion, and that these critics “are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” We are always bound to return to the terrain of this world and its troubles and terrors. How are we to endure it with integrity and persevere so as to come to true rest?
In a letter to his son Michael discussing the virtues and difficulties of marriage, Tolkien elaborated on his courtship of his wife, Edith, and the many trials he had to overcome before marrying her. “The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called ‘self-realization’ (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves),” he reminds his son; “but by denial, by suffering.” Yet their shared story has been characterized by a deep joy that would give birth, in time, to Tolkien’s story of Beren and Lúthien. What is the crux of Tolkien’s advice for navigating the transition into independent adulthood?
Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament… There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires. (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien)
Tolkien wasn’t one to exaggerate his sadnesses or defeats. The fact is he was well-acquainted with grief and had lost many he loved from his earliest years. He describes in this letter how he didn’t write to or see Edith for three years so as not to disobey his guardian before he reached the age of majority. Tolkien’s life is shot through with pain and with desire, both mutually interpretative. But he wasn’t a sullen man. He was very aware of and thankful for the blessings of his wife, his children, his work. But his ability to savor these things was sharpened by his experiences of loss. As he wrote almost two years later to his son Christopher, “We were born in a dark age out of due time (for us). But there is this comfort: otherwise we should not know, or so much love, what we do love.”
True to the Augustinian tradition, Tolkien was able to accept all that has come to pass as productive of something Christlike within him. The Eucharist was the point at which anguish and love met and trained him not to repress but to name his feelings and to situate the pain of his life within the beneficent rule of a savior who overcomes the void of loss and meaninglessness through suffering.
This is what anchored him in a world so inexplicably swarming with pain and beauty and impelled his sub-creation of a world that was shot through with both. In his stories there are transient wonders which only become possible through the risk of poiesis, beauties which must die when the evil that made them possible is brought to an end, and blessings which become curses when they are not relinquished but greedily hoarded. Feeding on Christ nourished his moral imagination and resistance to an increasingly soul-stultifying age characterized by capitalist science and bureaucratized evil.
And in spite of those things about which they would have differed, Tolkien’s fellow wayfarer, Calvin, agreed this was so. “[A]s it is not the sight but the eating of bread that gives nourishment to the body, so the soul must partake of Christ truly and thoroughly, that by his energy it may grow up into spiritual life.” In giving himself as bread for our faith’s consumption, Jesus Christ taught not only “that our salvation is treasured up in the faith of his death and resurrection, but also, by virtue of true communication with him, his life passes into us and becomes ours, just as bread when taken for food gives vigor to the body” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, V.27.5). God addresses our needs as whole persons in the self-giving of the Eucharist.
It is therefore not a self-indulgent fantasy that ignores our duties to the world or our needs as creatures, but it is an escape — one which enriches our return to the time between the times. It is a gift that supplies a plenitude to match the receiver’s need. It is lembas, waybread, nourishing us along our exhausting course in our long, Advent march. Our continual, recurrent need to take and eat again and again and again shows that we “exist as those who know an honest and basic lack, and thus hope for [Christ’s] conclusive appearing and revelation and [our] own and the world’s redemption and consummation” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3.1, 322).
Our intermittent return to the Supper shows what we most fundamentally are: incomplete in ourselves, and made to be filled by and with God. It is the food without which our souls languish and die. And it is fed to us all, by Christ’s Spirit, growing Christ within us, engendering the patience of God by which he endures the insults of his creatures, the disappointments of their failures, the injustice of their sins, and the pride of their impenitence; and the forbearance with which he delays the End so that more may come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9), embodied in the waiting which paradoxically hastens his return as deliverer and restorer (2 Pet. 3:12). We wait for a time when the blessings that presently cannot be separated from the tares will be undiluted good, when weariness will be no more, and our need will only be the sign of God’s good pleasure in fulfilling us.
Ian Olson is an Anglican lay student living with his wife and four children in southern Wisconsin, born out of due time, doing all he can to resist the gravitational pull of the world’s despair and commend what is excellent.