Thursday, May 6, 2010

J.R.R. Tolkien on Scandal, Faith, and the Eucharist

I was trawling the library the other day, and I came across The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1981). I happened by chance to open it up to a letter that Tolkien wrote to his son, Michael, on November 1 (All Saints Day), 1963 (pp. 337-339). It made me think of the clergy sex abuse scandal. It made me think about faith in light of such violations of trust by the predators, as well as the bishops and clergy who enabled them. It reminded me of how the Eucharist is where we should go to reflect, repent, and heal.

You speak of 'sagging faith', however. That is quite another matter. In the last resort faith is an act of will, inspired by love. Our love may be chilled and our will eroded by the spectacle of the shortcomings, folly, and even sins of the Church and its ministers, but I do not think that one who has once had faith goes back over the line for these reasons (least of all anyone with any historical knowledge). 'Scandal' at most is an occasion of temptation – as indecency is to lust, which it does not make but arouses. It is convenient because it tends to turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scapegoat. But the act of will of faith is not a single moment of final decision: it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act > state which must go on – so we pray for 'final perseverance'. The temptation to 'unbelief' (which really means rejection of Our Lord and His claims) is always there within us. Part of us longs to find an excuse for it outside us. The stronger the inner temptation the more readily and severely shall we be ‘scandalized’ by others. I think I am as sensitive as you (or any other Christian) to the scandals, both of clergy and laity. I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the church (which for me would mean leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons: I should leave because I did not believe, and should not believe anymore, even if I had never met anyone in orders who was not both wise and saintly. I should deny the Blessed Sacrament, that is: call our Lord a fraud to His face.

If He is a fraud and the Gospels fraudulent – that is: garbled accounts of a demented megalomaniac (which is the only alternative), then of course the spectacle exhibited by the Church (in the sense of clergy) in history and today is simply evidence of a gigantic fraud. If not, however, then this spectacle is alas! only what was to be expected: it began before the first Easter, and it does not affect faith at all – except that we may and should be deeply grieved. But we should grieve on our Lord's behalf and for Him, associating ourselves with the scandalized heirs not with the saints, not crying out that we cannot 'take' Judas Iscariot, or even the absurd & cowardly Simon Peter, or the silly women like James' mother, trying to push her sons.

It takes a fantastic will to unbelief to suppose that Jesus never really 'happened', and more to suppose that he did not say the things recorded all of him – so incapable of being ‘invented’ by anyone in the world at that time: such as ‘before Abraham came to be I am' (John viii). ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father’ (John ix); or the promulgation of the Blessed Sacrament in John v: ‘He that he eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life.’ We must therefore either believe in Him and in what he said and take the consequences; or reject him and take the consequences. I find it for myself difficult to believe that anyone who has ever been to Communion, even once, with at least a right intention, can ever again reject Him without grave blame. (However, He alone knows each unique soul and its circumstances.)

The only cure for sagging of fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals. Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to Communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a Mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people (it could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the 5000 – after which [Our] Lord propounding feeding that was to come.)

I myself am convinced by the Petrine claims, nor looking around the world does there seem much doubt which (if Christianity is true) is the True Church, the temple of the Spirit dying but living, corrupt but holy, self-reforming and a rearising. But for me that Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head on earth has as chief claim that it is the one that has (and still does) ever defended the Blessed Sacrament, and given it most honor, and put it (as Christ plainly intended) in the prime place. ‘Feed my sheep’ was his last charge to St. Peter; and since his words are always first to be understood literally, I suppose them to refer primarily to the Bread of Life. It was against this that the W. European revolt (or Reformation) was really launched – the ‘blasphemous fable of the Mass’ – and faith/works a mere red herring. I suppose the greatest reform of our time was that carried out by St. Pius X: surpassing anything, however needed, that the Council will achieve. I wonder what state the church would now be but for it.

Tolkien's letter is a beautiful hymn to faith and the Eucharist, a sorrowful lament on scandal and sin. He reminds us that sin was present from the beginning of the Church, and it will remain with us until Christ's Second Coming. Just to be clear, the clergy sex abuse scandal has been a terrible, terrible scourge to the victims, and nothing, absolutely nothing can justify either the molestations or the cover-ups. When the media has spoken the truth (which, unfortunately, they have not always done), they have done a great service to the victims and to the Church. What Tolkien reminds us is that the Church is made up of sinners in need of redemption, reconciliation, and amendment; however, that does not negate the fact that the Church is Christ's church (not ours), His body, and that Who He is and what He said is truth itself. What these few but tremendously destructive priests did to the bodies of children and teenagers is a stark contrast to the body which Our Lord gave for us on the cross out of love--the body we receive in the Eucharist; the body which these same priests were ordained to act in the stead of, in persona Christi.


joven said...

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Pete Caccavari said...

Thanks, Joven, for the kind words. I did look in on your blog, and I appreciate the invitation to do so. Gaming reminds us of the power of story to tell us who we are or who we aspire to be. In that respect, gaming has much in common with religious narrative. Thanks for that reminder.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Caccavari, I came here from a Google search for Tolkien's letter on the Eucharist to his son. Thanks for your reflections and for the sections of text you provided, both of which I very much appreciated. However, I only felt moved to comment here because I was so tickled at your very courteous and gentlemanly response to Joven. God bless you, sir! ;-)

- Lori, in PA