Stratford Caldecott

Secret Fire


Tolkien’s spirituality was one of gratitude and praise - inevitably also a spirituality of childhood, for only the childlike person can truly praise and glory in the wonders of creation that have become so stale to the elderly. In his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ Tolkien cites with approval Andrew Lang’s comment: “He who would enter into the Kingdom of Faerie should have the heart of a little child.” The Virgin Mary who was so central to ToIkien’s spiritual life shows us how to have the heart of a child. She was, as Georges Bernanos writes, “younger than sin”. It is innocence and gentleness, purity and trust, which make us young. The mind withered by cynicism and regret cannot appreciate nature as it comes fresh each day, each moment, from the hand of God.

In the words of G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, “it may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” (‘The Ethics of Elfland’).

The pure in heart will see God, Christ tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, and the pure are the young. Tolkien remained ‘young’ enough to write stories for his children and tell them with relish, young enough to chase tourists out of his garden on occasion dressed as an Anglo-Saxon warrior, and young enough to see and love the stars and the leaves in his garden as things which God does not tire of making.

I do not know how closely Tolkien had studied the life of St Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratory to which his guardian Fr Francis Morgan belonged, but the spirituality we can discern in his own life and writings was very close to that of the saint of joy to whom God gave a ‘heart of fire’ in 1544. Like St Francis more than three hundred years earlier, St Philip was a playful, childlike, musical saint. Undoubtedly we can place Tolkien, through Fr Morgan, in this very clear line of spiritual paternity. Cardinal Newman, too, belonged to it, being the founder of the English Oratory. The way of life of the Oratorians, who were priests living together in community yet not bound by a religious Rule - in some ways a ‘collegiate’ existence not unlike that of Oxford and Cambridge, though founded on personal friendship - particularly appealed to Newman. As a married layman, Tolkien’s life took a different path, but as an Oxford don, a devout Catholic, and a lover of poetry and music, there are more than a few Oratorian resonances in his life.

Another Catholic saint whose spirituality resembles that of Tolkien is the most popular modern ‘saint of holy childhood’, the Carmelite nun Therese of Lisieux. Both Tolkien and Therese believed that sanctity can be attained not necessarily, or not only, by the great deeds of mortification and renown with which saints are normally associated, but by the following in fidelity of a ‘little way’ through daily life, a way set beneath our feet by God. This is again quite similar to the spirituality of Caussade. “The road goes ever on and on...”, in the words of Bilbo’s walking song, and for Tolkien it is the walking of the road in hope that matters, relying entirely on God’s help rather than one’s own strength. “At any minute it is what we are and are doing, not what we plan to be and do that counts.”

This is Frodo’s unassuming kind of heroism, as he volunteers to take the Ring “though I do not know the way”, as he picks his way through the Dead Marshes, and through Shelob’s tunnel in total darkness. At times he needs literally to be carried by Sam, as Therese said she needed to be carried by God, a small child lifted by her mother or father, up steps that she cannot manage on her own. The Carmelite spirituality of the ‘dark night’ seems particularly appropriate for Frodo in Mordor, and that blind despair in which he staggers towards Mount Doom, no longer able to visualise or remember light, or fresh water, or any natural beauty.

Frodo is no saint, in the strict sense. Nor are many whose mission takes them through the land of shadow. For them there may be no savour of victory, and even success may feel like a living death. They have been “too badly hurt”. Yet even unlooked for, in the weariness beyond all conscious hope, the sun may rise. For Frodo, watching from a ship that sails above the bent world, “the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”