Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lessons from The Two Towers

...Here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside, expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go.  It was an evil fate...This was an evil choice.  Which way should he choose?  And if both led to terror and death, what good lay in choice?

My college theology professor once said that there is one thing in theology that requires little to no argument to prove: original sin.  Just by opening the newspaper or listening to the nightly news, one is convinced pretty quickly that something is definitely wrong with human nature.  

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, evil occurred, an evil that intrinsically changed all of creation.  The order that God had designed within the soul of man was broken: no longer did reason govern and guide the will and the passions; now the passions seized control if not held in careful check.  

But creation itself also became disordered.  Death came to man; death came to the world, too.  Enmity arose between the man and the woman; enmity now also existed between the various kinds of animals. And creation itself was no longer peaceful.  

Consider Hurricanes Sandy & Irene, as well as the devastating tornadoes that affected the midwest a couple of years ago: all these horrific examples of nature become deadly, severe, destructive.  Where did this come from?  It comes from the fact that evil exists now in this world.

We see the same parallel in JRR Tolkien's world.  The battle of good and evil encompasses everything, including creation.  Thus one of the major contenders in the Two Towers is the natural world.  Sometimes creation works for the good, such as the ancient forest that avenges the orcs for their needless destruction of the trees and ultimately destroys evil Isengard.  

As with all things, however, sometimes creation is a force for evil.  Creation is also polluted and corrupted (literally and figuratively)--and thus, becomes an agent of iniquity.  Consider the great mountain Caradhras that battled against the fellowship in the first book of the trilogy.  In the Two Towers, the evil of Sauron's Mordor seeps into the very landscape and erases all that is good within it:

Frodo looked around in neither spring nor summer would ever come again.  Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness.  The gasping pools were chocked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about.  High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.  They had come to the desolation of Mordor...a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing...The sun was up, walking among clouds and long flags of smoke, but even the sunlight was defiled.

Indeed, the world and every part of it is at war.  There is no middle ground: either one is for good or for evil.  The same, by the way, holds true for us.  As Our Lord says, "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters" (Luke 11:23).  

In this second part of the trilogy, the state of war escalates--the Two Towers contains some of the fiercest battle scenes yet, notably the battles at Helm's Deep and Isengard.  

Yet, as epic as these battles certainly are, I would argue that the warfare is most brutal, demanding, and costly on another front: that is within, in the interior of one's soul.  It is within the heart of man that the choice is made between good and evil.  All actions flow from that critical choice.

That is the lesson I took most from the Two Towers: the power of choice.  It is the freedom God has given to each one of us.  That battle between choosing good or choosing evil is one we constantly face.  

Consider these three potent example.

First, Gollum whose dual identity symbolizes these dueling forces.  On the one hand, there is Smeagol, who genuinely respects and has affection for his master, Frodo.  

"Then he [Gollum] came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee--but almost the touch was a caress.  For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit...Gollum withdrew himself and a green glint flickered under his heavy lids...The fleeting moment had passed, beyond recall."

Smeagol does not wish Sauron to obtain the one Ring and thus wants to aid Frodo in his quest for the good.  Simultaneously, however, there is Gollum who lusts for the Ring that he once possessed and is willing to betray and kill to possess it yet again.

Gollum leads Frodo and Sam through dangerous, deadly territory as their guide, but the personal struggle he faces within is more critical and formidable.  Gollum's spoken dialogue with himself makes this interior war painfully clear.

"But Smeagol said he would be very very good.  Nice hobbit!  He took cruel rope off Smeagol's leg.  He speaks nicely to me."

"Very very good, eh, my precious?  Let's be good, good as fish, sweet one, but to ourselfs..."

One of the most suspenseful aspects of the Two Towers is the ongoing question of who will be the victor: Smeagol or Gollum?  And if Gollum, what will be the consequences for Frodo, Sam, and the Ring?

Then there is Saruman: once the greatest of all wizards, the head of the White Council.  He has wisdom, power, and influence.  All of these could be used for the good, which Gandalf aptly points out to him.  

However, instead of becoming an ally with the good, Saruman seeks to wield the one Ring himself.  Thus it is his tower of Orthanc that is one of the towers of evil.  

When Saruman is faced with defeat, Gandalf offers him an avenue of escape and redemption.  The decision is one that will determine Saruman's fate.  Unfortunately, this is Saruman's second, and most costly, defeat.

"But listen, Saruman, for the last time!  Will you not come down?  Isengard has proved less strong than your hope and fancy made it.  So may other things in which you still have trust.  Would it not be well to leave it for a while?  To turn to new things, perhaps?  Thing well, Saruman!  Will you not come down?"

A shadow passed over Saruman's face; then it went deathly white.  Before he could conceal it, they saw through the mask the anguish of a mind in doubt, loathing to stay and dreading to leave its refuge.  For a second he hesitated, and no one breathed.  Then he spoke, and his voice was shrill and cold.  Pride and hate were conquering him.

Finally, there is the Ring-bearer himself, Frodo.  The Ring and the evil it possesses literally weigh upon him and the hobbit must struggle to will what is good in light of the darkness surrounding him.

"...he [Frodo] felt only the beating upon him of a great power from outside.  It took his hand, and as Frodo watched with his mind, not willing it but in suspense (as if he looked on some old story far away), it moved the hand inch by inch toward the chain upon his neck.  Then his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back..."

Thus, evil occurs first in the heart of man when he chooses a lesser good.  The idiom "the devil made me do it" is misleading, as it is the free will of man put to ill-use that is the origin of evil.

However, this does not rule out the influence of the devil in the interior struggle, as the previous quote illustrates: the great power from outside is the power all of us sometimes encounter when Satan directs his attack against us.  One's temptation toward sin is influenced by outside forces: the lure and seductive voice of the devil.

As such, the closer Frodo approaches Mordor and its chief occupant, Sauron, the heavier the Ring feels around his neck.

Saruman makes his choice toward evil, but he does so under the persuasion and guidance of the Enemy working through the palantir, an orb that allows the viewer to see things across vast distances of space and time, and to communicate with others.  Saruman possessed one of the few remaining palantir and it was his curiosity that became the means by which the Enemy ensnared him.

"...alone it [the palantir] could do nothing but see small images of things far off and days remote.  Very useful, no doubt, that was to Saruman; yet it seems that he was not content.  Further and further abroad he gazed, until he cast his gaze upon Barad-dur.  Then he was caught!...Easy it is now to guess how quickly the roving eye of Saruman was trapped and held; and how ever since he has been persuaded from afar, and daunted when persuasion would not serve..."

Pippin becomes captive in a similar manner.  Inadvertently, in an effort to help Gandalf, he picks up the palantir.  (An episode that is a reminder to us, perhaps, to avoid people, places, and things that tempt us or are a near occasion of sin.)  
This physical proximity to evil has a decided effect upon Pippin, who later that night cannot stop his thoughts from returning to it.  He finally succumbs to the temptation when he stealthily steals the palantir from a sleeping Gandalf and slips away to look within it.

Pippin knows he is doing wrong, but proceeds anyway.  "For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing" (Romans 7:19). 

This brings me to a final point about evil and sin.  It is precisely because the battle of evil is waged on the interior that we cannot judge the culpability of another, or the state of his or her soul.

What do I mean by this?

Only God knows what is at work within a person: the potency of the attack of the Enemy, the knowledge the individual possesses, the full freedom of the will in a decision, the gravity of the offense.  

Observing another person's actions or decisions, I can certainly say, "That is the matter...the stuff...of great evil."  Yet, I cannot say, "That person is in a state of sin," simply because I don't know all the factors and details of the interior battle being waged.

I was particularly struck by a reflection made by Sam as he observed the death of one of Sauron's soldiers:

It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much.  He was glad that he could not see the dead face.  He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace...

Aragorn echoes a similar sentiment when Merry criticizes Pippin's misdeed concerning the palantir:

"If you had been the first to lift the Orthanc-stone, and not he [Pippin], how would it be now?" said Aragorn.  "You might have done worse.  Who can say?"

The truth of the matter is that we are all in battle, every day of of our lives.  We ourselves are the culprits when evil is done, through our willful decision to pursue a lesser good.  But our Enemy is at work, too, relentless striving to convince us his way--not God's--is the best way.  

To whose voice will we choose to listen?  What choices will we make today?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lessons from The Fellowship

"It is very necessary to reconfirm in our own time the existence of the Devil which has been put in doubt by a culture of humanism, rationalism and materialism.  The Church has never had a doubt that the Devil exists.  Our language may be more discreet today, but the idea remains the same." 
~ Fr. Gabriele Amorth, Chief Exorcist of Rome

Author JRR Tolkien was very clear that his Lord of the Rings trilogy was not meant to be an allegory.  

That being said, Tolkien was a devout Catholic and it is clear to see that his formation in the Faith shaped and influenced what he wrote.

Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship formed around him face a quest against a very specific, very powerful enemy.  

His name is Sauron, but he is often referred to as the Dark Lord, the Shadow, the Enemy.  And from Tolkien's narrative about Middle Earth, we can come to understand a great deal about our own battle here on our earth.

We, too, like Frodo and his company face an Enemy.  The parallels between our Enemy and the Enemy in the Fellowship of the Ring are many.

"Then all listened while Elrond in his clear voice spoke of Sauron and the Rings of Power, and their forging...he told of the Elven-smiths of Eregion and their friendship with Moria, and their eagerness for knowledge, by which Sauron ensnared them.  For in that time he was not yet evil to behold..."

Sauron was not originally evil, nor was Satan.

The Fourth Lateran Council explains that, "The devil and the other demons were indeed created good, but they became evil by their own doing."

God, being All Good, can only create that which is good.  St. Hildegard, in one of her visions, describes how a large group of angels became conceited and pompous by their glory and thus attempted to assert their own authority.  Infatuated with their grandeur, they disregarded God and rather desired to be superior to the Almighty.  Recognizing this ambition as futile, they turned to their only other recourse: to reject God.  

St. Hildegard writes of Satan, "On this account they plunged downward into darkness, reduced to such a state of impotence...For God adorned the first of all the angels, Lucifer, with so much of the beauty granted to all creation that the whole heavenly host of angels was illuminated by Lucifer.  But now that he has turned toward contradiction, Lucifer has become uglier than ugliness itself."

In his discussion of evil, Augustine points to the Book of Genesis and the creation of the world when God divided light from darkness.  Augustine does not interpret this as the creation of night and day, but instead the separation of good and evil angels after Satan sinned.  Augustine explains that when God first created light, He created the angels (personified light).  There were angels, however, who turned away from good.  Light freely became darkness with this first sin.

Augustine asserts that, once the devil freely sinned, this marked the beginning of evil.  Evil was an historic event. 

Sauron succeeded in betraying the Elves because their desire for knowledge was so great.  Similarly, we read in Genesis that the serpent tricked Adam and Eve by offering them knowledge: the knowledge of good and evil.

"...I told you of Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord.  The rumors that you have heard are true: he has indeed arisen again and left his hold in Mirkwood and returned to his ancient vastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor.  That name even you hobbits have heard of, like a shadow on the borders of old stories.  Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again."

What is the Dark Lord?  He doesn't seem to be an elf, man, dwarf, or hobbit.  He is amorphous...a shadow.

This idea of a "Shadow" strongly coincides with the Church's understanding of evil.

A shadow isn't something you can touch or hold.  It isn't really something at all--it is a privation of this case, light.  

The same is true of evil: it is the absence of good.  Origen wrote, " depart from the good mean just this, to be established in evil.  For it is certain that evil is the lack of good."

Satan is persistent.  Though cast out of heaven, he roams about the earth, taking many shapes to tempt and ensnare us.

In the black abyss there appeared a single Eye that slowly grew, until it filled all the Mirror.  So terrible was it that Frodo stood rooted, unable to cry out or to withdraw his gaze.  The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing. 

And that is what Satan, like Sauron, has to offer us: nothing.  They are ultimately empty because they lack God, who is everything for us.  When we turn from what is the greatest good (God) for a lesser good, we tread the path of evil and enter into a darkness.  

As Sauron gazed watchful and intent, so are we cautioned: "Be sober, be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour" (1 Peter 5:8).  

Our battle, like that in the Fellowship, demands constant vigilance.  We need not live in fear, but we do need to be always wary of the direction of our thoughts, words, and actions.

While on their journey, Frodo and his companions are on constant look-out for the Black Riders, ominous black horses driven by foreboding, cloaked figures.  

"For the black horses can see, and the Riders can use men and other creatures as spies...They themselves do not see the world of light as we do, but our shapes cast shadows in their minds, which only the noon sun destroys; and in the dark they perceive many signs and forms that are hidden from us: then they are most to be feared.  And at all times they smell the blood of living things, desiring and hating it.  Senses, too, there are other than sight or smell.  We can feel their presence--it troubled our hearts, as soon as we came here, and before we saw them; they feel ours more keenly." 

These Dark Riders are "shadows under his [Sauron's] great Shadow."  They are under the dominion of Sauron and operate as his servants.

Similarly, Satan has legions of demons at his command in his effort to snare the people of God.  The demons, like Satan, possess great knowledge--though fallen, they are still angels, which means they are pure intellect.  They use this knowledge to pursue our downfall, tempting us with that which we struggle the most.  And as the Fellowship could sense the presence of the Black Riders, so can we sometimes sense the others, in certain physical places, even in our own thoughts.

Thankfully, the light of Christ banishes these evil shadows, if we stay close to Him.  He is the Sun that destroys them.

“Wickedness turns out to be the pursuit of something good in the wrong way.” (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity)

In The Fellowship, the Dark Lord is clearly evil and there are those who are his evil accomplices--orcs, wolves, trolls, etc.  

Yet, those who are presented as good in the narrative are not immune to evil; in fact, they can even become agents of it.

That is often where Satan snares us the most.  We always desire what is good, but often fall into sin and darkness by pursuing the good in the wrong way. 

Thus, Boromir (a member of the Fellowship aiding Frodo in his quest to destroy Sauron's Ring) becomes an agent of evil.  

His intention is good: to help his fellow men in Gondor in their battle and thus vanquish Sauron.  However, he ultimately decides the only way to do this is by wielding the One Ring himself.  What he doesn't understand is that anyone who cooperates with this evil, even with the desire to do good, will inevitably become evil himself.

It is a classic case of the end not justifying the mean.  We cannot cooperate with evil and hope to do good at the same time.

"Frodo rose to his feet.  A great weariness was on him, but his will was firm and his heart lighter.  He spoke aloud to himself. 'I will do now what I must,' he said.  'This at least is plain: the evil of the Ring is already at work even in the Company, and the Ring must leave them before it does more harm...'...So Frodo and Sam set off on the last stage of the Quest together."

Frodo is determined, by the end of the first part of the trilogy, to destroy the Ring because it is a tool of the Enemy.  

Perhaps we, on the eve of Ash Wednesday, can consider in what ways we may cooperate with the Enemy.  Are there ways in our life that we seek good things in the wrong way?  Do we carry with us power or pleasure--"precious" things--that ultimately draw us closer to darkness than to the light?  

If so, may this Lent be a time for our own journey to cast what is evil into the fire.