IgnatiusNo man who is responsible for defiling a household can expect any share in the kingdom of God. Even in the world, defilement of this kind is punishable with death; how much more when a man’s subversive doctrines defile the God-given faith for which Jesus Christ was crucified. Such a wretch in his uncleanness is bound for the unquenchable fire, and so is anyone else who gives him a hearing.

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– St Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians §16

One of the strangest stories in the whole bible comes in 3 Kings 13. An unnamed man of God comes by divine commission from the southern kingdom into the new, schismatic, northern kingdom that Jeroboam has just set up. He comes to the sanctuary at Bethel while the king is burning incense there and prophesies that a son of David will defile the altar. In proof of this, the altar cracks; and when Jeroboam stretches out his hand to motion to his guard to seize the prophet, the king’s hand withers, only to be restored to vigour at the prophet’s prayer.

Having caused this sensation, the prophet then starts on the return journey. God has told him not to eat or drink anything while he is in the schismatic kingdom, and to go home by a different route from that by which he came. Presumably this is so that he will not by fraternizing with the northerners lessen their sense of their perilous state. However while he is resting beneath a tree, a prophet whose home is in the northern kingdom finds him, and invites him to his house for a bite to eat. The holy man of Judah explains that God has forbidden this, whereupon his northern brother explains that he too is a prophet, and says that an angel has spoken to him telling him to invite the brave Judaean back for some refreshment. But this is a fib.

The man of God decides to accept the offer, and goes with the other. However, while they are at table, the northerner receives a true revelation, and says to his guest: “Because thou hast not been obedient to the Lord and hast not kept the commandment which the Lord thy God commanded thee, and hast returned and eaten bread, and drunk water in the place wherein he commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat bread, nor drink water, thy dead body shall not be brought into the sepulchre of thy fathers.” The holy man then gets back on to his donkey and departs. I imagine that the leave-taking must have been somewhat awkward, on both sides.

Almost immediately, a lion meets the man of God as he goes back toward Judaea, and kills him. But the lion does no harm to his dead body, or to the donkey on which he had travelled. The northern prophet hears of what has happened, and going to the place, finds the body lying by the way, untouched, with the lion and the donkey standing next to it. He takes the dead body onto his own donkey and buries it in the tomb he had prepared for himself, lamenting over him. And he charges his sons to bury him in the same tomb, when his time comes.

Not without mystery, as the Fathers would say, are so many details recorded. It is a type of what happens when one carries out some great work of preaching and yet also compromises on the rights of God. The holy man did not rebel against his commission: as Challoner notes, we may hope that he committed only a venial sin in allowing himself to believe, hungry, thirsty, and tired as he surely was, that the other’s message was true. Moreover, he had done bravely in going into the shrine and telling the king to his face that God was angry with him and would bring his designs to naught. Yet he obscured the truth of his message by that brief repast among the schismatics. And so he received the penalty proper to such a sin: not death, though he did die, but rather burial in a foreign tomb.

Am I wrong to be put in mind of Pope John Paul II? He too was a man of God who was not afraid to rebuke the powerful ones of this world, to tell them, for example, that abortion is a crime against God and man. He proclaimed Jesus Christ as the one Redeemer of mankind, without whom man’s plans and dreams will finally all fail. He was attacked, but could not be silenced. Yet did he not weaken his message by certain actions, fraternizing beyond the demands of charity with those who contradicted it?

After the holy man died, a miracle was seen. The lion that had killed him did not touch his body, but stood by it, as it were guarding it, nor did it touch the donkey on which he had ridden. God vindicated in this way the courage and holiness of His prophet, and the truth of his message. Even so, we are told, miracles have been worked after prayers to the late pontiff, and the Church of Rome has defined that he is in heaven. Christ, the Lion of Judah, honours His prophet and the faith that supported him on his long and painful journeys. Yet he was buried not in his proper tomb, but in another man’s. For we do not, I think, enshrine him in our memories in the way that might seem to befit his greatness, as we enshrine St Leo I, St Gregory I, St Gregory VII, St Pius V, St Pius X. Even as we admire, we hesitate and are puzzled. We do not recall him as we should wish to recall a holy, Catholic pontiff; we give him as it were a strange tomb within our minds. Maybe all this is just an illusion caused by our proximity in time; yet I think it is something else. But however that may be, there let him lie in peace, till all tombs are opened, and dead men live once more.

Out of all those persons whose adventures Tolkien preserved, and despite the fact that he liked to think of himself as Beren to his wife’s Luthien, the one whom he most resembles is surely Gandalf. Indeed, were one of the Istari to have lingered on, in our Middle Earth, until the early 20th century, what mode of life would he have adopted more readily than that of a crusty but beloved pipe-smoking Oxford don? And yet even the very wise cannot see all ends. Once at least he received a visitor who disconcerted him, and who seemed to raise a veil on perspectives beyond even his own vast horizons.

I am very grateful for your remarks on the critics and for your account of your personal delight in The Lord of the Rings. You write in terms of such high praise that [to] accept it with just a ‘thank you’ might seem complacently conceited, though actually it only makes me wonder how this has been achieved – by me! Of course the book was written to please myself (at different levels), and as an experiment in the arts of long narrative, and of inducing ‘Secondary Belief. It was written slowly and with great care for detail, & finally emerged as a Frameless Picture: a searchlight, as it were, on a brief episode in History, and on a small part of our Middle-earth, surrounded by the glimmer of limitless extensions in time and space. Very well: that may explain to some extent why it ‘feels’ like history; why it was accepted for publication; and why it has proved readable for a large number of very different kinds of people. But it does not fully explain what has actually happened. Looking back on the wholly unexpected things that have followed its publication – beginning at once with the appearance of Vol. I – I feel as if an ever darkening sky over our present world had been suddenly pierced, the clouds rolled back, and an almost forgotten sunlight had poured down again. As if indeed the horns of Hope had been heard again, as Pippin heard them suddenly at the absolute nadir of the fortunes of the West. But How? and Why?

I think I can now guess what Gandalf would reply. A few years ago I was visited in Oxford by a man whose name I have forgotten (though I believe he was well-known). He had been much struck by the curious way in which many old pictures seemed to him to have been designed to illustrate The Lord of the Rings long before its time. He brought one or two reproductions. I think he wanted at first simply to discover whether my imagination had fed on pictures, as it clearly had been by certain kinds of literature and languages. When it became obvious that, unless I was a liar, I had never seen the pictures before and was not well acquainted with pictorial Art, he fell silent. I became aware that he was looking fixedly at me. Suddenly he said: ‘Of course you don’t suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?’

Pure Gandalf! I was too well acquainted with G. to expose myself rashly, or to ask what he meant. I think I said: ‘No, I don’t suppose so any longer.’ I have never since been able to suppose so. An alarming conclusion for an old philologist to draw concerning his private amusement. But not one that should puff any one up who considers the imperfections of ‘chosen instruments’, and indeed what sometimes seems their lamentable unfitness for the purpose {extract from a private letter written by Tolkien in Autumn 1971}.

IGotThis

 

Bamburgh-Castle

Between our eastward and our westward sea
The narrowing strand
Clasps close the noblest shore fame holds in fee
Even here where English birth seals all men free–
Northumberland.

The sea-mists meet across it when the snow
Clothes moor and fell,
And bid their true-born hearts who love it glow
For joy that none less nobly born may know
What love knows well.

The splendour and the strength of storm and fight
Sustain the song
That filled our fathers’ hearts with joy to smite,
To live, to love, to lay down life that right
Might tread down wrong.

They warred, they sang, they triumphed, and they passed,
And left us glad
Here to be born, their sons, whose hearts hold fast
The proud old love no change can overcast,
No chance leave sad.

None save our northmen ever, none but we,
Met, pledged, or fought
Such foes and friends as Scotland and the sea
With heart so high and equal, strong in glee
And stern in thought.

Thought, fed from time’s memorial springs with pride,
Made strong as fire
Their hearts who hurled the foe down Flodden side,
And hers who rode the waves none else durst ride–
None save her sire.

O land beloved, where nought of legend’s dream
Outshines the truth,
Where Joyous Gard, closed round with clouds that gleam
For them that know thee not, can scarce but seem
Too sweet for sooth,

Thy sons forget not, nor shall fame forget,
The deed there done
Before the walls whose fabled fame is yet
A light too sweet and strong to rise and set
With moon and sun.

Song bright as flash of swords or oars that shine
Through fight or foam
Stirs yet the blood thou hast given thy sons like wine
To hail in each bright ballad hailed as thine
One heart, one home.

Our Collingwood, though Nelson be not ours,
By him shall stand
Immortal, till those waifs of oldworld hours,
Forgotten, leave uncrowned with bays and flowers
Northumberland.

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