Aelianus once suggested to me that the principal difference between the elves and the men in Tolkien is not their nature but their end: the elves are directed by God to a merely natural end, whereas the men are directed to a supernatural end. This is why the elves are destined to remain in Arda, that is, on earth, since they can find there all that is necessary for them to achieve their goal, whereas men by ‘the gift of Iluvatar’, that is, by death, go elsewhere, the elves know not whither.

Savonarola suggested – though Bellarmine didn’t like it – that the inhabitants of Limbo would after the resurrection have dealings with the saints, sharing at least some of the same space and speaking to them.

Since those in Limbo have the same nature as the saints, but only attain a natural end, they would be after the resurrection rather similar to Tolkien’s elves. It is true that those in Limbo had a supernatural end insofar as they are members of the human race, but they were never personally proportioned to the beatific vision by receiving any actual grace, and so they would not experience any longing for it, or have any sense that their natural fulfilment was insufficient for them.

(Garrigou-Lagrange claims in various places that those in Limbo have a will that is averted from God as their supernatural end, and that by this fact that their will is also averted from God as their natural end. If this were true then their lot would seem to be very unpleasant, but I don’t know why he says it. Original sin implies an absence of charity in the will, but not a state of ‘having turned away from God’ in it.)

We can be tempted to imagine the inhabitants of Limbo after the resurrection as being like over-grown children, or like the adults on earth who have Down’s syndrome. But this would be quite wrong. Their intellects would function excellently, and their wills would love God with a natural love, and each other with noble friendship, and their emotions would be in complete harmony with reason. God might even give them certain natural gifts that the saints would not possess, such as the gift of writing beautiful poetry or singing beautiful songs in honour of creation. Or even if the saints could do the same, their would surely be a style of speech and song unique to those who live by nature alone, in a natural purity of heart, yet without desire of friendship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; just as the saints  have no desire, for example, to be higher in glory than they are, or to have been the redeemer of the world.

If we put, then, Aelianus’s and Savonarola’s suggestion together, we come up with the question of this post: shall we see elves?

‘This is worse than Mordor!’ said Sam. ‘Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined.’

‘Yes, this is Mordor,’ said Frodo. ‘Just one of its works.’

Unless some enterprising army general turns up pretty soon, the Catholics in Ireland are going to have the experience of beings strangers in their own lands, as their brethren in England and Wales have done for so long. Many people have commented on the vote, and will comment. Of the things I have read, two in particular have struck me. The first is yesterday’s sermon from the Prior of Silverstream, of which this is a part:

Friday’s vote was not about abortion only; it was about  killing Ireland’s soul, about snuffing out all that made Ireland a beacon among the nations, about publicly renouncing all that, from the time that Saint Patrick kindled his blazing fire on the Hill of Slane, made this island home of ours a great welcoming Catholic hearth in a world grown cold and dark.

The other was from Joseph Shaw, who observes among other things: “we are living in an integralist society, […] just not a Catholic one.”

But seeing the pictures of young women singing in the streets, I was reminded most of all of John Lamont’s important and difficult paper, ‘Conscience, Freedom, Rights: Idols of the Enlightenment’. He argues that the doctrines of conscience, human freedom, and rights, in the form in which they have become dominant in the last few hundred years, coalesce to what may truly be called a religion, which has the self as its object of worship. This explains, he argues, why the Enlightenment ideology has proved so successful in winning converts, despite the failure of its promises.

Its success rests on the fact that the Enlightenment offers a religious goal, in the form of an ultimate authority and good to be sought; that making the self that goal has a powerful appeal to human nature in its fallen state; and that the depth of sin involved in choosing this goal produces an extreme form of bondage and spiritual blindness which is very hard to break.

This goal has presented itself in different guises – as communism, Nazism or consumerism – but the fundamental concept and its appeal remains the same. It is the driving force behind the vulgar and base consumerism and sexual depravity that characterizes modern society. Previous non-Christian societies would have found these practices shameful and embarrassing. This natural human reaction is overridden, and even made use of, by the Enlightenment religion. This religion gives these forms of decadence a deeper meaning, the meaning of adoration of the deified self. The natural guilt and shame they provoke are transmuted into a proclamation of the self, which by rejecting the moral law is declaring its total supremacy.

The deep and sincere belief in the human right to have an abortion gets its strength from being the ultimate expression of the Enlightenment religion. It supporters understand that abortion is the murder of an innocent child, although they may not publicly proclaim this fact, or even consciously admit it to themselves. It is precisely its status as murder of the most innocent that makes abortion the triumph of the deified self as the ultimate end.

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}.

In his delightful book Enthusiasm, Ronald Knox remarks on the Jansenist belief that the Church is destined to decline continuously from her pristine excellence until the end of the world. He says that this opinion would be as hard to justify from history as it is from theology. Newman in Loss and Gain puts the same Jansenist view in the mouth (if I remember correctly) of Campbell, the Scotch Protestant, but without giving any indication of whether he himself endorses or opposes it.

Chesterton, I think in his book on Chaucer, recounts how he was once asked by a very intelligent agnostic whether he thought that the human race improved as time went on, or degenerated, or stayed about the same, and that the questioner seemed to think that he had covered all the possibilities. In reply he asked the other chap whether he thought that Ebeneezer Brown of 22, The Beeches, Tooting Bec, improved, degenerated or stayed about the same between the ages of 30 and 40 (I quote from memory, and invent the names.) Chesterton says that it then seemed to dawn on his interlocutor that the answer rather depended on Mr Brown and how he chose to behave. In other words, for Chesterton, because man has free will there is no necessity for the human race to go in any direction in particular. This is certainly an invigorating way to answer our question, but I’m not sure the conclusion follows. There is such a thing as having moral certainty about future events that will depend on free will; St Thomas says somewhere that in a town full of irascible people, you can be sure an argument will break out at some point, even though you can’t tell in advance when or between whom. In the same way, one could hold that the human race will go in a certain direction even though each man is free to go where he wants.

Maritain throughout his writing has a theory that both good and evil increase in the human race as time goes by, like the wheat and the cockle growing side-by-side. I suppose this means that the just will on average be more just, and the unjust on average more unjust from one century to the next. I don’t think he really tries to prove this, though he does make the point that if persecutions intensify, those who resist them will need to have a correspondingly greater holiness. On the other hand, even if his theory were true, it could still be the case that an increasingly large number of people became unjust in every age. Also, since the cockle on his account can be within the Church as well as outside, it wouldn’t help to answer the question about how the Church on earth was destined to fare.

Tolkien, in a private letter from 1956, wrote: “I am a Christian and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a long defeat.” I like those quotation marks around ‘history’. Presumably they signify that the subject as usually studied is defective, as abstracting from the supernatural truths that alone allow us to understand it. But why ‘a long defeat’ rather than a series of victories and defeats? Presumably he was thinking of history as tending toward the reign of the antichrist, which he must have considered as the final period of history, ended only by the eucatastrophe of the second coming.

St Thomas, speaking about how the articles of faith have grown over the years from Abraham onwards, says this:

The final consummation of grace came about through Christ, and so His time is called ‘the fullness of time’. Consequently, those who were closer to Christ, whether before, like John the Baptist, or after, like the apostles, knew the mysteries of faith more fully. We see the same thing in regard to the condition of a man, who has {bodily} perfection in youth, and a man is the more perfect in proportion as he is close to youth, whether before or after (2a 2ae 1, 7 ad 4).

He is not speaking here about an increase in the articulation of the mysteries of faith, I think, since then it would not be true that knowledge declines after the apostles. After all, we have their writings, and we have the commentaries on them made by the Fathers and doctors which make explicit many things contained only implicitly in Scripture. He must therefore be speaking of the depth of understanding, or intensity of faith. But this comes about, as he explains elsewhere (2a 2ae 6, 1) through the grace given to intellect and will; by charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

But this apparently implies that sanctifying grace is poured out more abundantly insofar as people are closer in time to the Incarnation and Pentecost. If the mysteries of faith are more keenly understood the closer people are to the time of Christ, this must be because charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit – which are proportioned to one’s degree of sanctifying grace – are given more abundantly, the closer one is to that time. This would be fitting, as emphasising the central place of the Incarnation within history. It would also fit in with some remarks of St Gregory the Great which I have quoted elsewhere in these chronicles:

By the awful course of the secret dispensation, before this Leviathan appears in that accursed man {antichrist} whom he assumes, signs of power are withdrawn from holy Church. For prophecy is hidden, the grace of healings is taken away, the power of longer abstinence is weakened, the words of doctrine are silent, the prodigies of miracles are removed

St Bede, like St Jerome, thought that the overthrow of antichrist would come before the end of the world. But he still thinks that there will be very little true faith left at the end of the world. Commenting on Luke 18:8 (“When the Son of man comes, will He find faith on earth?”), Bede writes:

When the almighty Creator shall appear in the form of the Son of man, so scarce will the elect be that not so much the cries of the faithful as the torpor of the others will hasten the world’s fall.

Were the Janensists, then, correct? Is the Church a kingdom gradually sliding into decay, which will be saved from extinction only by the coming of the Lord? Things are more complicated. For one thing, not only has the Church on earth expanded in numbers from about 120 on Pentecost Sunday to its present membership, but also there have been periods since Pentecost when the proportion of people on earth in a state of grace was surely increasing; for example, from AD 33 to AD 133. This is certainly a victory for the city of God over the city of man. The Church has also progressed in the ever more perfect elaboration of sacred doctrine and the possession of more splendid liturgical rites (whether these are used is another question). Also she has progressed in having an ever greater treasury of merit and satisfaction on which to draw, and more examples of holiness, through the lives of the saints who have passed to their reward. Moreover, as Vatican I taught, her continued existence is in itself a sign of her divine mission, and this sign in the nature of things becomes more striking with the passage of time. All these things are triumphs over the kingdom of darkness.

Nevertheless, it could still be true, as seems to be implied by the words of St Thomas, that the average level of grace of those in the Church is lower in every generation; it could also be true that the percentage of those in the Church living fervent lives is in continual decline. Yet even this could be a tendency rather than an iron law. St Thomas uses the analogy of the human body, which is more perfect the closer it is to youth. Yet while this is true others things being equal, it may be that a particular man exercises more or has a better diet, and so is stronger or has more stamina, at some time earlier or later than at his natural peak of health. So it could be that the exercise demanded by the stress of particular events, for example, universal persecution, will temporarily raise the average level of holiness in the mystical body; or it could be that the intake of many new members to whom God wishes to attach a special blessing (for example the Jews, for the sake of their fathers) will have the same effect. But all the same the underlying trend would be downwards. Yet any given Christian may still achieve heroic sanctity, if he wants. And the proportion of people on earth in a state of grace can increase even if the average level of their sanctity decreases; though other things being equal, for example if there are no new pagan lands to evangelise, this seems less likely than likely.

A happy and fervent new year to all the saints at Laodicea.