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February 2015
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Life’s Pilgrimage

 

 

Through Christ’s resurrection, Death has been conquered, and we can now live our lives fixed towards the great goal of Heaven.  We must embark on this journey towards Heaven with joy, for we know that Christ wins in the end.  In the Catholic Course, The Hobbit, Joseph Pearce talks about this heavenly journey, and how all men are called to live as pilgrims.  Here’s what Professor Pearce has to say in Lecture 1, Bilbo’s Pilgrimage:

“The Hobbit reflects the words of Christ that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21), and as J. R. R. Tolkien said of The Lord of the Rings, the story is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” Children should learn from the book, and hopefully the movies, about the scariness of dragons and to distinguish between evil and good. Virtue can only be attained, through grace, by slaying the monsters and demons that seek to prevent the achievement of the paramount goal of our life’s journey—being united with God in Heaven. This understanding of the purpose of life is the key to reading The Hobbit and seeing its deepest and most applicable meaning.

There are two ways of understanding humanity: we are either homo viator (on a journey through life with the purpose of living virtuously and getting to Heaven) or homo superbus (pridefully living life to maximize self-gratification). Throughout the course of his adventure, the hobbit Bilbo develops the habit of virtue and grows in sanctity, illustrating that we only become wise when we realize we are pilgrims on a purposeful journey through life. Tolkien is at war with our current homo superbus or relativist culture, asking in his books: What is it to be human? To be human is to make progress in the spiritual life of virtue, on the journey to reach the goal. Life is about the truth that’s beyond us, and we have to move toward that truth to grow. So, Bilbo Baggins is a homo viator engaged with his journey through life, and the people and creatures in the story who resist the journey are self-aggrandizing—they are homo superbus, suffering from the dragon sickness.

Bilbo represents us, and his journey from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain, and then back home to the Shire again, mirrors our journey through life. Bilbo’s journey is applicable to us on two levels: literally as the story and allegorically as it relates to us as individuals. Allegorically, the story has much to teach us morally about what has eternal significance.
This journey of growth in virtue is impossible without grace, without supernatural intervention—labeled “luck” in the story. But as Gandalf makes plain at the conclusion, what had been called “luck” was not really luck at all. “You don’t really suppose, do you,” Gandalf tells Bilbo, “that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?” Moral will, on its own, is never enough. An outside agent, which we call grace, is always necessary. Grace is illustrated in The Lord of the Rings as Gollum’s life is spared on three occasions by hobbits, leading to his crucial role at Mount Doom. By sparing Gollum, the hobbits have passed a test of love—the toughest of all virtues—because the greatest commandment Jesus Christ gave us was to love our enemies.

In The Hobbit, good “luck” is inextricably connected to good choices, and bad “luck” is inextricably connected to bad choices. “Luck” is biased in both directions: grace is always available to those who seek it, biasing “fortune” in the direction of goodness; yet, the fallenness of nature entails our natural tendency towards concupiscence and its destructive consequences. If we don’t ask for help, we are bound to fall. It is in this choice, rooted in the gift and responsibility of free will, that the struggle with evil is won or lost. A person must willingly cooperate with grace or, in his failure to do so, must inevitably fall into evil.

Thus, there is a supernatural dimension to the unfolding of events in Middle-earth. Tolkien shows through his stories the mystical balance that exists between the promptings of grace, or of demonic temptation, and the response of a person’s will to such promptings and temptations. Christians believe in dragons, even if they can’t see them, and know they are perilous and potentially deadly. The Hobbit is not merely about slaying the dragon who is wasting fairyland but more importantly, about slaying the dragon who is attempting to waste our own souls.”

 

 

Professor Joseph Pearce is Writer in Residence and Visiting Fellow at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, NH. He is a renowned biographer whose books include Candles in the Dark: The Authorized Biography of Fr. Ho Lung, Missionaries of the Poor (Saint Benedict Press, 2012); Through Shakespeare’s Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays (Ignatius Press, 2010); and Tolkien: Man and Myth, a Literary Life (HarperCollins, 1998). He is the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Higher Education from Thomas More College for the Liberal Arts and the Pollock Award for Christian Biography. He is co-editor of the St. Austin Review, editor-in-Chief of Ignatius Press Critical Editions, and editor-in-Chief of Sapientia Press.

 

 

 

The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ

 

As we enter into the most solemn time of the year (the Holy Triduum), Fr. Alfred McBride, in his Catholic Course, “The Christ,” provides an excellent meditation on Christ’s passion and death as recorded in the Gospel of Luke.  Here’s what he has to say in lecture 6, entitled, “Luke: The Crucifixion”:

“In Luke 23:25, Pilate ‘handed Jesus over to them to deal with as they wished.’ A soldier, carrying a sign, led the way of the cross. The sign bore the inscription that gave the reason for the execution, “Jesus Christ King of the Jews.” It was written in three languages, Latin for the international rulers, Greek for the international culture, Hebrew for the local people. After a time, Jesus must have appeared too weak to carry his cross all the way to the mound of execution, so the soldiers drafted Simon of Cyrene to carry it for him the remainder of the journey.

The mound at Calvary was a small, elevated section of packed earth. The Gospels do not describe the process of crucifixion. Other sources do that for us, noting that some victims were tied to the cros­ses and others nailed. We know from the testimony of Thomas’ words recorded in John 20:25 after the Resurrec­tion that Jesus was nailed to the cross.

Crucifixions were intimate events. So close was Jesus both to his family and his detractors that he could look almost directly into their eyes. Hence when various groups—soldiers, religious rulers, bystanders from the mob at the Antonia—began yelling at him and taunting him to save him­self, Jesus could hear them clearly and look at each one of them. Yet, though he was experiencing their undiluted malice, Jesus singled them out for his first word from the cross. As he gazed at them, he wanted to make them the first beneficiaries of his saving cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34).

Christ’s final words from the cross are, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (Lk. 23:46). The traditional devotion of the Seven Last Words puts this saying of Jesus last. Jesus may have learned these words as a night prayer from his mother, Mary. Luke underlines the fact that Jesus delivered this deeply moving prayer in a ‘loud voice.’ Jesus is thus in command of his destiny to the end. He did not drift away in a dreamy haze. Jesus was always a magnificently centered and purpose­ful person. His last breath already signaled the victory over death that would be the first result of his life and Passion.”

 

 

 

Fr. Alfred McBride is a member of St. Norbert Abbey. He holds a doctorate in religious education from the Catholic University of America. In his 58 years of ministry, he has served as professor, novice master, university president and was the founder and executive director of the department of religious education at the National Catholic Educational Association. 

 

A Meditation on Death

 

As we approach the most solemn time of the year (The Easter Triduum), it is appropriate that we mediate on the things that are to come, specifically: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.  Here’s an excerpt from Professor Regis Martin’s Catholic Course, “The Four Last Things”:

“What does it mean to think of life as a journey that eventuates in Death? It means that it must first begin before it ends, and that in-between there is time, which is the theater or setting in which real choices are made, choices that edge us closer to the light or, God help us, away from the light, out into the darkness that threatens to engulf us forever.

In other words, there is a road we must all enter upon at birth; a road along which we must travel in the course of living our life; until, finally, the road ends with Death, followed by judgment and the prospect of an eternity of either Heaven or Hell looming in the distance.

A classification can be made about this image of life as a road we set out upon, a journey we are constrained to make: that it begins certainly. There is surely a moment when none of us existed, and then another moment when, bingo, we begin to be. However cleverly you may try and disguise the fact, you do exist. You need not be and yet triumphantly, defiantly, against all the odds, you are – you exist.

So life has a beginning. But it also has an end; it will not go on in this present form indefinitely. At some point the lights will go out and we will thereupon cease to be either in this body or the world’s body with its weight & extension. The life of this flesh and bone, this Vale of Tears, will not last forever.

The seed of mortality means that there is nothing in the plant or the flower to keep the bloom of its beauty forever; sooner or later it must wither & die.

But between the beginning and the end, between the first and the last moment of life, between these two bookends we call Past and Future time, there is this pesky little thing we call the present moment, the passing moment.  In fact, it is a moment so fleeting, so fugitive, that even as I speak the word, it passes away, it’s gone, you cannot retrieve or recover it.”

 

 

Dr. Regis Martin is a longtime Professor of Systematic Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. A graduate of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Professor Martin holds both a licentiate and a doctorate in Sacred Theology. He is the author of more than a half-dozen books including The Suffering of Love: Christ’s Descent into the Hell of Human Hopelessness (Ignatius Press, 2007). Professor Martin also writes for a variety of publications including The National Review, and is currently featured on EWTN along with Fr. Michael Scanlon and Dr. Scott Hahn in a popular, long-running series called Franciscan University Presents. 

 

The Second Wind

 

This past Sunday we entered into a time the Church calls “Passiontide,” which extends through the last two weeks of Lent.  We are encouraged to increase our Lenten sacrifices and prayers as we near the end goal – the glorious crown of the resurrection that has been won for us through God’s very own sweat and blood.

This image of nearing the finish line parallels the image of Dante’s Mount Purgatory.  Professor Anthony Esolen explains this pilgrimage in his article, “The Realm of the Human,” written for the Catholic Course, Dante’s Purgatory:

“In Paradise, the souls have arrived, and the feast is endless. In Hell, the souls go nowhere at all. But in Purgatory, the souls are on the way, as we too are. As they are refined, as they climb the mountain and grow nearer to their destination, they see more and more. It’s as if, morally and spiritually, the vistas of truth spread out before them broader and broader, the higher their vantage upon the mountain. In this sense, it’s Purgatory that gives us the best metaphor for what the Divine Comedy is as a whole: an ascent into truth and into love.”

This “ascension,” as Professor Esolen calls it, requires one to climb upward.  As is the nature of movement against gravity, effort, sometimes intense effort, is necessary.  One cannot gain the crown of the resurrection if one does not wish to suffer the pains of the crucifixion.  While the road is rough and laden with obstacles, we must not lose heart, for the end is close indeed.  While we may feel exhausted in this journey, the grace of perseverance will be present if we but ask.  Like a runner who has caught a glimpse of the checkered flag in the distance and gains a second wind, let us put all our effort into these last two weeks of Lent, giving up our very lives just as Christ offered Himself up for us.

 

 

Professor Anthony Esolen holds a Doctorate in Renaissance English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a Professor of English at Providence College, located in Providence, Rhode Island. He is the translator of the celebrated three-volume Modern Library edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a Senior Editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and his articles appear regularly in First ThingsCatholic World ReportMagnificatThis Rock, and Latin Mass. 

 

The Art of Heroism

 

 

In the midst of having a new spiritual father (that man being Pope Francis), it seems like an appropriate time to celebrate and be merry.  While it is certainly proper to feel joy and give thanks to God during such an occasion, let us not forget that we are still journeying through the season of Lent.  We are still making our way through the desert, battling our own sin, so we may one day share in the glory of Christ’s resurrection.

This matter of battling sin is life-enduring – it stays with us until the day we die.  In order to engage in this spiritual warfare, it is most proper that we do not bring any unnecessary weight, as it were, onto the battlefield.  We must rid ourselves of all temporary attachments in order that we would be free to choose Good and reject evil.

Yes, this can sound daunting.  How can we, we who fall so often, win great battles and fight to the death?  In my last post, I made the claim that we are all called to be heroes, or as the Catholic Church would put it, saints.  Yet who are we to become saints?  A typical and average guy or girl going to school, a part-time employee as a cashier, a stay-at-home mom, a nine-to-five dad – this does not sound like the stuff heroes are made out of.  Despite our current states in life, however, we are made for heroism nonetheless.

You may be familiar with the phrase, “every journey begins with the first step.” The same can be said for the path of the hero.  Becoming a hero is a journey – a journey that is hard and requires perseverance.  Yet we must not get overwhelmed by the vastness of it. We simply have to take the first step.

And what is that monumental first step?  The season of Lent helps up in making it – it is small acts of mortification.  In other words, denying ourselves in the little things.  Remember, one cannot be entrusted with large matters if one cannot be entrusted with small ones.  No hero is born overnight; it is going to take baby steps.

That is why the Church encourages us to give up something during Lent: She asks us to suffer some type of inconvenience in order that we rid ourselves of everything that is in our way to becoming a saint.  You see, suffering is a key ingredient to the heroic life.  As a matter of fact, without it, heroism would not exist.  There would be no such thing as virtue, there would be no such thing as freedom, and there would be no love, for it is only in choosing to suffer that a person can show how much he cares.  If life were akin to a rose without thorns, our limits would never be tested – we would never know the love that we have for one another.

Therefore you need not die in battle to become a hero, rather your battle lies in your everyday life.  Begin today, faithfully adhering to your Lenten sacrifices, whether that be giving up meat during Lent or treating someone you dislike with love.  If you keep it up constantly, hour by hour, day by day, then you will overcome the biggest obstacle that’ll ensure your ticket to heroism – yourself.

When you can overcome yourself, you can overcome anything.