I do not know how aware most folks are of what books shape their basic imaginations—the formation that to a large part determines what brings them delight, what strikes them as worth attention, what gives them a vocabulary for the world. For me, there are really two sources that give me that shape—the Bible and the fiction works of J. R. R. Tolkien. This post is about the latter.
Today would have been his 122nd birthday, so I’m thinking about him especially today. Now, I know that he has been so much talked about that I am sure I cannot say anything original about him, but I did want to mention how what he wrote has shaped me, at least in some points, and perhaps that might be of interest to a few readers.
It’s not so much that I see hobbits and dragons everywhere, mind you (though it is arguable whether there are still dragons about). I think most of what I’ve unconsciously absorbed from Tolkien is his use of language. I don’t use Commonwealth English spellings, to be sure, but I still have an inner feeling, for instance, that the plural of dwarf should be dwarves and not dwarfs (a usage that put Tolkien at odds with his contemporaries and countrymen). (He also insisted on elven over elfin.) And I will also admit to indulgence in archaisms, as well, not because I think they make the user sound smart or artful, but just because my inner sensibility is that this is just how language ought to sound at its best.
But there are other things, too. I recall when I was a teenager and then in my twenties, that a young lady who seemed most attractive to me was best described for me as an elven-maid. No doubt some of my belles didn’t quite get the level of compliment I was paying them, that I was comparing them to the race that was highest, most beautiful, most noble and immortal. Mind you, men have been calling women that kind of thing since at least Petrarch, but for me, there is something specifically elven about that business. And though my wife would probably find it silly, there is certainly something for me that is elvish about her, though there is also quite a lot that is hobbitish about her, too. She is a civilizing person in the sense peculiar to both those races.
I really don’t remember the first time I read The Hobbit, though I think I was quite young. My family owned a large illustrated edition put out at some point in the ’80s (long ago fallen to pieces), as I recall, using pictures from the Rankin-Bass cartoon that I still love. (To this day, when I read Tolkien’s Middle-earth books out loud, the voice I do for my kids for Gandalf is not Ian McKellan but rather John Huston.)
My dad had old paperback editions of The Hobbit and the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings from the ’60s that were yellowing and adorned with Tolkien’s own illustrations on the covers. I received them all at some point. They are too brittle to be read, but they still have a pride of place on my highest shelf, next to several “reading” copies of the same books, and a couple large “heirloom” copies in slip covers.
I don’t think I finally read The Lord of the Rings until I was in high school, and I’m not really sure why. Certainly The Hobbit had always delighted me. But perhaps my imagination was not quite ready for the degree of complexity that the latter book has in comparison with the former, shorter volume. In any event, I came away from my first readings of the three-volume book with a sense that Middle-earth was a place I very much wanted to go and even to live.
And what I received most from those books at that time was something that has long stayed with me—a sense of longing for what has been lost. Loss is a major theme especially in the larger story, and it’s touched on particularly by Aragorn and the Elves, who all remember much that has been lost and mourn it.
It may well be that this sense of desiring what is ancient and powerful had a strong influence on my first encounter with Orthodox Christianity in my early twenties. Here was contact with what was not only older than my world, but very much better. Yet unlike in Tolkien’s world, what has been lost for the Orthodox Christian can actually be recovered and restored, yet it can only be recovered to the degree that we internally realize we have lost it—not “Holy Russia” or “the glories of Byzantium,” but rather the loss of innocence and purity in the human soul. Some writers have called this aspect of Orthodox spirituality “nostalgia for Paradise.”
This thing more than any other from Tolkien is what shapes my imagination and informs much of my thinking and even feeling—a kind of melancholy of remembrance. But unlike Renaissance melancholy with its dark obsessions (which very much interested me in my undergraduate days), it is a remembrance that brings beauty into the present.
And for that, I will always be grateful. And I will also teach it to my children, mainly just by reading to them.
I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again. —Frodo Baggins
I happened upon this quotation again yesterday evening, while I was reading my daughter The Lord of the Rings. It seems a dauntingly long tome to read to a five-year-old, but of course we have years, if need be. She’s also already listened to the whole of The Hobbit and liked what she heard and wanted to hear more about hobbits. So of course I could not resist. Naturally she will not remember everything or understand all the details this time around, but that doesn’t particularly matter. So it goes with all of the good tales for any of us, including, I think, the Book itself.
As someone who is in some sense homeless (though not houseless), having lived now in twenty-two separate dwellings across fifteen towns, six states and one unincorporated territory, these words from Frodo in anticipation of his great Quest always make me a bit sad. Much of Tolkien’s work is about a sense of loss, of remembering things that never will return, and when Frodo speaks these words to Gandalf, he has no idea yet how much he will lose, that he will indeed lose the Shire for himself, even while he saves it for others.
The sadness that I feel is not quite Frodo’s sadness, though, because there is no geographic place that I have left behind and can return to or at least hope for while I am in my wanderings. And while I do intend to spend the rest of my days here in Emmaus, I think that it is too late for me to have a home. Though I am not old, I am too old for that. I’ve done it backwards from Frodo—I have tried to find a home after my wandering rather than embarked upon my wandering from a home already found and already loved.
My point here is not really about me, though. My life is what God has permitted it to be, even if I’ve muddled it up here and there, and I am grateful for what I have received. No, the point is about that “firm foothold” that Frodo mentions. For him, it is the Shire, and he carries memories of the Shire throughout the Quest to destroy evil. I do not have a Shire of my own, not in the sense that there is some specific place I can place my mind’s feet to gain that firm foothold.
But even though some of us are homeless in this life, I think that we nonetheless have the possibility for such a firm foothold, for a memory of beauty and homeliness (to use homely in its British sense, roughly homey in American English, though not so rustic). I hope I can say this without sounding like a romantic, but for me that firm foothold has become the worship of the Church, most especially in its Byzantine iteration, with which I was first imprinted in Orthodoxy. It is not quite the same as having a home in the earthier sense—a sense I encourage all to develop as best they can, even in such a homeless state as I find myself—but there is certainly a firm foothold to be had there, a power and glory and sense of belonging that can be carried along in any place of wandering, any struggle, any peril, as we pursue our own great Quest.
There are many instances throughout the history of the Church in which the saints, those people who were most infused with God’s presence here on earth, did something peculiar as they faced imprisonment, torture and even death—they sang hymns. I cannot help but think that their experiences in worshiping the one True God in His Body the Church became for them the firm foothold that made their wandering bearable. And when faced with the gravest of circumstances, they called to mind that power and energy, and they brought it forth again in an act of anamnesis (a term usually referred to the invocational memory that brings Christ’s passion and death into the here and now as the Eucharist). While Frodo could only engage in mneia (recall), we Christians have the possibility for anamnesis, bringing the Savior Whose salvation we remember into the very present by means of collective invocational memory.
As we do that, the orcs and Uruk-hai and evil wizards and the Ringwraiths and even the Enemy himself can be borne rightly, with patience and even with love and with joy. And in so doing, like Frodo, we can also destroy evil and loosen its hold on our hearts.
On Saturday, May 12, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith turned one year old!
It’s honestly a little hard to believe. This little path has now been winding about for more than three years.
O&H was originally done as a series of lectures offered at St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Charleston, West Virginia, beginning in November of 2008. At the time, I conceived of it as something of an exercise in encyclopedia-making, an attempt to catalogue nearly every religious movement in the world (especially Christian) and offer a brief summary of its similarities and differences with the Orthodox Church. I had no expectation that hardly anyone would actually attend the lectures, since I figured that relatively few folks would have an interest in such questions. The folks at the cathedral proved me very much wrong.
When I came to St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, in July of 2009, I wanted to offer some adult education classes that Fall, and since there were already so many other things happening connected with newly taking up the pastorate at a parish that made any major writing projects almost impossible, I figured I would pull O&H out of my files, give each talk some revision, and then deliver them again.
Before I actually delivered the talks, I ran into John Maddex, CEO of Conciliar Media (which includes both Conciliar Press and Ancient Faith Radio) at the Missions and Evangelism Conference at the Antiochian Village in September of 2009. I grew up as the son of radio missionaries, and with his extensive background in Christian radio, we found we had some things in common. He was even aware of who my father is, and it turned out that he had helped run a local Christian radio station in northern Ohio that I listened to as a kid.
In the course of our conversations, I mentioned my plans to deliver O&H here in Emmaus, and he and his wife Tonya both agreed that they would be interested in recordings of the lectures for Ancient Faith Radio. Not long after that, I received in the mail a box containing a microphone / mp3 recorder, something of a step of faith on their part, since they had never heard me speak or even read what I’d written!
That Fall, I recorded O&H in Emmaus. Turnout at those lectures was also quite good, filling our parish hall nearly to capacity. Soon after the recordings began, O&H started airing on AFR as a podcast. I also started getting a lot of email from listeners—some highly critical and even hostile, but mostly exceptionally kind and positive.
In late February of 2010, I got an email from the acquisitions editor at Conciliar Press, saying that John had asked her to contact me to see if I would be interested in making O&H into a book, that the podcasts had been so popular that they were convinced it would also do well in print. In all honesty, I was exceptionally surprised.
I had in my younger days imagined myself being a published writer, but eventually I put away that childish vanity and settled on the idea that blogging was pretty much going to be my only real publication. So when CP approached me with the proposal, it hardly seemed real. Nevertheless, within about 45 minutes of receiving the initial email from CP, I responded positively. How could I not?
I then entered the process of getting hierarchical approval for the publication and, once that was secured, began working on a complete overhaul of the original manuscripts. I reordered the chapters, did some renaming, corrected errors, nuanced some things that had been phrased too absolutely, and added some new material. I started out with lectures totaling about 60,000 words and ended with a book that was roughly 72,000 words. Along the way, CP did a lot of work to refine the editing and also produced the cover featured above. It went to press the following Spring, in 2011, and went on sale in May. The following November, it was made available as an e-book.
I have been honored and humbled by this whole process, and I am most especially immensely grateful to my wife who is a good check on my temptation to vanity. I’m grateful to John Maddex who put the resources of Conciliar Media behind this material twice and also to all the listeners to the podcasts and to the readers of the book.
You may already be aware that I also have another, ongoing podcast with other lectures (and recently, sermons) entitled Roads From Emmaus, and I’ve also signed a contract with CP for another book tentatively entitled An Introduction to God: Encountering the Divine in Orthodox Christianity which is in the revision process. We’ve also lately been discussing the possibility of a book of essays, as well.
Again, thank you for your prayers and support in all of these projects. I love doing them, and I hope they’re useful to you.
Like most of the rest of the Orthodox Christian presbytery this time of year, I am currently in post-Paschal recovery mode. Lent, Holy Week and Pascha always take a lot out of us Orthodox Christians, and the clergy stand at the center of the liturgical, spiritual and emotional maelstrom that this season swirls us through. But I quote a certain theologian and philosopher when I say: “I’m still standing.” That is, of course, the answer to the question I have gotten the most over the past week, usually asked with some slight concern in the voice and in the eye: “How are you doing, Father?”
Bright Week is normally a week when no one calls the priest, when he tries to leave little for himself to do, except perhaps for a couple of extra Paschaltide services. I wish I could say that this Bright Week has been no exception to that rule, but for various reasons (some of which are my own fault) it hasn’t, so perhaps recovery will have to wait until next week. In any event, it’s understandably been a few weeks since I posted anything here, so I thought I might catch up on a few brief pieces of news and such.
Concerning Lent, Holy Week and Pascha, I felt that things went quite well at St. Paul’s here in Emmaus. Musically and liturgically, things came together quite well, and that is the basis for everything else. The rhythm of Christian life is ultimately liturgical so (if I may paraphrase some wise person whose name now escapes me), when liturgy is good, everything is good. I continually find that the people who are best able to say “it is well with my soul” are those for whom corporate worship is not just a Sunday-only affair. So by any real measure, this past season has been quite good. I have also noticed that there have been more people who have begun to embrace this truth, and we have seen some fruit borne out of this cultivation of souls.
It was wonderful to have a chrismation on Holy Saturday this year, and those who remember my interview with actor and musician Jonathan Jackson should be glad to hear that he and his family were all baptized into the Orthodox Church on the same day at their parish in California.
This week (Thursday, in fact) also featured a similar event for me: fourteen years since I was received into Orthodoxy at All Saints Orthodox Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Every time I mark this anniversary, it seems like such a long time ago and also a short time ago. This next week, my wife and I will mark ten years since we first met each other. Again, a long time and a short time.
It was also good this week to celebrate some Bright Week services with my friend and neighbor Fr. Noah, who is pastor of St. Philip’s in Souderton, Pennsylvania. We both took the opportunity to function as chanters at our respective churches while the other filled in at the altar. I very rarely get to serve as a chanter at liturgy, so the one we did here in Emmaus was a rare treat for me.
This week, I also delivered a lecture at a class on Orthodox Christianity at Muhlenberg College, entitled “A Divine Ecology: An Orthodox Christian Vision for the Environment,” courtesy of the inestimable Dr. Tighe, an Eastern Catholic professor of history who is quite kind to the Orthodox and well known in small-C-catholic Internet worlds. You may also have seen his work in Touchstone or First Things.
On a more familial note, we are now only a few weeks away from the birth of our third child, a boy, to be named Raphael Joseph Caedmon. His coming is welcome, mainly of course because my wife is rather tired and would like to get about the business of raising him. This being our third child, we will be crossing a new threshold of parenting. It seems daunting, of course, but we have multiple friends and relations who have raised far more than three (and both of us come from sets of siblings of at least three), so we do have some examples to draw on. Still, it will be a new level.
Speaking of babies, my Red Spot Nyassae Cichlid recently gave birth to about forty or so little fry. I have no idea who the father might be, but it’s probably one of the other Aulonocara cichlids in my ninety gallon aquarium. On that same note, my post-Paschal gift to myself is another aquarium (yes, I have four now), a fifty-five gallon one for my office at the church. I’m decorating this one far more cheaply (and, I think, effectively) than I have my others (having learned a few things), mostly with rocks in a kind of neolithic ruins look. Think “Stonehenge with caves around it,” and you’ll be in the right mindset. I plan to feature some New World cichlids therein.
Now that the great whirlwind of Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha is behind me for the year, I’m looking forward to getting back to work on the new book.
Theron Mathis, author of The Rest of the Bible: A Guide to the Old Testament of the Early Church, has graciously conducted a brief interview with me regarding Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and other matters on his weblog Sword in the Fire.
Excerpt from the introduction:
Fr. Andrew does the seemingly impossible in a mere 224 pages. He gives a broad scope of Orthodox belief, but details every imaginable brand of Christianity, cult, and world religion.
The book originally began as a podcast series on Ancient Faith radio with the same name, but don’t be afraid of redundant content, there is plenty of new information expressed clearly for the religion teacher and the non-specialist.