There was a time before my own married and family life that a friend of mine slyly described this vocation as “a beautiful bed of roses … only that somebody forgot to de-thorn the roses.” I am told that much like married and family life, clerical life also frequently gives a dose of prickling reality with every happy blessing received. It seems clear that God doesn’t allow those following Him to become smug in their accomplishments or comfortable in their blessings. And as this is a pilgrim’s journey, we come after a time to see the wisdom of this, learn to trust, and hopefully elect to persevere.
Modern life, even without the worries of our confusing and often infuriating ecclesial situation, can be all-consuming and exhausting. And I am certainly not alone in observing that among our own militant remnant we are beginning to embody a growing sense of world-weariness. Whether it is the difficulties of parents navigating a culture hostile to family or the exhaustion of a professional seeking at least minimal stability and recognition in fields now hostile to even a whiff of tradition, the moral turpitude of our current political and religious dialogue, or various high-profile exclamations of “I quit,” clearly, something debilitating is in the air.
For many of these people, I suspect that the “bed of thorny roses” analogy is lacking. I suspect that they’d gladly cuddle up to the painful points on the roses, if they could just find a way to get to bed.
Certainly, part of the difficulties relates to the non-linear nature of the modern conflict we are engaged in. Today’s warrior of God cannot merely square off from across a field from his enemies, come what may. Rather, he must fight for the attention of souls distracted by an all-consuming, ever-present glowing media complex. The Devil, in his urge to ape his creator, has never come closer to omnipresence than in our own time. There is also the issue of rampant confusion and conjecture: when everyone claims to be telling the truth in a culture that rejects objective morality, vertigo can set in.
In our era of the Church and world, there seems to be a great spirit of confusion sweeping through every window. Simultaneously, grand revelations into storied corners of darkness seem to take place every day; what was once the domain of conspiracy theorists is now a matter of public record. It is disheartening, and it is certainly exhausting.
Therefore, whatever our private or public battles, when we reach the point where to remain Catholic or to look at our own Church requires a difficult act of the will, then we know we need to take a step back. We know at such times that we have let the darkness of men invade too much of our inner selves. Original sin has consequences, and in the modern digital landscape, such exhaustion is a modern manifestation of said consequences.
I often think these days about a quote by Arvo Part (previously profiled here), an Orthodox composer who survived modernism to become a traditionalist, at which point he had to survive and escape the Soviet regime, while now he somehow navigates as the world’s most performed living composer in the postmodern relativistic era. Asked about his influences and his interior life, he once said in an interview: “For me the world, I think, is now the same as at this time [the Soviet time]. I am not feeling a big difference.”
Not different from your times in the Soviet Union, you say? For anyone who has either experienced or studied this time in which an Orwellian nightmare almost reached full maturity, it is a powerful statement, indeed. When asked if the outside world is an influence on him, the famously monkish composer replies: “The external world does influence a man. But he must protect himself against it.”
This is how an aged man continues to climb uphill and against every new tide that faces a Christian bent on helping to change the world for the better: he has learned how to protect his interiority. He describes his artistic work in a most curious way: “I could compare my music to white light which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colors and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.”
Whether an artist or a writer or a stay-at-home mom, your prism is useless spattered with mud and grime. I’ve often experienced my own journey as a father, husband, artist, and academic as a wide but shallow well that needs regular maintenance and replenishment. No matter our talents or the height of our calling, God has purposefully made us with a finite cut-off point that comes much sooner than we would like. Part of this, I suspect, is to get us to rely on Him, in knowing both that we are purposefully limited in our reach and how woefully unequipped we are for the task. Modern psychologists call it “imposter syndrome,” while Catholics know that it is the simple reality of any man God called to a great task.
This brings me to my first authentically spiritual experience in literature and the valuable lesson it helped me interiorize years before my own adult battles began in earnest. It happened when I was a twelve-year-old boy reading The Lord of the Rings, coming with the Fellowship to Elrond’s house for the first time:
Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, ‘a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.’ Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear and sadness.
Processing the shock of their first encounter with abject evil, the unwitting heroes are allowed to rest. This is a deep rest in which those more experienced among them seem to revel the most. One can imagine Frodo lying in a safe haven, gazing at the stars as he regains his composure.
When was the last time I truly looked at the stars? The first time I noticed them with a Catholic heart was when I was part of the now defunct “Projekt Mozart” festival in Poland. While most attendees spent their evening hours sleeping or socializing, I began to cultivate the habit of going outside under the unimpeded night sky, lying down, and just looking up at the stunningly three-dimensional and deep progress of the endless universe before me. Half-formed psalms and prayers formed in my heart then. I remembered my place. I remembered my God, and I brought this abiding refreshment — as well as the experience of necessary refreshment — back home with me. My short time living near the mountains brought a similar comforting sentiment whenever I allowed myself contemplation there: how small you are and insignificant your problems, little one, yet how great you are that I have created such beauty for the refreshment of your gaze.
Christian contemplation can lead us to a place that is simultaneously deeply humbling and stratospheric in its implications. If we don’t take the time for such quietude, we will run ourselves fully into the ground that we are called to transcend.
After their stay at the Homely House, the Fellowship embark on what becomes an even more harrowing next stage of their journey. Therefore, when they reach their second rest in the mythical Lothlorien — with grief in their hearts and a vicious enemy on their tails — their need is magnified. They receive safe haven, yet before their rest, they find their innermost thoughts painfully probed and tested by the magic of the Lady Galadriel’s gaze. When this examination of conscience is over, she merely says: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Tonight you shall sleep in peace.”
That’s it. No great speeches, no planned retreats with talks and readings and painfully organized minutiae. Just an instruction to rest, and for a time, forget.
We are allowed to forget, even if for a single evening.
JRR Tolkien himself always resisted an allegorical reading of The Lord of the Rings, rather claiming that it is a modern myth written by a man who just happened to be deeply Catholic. Yet in reading Tolkien’s private letters, we can penetrate farther into the sheer depth of his lived faith, his salient observations of the changes in the world, and can also be refreshed by the candid nature at which he describes his everyday battles. It is perhaps not a coincidence that this deeply religious man allowed his Fellowship to rest three full times before the most difficult part of their quest began.
Rest and refreshment are an essential part of Catholic spirituality and must be pursued in both small and large measures, both in our sacred spaces and wherever we can find that is a safe place to forget the world and be alone with God.
We must also in our rest shake off our temptation to save the world. Tolkien, who is a hero and aesthetic guidepost to many a Catholic, took half a lifetime to write his magnum opus. His letters show us how, along the way, he apologized repeatedly to his publisher for delays caused by financial troubles, health issues, university politics, the terrible time-suck of grading term papers, and just sheer lack of strength. One gets the feeling that in writing of Elrond’s Last Homely House or Galadriel’s Lothlorien, he was speaking from his own need to rest and refresh. And he did so, whenever he needed, and probably to the frequent annoyance of his publishers who — sensing both greatness and an opportunity for profit — wanted more, more, MORE.
In the end, Tolkien’s output was mediocre in terms of volume. And yet he wrote “that one great work” that will persevere until the end of an age, which has helped lead many a wayward soul back to the pursuit of truth and the attempt at a heroic life. He didn’t carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he didn’t neglect his family life or personal health in a Quixotic pursuit of greatness. He had his vocation as a family man, his job as a professor, and his calling to create something extraordinary…and he literally gave the time of his life to do it. In the final analysis, I think it no coincidence that Tolkien’s Elves, powerful and immortal as they are, also feel hopeless against the gathering darkness. Even they are forced to hope against hope, fight against seemingly unsurpassable odds, and ultimately depend on providence.
And yet unlike the Lord of the Rings, this story of our great struggle will likely not be over in a few years’ time. We probably won’t see the promised land in this life, and our world should be fortunate if even our grandchildren can see it. We do not know if we fight for a future victory or are a real-world part of what Tolkien termed a grand, inevitable battle of permanent retreat — permanent, at least, until the return of our king.
Tolkien visited Lothlorien whenever he needed to, and we should learn from this. Rest, refresh, replenish. Discern again what is yours to bear fully, what you are only to assist in, and what is simply another’s fight. Do not take the weight of the world upon your shoulders, and stop whenever you feel this unbearable weight encroaching. You may sooner or later return to the fray if that is God’s will, but only once you have regaining your full strength for the exceedingly small — yet immensely great — part that you are called to play.
Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a scholar and composer whose music has been performed internationally and released on the Gramophone-praised Naxos Records album, “Blood, Forgotten.” His writings on Catholicism, music, aesthetics, and music technology appear in numerous publications regularly, while he also maintains an active schedule as a composer and professor of music. A proud native of Chicago, he currently lives with his wife and three children in Ohio.