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Out of the 1970’s Frying Pan, into the Modern-Age Fire?

In a hole in the ground there lived a Catholic. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with liturgical dancing and felt banners, nor yet a dry, bare, ungodly hole with modern Jesuits and new pathways: it was a Catholic-hole, which means the comfort of timeless faith and beauty. It had a perfectly placed round door like a porthole to heaven, painted in the blood of the martyrs – it was The Church, as all the people for many centuries called it. 

I mimic J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous introduction to The Hobbit simply because of what is on my mind of late: The Catholic faith, or what has become of it, and Tolkien, or how he lived his Catholic faith.

To begin, what is it about this illustrious writer that is so compelling? For one, I argue that Tolkien’s writings are the near-flawless expression of Catholicism within a fallen-world (or fallen-fictional-world). Whether initially intended or not, the mystery of iniquity and redemption permeate through his adventures of hobbits and dwarves. Esteemed historian Charles Coloumbe rightly calls Tolkien’s writings “a tribute to the enduring power and greatness of the Catholic tradition.”

Alas, I imagine Tolkien was a little hobbit-esque near the end of his life, musing in a Catholic-hole of sorts, attempting to avoid the chaos of the Church about him. The mainstream Church in his final days was no Shire, but rather an institution running open-armed towards Mordor. Not even the Mass was spared from modern “improvements”. Tolkien’s grandson Simon famously relates:

“I vividly remember going to church with him [J.R.R.] in Bournemouth. He was a devout Roman Catholic and it was soon after the Church had changed the liturgy from Latin to English. My Grandfather obviously didn’t agree with this and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English. I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but My Grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right…”

Tolkien died in 1973, just as the liturgical revolution of the Church was in full force. It is rather amusing that this revolution to update the Church into modernity has not outgrown the 1970s. That is, the same modern “improvements” forced upon Catholics at that time, such as felt, table altars, and folk music, persist to this present day. If mainstream Catholicism were clothing, we’d all still be wearing bell-bottoms.

Well, there is a silver lining in everything – mysterious are His ways. I never thought I would say this, but thank the Lord that Catholicism has been stuck in the 1970s. I say this in a limited sense, of course. While the 1970s were putrid for the faith, I must ask, have you seen what a modern-age Catholicism looks like?

Recently I came across such a display in a Catholic Herald article titled Improbable Hagiographies: St. Mary of Egypt. The author is Destiny Herndon De La Rosa, founder of a “secular pro-life New Wave Feminists organization.” I hesitate to quote examples from her piece, for it is a vulgar and imprecise examination of the life of St. Mary of Egypt. As a compromise, I include a couple of toned-down examples.

Snippet number one: After a crass introduction, the author asks, “So, Saint Mary of Egypt might be the first recorded nympho Saint, and y’all, I am here for it because we have to balance out all those consecrated virgin stories somehow, right?”

Y’all get that? No? Neither did I. Let’s move on.

Snippet number two: The article then plows forward with the actual story of St. Mary’s conversion, though told as crudely as possible, and with obscene liberties taken. Of particular note is the author’s prurient fascination with how much a prostitute might enjoy her work. Near the end of St. Mary’s conversion, we are told the following:

“Anyway, Mary immediately goes to a monastery on the bank of the Jordan, receives absolution and Holy Communion, then the next morning she crosses it, and you won’t believe what happens next! {Note to editor: Use this line as click bait on social media} … She lived in penance as a hermit in the desert until she died at 77.

(Narr. Morgan Freeman: “Destiny’s editor did not use that line as click bait, boys and girls.”)

See, in true clickbait fashion, you absolutely WOULD believe what happened next. Gotcha suckers. Womp womp. Learn to internet better, foos!

That said, some pretty cray stuff did actually take place right before her death however.”

I could go on, but I have pained you enough, and there is only so much “cray stuff” I can handle. In truth, the article is far worse than what I have described. The point is that if those in the Church were serious about taking cues from the modern world, this is what it would look like. It would be bawdy and grotesque; the antithesis of a loving Mother. And so, I repeat, if the Church is indeed stuck in the 1970s, it is a blessing in disguise. The 1970’s frying pan is still preferable to the modern-age fire.

Nevertheless, both the 1970s and the modern-age are tragedies. None shall win a multitude of souls to Christ. To which I ponder, how shall we? I think particularly of the youth, for I am a teacher, and I know just what world the modern student is led to embrace. It is an unreal world filled with vulgarity, self-absorption, and depression – a world without God. What to do? The answer is not to offer “clickbait” faith with “cray” and crass lingo. The youth live this already, and, if they are honest with themselves, will admit it is tiresome and empty.

No, the answer, for me, starts with a simple: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” That is, every year I read The Hobbit to my class of striving YouTube and Tik Tok stars. I read it, and it is not long before the story consumes the entire class. The minds of these young students realize that something different, something profound, is happening. “Mr. Millette… Tolkien uses really fancy words,” a student once noted. Still another, “How come they keep falling into trouble when they know what is the right thing to do?” And further, “The story seems so real, even though it’s not!” Finally, the inevitable, “Mr. Millette, keep reading! I want to hear what happens next!”

It is a world of good, evil, adventure, and virtue. To them it becomes real, and in a profound sense it is. The escape from trolls, the riddles of Gollum, the bravery of a small hobbit, all instill what the modern world, nor the 1970s, cannot: The comfort of a timeless beauty and faith, as expressed and lived by J.R.R. Tolkien.

I end by recalling the wizard Gandalf’s brief exchange with the dwarf-king Thorin, soon after Gandalf returns to save the troop from three monstrous trolls. It conveys a wisdom not altogether lost on ten-year-old students, nor their teacher:

“Where did you go to, if I may ask?” said Thorin to Gandalf as they rode along.

“To look ahead,” said he.

“And what brought you back in the nick of time?”

“Looking behind,” said he.

Let us prudently look ahead, not to modern-age “cray stuff”, or whatever it is called, but towards our final end. Let us wisely look behind, not to the kitsch 1970s, but to timeless beauty and faith. As for the present, though Mordor be upon us, let us learn from J.R.R. Tolkien to live a faith that is real. There shall be our comfort. For as Tolkien knew so well, we are really just humble little pilgrims, in a wide world after all.

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