Tuesday, September 02, 2008

35th Anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien's Death: The Liturgical Thoughts of a Prominent Literary Catholic

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the death of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the famed trilogy, The Lord of the Rings and a professor of Oxford University. This is perhaps how most know the man, but of course, the man was also a devout Catholic.

Having died in 1973, Tolkien lived to see the changes within the liturgical life of the Church, and it has been known for sometime that he might not have been described as an “enthusiast” of these changes. An example of the sorts of accounts we have become accustomed to hearing in this regard are as follows:

At one Vatican II-inspired Mass, Tolkien found the innovations too much for him. Disappointed by changes in the Mass's language and the informality of the ritual, he rose from his seat, made his way laboriously to the aisle, made three low bows and stomped out.

Tolkien’s grandson, Simon Tolkien, a British barrister and novelist. recounted the following as well:

I vividly remember going to church with him 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.

Of course, these are only second-hand accounts, but my mind has lately been put to the fact that it would be quite interesting to gather together what written liturgical and ecclesial thoughts Tolkien had during the tumultuous times that were the latter 1960’s and early 1970’s – similar to what was done with Evelyn Waugh’s considerations, which were collected together into the volume, A Bitter Trial, and published by the St. Austin Press some years ago.

Whether there would be much material, I know not, but it seems to me that it would be interesting as part of the “archival process” in documenting the post-conciliar period, and the response of those who lived through it, to collect these together. According to some sources, Tolkien voiced his support on several occasions for the usus antiquior, even speaking at early “traditionalist” meetings. It would be interesting to find these primary source materials if they are still extant. One would hope there was the foresight to document them.

We do have some examples readily available however. In one of Tolkien’s letters, addressed to his son Michael and dated August 25th, 1967, he speaks to some of the issues which we faced then and yet still face, the problem of archeologism.

The 'protestant' search backwards for 'simplicity' and directness - which, of course, though it contains some good or at least intelligible motives, is mistaken and indeed vain. Because 'primitive Christianity' is now and in spite of all 'research' will ever remain largely unknown; because 'primitiveness' is no guarantee of value, and is, and was in great a reflection of ignorance. Grave abuses were as much an element in Christian liturgical behaviour from the beginning as now. (St Paul's strictures on Eucharistic behaviour are sufficient to show this!) Still more because 'my church' was not intended by Our Lord to be static or remain in perpetual childhood; but to be a living organism (likened to a plant), which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history - the particular circumstances of the world into which it is set. There is no resemblance between the 'mustard-seed' and the full-grown tree. For those living in the days of its branching growth, the Tree is the thing, for the history of a living thing is part of its life, and the history of a divine thing is sacred. The wise may know that it began with a seed, but it is vain to try and dig it up, for it no longer exists, and the virtue and powers that it had now reside in the Tree. Very good: but in husbandry the authorities, the keepers of the Tree, must look after it, according to such wisdom as they possess, prune it, remove cankers, rid it of parasites and so forth. (With trepidation, knowing how little their knowledge of growth is!) But they will certainly do harm if they are obsessed with the desire of going back to the seed or even to the first youth when it was (as they imagine) pretty and unafflicted by evils. The other motive (now so confused with the primitivist one, even in the mind with any one of the reformers): aggiornamento: bringing up to date: that has its own grave dangers, as has been apparent throughout history. With this, 'ecumenicalness' has also become confused. (The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien, no. 306.)

Of course, some might ask, “so what?” Tolkien, after all, was not invested with any magisterial authority it is true. Nor was he in any way infallible or not potentially subject to emotivistic responses, nostalgic attachments and otherwise. But as a member of the Catholic faithful, his voice did potentially form a part of the sensus fidelium if you will. Beyond that, he was a man of great intellect and cultivation; a man both learned and pious. In view of that, understanding the reactions of prominent individuals like J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, and even non-Catholics like Agatha Christie are indeed of particular interest. While for some, this academic and literary background may result in a dismissive explanations of responses driven by ivory tower elitism, there is another angle. Many were simply trained to quietly obey and trust, whatever their personal reservations might have been. Insofar as that was the case, those responses were either left to private correspondences which will never see the light of day, or they were even left unspoken. Intellectual personages like a Tolkien and Waugh were much more pre-disposed to speak publically to their own response. Further, precisely because of their wider prominence, we often have found these responses, even when privately made, to have been documented – unlike the average Catholic’s responses. Insofar as they have so responded, and insofar as those responses have been kept, a reaction which was no doubt shared by many others as well has been retained as a sort of living memory; one which may help illuminate the climate of the times, particularly as we look back on the period through the lens of Pope Benedict’s own liturgical mind and critiques.

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