Sacred Gloom: The Relieving Grief of Holy Week

I have been involved in the Christian tradition for most of my life. I went to a non-denominational Christian school from fifth to tenth grade, a Catholic High School, and have attended two Catholic universities, one of which I teach at this very day. I’ve been committed to Christ for most of my life and fully intend to continue that way, though my journey of what that means has seen many changes, with many more still to come, I doubt it not.

People often complain about Christianity for its gloom – for the puritanical streak, the killjoy side of Christianity. It’s the complaint that sings “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints – the sinners are much more fun.” But this is actually the easy attack on Christianity to respond to, for the reason that I think, emotionally speaking, it’s the opposite of what really bothers people about Christians, including Christians themselves. It’s not the gloom and doom of Christianity people don’t like. People actually love that – it’s why there are so many stories about Apocalypse, fire falling from the sky, total chaos, cats and dogs living together, and Bill Murray’s heart-pounding request to speak with Dana. Of course, nobody likes having their own fun times condemned as sinful, but if you shift your focus to a general dissatisfaction with the way human beings live their lives, you’ll find their puritanical streak quickly, whether they’re condemning Republicans or Democrats, Communists or Capitalists, Christians or Atheists, Team Captain America or Team Tony Stark (Team Tony, obviously – never side against someone with facial hair that perfect).

Look, my point is, people actually don’t mind professions of gloom as long as they don’t feel personally attacked by them. What people really find upsetting about Christians, I think, is a cheerfulness that seems out of touch with how bad things are, with bombings or shootings or natural disasters or horrible diseases or political upheavals that marry our lives to despair, violence, death, and outright insanity. The problem of evil is raised, and Christians love to march out Revelation 21:4: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” And don’t mistake me here. I’m a Christian, and I absolutely believe those words are true and from the inspired Word of God. But when I see what happens in Paris, Beirut, San Bernardino, Brussels, Iraq, and on and on, and I see some facile sprinkling of verses like that, Scriptural comfort confetti, I feel sick. It makes me almost, dare I say it, hate those words a little bit, because it feels so dishonest. Because come on: this stuff is bad, and the tears are not wiped away. They are still flowing. The hearts are broken. Don’t come to me and tell me in my grief that it’s all going to be okay, as if it already is. Because it’s not okay, it is evil, and heaviness of heart is the correct reaction

Let me be frank: dismissing heaviness of heart about evil in the world is weak-tea, watered down Christianity, where people maintain a pretended optimism that somehow pretends to be more impervious than their Savior’s. Jesus wept before he rose Lazarus. He sweated blood about his own death before His Father raised him up from the dead. He did not lose heart, he didn’t despair, but he didn’t pretend like evil wasn’t evil.

Being a Christian implies a real invitation to be joyful, to believe that good things are waiting on the other side of the dark nights of the soul both private and public. Christians have to be a testimony to others that there is real hope and comfort at the foot of the Cross because of the empty tomb. But to be honest with others, and to be honest with ourselves, we need to face and name the weight of darkness that we all face in the world, regardless of our beliefs. Non-Christians feel that weight too, and it’s no surprise that they find our testimonies specious if all they hear is optimism. But on the other side of it, it’s not good to dwell on our past sins or the dangers of the world at the expense of maintaining an open posture to the joy of the Messiah’s embrace. For our own devotional lives, for our peace of mind and our sanity, we have to admit that it hurts. It hurts so deeply and so truly, and no doubt need enter into the comfort we take in the assurance of salvation to admit that adjacent, less comfortable truth.

That to me, I think, is the blessing of Ash Wednesday and Lent in general, but of Holy Week in particular. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our death and all that might imply, and Lent readjusts the perspective on the things to which we give value in our lives. But the penitential and purgative season of Lent culminates in the jarring days of the Triduum. On Maundy Thursday, Communion is not only celebrated as the blessing and sacrament that it is, but also to the deep injustice of the world that led the Paschal Lamb to the slaughter. That easy transition from recognizing “Oh, of course I am a sinner” to “But God has forgiven me” is atrophied by the stark memory of Good Friday, where we reflect on the terribleness of the Good, the roaring nature of goodness like Aslan, the danger of being before inherent and essential justice when we have been a source of judgment, agony, and pain for others and have failed to live the lives we know we are called to live. Ah, does that sound Puritanical, harsh, self-flagellating? Perhaps, but I fear worse the charge that those admissions are just a show, a necessary prelude to the all-too-easy resolution of Easter Day.

Maundy Thursday, the eve of expectation, sets up Good Friday’s remembrance of the weight that Christ bore for us, the physical, spiritual violence heaped upon Christ, the same darkness that clouds the world even now in the form of terrorism, bigotry, hatred, and every manner of injustice. But there’s an element of hot spectacle to Good Friday that in some ways makes it more bearable, the severity of the lashings. I used to think Good Friday was the hardest day to bear in the liturgical calendar; it is certainly the saddest one, for the same reason that it leads to the happiest one. But Holy Saturday, if less violent in its urgency, is the coldest day. The Savior, entombed. We remember the apostles and the dear women and the other Christians who live a whole day with their beloved teacher and Messiah just…. Gone. Christ himself felt the cold breath of the absence of the Father, and now the Son is liturgically hid from us.

Now we have the official freedom to admit it. God feels hidden sometimes. Christ’s sanctifying blood seems to leave the spots of our sins that we are promised will be removed. Some days you feel the Spirit awake in your heart like a brilliant fire, energizing and bursting through the clouds of sadness and pain, and you cannot fathom disbelief in those times. But it is not always so; disbelief, if not embraced, even so sounds a note of reality all around the world. The Son of God is dead, and with Him all our religion, spirituality, high minded cheerfulness. We have the relief of having our own hopes and certainty entombed with Christ, where we are no longer responsible, no longer have any means, to be the power by which faith is restored. Mournful, yes, but honestly mournful, and there is a rest for the soul in that earnest grief.

The coldness of Holy Saturday could set in too deeply, and the honesty of a heavy heart can too easily become despair. We go to sleep with our hearts crucified and our hopes buried, our grief eased but not truly dispelled or comforted. We admit, with a sigh of relief, that it is still a fallen world, and it still hurts. Even this Sunday, we know that the true Easter will still be tomorrow, for the tears will have not yet been wiped away.

Tomorrow the jarring clarion call against the threat of complacency in our sins and the darkness of the world is sounded, and we put our hands in the scars of our Savior’s hands, feet, and side. Tomorrow we will encounter that miracle – that we need not accept the grief as the end of the story. Tomorrow, triumphantly “He is risen” shall in earnest ring again and the joy of reunion with the whole heavenly host and the creation-consuming glory of the Creator shall restore our earthly glimpse of the Promised Land. Tomorrow we will sing and pray and be called to the Feast and be made together the Living Body of Christ the King. Tomorrow, Joy, against all our cynicism and despair, prevails with all its unimaginable and inexorable sovereignty.

But not today. Today we admit the sacred gloom.

The Abolition of a Hobbit: Rereading The Two Towers

[Alternative Titles: Sympathy for the Slinker; Sticking it to Samwise (with utmost respect of course)]

More so than The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers reads like what one expects from a fantasy novel. It’s exciting, it’s action packed – Hobbits are being kidnapped by Orcs, evil wizards are being sieged by walking trees, Elves are shooting winged beasts from the sky, noble warriors are engaging in fierce struggles for the survival of their people against dark Hordes of the Enemy. Two of our major protagonists, Frodo and Sam, have on their hands the dangerous dilemma of trusting a most untrustworthy and most indispensable guide, the split-personality of Slinker and Stinker, Smeagol and Gollum. The dangerous yet somewhat comical spiders of Mirkwood from The Hobbit are dwarfed (pun entirely intended) by the cunning Shelob. In an essay on stories by C.S. Lewis, creatively titled On Stories, Jack makes a distinction between the excitement of plot and the immersion of atmosphere created by a world. It is the difference between the flight-or-fight fear created by being chased by a giant, man-eating spider, and meditating on the quality of a world where giant, man-eating spiders exist. It’s the difference between Wordsworth feeling the rush of the river Wye and its countryside flow over him, and the discerning meditation upon what that rush means. The Fellowship of the Ring is, to be sure, an exciting story, and one that layers itself intentionally over The Hobbit to fill readers with anticipation of a similar story.

But even in The Fellowship, we begin to understand that we’re in a larger and darker adventure than the one that swept Bilbo from his door. We learn the deeper lore of the Ring, the terror of the Nazgul who serve its master, and the forces of light marshalled against the Enemy. The Fellowship is, in some ways, The Hobbit inside out: the pressure of larger forces at work is felt throughout The Hobbit but never seen clearly (though, we with Tolkien will discover, encountered quite directly in the finding of the Ring), while the legacy of Bilbo’s adventures are the pressures by which Frodo and his comrades find themselves issuing out of the safety of the Shire and into the larger affairs of the Great and the Wise. The excitement of The Fellowship is a texturing excitement; it educates us, carrying us over the thresholds of the Bruinen, Nimrodel, and Kheled-zaram and into the darkening shadow of Mordor, the dark touch of which we feel in the agonizing loss of Gandalf and Boromir.

The sub-creative work of building atmosphere for our imaginations to inhabit is of course not finished, but has reached a certain fulfillment once The Two Towers has begun. As readers, we have been oriented to this world clearly enough that we feel more acutely the disorientation of Merry’s and Pippin’s plight and the weight of the task before Frodo and Sam. The two books of The Two Towers presents two separate journeys of a pair of Hobbits, the intertwining of their plots felt only when we realize that the Nazgul winging menacingly over Frodo and Sam was headed to Saruman thinking that the Hobbit with the Ring might be in his clutches, thanks to the errors of Pippin with the Palantir. This is why Lord of the Rings achieves a deeper effect than much of its literary progeny: the weight of history, the lives of its characters, and the intersection of broad realities with narrow experience makes the momentary excitement of plot resonate with the significance of enduring atmosphere. “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?” asks Sam.

“I wonder,” said Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.” (407-408)

Something about this exchange between Frodo and Sam has always struck me as powerfully moving, from my first reading of it, to its representation in the film, and my second reading of it earlier today. On the back of my copy, Lewis recommends, “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart….good beyond hope.” The Lord of the Rings in general has the peculiar quality of breaking my heart with its portrayal of goodness as well as its portrayal of evil.

Not long after Sam’s own insightful vision into the storied nature of life itself, he snaps at Gollum in a moment when the poor creature might have tipped into goodness once and for all, having seen in the napping Hobbits a lost self he could, in the presence of his Master Frodo, recall, however faintly. “Why, even Gollum might be good in a tale, better than he is to have by you, anyway,” Sam had said, and fancifully calls, “Would you like to be the hero—now where’s he got to again?” At that moment, we’ll find, Gollum had been away laying his trap with Shelob, but who knows how Sam would have replied if he’d seen “an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time” (411). Instead of remembering his own musings, Sam falls into the insulting habit of interaction he had with the creature he called Slinker and Stinker – accusing him of sneaking and being an old villain. Not without justification, Gollum is wounded, and coupled with the guilt of his treachery, Slinker retreats and Stinker grows.

In the opening pages of The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis rebukes our culture for losing an important part of our “human heritage,” namely, the belief “that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt” (15). Frodo’s reaction to Sam’s musing that his master might be in “songs or tales” some day is to laugh, and Sam’s reaction at being included in those imagined songs and tales is to respond as if his thought were injured, mocked: “Now Frodo,” said Sam, “you shouldn’t make fun, I was serious.” “So was I,” said Frodo.” Sam abolishes his own insight to a fancy when it comes to himself, and if he cannot imagine himself as a hero in a story (with his most heroic actions about to unfold in not too many pages), how could he imagine his fancy about Gollum’s value as anything more than just that, a fancy?

For all of the blame laid in the Ring, the failure of imagination in Sam about a creature of his own kind contributed to Gollum’s doom as surely as the hand of Sauron. This is not to judge Samwise Gamgee too harshly, for there was undeniable sense in his reaction to Gollum, which stemmed as well from his admirable loyalty to Frodo. But if Sam had taken more comfort in Frodo’s pity towards Gollum, as Legolas and Gimli took comfort in each other’s love of forests and caves, perhaps the burden of the One Ring would not have been so heavy to bear. Who can tell, in this time of crisis, how much evil we kindle by laughing at our own ideals? We might be silly hobbits, but let not our laughter be altogether be without dignity, for the sake of the Frodos, Sams, and Gollums among us all.

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” (The Abolition of Man, 26)