The Caring Curmudgeon

J. R. R. Tolkein, Oxford professor and author of the (pre-cinematic) Lord of the Rings trilogy, was among those Catholics deeply rooted in the traditions of their faith, who lived to see those customs violently uprooted in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.

Years ago I was delighted to hear his grandson tell of his conduct at Mass, when the tongue had suddenly (and forcibly) changed from Latin to English. In exquisite curmudgeonly form, he “made all the responses very loudly in Latin,” human respect be damned.

It is even more satisfying, though hardly surprising, to find that the wizened Inkling, writing from the repose of his hearth or study, articulated his objections to the craze for drastic liturgical change in more discursive terms.

As Tolkein understood, changes that could hardly be justified as conducive to the spiritual health of Christ’s flock were being rationalized in terms of ressourcement: a supposed recovery of what was falsely portrayed as an older and purer form of the faith.

Acknowledging that the quest for “simplicity” in religion “contains some good or at least intelligible motives,” Tolkein nonetheless dismissed the movement as “mistaken and indeed vain.”

Borrowing the parable of the mustard seed, he noted that Our Lord intended his Church to be a “living organism,” “which develops and changes in externals by the interaction of its bequeathed divine life and history.”

This changeability, however, does not mean that the “externals” of faith are subject to whimsical modification by man.

To the contrary, though “the wise may know” that the mustard tree, great as it is, began as a tiny seed, it would be a murderously incompetent gardener who concluded that the proper care of such a plant requires clipping it down to its original dimensions.

Though a skilled caretaker, in tending the tree, will “prune it, remove cankers, rid it of parasites and so forth,” he will do even this “with trepidation, knowing how little [his] knowledge of growth is!”

In truth, Tolkein reminds us, “grave abuses were as much an element in Christian liturgical behavior from the beginning as now,” as evidenced by “St. Paul’s strictures on Eucharistic behavior.”

With time, the seed that Christ planted took on a shape subject to overgrowth, blight, and infestation, but readily able in its majestic features to lead souls to the Father through the Son, by the guidance of the Holy Ghost.

The liturgy is of course still able to accomplish this feat, but more effectively when its guardians remember their place as stewards, caring for the treasures bequeathed to humankind, with fear and trembling.

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