Vocations

Prayer for Seminarians

Lord Jesus, we ask your special blessing on those preparing for the Sacred Priesthood. May their hearts overflow with love, understanding, and generosity. May their desire to serve inspire others to answer Your call. Lord Jesus, fill the hearts of seminarians with the fire of your love make them holy as You are Holy. Amen.

Blessed John Paul II

Blessed John Paul II

St John Vianney

St John Vianney

St John Southworth

Saint John Southworth

Blessed JH Newman

Blessed JH Newman

What can we learn from Bilbo Baggin’s “Unexpected Journey"?

I went to see the first instalment of the new "The Hobbit" film trilogy a couple of days ago. I am not one of those Lord of the Rings experts who can tell you all about the minutest minutiae of Middle Earth, but Tolkien's books have always been very dear to me as they were perhaps the first I ever read "for myself" as a teenager.  They captivated me with their sense of life as a quest for truth and virtue at a time when I was beginning to wake up to life’s big questions. 

It was only later in my life, after I had been received into the Church, that I came to know that Tolkien was himself a Catholic and that in his writing he strove, through the universal language of myth, to capture the beauty of holiness, the sacramentality of the world and the essential epic romance of our journey into God. And, as Bilbo Baggins and his fellow hobbits reveal, this ultimate union with the truth and light of God is most likely to be achieved, contrary to the logic of the world, by the smallest and humblest, with humour, adventure and the triumph of childlike joy. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it in such words when I read Tolkien as a teenager but as I made my own first tentative steps into the wider world my instinct was definitely that the compass by which Tolkien navigated his epic world was one which would also serve me well.

Back to the film! I recommend Fr Robert Barron’s excellent podcast review of the film on his Word on Fire website – www.wordonfire.org  Here below are a few of my own related thoughts, very much from the point of view of my role as vocations director for the diocese helping men and women on their quests for truth, for God, 30 years after I recognised in Tolkien a truth which could be a guide for my own quest.

The film/story begins in the cosy domestic comfort of Bilbo Baggin's Hobbit hole with all its security and warmth. Into this peace, in a kind of Annunciation moment, crashes Gandalf the wizard followed by the messy and raucous dwarves with their invitation for Bilbo to join their mission to regain the dwarves' ancient ancestral kingdom which has been overrun by a particularly nasty dragon. The young Hobbit (well, he's 50 which is young for a Hobbit!), seems a surprise choice to complete the heroic team. Indeed, Bilbo’s sense of his unworthiness, that he does not fulfil the essential requirements of a hero, holds him back – he struggles to see his true self. It is only with time that he and we shall discover the “definite service” and qualities which Bilbo will uniquely bring to this band of brothers.

Most importantly for the theme of vocations discernment, the film/story explores some of the forces which prevent the different characters/us from joining/fulfilling the quest for truth and good. At one extreme is the greed of the dragon who, like the rich young man in the Gospels, cannot let go of the material treasure which ultimately is of no use or real benefit to him. He lazes amongst his shimmering, gleaming mountain of gold which seems ironically to dull his vital life-force. The opposite extreme is the temptation which Bilbo faces to stay in the comfort of his home and not risk the journey (like those who offer to follow Jesus but then hang back because of various domestic affairs which they want to sort out first). Bilbo's lace doilies and antique furniture, the cosy snugness of his Hobbit hole have dulled his instinct for adventure, for self-sacrifice. It is only gradually that he is able to overcome this and to really offer himself fully to the mission and to the risks/uncertainties it offers. However, with time and persistence, he is not only able to commit himself fully to the quest but he (and the others) also comes to understand just why he was chosen and what it is that he uniquely is able to contribute to the mission. It will be his small acts of kindness and love which will ultimately lead to the triumph of good over evil.

These are themes which I recognise so clearly from both my own journey and from the journeys of others who, with great trust and hunger, come to share with me their own search for God’s will. That feeling of unworthiness, that I’m somehow not the “right type” for the adventure, comparing oneself unfavourably with others, the way we can blunt our desire for the risk of a deeper discipleship, a deeper life commitment either by the cosy comfort of the familiar or the glittering temptations of fame and fortune, a mistrust of the small and humble in favour of the grand and impressive – all of these themes recur time and time again on the pages of the Gospels and on the pages of our lives today. Tolkien also, in the form of the orcs, goblins and other forces of darkness which he so vividly brings to life, clearly identifies the reality of evil which we will encounter on the journey.

Yet in the face of all these obstacles, these frailties and fault-lines in our humanity, Tolkien, in imitation of Christ himself, continues to invite and inspire us to set out on the “unexpected journey” of the spiritual quest for God and for our own deepest identity in God. This journey of faith and into faith is an ongoing venture, not simply a one-time choice – “The Road goes on and on” as Bilbo regularly remarks. It will lead to many other choices – between betrayal and loyalty, revenge and forgiveness, deceit and honesty, slavery and freedom, despair and hope... and in all this our seemingly insignificant daily choices will come to resound mightily in our own lives and in the lives of others.

As we enter this New Year, and continue our journey into the Year of Faith, may we have the resolve to listen for the knock at our door, with God’s invitation to step out onto the Road, to commit ourself to the quest he has in store for each one of us.  If we do, our lives, like Bilbo Baggins’, will never be the same again!

Your thoughts
  • Daniel Cote Davis
    Posted 17th January 2013 at 2:50pm

    What a refreshing message to hear for this the year of Faith for the universal Church. I am sure we can all learn from Tolkien's stories deeper truths about how to nurture are commitment to God through faith and friendship. Much like Tolkien himself whose writings stemmed forth from a deep commitment to his friends and their shared venture towards learning about Beauty, grounded in faith and perserverance through life's difficulties. I pray and hope that all who read this article take up their Cross like Bilbo, and follow in his steps down the unexpcted adventurous path of faith, shared with friends. Let us all deepen our desire to become more truly who we are in Christ through courage, determination and a step-by-step attitude to both the little and the big trials of life. <><

  • Sarah de Nordwall
    Posted 17th January 2013 at 12:13pm

    There are almost unending depths in Tolkein, but the first thing I first learnt from him were that it's alright to love life and ordinary things with a fierce passion, because if you don't love them very much, it's not exactly a sacrifice to let go of them and cross Mordor under the burning gaze of the Eye. I also realised that becoming capable of this is a gradual process and that premature heroics rarely lead to much. Friendship, fellowship and the joy that comes from grace and naturalness come first.

    And that would be the other lovely thing I learnt in Middle Earth, that love IS knowledge. Even though many have great Lore and Learning, and it is highly esteemed, those on whom the quest ultimately depends, have as their greatest strength a personal love that stops at nothing.

    As I have 17 books on Tolkein on my desk at present and about another 40 in the Bard School Library that Dan and I are putting together right now - I'm sure he'll have plenty to say in answer to Fr Richard's beautiful post - I'll just say that Dan has brought me "Walking with Bilbo" - A devotional adventure through the Hobbit by Sarah Arthur.. which I'm just going to have to read, before returning to my favourite story "Leaf by Niggle".. THE Tolkein story for artists I think.

    Well done Fr Richard for knocking on the door of the great and relatively unsung story of the contribution of artists to the understanding of the path of holiness...

    We have to have a quote from the man himself - Return of the King - Ch III Mount Doom "Then suddenly, as before under the eaves of the Emyn Muil, Sam saw these two rivals with other vision. A crouching shape, scarcely more than the shadow of a living thing, a creature now wholly ruined and defeated, yet filled with a hideous lust and rage; and before it stood stern, untouchable now by pity, a figure robed in white, but at its breast it held a wheel of fire. Out of the fire there spoke a commanding voice. 'Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom". Then the vision passed and Sam saw Frodo standing hand on breast, his breath coming in great gasps, and Gollum at his feet,.."

    and yet as we know, in spite of moments of power and determination coming in flashes of glory, without Gollum, the quest would never have succeeded at all. The ways of Providence, include us all - held in the Mystery of God.

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Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Cardinal Vincent Nichols

Cardinal Vincent Nichols

Prayer for Vocations

Lord Jesus Christ, Guide and Shepherd of your people, touch the hearts of our young people, that they may, for the love of you, give their lives in the service of the Church. Renew the hearts of priests, that they may model their lives on the mystery of the Cross, and imitate the Sacred Mysteries they celebrate at the Altar. Strengthen our families, that they may generously support those of their sons whom you call to serve you as priests. Amen.

Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy

Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy

Holy Family of Nazereth

Holy Family of Nazereth