This follows on from my previous post, which was a simple expression of desire and yearning for liberation in the song Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys. But liberation from what? What are the chains which hold you fast? It is the big question – and different religions answer in different ways. Religions such as Buddhism usually characterise those chains as ones of ignorance and desire and suffering. In Hinduism the word Moksha expresses the idea of freedom from these marks of reincarnation. In Christianity the emphasis is more moral – the chains are ones of sin and thus death. As often happens, the reading I was doing today was saying a lot about this yearning for liberation, and the entrapment of the human being. For A2 students perhaps wondering what this has got to do with the exam – stay with me to the end!
As usual I have been doing one of my favourite things – reading about Tolkien! In particular the excellent ‘Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision’ by Craig Bernthal. I have based much of what I say here on his chapter ‘Penance, Reconciliation and Their Refusal’ in that book.
For Tolkien evil is something by which we are caught. There is a strong element of addiction in all those who are caught by evil in The Lord of the Rings – not just those who are caught by the Ring, but for instance Pippin with the Palantir etc. This is something especially fresh to me at this moment because in preparation for Lent – and hopefully beyond it – I have decided to try and break my dependence on mobile devices and social media by selling both my smartphone and my tablet.
This may seem extreme – ‘haven’t I got any self-discipline?’, people have said to me; ‘just stop checking them so much, there’s no need to go that far.’ My answer to that is – would you say to an alcoholic ‘just have a little glass of whisky – have you no self-control?’ Of course they haven’t, that’s the point, and whilst I don’t think my compulsion to check my phone and go on social media is quite that bad yet, I have become aware over the last few months of a rather negative impact of all these things on my life. Quite apart from the fact that I have not really read any actual books for years, when I used to a lot, (no time to – I have twitter to check!) my sleep was cut down because I would be on my phone until the early hours, I found myself forced by Facebook into a projecting a distorted version of myself and recognised rather a lot of ego investment and pride in what I was doing, which sometimes made my interactions with others negative. These are probably just some of the negative effects of having constant access to social media on mobile devices. I’m sure there are limited positive effects, but for me they have been massively outweighed by the downside mentioned above.
I mention all this not to further mire myself in pride – look how abstemious I am! – but to give a practical example of the results of effectively chosen renunciations. I have been more productive, at peace, calmer and happier this week than I have for a long time, all by giving stuff up. It will become more difficult as I realise that I cannot rely on things like Google Maps or Kindle on journeys! But as renunciation goes this has been fairly easy! I’m not quite ready for the hair shirt and bread and water yet!
My point is it is very easy to become caught in the technological age. You find whole hours have gone by just staring at your phone. For many people this is fine. They are happy playing candy crush saga or whatever. But I have too much that I want to do. I don’t want to obliterate myself, to numb my awareness. I want to stay awake. I need to stay awake – to be vigilant in a moral sense, but also to create – you cannot create without life making some kind of sharp and shocking splash against your skin every now and again. Those who create, be it art or poetry or whatever, I would guess have found working ways of allowing life to sabotage their carefully planned and controlled creative environments, but not sabotage too much. It’s a tightrope walk, creativity.
But once you remove the external traps that are there to catch you, it is not all plain sailing. A subtler form of trap lies in wait within, a tendency which the external technological traps were just there to exploit once it manifested. This is the inner disposition of restlessness. This is a much more difficult trap to renounce. [see Josef Pieper – Leisure; the Basis of Culture]
Returning to the Biblical basis of this, the Old Testament Covenant was a life or death choice. The choice of evil meant you were ensnared by death, and as Bernthal points out St. John says much the same thing: “He that loveth not, abideth in death” (1 John 3:14)
“Death is a condition you enter while alive, and you abide in it – you accept it, you don’t struggle, and your conscience grows numb” – The way Bernthal puts it echoes my fear that midway on my life’s journey I begin to blunder off the path, being full of sleep:
Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I’ll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter
I cannot well say, being so full of sleep
Whatever moment it was I began to blunder
Off the true path.
Dante, Inferno, Canto I
The entrapment, the capture, is a slow process; you don’t presumably realise where you have started to go wrong until it’s too late. Persistence in sin makes you go spiritually blind, as Feser puts it here (Sex Part II – Aquinas on the daughters of lust), which explains a lot.
That abiding can be turned around – he that loveth, abideth in life, clearly, and this is the ‘life to the full’ that Jesus speaks of, which comes from drinking of the waters of eternal life that He gives us. Graham Ward says:
“The goal of contemplation is a mutual discerning – to know even as I am known. The knowing is a condition of being, a condition in the Johannine texts that is often described as abiding (‘meno’ – to stay, to stand, but transitively, to await, to expect.)”
The paradigmatic case in all Tolkien’s work of this abiding in death is Smaug. This dragon is possessed by what he possesses: his hoard of gold. He abides with death – a reign of pure quantity as Guenon put it – every last gold piece counted, and unable to rise from the hoard in case something goes missing. He is therefore bound to the tomb of his cave. This grasping or appropriation Tolkien uses as an analog of our epistemological appropriation, our inability to let the known be known without somehow attempting to make the known into an image of ourself, is a reverse case of that ‘knowing as we are known’ which is abiding in love. We must constantly practise renunciation in order to allow things to be as they are, not what we want them to be.
Heidegger takes the moment of death, cutting as it does across all our plans and intentions, as a spiritual opportunity, as it presents us with the possibility of absurdity and therefore invites us to live life authentically. At least, this is what I take him to be saying! Heideggerians correct me if I’m wrong! When life is lived ‘as rite not as flight’ then we are learning how to die well, which is surely the aim of a good life.
In the Silmarillion, men, when rejecting death, enter into a deeper spiritual death. They lose vibrancy and joy. The mark of being captured by evil is joylessness, lack of merriment or gaiety. How do we avoid this? Interior battle is Tolkien’s answer – look at how many battles there are in the Lord of the Rings – but most of them go on in the inner forum of conscience of the characters. We need all the spiritual weapons we can muster for these battles – waybread, the phial of galadriel, the elven rope – all of these gifts which save Frodo and Sam are sacramental or prayer related. We have been given help in the battle.
To go back to Dante, in the Inferno, the negative gravity of sin pulls him into hell – he cannot ascend the hills he has come down, and must go through hell to escape. ‘Sin creates a proclivity to sin’. In the Catholic tradition, this is why confession is so important. Herbert McCabe:
“The fire of hell is God. God is terrible and no man can look upon him and live, he is a consuming fire. To be safe in the presence of God you must yourself be sacred, you must share in God’s power and life. To have come into the presence of God without this protection is damnation. That is one picture of hell, the fundamental biblical one…
But hell is also the inability to accept death. The damned man is he who does not die in Christ, for whom death is therefore not a means of resurrection to new life. He is not able to make the act of self-sacrifice required of him. He is unable to see why he should. I picture the damned as spending their time continually justifying themselves to themselves, constantly showing how right they were and why they have no need to repent…
All the souls in hell, I think, are quite convinced that they have been damned unjustly. The analogy I find most useful is that of the child who has lost his temper and is sulking. He wants of course, to return to the affection of his friends, but he is blowed if he is going to apologize, his pride keeps him out even though he wants very much to return. Everybody is fully prepared to have him back if he will only make the gesture of returning, but this he finds himself unable to do. He cannot perform the self-abandonment required. He is unable to die.
Anyone in hell who was sorry for his sin would of course instantly be in heaven; the point of hell is that this does not happen.”