Throughout history humanity has experienced periods of suffering and loss. Suffering often causes people to question previously held beliefs—even belief in God. Why does God allow pain and torment? How can He be good if disease, war, and domestic violence exist? If you are asking these questions don’t think you’re alone. I’ve wondered these things before (especially in the days and months after losing babies to miscarriage).
Suffering Unites Humanity
Suffering is humanity’s common denominator. It’s inescapable. And it comes in many different forms. Financial. Mental. Emotional. Physical. Spiritual. You’ve likely suffered multiple different ways the past year. The Covid-19 pandemic caught many people off-guard and upended (and eneded) countless people’s lives. I contracted the coronavirus in late April 2020 and it was a miserable experience. Prayers helped sustain me during the lowest points.
Some of the unexpected blessings from my experience was getting to know other Catholics online and developing regular correspondence. Another fruit has been people emailing me opportunities to review books related to the suffering that occurs during pandemics.
The Saint of Suffering
Our hope is in the Lord. How often have you heard this? My mom has told me this over and over. And I read about this message in the writings of the saints. One of the best spiritual role models from the last century is Saint Padre Pio.
The book The Pandemic of Padre Pio: Disciple of Our Lady of Sorrows by Stefano Campanella and translated by Bret Thoman is a timely read for our current suffering.
Divided into two sections this book focuses on Padre Pio’s experience of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Campanella tells of the saint’s experience using several letters he wrote. He accepted the suffering from contracting the virus as a way to save souls and bodies by offering his pain to God.
Padre Pio’s Marian Devotion
While the first part of the book provided more historical context, the second half gave a glimpse into Padre Pio’s spiritual life. Campanella wrote, “The maternal presence of Mary was constant, visible, and concrete in the life of Padre Pio” (page 57). The Capuchin priest had mystical experiences often (he received the gift of the stigmata too!). One of my favorite parts of the book is this quote below:
I feel everything burning without fire; I feel tight and tied to the Son through this Mother without even seeing the chains that hold me so tightly; a thousand flames consume me; I feel as if I am dying continuously, and yet I still live (page 60).
The fiery imagery to describe his connection to Christ reminded me of Saint Catherine of Siena’s description of God’s love as a “furnace of Divine Love”. She too was gifted with stigmata.
I highly recommend The Pandemic of Padre Pio. At only 83 pages you could complete this book in one sitting or digest his wisdom little by little. Reading about his direct experience with a pandemic was both informative and comforting. My only regret is that I didn’t discover this book earlier in the Covid-19 pandemic. Padre Pio will gave you spiritual insights on how to deal with pain and found joy in carrying your cross. Get your own copy of The Pandemic of Padre Pio: Disciple of Our Lady of Sorrows today!
P.S. Special thanks to translator Bret Thoman for reaching out to me about writing a review on this book.
In high school, I checked out Tolkien’s TheHobbit from the municipal library for the first time. I was a chapter or two into the book before I abandoned the work. “This is incredibly long-winded and includes boring descriptions. How could anyone consider this a classic of literature?!” I thought.
Five years and a master’s degree in theology later, I purchased a gold-leafed leather copy of The Hobbit at a local used book store. Perhaps I matured in my taste and knowledge of good writing. Or maybe God provided me the ability to make it through the verbose explanations of hobbits and their dietary preferences. Since my unexpected return back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, I developed a hunger for Middle Earth and his other literary works.
Being a cradle Catholic myself, I am actually a bit embarrassed to admit that I did not realize until recently that Tolkien was a devout Catholic. He evencalled his masterpiece “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.” Whenever I read his writings, whether it be tales about hobbits or Middle Earth in general, Farmer Giles, or my personal favorite Leaf by Niggle, nostalgia for a deeper reality and a sense of wonder invades my heart, mind, and soul.
Tolkien’s Impact on Faith
Aside from the writings of spiritual greats like Saints John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, and John Paul II, to name a few, no other writer has impacted my life as much as J.R.R. Tolkien. He inspires me to yearn for joy and realize that this life is a journey for the next. I would like to argue the case of the canonization of the great 20th century English writer using examples from both his writings and my personal life to demonstrate his impact on our pilgrim journey towards Heaven.
The canonization process is quite lengthy. After five years have passed since a person died, the Bishop of the Diocese upon which the individual passed away would need to petition the Holy See of Rome to start a Cause for Beatification and Canonization. This examination of the individual’s life is rigorous. Any miracles that are attributed to them are further scrutinized. Further information about this process may be found at the link at the end of this article.
Tolkien’s Strong Marian Devotion
Besides the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the communion of saints provide me the most consolation during times of despair. They testify to the truth safeguarded in the Catholic Church. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The term ‘communion of saints’ refers also to the communion of “holy persons” (sancti) in Christ who “died for all,” so that what each one does or suffers in and for Christ bears fruit for all” (961). J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings helped further my understanding of the Catholic faith and promoted teaching truth for all!
Cure for Despair—Love of the Eucharist
As imaginative and impressionistic, Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth is what stood out first for me is his thoughts about the Most Holy Sacrament. He said the following about the Eucharist:
Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste—or foretaste—of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires (Letters of Tolkien, no. 43 pp. 53-54).
Food for the Journey
The Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 1324 refers to the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Tolkien held this belief as well. “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion,” he wrote. The Eucharist was a fixture in his life. Tolkien created a literary equivalent to the Bread of Life in his Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Elven bread known as lembas, provided nourishment for travelers. Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee ate this food during their arduous journey to Mount Mordor to destroy the One Ring.
Fellowship Never Fails
Along with Tolkien’s profound love for the Eucharist and his implicit references to the Holy Communion in the Lord of the Rings, his focus on the importance of camaraderie—especially in suffering—is a Catholic tradition that he teaches believers and nonbelievers through his literature.
While Frodo bears the burden of carrying the One Ring, he did not lack help. In The Fellowship of the Ring the wizard Gandalf puts together a motley crew of four hobbits, two of the race of men, a dwarf, and an elf to sojourn across Middle Earth to destroy the Ring. At the end of the first part of the trilogy all hope appears lost when the fellowship is fractured leaving Frodo alone save for his friend and fellow hobbit—Samwise.
In the third book The Return of the King, weariness weighs down on Frodo more as he ascends Mount Doom in his attempt to destroy Sauron’s Ring. Listen to the hero’s lament when the evilness of the ring tempts him:
Frodo: I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark. There’s nothing–no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes.
Sam: Then let us be rid of it, once and for all. I can’t carry the ring for you, but I can carry you! Come on!
Helping others shoulder their cross is the hallmark of Christianity. Cooperation in suffering pervades the history of Christianity. From Simon the Cyrene helping Jesus bear the weight of the cross up Calvary, to the modern day saints like Saints John Paul II and Maximilian Kolbe offering their suffering and death to alleviate the suffering of their fellow mankind, we are all called to a Catholic [a universal] camaraderie. J.R.R. Tolkien also reminds readers of this universal truth!
Teacher of Truth
A third reason why I believe J.R.R. Tolkien should be canonized as a saint is due to his ability to instruct without resorting to sounding preachy or judgmental. His short story Leaf by Niggle is instructive. It contains truths about the importance of our pilgrim journey on earth, purgatory, and loving your neighbor as yourself.
The main reason I enjoy Leaf by Niggle is due to the clear catholicity contained within the characters, plot, and symbols. Niggle represents everyman—humanity as an individual and as a collective. When I looked up the word “niggle” in a thesaurus, I learned that the name has synonyms which included: annoy, bother, discomfort, and anxiety. According to Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church),
“On earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land, tracing in trial and in oppression the paths He trod, we are made one with His sufferings like the body is one with the Head, suffering with Him, that with Him we may be glorified” (7)
Niggle also suffered various disturbances of his artwork while he was on a pilgrim journey.
Plan for the Journey (Beyond)
Tolkien’s The Hobbit also teaches us the importance of preparation. An unexpected responsibility of helping a group of dwarves upended Bilbo Baggins’ cozy life. So too living the Gospel sometimes shakes up our “perfect little world”.
While I fear the unknown, I gained a sense of peace and joy as I read the writings of Tolkien. I have also discovered during my interactions with fellow LOTR fans [friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and even strangers] that a true sense of unity occurs. I can’t quite explain it but I always leave a conversation about Middle Earth with a joyful twinkle in my eyes. Any of his works have this effect in me. In fact, I leave with a more compassionate heart towards others in general. He possessed an ability to unite divergent people through literature and the world. This quality hints at his overall holiness and love of humanity.
Patron Saint of Fantasy Stories?
J.R.R. Tolkien’s name has become a token (no pun intended) reference for everything related to fantasy and epic-storytelling. The more well-known Catholic saints include priests, bishops, martyrs, nuns, or theologians. However, the Holy Spirit does work in mysterious ways above man’s total comprehensive nature. Is it possible that God has used the fantasy world created by Tolkien to further belief in Jesus Christ?
According to St. Catherine of Sienna, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.” Tolkien certainly followed his natural (and supernatural) gifts. As a storyteller, he brought the world an unexpected set of characters that gained universal appeal. I pray for the opportunity to see the canonization of J.R.R. Tolkien in my lifetime. His writings have deepened my Catholic faith and love for humanity and God!