Providence and The Lord of the Rings

This article is adapted from Dr. Seeley’s Russell Kirk Paideia Prize acceptance speech at the Circe Institute Conference last July.

ProvidenceFile:El Señor de los Anillos lectura.jpg is often difficult to see, especially in the present, especially in the midst of great evils, especially for those fighting what JRR Tolkien called “the long defeat.” In similar times, Boethius needed consolation: his major complaint as he sat in prison facing death was that it seemed that the Lord who ruled the heavens and the earth did not rule in the affairs of men.

For me it has not been so difficult to believe. Even before I had faith in the Almighty, I received daily consolation of heart and imagination from The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion were for me what the Iliad and the Odyssey were for the Greeks, what the Scriptures were for the medieval monks. As a teenager, I read The Lord of the Rings continually, to the extent that I had it practically memorized. I judged my life by its characters – Would Sam and Gandalf and Aragorn be friends with me? In their eyes, I wouldn’t look so pretty, which led me to conviction, contrition, prayer, and eventually mercy. Over the years, its words and scenes have come spontaneously to my mind to help me interpret the living world around me.

I have found over the years that I am not alone, I am not the only one who could say he was saved in part by reading Tolkien. It is hard to overestimate the influence of this work on those who have spawned the Christian classical renewal. It is easy to underestimate the wisdom and the art and the thought about art contained in Tolkien’s works.

The Lord of the Rings is a song of merciful Providence. The wise in its stories are models of leaders who use all their wit to follow the guidance of Providence. Gandalf, when speaking of the crazy fact that the Ring was found by Bilbo of the Shire, told Frodo, “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the ringmaker. I can put it in no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker, in which case you were also meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.” “It is not,” said Frodo.

I have witnessed great things. Beth Sullivan and I were reminiscing about the crazy things that the Lord has accomplished through us nobodies. Ten years ago, we organized our first conference of Catholic classical schools. 72 people participated. Ten years later, over 400 will participate next week in our National Conference, with a waiting list and a large live-streaming contingent. I estimate there are over 300 schools that share similar visions of education. Greater things are to come. We have formed a network of over 50 diocesan superintendents representing a quarter of all the dioceses in the country.

I am sure many of you  have similar stories to tell! It is not easy, following Providence, though it can be exciting. How many of you have thought like Frodo: 'I am not made for perilous quests. I wish I had never seen the Ring! Why was I chosen?' 'Such questions cannot be answered,' said Gandalf. 'You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess: not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have.'

With Gandalf's help, Frodo determined that he had to leave the Shire; with Elrond's counsel he determined that he was meant to undertake the Quest to destroy the Ring. How ridiculous that a halfling should be chosen for something so important. Who was he? What did he know? He was no hero, not one of the Wise. But he accepted it, with deep reluctance:

A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. ’I will take the Ring,' he said, `though I do not know the way.' 

Thomas Aquinas CollegeHow many of us have felt this way? “Small hands do them because they must.” My wife, Lisa, and I never expected to do anything great. In Thomas Aquinas College and the community that grew up around it – faith-filled, family-centered, fun and talented – we had our Shire. Our greatest aspiration was to be boring. Great enterprises were for different folks. To try to change the downward spiral of Church and society was for the wiser and stronger. But I came to think I heard the call of the Lord, that the Church wanted me to share my experience of beautiful Catholic education. After discussion, prayer, reflection and consultation, we chose to respond, though we did not know the way.

Every trip filled me with dread; often I wondered why I was flying to this place or that. Like Frodo, I wished someone wiser and stronger would take the burden; I would have been happy to help them. But it was not without its rewards. Elrond foretold to Frodo,  “You may find friends upon your way when you least look for it.” Andrew Pudewa, Andrew Kern, Brian Phillips, Martin Cothran, Chris and Christine Perrin were among the early friends. Their generous encouragement, advice, and help at a time when ICLE was just a cell phone in my pocket were gifts from God. Companions had been prepared for me, though neither they nor I knew it – Beth, Mary Pat Donoghue (now Secretary of Education for the national Bishops Conference), Chris Weir, Colleen Richards, and more.

“Posterity shall serve Him. Men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that He has wrought it.” We must share the stories of our adventures in the Lord with the younger generation. For better or worse, we are now for them the Wise and the Great. They will live, as the Chinese curse says, “in interesting times”. Even ordinary life is requiring more and more heroism: fidelity to our Lord, raising our children well, fulfilling our duties, serving our communities. We must encourage them to maintain in the midst of this the spirit of Abraham. When God called him every few decades, Abraham always answered, “Here I am,” in our idiom, “Ready!” We must prepare them to see that difficulties, problems, oppositions, even disasters are not in themselves signs to turn back.

We must also help our children to appreciate their unique gifts asFile:Southington, Connecticut. At an early age school children learn about the meaning of the American flag (LOC).jpg Americans. It is hard to overestimate the importance of Americans for the Christian classical renewal. It is easy to underestimate the goodness found in the American regime. It is no accident that the renewal of liberal education has begun, is flourishing, and becoming ever more fruitful in America. We are particularly suited to actively undertake great things for the Lord. We are a free people – free in our laws, our institutions, our customs, our traditions, our spirit. Our heroes are those who, though small and insignificant in their origins, undertook great challenges and made great sacrifices to bring something great into the world that had never been before. Our forefathers did not want to rebel, but they cherished freedom with a manly spirit and did what they judged God called them to do: “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Our liberty is a great gift from the Lord and from them. John Adams said to us, “Posterity! you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it.” Let us never disappoint him.

 “We're in the same tale still! It's going on. Don't the great tales never end?” Sam came to this realization in the cleft of Cirith Ungol. We are in the same tale as the Psalmist, as the Church, as America, even, essentially, as Sam. It has been a great tale so far. But it is all too likely that some young ones in the future will say at this point: "Shut the book now, dad; we don't want to read any more." But I will latch on to Andrew Kern’s optimism, and hope that the end, at least for our children, will be: And they lived happily ever after till the end of their days. It is a good ending, and none the worse for having been used before.

We should always be open to the extraordinary.. Often tell God, “I am open to your will.” If you begin to suspect that God is calling you to something crazy, no need to rush. Open yourself to the idea in prayer, asking God to help you know His will. Think it through. Take counsel with those close to you, especially those who seem spiritually wise, and those who will be most affected. Pay attention to weird signs – they shouldn't lead you in the discernment, but they do confirm, or encourage you to keep discerning. Try to stay as peaceful as possible through the whole thing – agitation is often a bad sign.

Once you decide as well as you can that God is asking something of you, or you begin to want to do it yourself, trust Him that, if you begin, He will bless you and others through you. Ask Him to tell you “No” if you aren't supposed to do it. This can be difficult, because we know that difficulties, problems, oppositions are often not signs that you are supposed to drop it. Often disasters are God's way of saying, “I wanted you to attempt this, but that was to prepare you for something else.” Boethius thought his gift to the world was to translate the works of Plato and Aristotle into Latin and show how they were in fundamental agreement. A noble enterprise! But then he was imprisoned, and eventually martyred. Yet he gifted the West with his Consolation of Philosophy, which had a more profound effect. Above all, remember that in difficulties, when God's will seems completely hidden, Wait! He is always at work, and will reveal His will in time.

To you I lift up my eyes,Illuminated Psalm

    O you who are enthroned in the heavens!

2 As the eyes of servants

    look to the hand of their master,

as the eyes of a maid

    to the hand of her mistress,

so our eyes look to the Lord our God,

    until he has mercy upon us.