Aragorn Abandons Himself to Providence

The attack on Helm’s Deep and its fastness, The Hornburg, is relentless and eventually Saruman’s forces stand on the verge of victory and at the darkest hour Aragorn finds Théoden fretting in the prison of his fortress.

“Had I known that the strength of Isengard was grown so great, maybe I should not so rashly have ridden forth to meet it, for all the arts of Gandalf. His counsel seems not now so good as it did under the morning sun.”

But Théoden is not about to shrink into the shrivelled creature that Gandalf had found in Meduseld just a few short days before. The work that Gandalf did in liberating him from Wormtongue’s grip has been too thorough and Théoden resolves to make a final charge upon his enemies and calls upon Aragorn to join him.

“Maybe we shall cleave a road, or make such an end as will be worth a song- if any be left to sing of us hereafter.”

And Aragorn resolves to ride with him.

Ever since Gandalf returned to Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in the Forest of Fangorn, Aragorn the man of doubt has become the man of resolve. For in that moment Aragorn chose to follow Gandalf, the man who has passed even through death itself, without reserve. https://stephencwinter.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/you-are-our-captain/

This was not always the case. In the early stages of their journey Aragorn and Gandalf debated about the wisest road for the company to take. Gandalf wished to take them through Moria and eventually they went that way though against the counsel of Aragorn. And when Gandalf fell in battle against the Balrog it seemed that Aragorn was right. But being right did not give him confidence and thereafter he was wracked by doubt at every step. His decision after the death of Boromir and the capture of Merry and Pippin at The Falls of Rauros to follow the young hobbits was one taken without hope. Aragorn was sure that he and his friends were likely to die in the forest and he abandoned his dream of claiming the throne of Gondor and Arnor and with that the hand of Arwen. But when Gandalf returns Aragorn no longer fears anything, not even death itself. He is sure even in the darkest moment at Helm’s Deep that Gandalf will keep his promise to return to them but that certainty does not prompt him to hide in The Hornburg. He will honour Théoden’s courage in choosing to attack his foes.

In essence from the moment of reunion in Fangorn Aragorn abandons himself to Providence. Such an abandonment is not to some blind unfeeling fate. To be abandoned to Providence is a commitment to the Supremacy of the Good and is wonderfully liberating and energising.

The Thirteenth Century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote: “When you have emptied yourself of your own self and all things and of every sort of selfishness, and have transferred, united and abandoned yourself to God in perfect faith and complete amity then everything that is born in you, external or internal, joyful or sorrowful, sour or sweet, is no longer your own at all, but is altogether your God’s to whom you have abandoned yourself.”

So it was that Eckhart could say, “I never ask God to give himself to me: I beg him to purify, to empty me. If I am empty, God of his very nature is obliged to give himself to me.” Aragorn never asked to be emptied but this is what has happened to him and even though Tolkien never names God explicitly in The Lord of the Rings Aragorn receives a glory in the moment of his final abandonment that will sustain him through all the days that lie ahead.

The Dark Lord is Afraid of the Dark

Last week I tweeted the link to my Blog “The Darkness Shall be the Light” and then became anxious. What if people should think that I was a supporter of Sauron, the Dark Lord himself? Surely this would be the kind of slogan that either he or his lord, Morgoth, might use? And so I rapidly typed in the words, “And I don’t mean Sauron!” into my Tweet. But after sending it I began to think. Why should I not mean Sauron? For Sauron would try to twist anything to his own purpose, even light itself. Readers of this Blog will know that I have thought of Morgoth’s hunger for light, a story that Tolkien told in The Silmarillion, on a number of occasions. Tolkien tells how Morgoth destroyed the Trees of Light with the aid of the monstrous spider like creature, Ungoliant, and later how he stole the Silmarils, jewels made by Feanor that captured the light of the Trees, and placed them in his iron crown even though they caused him torment. Thus the relationship between Morgoth and his followers, Sauron foremost among them, is ambiguous and contradictory from the start. And how could it be otherwise? For Morgoth and Sauron desire that which will expose them and leave them vulnerable and will also remind them for ever of the blessed state that they have rejected in favour of their own desire for power over others.

And there is one thing more that struck me as I considered this. Sauron fears the very thing that he uses as a weapon against others. He does not delight in the dark as I might delight in a scene of great beauty like the view from a hill top. He can only use something. He cannot delight in it. For delight is the enjoyment of something or someone for their own sake. I do not seek to own the view that lies before me and even if I did I do not think that it could give me more pleasure than it does. Sauron can never think like this. He is only capable of thinking in terms of usefulness and especially in terms of how he can use something in order to gain more power over others. Long experience has taught him that he can use darkness as an instrument of fear, that by cloaking himself he can suggest to others that his power is greater than it truly is. He seeks to blot out the light of the sun in order to weaken the resolve of those who would resist him and yet he knows that should he fail what awaits him is endless night and he fears that above all. Sauron, the Dark Lord, is afraid of the dark, he is afraid of death.

And this makes him different from the members of the Fellowship of the Ring. They too fear the dark and yet they love the light more and for the sake of the light they will journey down dark roads, facing their own fear and overcoming it. It is because of the dark journeys that they themselves have taken that Gandalf and Aragorn are able to bring Théoden out of his dark places into the light and then onwards into battle with little hope first against Saruman and then the Dark Lord himself. They teach Théoden that beyond all nights there is a dawn and that at the ending of this world of shadows there is the True Dawn.

Near my home there is a woodland with two streams running through it that join at its heart. Last year in the dark months I did not venture into it except in the daylight. This year I have decided to make a daily journey in it to the point where the streams join a spiritual exercise. I want to make my own dark journey through the woods. It is only a journey of a couple of hundred yards but each day I leave the known way of the path that runs past the woods and step into them into sudden and deeper dark. I realise that I am reliant on my memory of familiar points along my way and also the feel of the ground beneath my feet. There is a narrow path through the woods though it is not distinct enough for me to be able to see it, even at my feet. I rely on making out the difference between feel of the trodden down ground of the path and the softer ground that lies to either side of it beneath my boots. At present I am concentrating on the physical experience. How it feels not to be able to see, the moments of anxiety when I miss my way, and the excitement and relief when I meet the joining of the streams or clasp a great beech tree that tells me that I am near the end of my own dark journey. Eventually I would like to develop a form of prayer that will make the experience more consciously my own and help me to open my self to whatever gifts this place and the walk through it at this dark time of the year might be awaiting me. Most of all I seek the dawn that come only through journeying through the dark of the night. Maybe I will meet and overcome the monsters in my own psyche. Maybe I will journey through my own sense of loss and the death of my hopes as Aragorn does.

Gandalf’s Dark Journey

Already we have seen signs that Gandalf is not what he was before Moria. He is no longer Gandalf the Grey but the White and he describes himself as being what Saruman should have been. There is a potency in him that Aragorn and his companions have not seen before so that when Aragorn names him, Captain, it is a recognition of that potency. It is a recognition too of a turning of the tide. The brave but seemingly hopeless pursuit of the young hobbits and their captors is at an end and now there is a call to war.

And this moment of transformation comes for them all after a dark journey. For Aragorn it comes after doubt and then a commitment to a hopeless task. For Gandalf it comes after his mighty battle against the Balrog in Moria, a battle described in the language of myth, a struggle of super beings, of warfare in heaven where Michael the Archangel does battle with Satan and casts him out down to the earth. It is a battle that takes Gandalf to unimaginable depths and heights and eventually it costs him his life.

“Then darkness took me, and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell…Naked I was sent back- for a brief time, until my task is done.”

The great spiritual traditions all know the dark journey. The long sojourn of the children of Israel in the wilderness and the captivity in Babylon; Jesus in the wilderness, fasting forty days and nights, surrounded by wild beasts and tempted by the devil; St Anthony in the desert doing battle with the demons and the spiritual tradition of the monastary that was inspired by his example; the Dark Night of the Soul of St John of the Cross in which all consolation is taken away so that the soul learns at last to cleave to God without consolation. And if we listen to the wisdom that the great traditions have to teach us then our own journeys through the dark can be journeys not of loss but of transformation.

I suspect that it has never been easy for us to be able to embrace the dark journey. If it were easy then why is the journey so often described in the language of elemental struggle? It is striking that so much literature written for children lives with this language quite comfortably and that so much so called “adult” literature shies away from it. Even in the world of contemporary spiritual literature the really popular titles are of books that promise “success” and the overcoming of our inner demons. The language that we are most comfortable with is that of ascent. This is not surprising. Our fear is that when we descend into the abyss it may be without a bottom and there may be no way out of it. When William Shannon first wrote his excellent biography of the 20th century American monk, Thomas Merton, he entitled it, “Thomas Merton’s Dark Journey.” When I bought my copy a few years later the title had become “Thomas Merton’s Paradise Journey.” I did not mind too much. The content was the same and I knew that the Dark Journey and the Paradise Journey are one and the same thing for those prepared to travel on them but I suspect that the publishers may have felt that the second title may have been easier to sell than the first.

The Lord of the Rings is a dark journey and Tolkien employs the language of myth to take us on it. Wisely he does not try to preach to us but I suspect that much of its popularity is because as we read it we are taken on this journey at a level below our consciousness. This will have done more good than any can tell. Deeds done in the unseen world can never be measured. But it is possible to allow this great myth to teach us to embrace our own dark journeys and to find the courage to endure them and the hope that we will at last find transformation just as Gandalf and Aragorn do.

Living a Life that is Too Big for Us

It was a year ago, after trying to write a book about The Lord of the Rings for the best part of a couple of years and basically getting nowhere, that I discovered that although I did not seem capable of writing a thousand words a day and constructing whole chapters I could write 500-700 words each week and post it as a Blog. This isn’t a boast on my part but I seem to be able to construct what would be a weekly column if I were writing for a newspaper. And so that is what I have been doing ever since that time. I have been journeying with Frodo Baggins and his companions all the way from Bilbo Baggins’s Birthday Party till Merry and Pippin’s encounter with Treebeard in the Forest of Fangorn after their escape from the Orcs and as I have done so I have written a weekly reflection on each section that I have read. I have not tried to be scholarly. I am just someone who has been reading this great work since being introduced to it by my schoolmate, Jon Flint, when I was about 14 or 15 years old. That is over forty years now and I feel that I have something to say about a book that I have loved ever since that time. I share J.R.R Tolkien’s Christian faith although not his Roman Catholicism. Like Tolkien’s great friend and collaborator, C.S Lewis, I am an Anglican.

Reading The Lord of the Rings slowly and thoughtfully has been a rich experience and I hope that I have managed to convey some of that in my weekly blogs. I have been especially caught up with the hobbits who find themselves in a story that is too big for them. And although they grow with the story they can never become heroic figures like Aragorn or Boromir. All they can do is to offer what they can the best they can. There are some in the story who have great discernment and see this offer as a deed of great worth. Faramir of Gondor is one and so is Treebeard of Fangorn who allows Merry and Pippin to lead him into an adventure that is likely to end with the destruction of the Ents. Come to think of it, both of them allow themselves to be carried into stories too big for them as well.

If there is a Christmas message in this (and I hope you won’t mind me for looking for one at this season) then it is the idea of a God who chooses to come among us and to commit himself to the same experience that we know, living a life that is too big for us and yet doing it with faithfulness, joy and love.

If you want to look at any of my earlier blogs from December 2012 to October 2013 you will find a complete archive on my website http://www.stephenwinter.net/page6.htm and whatever you do over the Feast of the Nativity may you do it with joy and delight.