You speak of 'sagging faith'...
- The Letters of JRR Tolkien 337
At one point or another, we will all go through periods of spiritual darkness in our lives. You may call it depression, but I'd even go so far as to call it an "existential" bleakness, a period wherein the beliefs we have built our lives on are put to the test. How do we respond? How do we find our way out of the wilderness? We are beings made for truth and for light, not the light we see with our eyes, but a glorious spiritual light. So how can one escape these feelings?
In 1963, Tolkien wrote a letter (NKA Letter 250) to his son Michael on the subject of “sagging faith.” Michael was dealing with a certain depression concerning both the secular and the sacred worlds: he was questioning the entirety of what he was living his life for. I find this to be one of the elder Tolkien's most remarkable and revealing letters. For Tolkien himself, the key was to renew one's focus upon ultimate Truth: the person of Jesus Christ. This is important! When any of us finds ourselves in such darkness, we must ask what the root cause of that darkness is. Have we placed our hopes in the wrong things? Where do we find that rock in the weary land, the existential permanence on which we can build our lives? For Tolkien, the answer was the Catholic Faith and it's founder: Jesus Christ.
Tolkien's advice here is quite worthy of meditation. Here are three takeaways that I gleaned from this letter:
Make an Act of Faith
"In the last resort, faith is an act of the will" (337).
We often speak of "faith" as though it were simply a personal feeling. While this is part of the truth, it is actually only a small part of it. Faith in the Catholic sense actually has to do with a belief that the object of faith (God and the things He has revealed) are so certain that we are willing to build our lives upon them, even when to do so may feel a bit strange or even foolish. Faith is also an ongoing act of the will. Faith doesn't give up in the face of faithless feelings. Instead, faith renews its purpose. As Tolkien said: "The act of will of faith is not a single moment of final decision: it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act . . . which must go on" (338). It is important then that we see faith as much as a repeated action, something that we do, rather than simply a feeling in our hearts. If you're feeling depressed then ask yourself: "Is my faith (whatever it may be) well founded?"
Don't Dwell on Scandal
"The temptation to unbelief . . . is always there within us" (338).
Apparently Michael was scandalized by the behavior of some clergy and laity. Sound familiar? Everyday we are confronted with new scandals from Christian leaders and laity. However, Tolkien told Michael that it is dangerous to think too much of this because we are tempted to blame others for our own lack of faith. To do so removes our faith from its true object (Jesus Christ) and the Church that he founded with His divine guarantee. Tolkien wants us to call a spade a spade – when we are tempted to leave the Church because of the failures of others, we are really losing faith in the object of that faith in the first place, that is, Jesus Christ, who entrusted to Peter (the apostate Apostle!) the responsibility to feed His sheep. If you're feeling depressed then ask yourself: "Am I putting my faith in people or things incapable of supporting it?"
Receive the Eucharist Frequently
"The only cure for sagging of fainting faith is Communion" (338).
There is no more glorious Catholic teaching that of the Eucharist: the belief that Jesus Christ is really, fully, and truly present to us under the appearance of bread and wine. Communion is Our Lord’s most intimate personal reminder of His Love and devotion to us. It goes beyond the intimacy of spouses and is a giving of the whole person in love. Therefore, Tolkien claimed, to continually and frequently receive it is to be reminded in our innermost being that He is alive and that His promises are true. As the Psalmist proclaims, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” The Eucharist is the enfleshment of this proclamation, and is the most powerful act of faith we can make. To receive the Eucharist is to say: "Lord, I am lost, even when I think I know. Heal me from the inside out as only you can do." Tolkien recommended daily reception if possible. If you're feeling depressed, then ask yourself: "Have I considered that Jesus Christ, who made me and loves me, may be calling me to draw closer to Him?"
In the end, we should remember that the Catholic Faith, though reasonable, is not always easy, especially when we are confronted by so much that goes against God’s promises in the world. Yet we believe not in an abstract set of creeds but in the divine person of Jesus Christ, and the weapon to overcome the temptation to unbelief is therefore His real presence.
If you've never read Tolkien's Letters, I highly recommend them. You can get a copy of them here.
Want to learn more about The Silmarillion? My book Tolkien's Requiem explores the stories of Middle-earth's First Age through the prism of Tolkien's most personal tale: Beren and Lúthien. It's designed to work as a "back door" approach for those who struggle to get a start on The Silmarillion. Click here to learn more!
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