Fairies and St. Michael

Last week, the world celebrated the 80th anniversary of the publication of a small, little book, whose trilogian successors C. S. Lewis said were ” like lightning from a clear sky; as sharply different, as unpredictable in our age as Songs of Innocence were in theirs” (“Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” from In This and Other Worlds, p 112; just to clarify for some readers – since Google will lead you astray – this Songs of Innocence, not that one).

Lewis goes on: “To say that in it heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed, has suddenly returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism is inadequate.” This is related, I think, to an encounter a friend described for me between his father and a teenaged young woman at his church. My friend’s father helped with youth events at his local church and the young woman obviously trusted him enough, because she confided in him her uncertainty about God. “I’m just not sure if I believe anymore,” she admitted. “If I wanted to try and believe, where should I start?” This man, being wise, said to her: “Well, you have to believe in magic.”

This man spoke as one who had lived in Middle Earth, who had tried to sneak into Narnia after the pathway had closed, who regularly took the bus to the place of fierce light and where the grass was not like razors on his feet, but rather warm, and soft, rippling in the breeze.

There are different forms of romanticism, to be sure, whether in their literary or liturgical varieties. As an Anglican looking in at the Catholic world, it never ceases to strike me just how different our contexts were in some ways. Having had the vernacular for so long before the liturgical movement, the implications of its principles in that sphere could not help but be different than in the Catholic world. One of the implications of this is that the romanticism that characterizes some desires (though I don’t think it’s fair to say all desires) for the preconciliar liturgical forms doesn’t have an exact parallel in my ecclesial home. Maybe a closer parallel is the push and pull of so-called Rite I (Elizabethan hieratic language) and Rite II (more contemporary vocabulary syntax without “thee” and “ye” and the relative pronoun).

But this is not the romanticism of Lewis and Tolkien. Rather, they are thinking much more deeply, more broadly. They are thinking about the basic acknowledgement that the universe is made up of more than we can see. It includes the belief that God is the source of not only what we can see, but also of what is unseen. It includes a belief that, as we prayed today on the feast of St. Michael and all the Angels, God has “ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and mortals in a wonderful order” (Book of Common Prayer, p 193). It means that the world is quite literally as Hopkins said, “charged with the grandeur of God.”

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

A Frederick Bauerschmidt noted in a comment elsewhere on the blog this week, there was an unfortunate tendency in the construction of some twentieth-century liturgical language: “I actually think one of the weakness of the reformed Roman liturgy is that it has been so streamline and “rationalized” that one can get the impression that one is supposed to be intently focused on whatever is being done/said at any given moment.” The language of Hopkins, or the difference between the “Paleolithic Te Deum” (“You God…we praise”) and the Anglican prayer book’s more melodious, “We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord,” is a difference that matters. For the generations who will trod, and trod, and trod with a phone as their new appendage, curved in on themselves a la Augustine’s marvelous image and unable to look out and actually see a tree or a bird or light shimmering on a lake, they are at a profound disadvantage. The very possibility of gods, and angels, of real, communicating symbols, of a love that will not let me go–such possibilities may recede into the distance.

There is no reason than our vocabulary, syntax, and poetry of our speech to God should not somehow reflect the self-same object of our love: the beautiful one, lifted up on the tree of Glory, stretching out his loving arms.

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