Frodo’s Last Lesson

Frodo failed.

If you’re a reader of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (or just a movie-goer), then you know that the central, heroic character, the young Mr. Frodo, ring-bearer, fails to throw the Ring into the fires of Mt. Doom at the end of his arduous journey. Everything he loved, his home, his friends, every scrap of goodness, depended on the Ring being tossed into those fires, and, when it came down to it, he was unable to let it go. Fortunately for Middle Earth, the wraith-like, pitiable creature, Gollum, bit Frodo’s finger off in order to have the Ring again for his own, and accidentally slipped and fell into the fires, saving Middle Earth in the bargain. All of that drama resolved by an accident?

It is genius.

Tolkien was not writing an allegory. Things in his story do not stand for something else. Nevertheless, Tolkien’s Catholic Christianity is woven throughout Middle Earth. Tolkien believed that in Jesus Christ, all “myth” was fulfilled. The Story that every story longed to be true and anticipated in some vague sense, was incarnate and made true in the God/Man, Jesus Christ, and His death and resurrection. Middle Earth, were it to have any element of truth at all within it, were it to somehow ring true in the hearts of its readers, could not ignore the larger Story, the Great Story. Nor can we.

It has been something of a commonplace in the past number of years for writers to draw lessons, or parallels, from Tolkien’s work and the Christian story. One of my favorites is The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle Earth, by Ralph Wood, who taught at Baylor for many years and who has become a friend over the past decade or so. I frequently marvel at the insight in Tolkien’s charming tale and find my mind drifting to it as I think through various aspects of the Christian journey.

Frodo’s failure at the last moment is deeply interesting. Frequently, in our imagining of the Christian journey, the notion of failure at the last moment is appalling. We think to ourselves that a life-time of struggle can be undone in a single moment. It is, I think, a terrible caricature and diminishment of the mercy and grace of God. Our culture champions the notion of free-will and the power of choosing – as if those magical words somehow captured the whole of who we are.

Frodo’s failure is an excellent foil to this fantasy. He agreed to be the “Ring-bearer.” Through terrible sufferings and hardship, he sludges his way towards Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom. Even then, without the assistance of his friend, Sam Gamgee, he would have failed. He manages, against all odds, to stand at the very Crack of Doom, hovering over the fire. It is there that he is overpowered by the Ring itself and the malevolent will that owns it. Frodo did not “choose evil” – he was “defeated” by it. There is a world of difference.

The most astounding aspect of Frodo’s tale is the simple fact that, when all was said and done, he was standing where he was supposed to be. He had not quit.

When we proclaim, as Christians, that we are “saved by faith,” we all too easily mistake this for a proclamation about what we “think.” The simple fact is that, from day to day, what we “think” about God might waver, some days bordering or even lapsing into unbelief. The same can be said of a marriage. We love our spouse, though there might well be days that we wish we weren’t married. Faith (and love) are not words that indicate perfection or the lack of failure. “Faith,” in the Biblical sense, is perhaps better translated as “faithfulness.” Much the same can be said of love within a marriage. In both cases, it matters that we do not quit.

We cannot predict the future. The classical Western wedding vows acknowledge, “for better or worse, for richer for poorer, , in sickness and in health…” That is an honest take on life. The same is true of our life in Christ.

Modernity has nurtured the myth of progress. Whether we’re thinking of technology, our emotional well-being, or the spiritual life, we presume that general improvement is a sign of normalcy and that all things are doing well. This is odd, given the fact that aging inherently carries with it the gradual decline of health. Life is not a technological feat. It is unpredictable and surrounded by dangers – nothing about this has changed over the course of human history.

I have been an active, practicing Christian since around age 15. I have been in ordained ministry for over 43 years. Over that time, I have seen a host of Christians come and go. When I preside at the funeral of a believer (which I have done hundreds of times), I am always struck by the simple fact of completion. “I have finished the race,” St. Paul said. (2Tim. 4:7) That is no mean feat.

The most striking feature of the Twelve Apostles is their steadfastness. The gospels are filled with reminders that they frequently misunderstood Christ. They argued with Him. They tried to dissuade Him from His most important work. They complained. They jockeyed with each other for preferment and attention. Peter denied Him. Only Judas despaired. Of the others, all but one died as martyrs.

In Frodo’s tale, the final victory accomplished by the destruction of the Ring, came about both by his long struggles, but ultimately by a hand unseen throughout the novels that seemed to be at work despite the plots of Sauron. In the Scriptures we are told:

Now Moses built an altar and called its name The-Lord-My-Refuge; for with a secret hand the Lord wars with Amalek from generation to generation. (Exodus 17:16 LXX)

The hand of God is often “secret,” unseen both by us and by those who oppose us. The mystery of the Cross is easily the most prominent example of God’s secret hand. St. Paul said that the demonic powers had no idea that the Cross would accomplish their defeat. (1Cor. 2:7-8)

That same hand is at work in the life of every believer. Though we stumble, He remains faithful. We cling to Christ.

There is a Eucharistic promise that seems important here:

He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. (Jn. 6:56)

Abide with Him. His secret hand will bear us up.

Photo by Toby Elliott on Unsplash

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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51 responses to “Frodo’s Last Lesson”

  1. Stephen H Taylor Avatar

    Thank you! Excellent once again – and the deepness of it all is the joy and fellowship of the Journey!

  2. Eleftheria Avatar
    Eleftheria

    You brought tears to my eyes today, Fr.!
    A blessed Dormition Fast to you.

    In Christ,
    Eleftheria

  3. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    I think you have an extra “both” in the 4th paragraph from the end, Father.

    The hand of God is often “secret,” unseen both by us and both those who oppose us.

    A wonderful entry. It is hard to focus on “faithfulness”, given my lack of it. But that just shows my focus is on me, not on Him and His faithfulness.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Byron,
    Thanks for the head’s up!

  5. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    It has occurred to me when discussing the LOTR with my wife and others that anyone that made it that far would have been unable to toss the ring into the fire. It is odd to think that the corruption of Gollum and the weakness of Frodo is what saved middle earth and is ultimately the work of an invisible hand…but that sounds about right. Valor at the gates of Mt. Doom in the face of overwhelming odds had its place. Weakness in the pit of Mt. Doom had its place as well. This rhymes with the ideas in the Silmarillion where the song of Eru Iluvatar incorporates the discord of Melkor and it resolves itself into a symphony of beauty greater than what would have been otherwise. Then there is this quote by Gandalf “It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy!”

    This is pure wisdom: “The Story that every story longed to be true and anticipated in some vague sense, was incarnate and made true in the God/Man, Jesus Christ, and His death and resurrection.” The story of Christ is the story I long to be true. It really is. There is something about the phrase “The Story that every story longed to be true” that speaks to the human condition. I think it is language to which the analytical mind can submit: “This is the story I long to be true.”

  6. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Wow!! Thank you Fr. Stephen!

  7. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    Thank you for this reflection Father. I’ve been struggling under the weight of my own failures and inadequacies of late. I have a calendar reminder that pops up every Monday morning at 8am with a quote I cling to from Elder Arsenie Papacioc of Romania:

    “Don’t give up! No matter how little you are, no matter how tired, you mustn’t give up. For, I repeat, no misfortune means anything. Nothing is lost as long as faith is established, the soul doesn’t surrender, and you raise you head again! God forbid that you be sad! Don’t be afraid!”

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Andrew,
    Wonderful quote!

  9. Susan Hancock Avatar

    Beautiful. This is one of the loveliest things I have read.

  10. Bonnie Ivey Avatar
    Bonnie Ivey

    There was an interview on TV featuring the story of a young Ukrainian soldier. He showed the cameraman his pack, and pulled out a copy of the Lord of the Rings. He stated that this book is carried by many of his comrades as well,. He said, ( I am paraphrasing) that the story seems to have been written for just such a time as this; that underneath the chaos, the senseless waste, there is a purpose, there is truth and goodness that must be fought for.

  11. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Could our failure–our utterly undeniable and absolute failure–serve the for the salvation of all? Yes.

  12. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    Thank you Father for another powerful post. The previous one, with the distinction between “literal” and “real”, especially with regards to the Eucarist, healed a part of me that thought I had to commit intellectual suicide. This post ignited hope in this perfectionist. I’m grateful for this community.

  13. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    “It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy!”
    Brilliant. A stumbling block to some, foolishness to yet others.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Question: Does not the Scripture-like quality and tone of The Simarillion tend to demean reading and contemplating of Holy Scripture???

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    I have no idea. I’ve never read the Simarillion. I first read TLOTR back in the 60’s when I was in high school. An aunt gave it to me for Christmas (she was a college professor). I didn’t know anyone else who had read it until I was in college (more or less). I enjoyed it, and have read it maybe twice since. But I’m not nearly as wrapped up in it as some. I think it was/is a significant piece of literature (TLOTR). The Silmarillion was never published or even finished by Tolkein himself – his step-son did that work. I think it’s a curiosity and little more.

    I have great respect for Tolkien’s creative work – as well as that of Lewis (though it in no way compares to Tolkien’s literary achievement). I studied their work on the topic of myth – primarily as they reflected on the work and conversations of Owen Barfield (I did my senior thesis on some of Barfield’s thought when I was in an Anglican seminary). The theory of “myth” and its relationship with the evolution of language was what intrigued me. It has many applications in culture.

    As to reading Scripture – I can’t think of anything that I would ever read in the manner that I read the Scriptures. The Scriptures are “God-breathed.”

  16. Lynda O Avatar
    Lynda O

    Thank you Father, again — yes a great post on Lord of the Rings.

    I was reading (again) through “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien” a few months ago, and considering what he said about Frodo’s failure, much of it very similar in thought to this post. One interesting point that Tolkien brought up: what happened at the end (Gollum taking the ring and accidentally falling in), was (the story plot working out) an answer to the Lord’s prayer, the petition “lead us not into temptation.” He felt that such a petition implies the possibility of falling into a temptation so strong, beyond our physical and mental ability to endure — and he likened Frodo to individuals such as those in the 20th century (i.e., the horrors of WWII and Stalin’s Russia) coming from prisons, who had been broken by extreme torture and brainwashing to the point of insanity or praising their torturers. The answer to this petition (lead us not into temptation) was answered in Middle Earth, in God’s mercy — mercy that involved consideration of Frodo’s past actions of showing great mercy to Gollum, which of course was used to keep Gollum alive for so long and to bring all of the players to the top of Mount Doom. (He wrote about this in a few letters, such as #191.)

    Great thoughts again, including about God’s Providence, and God’s secret hand.

  17. Mark J Kelly Avatar
    Mark J Kelly

    Powerful. I have long wondered about the “Redemption of Frodo.” In some sense, he is the perfect convert, truly humbled by the Grace that wrought so great a work. He seems to no longer walk in the same Middle Earth. Like Galadriel, he will diminish and go into the West and remain Frodo.

    Frodo’s Last Lesson is perhaps comparable to Fr. Louis (Thomas) Merton’s “Last Lesson” in “The Seven Story Mountain.” Frodo truly appears to have encountered “The Christ of the Burnt Men,”

    You can read of the Christ of the Burnt Men below and compare it to Frodo, and hopefully ourselves. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/296252-i-hear-you-saying-to-me-i-will-give-you

  18. juliania Avatar
    juliania

    I think what troubles me about the Lord of the Rings (and I was in college when I first read and loved the tale) is that although it does have female characters beautifully drawn, I find it to come short of the Christian story with respect to the place of the Theotokos as given in the Gospels. I hadn’t thought of this before, but even in the final chapter of John’s Gospel, she is present in John’s having been accorded sonship with her, so perhaps his ‘stepping back and following’ at the last has to do with his having taken her to his own home. And of course, John’s entire Gospel can be recognized as infused with her presence there as well. (I think Dostoievski recognized this in his novels.)

    But that’s a small quibble, and I am delighted to have been able to glimpse that (also very small) distinction, thanks to this subject! I hadn’t expected it when I began to type. It’s something hidden, was hidden for me before. It’s a while since I read the Tolkien books, though, so I could be completely wrong, will be happy to be corrected.

  19. Gregory Avatar
    Gregory

    I love the scene in the film of TLOTR towards the end of the mission at Mount Doom when Frodo says to Sam Gangee, “I’m going on alone, Sam”, to which the faithful Sam responds, “Of course you are, Mr. Frodo – and I’m going with you!” That in turn puts me in mind of that lovely tale, ‘Footprints In The Sand’, where at one point there is only one set of footprints in the sand rather than two, the wayfarer believing they are his alone, but in fact they are those of Christ who carries him (and us) through the most difficult moments of our lives.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Juliana,
    It’s important to remember that Tolkien’s story is not the gospel – though it’s possible to see Christian themes in it. And though every story may have beauty, there’s a beauty (as in the Theotokos) in the true story, the Great Story, that is found nowhere else.

    Some of my LOTR friends tell me that the Lady Galadriel has certain hints of the Theotokos about her. But I have no feel for that. Indeed, I think it’s wrong to push all of it too far. It’s a story, not an allegory.

    What I see in Tolkien is a Christian brother – of a brilliant mind with interesting insights. Like Lewis, he has been on the front lines of WWI and saw terrible things. That he retained his faith – deepened it, indeed – is its own marvelous deed. Many did not. The folks of the Second World War have been dubbed, “The Greatest Generation.” The folks of World War One were called the “Lost Generation.”

    May God save us all. May His mother pray for us.

  21. Coleen Frazer-Hambrick Avatar
    Coleen Frazer-Hambrick

    Thank you for a great article.
    It was quite an encouragement for me. In the end, “the Secret Hand” helped Frodo accomplish his impossible quest.
    That “Secret Hand” used an unlikely tool that had absolutely no plans to destroy the ring.
    And even though The Lord of the Rings was not an allegory, it and your article reminds me that Almighty will make sure His will is done, often using unlikely tools.
    Thank you for this fresh and new thought.

  22. christa-maria Dolejsi Avatar
    christa-maria Dolejsi

    This brought smiles and a lot of happiness…gratefulness.
    Thanks be to God!
    And Andrew, That quote is going with me too ! it’s so easy to forget the real, the true….and sink in that mud! Happy tears and love for all.

  23. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Tolkien believed that in Jesus Christ, all “myth” was fulfilled. The Story that every story longed to be true and anticipated in some vague sense, was incarnate and made true in the God/Man, Jesus Christ, and His death and resurrection.

    I have been thinking about this since I read it, and it fascinates me, because I think all the time about stories. It might sound like a strange idea to many, but I am a fan of film noir and I do see the Christ story in especially the better films. Sometimes even if it’s a cautionary tale. It’s just that there might be various elements of Christ’s story in them, and not everything. But I keep thinking about this and find it so. I might venture to say that the things that Hollywood churns out that are unappealing to people flop because they don’t have elements of this true story in them. I will have to keep thinking about this.

  24. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Juliana, thanks for your note about Mary and John. I have long thought there are hints of this relationship there, insights even into the humanity of Christ that come from the personality of His mother. After all, there have to be elements even of persona from a mother. I think this is why her own compassion and sympathy speak to people as Panagia/Theotokos. She had to be extraordinary to fill that role in so many ways. And we also don’t know the things she might have told St. John also

  25. Coleen Frazer-Hambrick Avatar
    Coleen Frazer-Hambrick

    I agree with you about Hollywood. Whether people realize it or not, everyone longs for a relationship with God.

    I once read that every story has a “Christ” or a “Christ-Type” in it, even if it is a secularized version of Christ.

    For instance. James Bond. He’s a “saviour” of sorts, as the world wants a saviour to be: good looking, suave, always in command, rarely if ever making a mistake, and coming in with guns blazing.

    Isn’t that the kind of saviour the world always wants? Not a man who is a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”

    I like film noirs too. I would love to write and film a Christian Noir. I wonder how that would look?

  26. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I’ve begun reading the Life of Moses available free in pdf online. It has one Orthodox editor/translator and others not Orthodox.

    In the preface there’s a rather frequent reference to St Gregory’s intent to present a pathway to God, expressed as a form of progress of the Christian who endeavors to navigate this path.

    I keep thinking this interpretation might be a modernistic interpretation. Perhaps a perception of the non-Orthodox contributors?

    Did the early Fathers speak much of progress? If so, how are we to understand this without falling into the traps of modernity?

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Coleen, it might look a lot like the Gospel — until the Ressurection. Have you read Stanislavski’s book “Building a Character”?
    A true classic for acting and therefore directing.

  28. Coleen Frazer-Hambrick Avatar
    Coleen Frazer-Hambrick

    Michael,

    No, I haven’t read the book. I am a writer, and have been involved with the making of two indie films, one The Death of Kevin Frye (story written by me, screenplay by Renee Michaels) and Shots in the Dark, (story and screenplay written by me).

    I will keep Stanislavski’s book in mind. I’ve read several good books on filming and directing, and am always looking for ways to improve my writing and character development.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, a good place to start on the idea of progress is J. B. Bury’s work “The Idea of Progress published in 1920. He was a classical Greek and Roman scholar of great repute when alive. Bottom line: as we know it born of the Enlightenment and nurtured by Socialism and Marxism.
    Fr Stephen will correct me if I am wrong but Christian “progress” is expressed in Matthew 4:17 “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” …plus The Cross, the Grave and the Glorious third day Ressurection.
    The Enlightenment secularized that and Marx perverted it even further to Materialism.
    Now AI seems to be “our salvation”.

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Coleen I kinda grew up with theater in my blood as my mother danced with Martha Graham’s company in the 1930’s taught dance and movement the rest of her life. I worked in educational and community theater for 17 years before I went off to follow Jesus. Although the medium is different, the process is much the same.
    You know “Rosebud!” My favorite movie quote.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee,
    Progress is not a common term in the Fathers. It is very much modern idea – largely 19th century (some 18th, perhaps). As a theory of history, you almost had the opposite for most of the Christian period. The notion that things are getting better and moving towards a bright future is a sort of secularized version of the Social Gospel movement which is strictly 19th century in its origin. It was something of a Protestant-born heresy.

    There had earlier been the notion of “Pilgrim’s Progress” – the fictional work by the Puritan John Bunyon in which the main character goes on a journey “from grace to grace.” At that time, the word “progress” did not mean a movement towards better and better things – it simply meant a movement – a “going forward.”

    In the Fathers, of course, there is the “Ladder of Divine Ascent,” by St. John of the Ladder. It’s not at all clear in that book that one chapter is built on the success of the earlier chapter.

    When you get to the Life of Moses, by St. Gregory, that you mentioned, you definitely have the notion of a movement from lower to higher. On the one hand, there is influence there from late Platonism, which influenced many of the well-educated Fathers. It is quite surprising to many Christians when they read someone like Plotinus (who was a Platonist) to discover how amazingly Christian he actually sounds. He speaks about “The One” where we would speak of God – and it is very much a movement leaving behind earthly things and moving ever deeper in understanding heavenly, spiritual things. The goal is union with The One.

    For St. Gregory, the “movement” is Moses going higher and higher in knowledge of God as he ascends Mt. Sinai. But it’s quite blatantly Christian. So, on the one hand, it is a Christian answer to the Platonists – in which The One is replaced by God as made known in Christ. It’s also a way to preach the gospel in an intellectual society for whom Platonism was extremely popular and influential.

    I think the most significant thing for St. Gregory (and we get this in a number of the Fathers) is the notion of “movement.” I think “movement” (kinesis) is the actual term in St. Gregory rather than something we would translate as “progress.” For the Platonists, being “at rest” is the state of blessedness. Fr. St. Gregory, “movement” is something that is eternal – always moving deeper into God.

    For those of us in this modern period, “progress” is a very loaded term, written into almost everything in our culture. It’s so dominant that we don’t even know we’re thinking it when we think it. And we tend to suppose that people have always thought this way when they have not. So, it’s not surprising to find an introduction that uses the term progress without critical thinking. I’m sure plenty of Orthodox use the term these days because they never stopped to wonder where the term and idea came from. I think I’m actually one of the few Orthodox writers who has written critically of the term.

    A dead give-away in our present time is to listen to someone speaking of “progress” and see what it is they mean. Generally, it is cover-language for a political agenda, or something that will make more money. It is, of course, very common for people to point out medical technology and describe it as “progress.” They somehow overlook the fact that all of us are going to die. If there is “progress” in the human life (in the older sense of the word) it is always “progress towards the grave.” It is where we are all headed. The healthy, those with good insurance, will likely live a little bit longer than the general run of folk, but we all die.

    Who wants to be the wealthiest person in the cemetery?

  32. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Colleen,
    I do have a Film Noir Bible Study blog but there isn’t much on it. However, a film I found very interesting in this light is The Lady From Shanghai . Welles in general is interesting in this vein if you think about all of his films (Rosebud! indeed Michael.) But just one note: at the very end, in the famous scene at Playland At the Beach in the “crazy house” of mirrors you will hear Michael quote back to Elsa a saying she repeats about following “original nature.” He says to her, “But haven’t you never heard of something better to follow?” It’s quite illuminating and clearly pointing to a more transcendent reality. Her philosophy is compromising with “the badness” but Michael’s character says that uses you in the end. As she’s dying he says he can only lose if he stops struggling/fighting. There are other films of Welles to consider in this vein also, especially “Touch of Evil.” There is a lot to say about them but I don’t want to get off the subject of this blog in the direct sense (even though we are still talking about the story of Christ really and the struggle for faith in a world that offers corruption).

  33. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Thank you Father! Another clarifying answer. Very edifying and helpful!!

  34. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father, I second Dee’s praise for your response to her question. Very enlightening, all of it.

    It is always striking to me how the world seemed to be “prepared” for Christ by the culture that came just prior, including the universality at the time of the Greek language and education.

  35. Fr Fred Pfeil Avatar
    Fr Fred Pfeil

    Who wants to be the wealthiest person in the cemetery?

    Father I am belly laughing! Without actually saying so out loud, I think most of us do. Great para on progress.

  36. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father Fred,
    I have no intention to disagree. However for whatever it’s worth being wealthy (at least in monetary terms) isn’t high on my priority list. I’ve been very poor in my life. While I’m not in that state now, having a modicum of health and of these last few years left to me, joy in Christ, is a higher priority for me. Perhaps that might seem to be another sign of wealth, I don’t know. I’m not a child of this culture in various ways—perhaps that too may have something to do with my perspective.

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee, Fr. Fred, et al
    When I was in seminary, I served in a small mission church on the North side of Chicago. One of our members was quite wealthy (he owned a nationally-known manufacturing company). He battled cancer for several years. In my senior year he died and was buried from the Cathedral in downtown. It was a very large funeral. I recall hearing (for one of the first times) the Latin burial hymn at his funeral:

    In paradisum
    Deducant te Angeli:
    In tuo adventu suscipiant te Martyres,
    Et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem,
    Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem.
    Angelorum te suscipiat,
    Et cum Lazaro quondam paupere,
    Et cum Lazaro quondam paupere
    æternam habeas requiem,
    æternam habeas requiem.

    Into paradise, may the angels lead you.
    And at your coming, may the martyrs receive you,
    And lead you into that holy city, Jerusalem.
    May the choirs of angels welcome you,
    And with Lazarus who once was poor,
    May you have rest everlasting.

    At first I thought it was all quite a bit over the top. I later found out that this man was not only the great mainstay of our small mission, but was keeping about 15 or 20 others afloat as well. If one must bear the burden of being the richest man in the cemetery, it pays to have “made friends of unrighteous mammon” ahead of time. I’m glad to have known him and to participated in his requiem.

  38. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father thank you for this story. It is uplifting.

    I don’t know whether I will have made friends with unrighteous mammon or not, since we are warned by the metaphor, “through the eye of a needle …”

    Although I have hope because Christ also said, with God all things are possible.

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, et. al
    Having prayers sung for the departing soul is also amazing. As my late wife lay dying our priest and two chanters sang her to her rest. Her Guarding Angel was praying with her. Her best friend, a questioning RC, decided to become Orthodox after experiencing that mercy. She is still Orthodox as are her children and grandchildren.
    Pascha was 3 weeks later and as we sang Christ is Risen our Lord turned my grief into Joy just as the angels did for the Myrrh Bearing women.

  40. juliania Avatar
    juliania

    Thank you, janine – yes! I find it exciting when we can see those backwards and forwards movements. To remember that Moses’ writings come out of his experiences both at the time of the burning bush and when receiving the tablets of the Law, for instance. I wasn’t kidding, it really did come home to me when I was trying to think about the present subject. I suppose one can compare Frodo’s situation to that of Alyosha at the moment of his elder’s death, when Providence seems to have gone away – and as Father Stephen says, this is fiction and not Scripture; perhaps that is what I needed to do, rather than go to Scripture itself for the comparison.

  41. shannon Avatar
    shannon

    Father Stephen:
    I read every one of your posts. But comment only rarely.
    Re: your paragraphs (roughly 4 through 8) beginning with “Frodo’s failure…” and ending with “…it matters that we do not quit.”: I want to believe in the God these paragraphs paint. He’s the same God painted by Dostoyevsky in The Possessed, when Tikhon meets with Stavrogin and tells him, “And even if you failed to go through with it [voluntary martyrdom], God would still take your original sacrifice into account. Everything will be taken into account – …not a thought, even a vague one, will be lost.” And the same God described by St Paisios of Mt Athos who said, “And if he [one who repeated fails] has the slightest will not to grieve God, he will go to Paradise with his shoes on. The Benevolent God will…push him into Paradise.”
    I want to believe in such a God. (Lord, help my unbelief.) With a Protestant background, such a belief is hard to maintain – it is not poured into us from the cradle – it is not deep in our psyche. And, to be honest, not all scriptures help in that regard. You write about Frodo’s failure at the end. And we hear in our minds, “he who perseveres to the end shall be saved.” We read, even in today’s appointed Gospel, how the barren fig tree was cursed by Christ and withered. And of dry branches being thrown into the fire. And of the fearful burier of one talent being cast into darkness. And many others. So when we see ourselves and our barrenness and dryness, our hope withers too.
    Yet in the other direction, in yours and Tikhon’s and St. Paisios’s, we also read of Peter’s restoration over a breakfast of fish. And elsewhere of even dry branches being grafted back into the vine. So I find some hope (and trust it is not false), and keep doing the next thing – nothing near as arduous as Frodo’s journey, but about all that I can manage, and that not with any great consistency.
    Lord, have mercy. Forgive me, everyone.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Shannon,
    I am also aware of those Scriptures used to condemn us or shatter our hope. As I recall, the adversary quoted Scripture at Jesus in the wilderness as well. But, to share the comapany of Dostoevsky and St. Paisios is joy unspeakable.

    I think on Orthodox Holy Week and the hymn, The Wise Thief:

    The wise thief
    You made worthy
    of Paradise
    in a single moment, O Lord.
    By the wood of the Cross
    illumine me as well
    and save me,

    Whenever I am tempted into doubt of the good God, I return to the Cross and speak to the Crucified Savior. There the love of God is made manifest in all its clarity.

    It is possible (even likely), I think, for some to take exception to this article of mine, fearing that I’ve so emphasized the kindness and generosity of God that I am encouraging people not to make any effort at all. You encouraged me in this regard when you noted that your own “doing the next thing” is “nothing near as arduous as Frodo’s journey.” He risked his life again and again, pushing to the limit of his strength. So, my intention has not been to ask less of us.

    However, my experience, for a variety of reasons known only to God, has been to be a witness to the cries of those who think they can go no further, or who have already lapsed into some kind of despair. It is to that place within each of us that needs a cup of cool water that I try to write (oftentimes). May God push us all into Paradise…with our shoes on! What a phrase!

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I may be wrong, quite likely, but it seems despair only comes to those who are struggling to be a good person and the evil one uses despair to tempt us not to go forward. Often Joy or at least solid hope is right around the corner.

  44. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    Shannon, you are not alone in your struggles. I can relate to what you experience. I was raised in a very pious but fundamentalist Orthodox family. And Michael, your comment about despair really resonates. I know now that I am ‘wired’ to seek our God and have always wanted to do so, but constantly hearing as a child how we fall short created created this anxiety. That’s my toxic shame. It hides the true God. As I work on understanding and healing this, glimpses of the loving God break through. Don’t give up.

  45. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thanks Father (esp for the efforts to give a cup of cool water!), Michael (what a good point about despair), Helen

    Helen, yes it is remarkable how toxic shame can also work on just about anything. I find all kinds of fears coming to my mind as I seem to be going “forward.” I think they are related to shame about all kinds of things. The latest one this morning: maybe I am crazy for my faith. That is just a sample. I am sure they work with the aim to deter us.

  46. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It also seems that in my case, if I do not pray — despair quickly follows. Prayers of Thanksgiving and repentance seem to be the only medicine to keep the ember of joy glowing iny heart.

  47. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Michael, I think, from experience, that you are right — our practices are very important

  48. Douglas M Dillon Avatar

    Great insights. I’m going to use a lot of this in my post-Vespers Bible Study at St. Mark Orthodox Church a week from Saturday.

    My bible study is a meditation of a bible verse from Rev 2, I quote most weeks when entering the church (usually in front the North American saints icon): “Be faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of life. ”

    You didn’t mention it but something similar happens near the end of the Pilgrim’s progress where Christian as finally about to cross the river and enter into the Celestial City (his destination) and finds he is drowning and can’t make it by himself. Hopeful helps him over, and they are welcomed into the Celestial City. I thought that was really touching when I first read it decades ago.

    You also didn’t mention those prayers which appear in nearly all the litanies:
    “Deacon: That we may finish the remainder of our life in peace and penitence, let us ask the Lord.
    Choir: Grant this, O Lord.
    Deacon: For a Christian end to our life, painless, blameless, peaceful, and for a good defence at the dread judgment-seat of Christ, let us ask the Lord.”

    I find those prayers to be really valuable.

    Choir: Grant this, O Lord.

  49. Douglas M Dillon Avatar
    Douglas M Dillon

    Father Stephan, this piece was a big part of the inspiration for last week’s bible study at St Mark Orthodox Church, Bethesda MD. I’d be surprised and delighted if you watched a bit of it and gave me some comments on how I might improve.

    Here’s what’s interesting about that bible study:
    (1) It’s up on youtube (feel free to forward this to anyone). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erCOBBaQpvs. Feel free to subscribe to my channel.
    (2) Has a unique combination of video and a dense supply of still photos and picturesque slides.
    (3) Starts with how the Return Of The King Movie betrayed J.R.R. Tolkien.
    (4) Covers what Jesus said to folks who had been and were about to suffer great tribulation and how that might apply to us and people we care about. Particularly interesting as we consider end-of-life issues and situations where there might not be a return to health. FWIW, I wish I had been bolder when covering this.
    (5) Provides a useful model for understanding the book of Revelations that you may not be familiar with and which allows real application to everyday Christian life.
    (6) Unique coverage of the apostolic fathers and, in particular, Polycarp’s relationship to the Apostle John and so to the Book Of Revelation.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Douglas,
    Thanks for sharing this. I hope to have time to watch it through this week.

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