I’m reading Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island, a collection of spiritual reflections for the Christian believer. His chapter titled “Mercy” is singly worth the price of the book. I could scarcely read past the first paragraph as it kept drawing me back, prompting a closer look, a longer consideration. A few sentences there with nuggets of wisdom prompted memories of something I’d learned about my hero, J.R.R. Tolkien.
“We learn to know Him, now, not in the “presence” that is found in abstract consideration -- a presence in which we dress Him in our own finery -- but in the emptiness of a hope that may come close to despair. For perfect hope is achieved on the brink of despair when, instead of falling over the edge, we find ourselves walking on the air. ...So we learn to expect His mercy most calmly when all is most dangerous, to seek Him quietly in the face of peril, certain that He cannot fail us though we may be upbraided by the just and rejected by those who claim to hold the evidence of His love”
That’s it. “ we learn to expect His mercy most calmly when all is most dangerous...” According to those closest to Tolkien, his friends and biographers, this idea was central to his writings. He believed our English language was missing a word, which he coined “eucatastrophe”, defined as the unexpected turn from bad to good. When we teeter on the brink of despair, perfect hope is what enables us to go forward with our eyes fixed on Christ.
Maybe the fact that Tolkien had to coin the term speaks to our weak human condition. How easy it is to fall prey to pessimism, doubt and despair, the downward spiral that shrouds our spirit in darkness. And then to justify and define that outlook as ‘realism’ is the seal of Satan; how he enjoys manipulating mankind to believe his falsehoods. Tolkien believed despair was not so much a weakness of man, a theological problem, as it was a mistake, for no one knows the future, no one can see all ends. Eucatastrophes happen.
Perfect hope walks through the mists knowing the Creator provides the footing. It’s the seed of all courage, ...the rock of Christian martyrs.
And so it is to Professor Tolkien that I owe my gratitude for growing my understanding of this spiritual truth through the weaving of his tales, the sharing of his heart. As I take notice of all the mismatched threads and knots of my journey, my canvas, God has used Tolkien to give me a glimpse of the tapestry on the other side.
Here is a snippet of video (you can find anything on YouTube!) with thoughts from Brian Sibley, Tom Shippey and John Garth on the meaning of "eucatastrophe":