The Gift of Being Limited

A life project of JRR Tolkien was to create an English mythology–to communicate the cultural values of his fatherland in the way that the Greeks and the Nordic peoples did with their gods and heroes, their goddesses and monsters. Where were the equivalents of Odysseus and Achilles, Zeus and Thor, Charybdis and the frost giants, centaurs and satyrs?

Tolkien, however, is a devout Catholic. In his mythology, the gods could not be merely super-humans, just as wicked as us. No, after the Word of God leapt down from Heaven to take on human flesh–after the Incarnation and after Christmas–everything changed.

For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed, a stern warrior carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command…and touched heaven while standing on the earth. (cf. Wisdom 18:14-15)

Even if you agree with Tolkien that “fairy stories” (= fiction, fairy tales, fantasy) can impart great truth into the world and influence society for good, you must also agree that the Incarnation changes everything. So, Tolkien’s mythology is going to expound Christian ideas and Christian values; it is going to be informed by his deep faith and his devotion to the Holy Eucharist.

So, in Tolkein’s mythology, most clearly expressed in The Silmarillion (one of my favorite books), there is Iluvatar, the one, all-powerful creator (≈ God); there are the Valar (≈ archangels); there is Melkor (≈ Satan); ect. There are elves and dwarves and humans and hobbits. There are orcs and goblins and other creatures.

With all of that being exposited, I would like to draw out a truth from Tolkien’s stories which has to do with elves and men, the “children of Illuvatar.” Both are created by Iluvatar and both are dearly loved by him. But elves are immortal. After a point, they do not age; they can also see great distances, run and not grow weary, and fight with great skill.  Men (and hobbits) are different. They are weak, they are very limited. Men cannot see great distances, grow weary very quickly, and require great practice to fight well. Finally, men die. Humans and hobbits are mortal (Latin mors, mortis = “death”). And that mortality, that ability to die is called the “gift of Iluvatar.”

[Men] should have a virtue [= power] to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world…Death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. But Melkor cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness, and brought forth evil out of good, and fear out of hope (The Silmarillion, 29, 42, emphasis added).

The gift of Iluvatar is twofold:  free will and death.

Death? A gift? I thought death was a curse. If we read Genesis, chapter 3 carefully, we see that God’s “curses” for our sins are actually remedies…medicines…gifts. We see that too in other passages of Scripture:

For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights (Proverbs 3:12).


For [Wisdom] is an unfailing treasure; those who gain this treasure win the friendship of God, being commended by the gifts that come from her discipline (Wisdom 7:14, NAB).


Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent (Revelation 3:19, RSV-CE).

The core temptation of the first sin is, “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5). You will be immortal, all-powerful, free to do whatever you want. Do not submit to the oppressive burden of rules and commandments. You’re independent. You have power. The gift of death is the ultimate unmasking of that lie fed to us by Satan himself. St. Benedict knew this and thus counsels his monks “to keep death daily before one’s eyes.” Death unmasks Satan’s lie of human self-sufficiency and is therefore a gift from God (a natural evil turned, by “Divine Jiu-jitsu” into a gift, cf. Romans 8:28). But it’s not just that we don’t live forever. We need to sleep, to eat, to drink water. We can’t run and not grow weary or walk and not grow faint (at least not on our own power, cf. Isaiah 40:28-31). No, we are small and weak. We depend upon God for our very existence!

I write this post on a Monday morning, the last Monday of my Christmas break. I had come into the break with all sorts of aspirations of what I would get done. I came into this break with great “hope” in my own strength, in my own productivity, in what I was going to do. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t think too much about God’s desires for my Christmas break. And, as I’m sure you can guess, I’ve struggled…struggled with stress…felt overwhelmed. I was totally faithful to my prayer commitments every day except one. Yet still, on many days, I let my work and my expectations dictate the flow of my life. Totally different were the days other days–when I let all of that go and just spent time with Jesus, with my family, and with friends. Those days were wonderful!

Luke, a friend and brother seminarian, sometimes accuses me of a condition which he calls “time optimism.” Luke says that I think I can squeeze way more things into a period of time than is possible. He’s right. And the root of my time optimism is my pride. I think that I can do way more than my weak, limited human nature allows. I focus on my desires for me way more than I focus on God’s desires for me.

So today, as I continue to repent for my sins of pride and vanity, I commit to pray more–at least an extra 30 minutes on top of my normal prayer commitments. There’s no better place to kill (= mortify) pride than on your knees because the only way to really pray is from a disposition that acknowledges the truth, the reality that God is God and I am not.

Grünewald - The CrucifixionToday, I remember an experience from day 2 of my 30-day retreat where I gazed upon a crucifix and spontaneously exclaimed, “Jesus, I want to be weak like you!” If God can become a weak, frail, limited human being, subject to hunger and thirst, fatigue and ridicule, and even death, then maybe I can stand being a little less productive. If God can be looked upon as a detestable failure, hanging naked upon a cross, then maybe I can deal with less than perfect grades if perfect grades cost me time with God or if I have to work so hard for those perfect grades that my defenses are weakened and I am more prone to sin. Maybe the best thing in the world really is being with God and maybe the worst thing in the world really is offending Him. The Resurrection is real and God will provideI know that’s true. Very often, I act like that’s true. But a lot of times I don’t. So pray for me, please…that I might more and more act in accord with the truth that being with God really is the most important thing and that offending Him really is the worst thing in the world.

Please pray that you and I more and more keep the main thing the main thing.

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing (Steven Covey, often quoted by Fr. Mark Toups).

Finally, this post will a week after I return from pilgrimage to the March for Life in Washington DC, protesting the evil of Abortion and as my petition for ordination as a deacon is sent off to Bishop Fabre. As this is published I begin in earnest this last semester prior to (God willing and with holy perseverance) ordination as a deacon on this coming May 21st. Please pray for me and pray for my brother seminarians, especially for smooth transition as this semester begins in earnest. And as you pray for us, maybe you’ll want to ask yourself the question I’m asking myself today:  What are God’s desires for me and how can I open my heart more fully to the truths that He is most important and that sin is the worse thing there is?