Happy Hobbit Day! What We Can Learn From Our Halfling Friends

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Today is the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, also known as Hobbit Day. It’s a day to be celebrated with seven meals (first breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper – although I should note this tradition comes from the movies, not the books), dancing and singing, smoking a pipe (if you’re so inclined), and perhaps a Hobbit or Lord of the Rings movie marathon (I recommend the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings).

In some ways, I identify a lot with J.R.R. Tolkien’s most famous creation, the diminutive race of hole-dwellers who love to socialize with friends and family and sing, mature at age 33 (I still have four more years!), enjoy giving gifts, and don’t like to know about the bad news outside their circle but are moved to action when they do. I’m quite a bit shorter than most of my family. I actually enjoy British food, as well as a good cup of tea. I love a cozy home. I don’t like reaching outside my comfort zone, but when I do, I grow. (In that way, we’re all like hobbits.)

On the other hand, hobbits are humble and enjoy a simple life, two things that, like most humans, I struggle with. In fact, I believe that as Christians, we can learn a lot from the hobbits. Here are four lessons I’ve taken from the books (and, let’s be honest, the movies that I’ve seen again and again).

1. There is evil in the world, and we shouldn’t ignore it.

J.R.R. Tolkien knew this better than anyone. He fought in the brutal trenches of World War I, and it changed him. He began writing about Middle-Earth “by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire,” as he is quoted in The New York Times, and he lost two of his friends at the Battle of the Somme.

The hobbits do not trust outsiders, and they do not, generally, keep up with the goings-on of the outside world, believing that what happens out there will not affect them in the Shire. Even before the epic battles of “The Lord of the Rings,” though, Tolkien takes his first hero, the homebody Bilbo Baggins, out of his comfort zone and into the dragon’s lair – literally. And Bilbo grows in the process. While, of course, conflict is necessary for a novel to exist, Tolkien could have created a breezy novel about the day-to-day conflicts among hobbit neighbors. Instead, he created an adventure story, a fairy tale – a hero’s quest. His heroes battle true villains, and he does not shy away from the evil they face.

I often feel that I would prefer to ignore the news, to stay inside my circle of friends or family and ignore the terror of the world. But there are two problems with this approach to living. First of all, each of us faces evil in our lives, regardless of whether we live in a war-torn country or a violent street. Subtler evil, like a small ring, can damage our souls if we let it. Second of all, as we see with Bilbo and especially with Frodo, if we can do something to change the world, we should. From prayer to volunteering to philanthropy, “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

2. Mercy will save the day.

In the end, it’s Gollum who leads to the destruction of the ring. The irony is that Gollum is a villain throughout the story, beginning in “The Hobbit,” and would keep the ring forever if he could. But, as Bishop Robert Barron points out, if Bilbo had not been moved by pity and decided not to kill Gollum, as he had the opportunity to, the evil of Sauron would never have been defeated. “That evil is best engaged through pity is a deeply Christian and profoundly counter-intuitive insight,” Bishop Barron writes.

Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play in it, for good or evil, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.

Frodo, then, also shows great pity and compassion for Gollum, despite Gollum’s obvious outward and inward ugliness. And, again, the fact that Frodo has shown mercy to Gollum is rewarded – when Frodo can no longer resist the temptation of the ring, it’s Gollum who, albeit inadvertently, destroys it for him. “His exercise of patience and mercy towards Gollum,” Tolkien wrote in a letter, “gained him Mercy: his failure was redressed.”

3. Value the simple things.

A chief antagonist in “The Hobbit” is not a person or a creature but a disease: Gold Sickness, or Dragon Sickness. It’s caused by exposure to large amounts of treasure, such as Thorin’s company find in Smaug’s lair. Its symptom is intense greediness, even to the point of violence:

Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.

Greed, gluttony, lust, envy … We do not need to be face-to-face with a dragon and his hoard of gold to be stricken with these real forms of dragon sickness. Bishop Barron writes that dragon sickness “bedevils many people in contemporary society, those who know the value of everything and the worth of nothing.”

In the end, Thorin regrets his greed and recognizes, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Bilbo returns home with some treasure but is content and happy in his hobbit hole with his pipe and his kettle.

4. Be a friend.

I’ve written multiple times here that Sam is my favorite “Lord of the Rings” character. He is a good friend – and by that I mean that he demonstrates self-sacrificial love for Frodo and, indeed, for all of Middle-Earth. Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., points out that Frodo and Sam don’t know how the battles are raging outside of Mordor. They don’t know that Gandalf has returned. They have no reason to hope that, even if they destroy the ring, their friends and their home have not been destroyed anyway. Yet they continue on.

“In some sense,” writes O’Malley, “it is Sam that shows forth the greatest icon of self-giving love. He alone is unaffected by the power of the ring. Because, he recognizes that his sole desire is to be a friend to Frodo, whatever it may require.” O’Malley concludes that there is no single symbol of Christ in “The Lord of the Rings” because we are all called to love like Christ.

We each write our own story (some of us literally). We can write it without God. But, as in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” it is harder, but infinitely more rewarding, to write it with God. To love like Him, to seek justice rather than treasure, the good of the other above the good of the self – this is our motivation as protagonists.

Will your ending be a good one?

Small Things, Great Love

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I have always wanted to do great things.

Yet, since childhood, my two favorite saints have ones who preached doing small things: St. Therese of Lisieux and Mother Teresa (who wasn’t a saint when I was a child but was a hero of mine). Therese is known for her “Little Way,” a practice that imbues great love into small acts. Mother Teresa (who chose her name in honor of St. Therese) is known to have said, “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”

I have always wanted to do great things – to write The Great American Novel, to impact thousands, millions of people. But that desire to do great things doesn’t come from a desire to share God’s love. It comes from pride.

Mother Teresa changed the world, but she didn’t set out to change the world. She set out to care for the poorest of the poor, and throughout her ministry, her focus was individual – person by person. “Do not underestimate our practical means—the work for the poor; no matter how small or humble—that make our life something beautiful for God,” she wrote. Like her namesake, Mother Teresa knew that what was important wasn’t how big an action was – what was important was how much love you put into it.

My favorite saints give me pause. I struggle to be mindful, to consider each moment and what its purpose is. I do not often think about how much love I put into my daily activities, but whether it’s writing a blog post here or collaborating with a co-worker in my “day job,” I can demonstrate my love for others and, above all, for Jesus through my work. Whether that work is successful by any typical marketing metric will be besides the point.

“We have only today,” Mother Teresa said. “Let us begin.”

On Not Giving Up the Quest

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Last Sunday at Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, the deacon began his homily by describing Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom in “The Lord of the Rings.” I’ve written before about my love of “The Lord of the Rings,” so you can imagine my rapt attention as he started to speak.

The deacon compared Samwise Gamgee (my favorite character) to Simon Peter, who in the Gospel reading told Jesus, “To whom shall we go?” when Jesus asked the apostles, “Do you want to leave?” Similarly, no matter what happened to Frodo and Sam – and no matter what Frodo said to Sam – Sam never strayed. Even when Frodo told Sam to leave, Sam returned to his friend.

It’s not a perfect comparison; Jesus is God as well as friend. But it’s a timely reminder, as every day we face more grim news about leading members of our Church. It would seem that there are many, many places we could go instead of the Catholic Church – after all, there are many denominations that worship Christ and aren’t covering the newspapers in scandal.

But here’s the thing: If we truly believe that Christ is present in the Eucharist, then there is nowhere else to go. If we truly believe that Christ established the Catholic Church and that “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18), then there is nowhere else to go. Because while it may seem like the gates of the netherworld are prevailing against our Church, we have God’s promise that they won’t.

“But I am going to Mordor.”

“I know that well enough, Mr. Frodo. Of course you are. And I’m coming with you.”

It might get worse before it gets better. We may feel that we are in Mordor, tired and aching and thirsting for light. But as Bishop Barron said in a recent video, this is the time not to abandon hope, not to leave. This is the time to fight.

He knew he would try again. Fail, perhaps. And try once more. A thousand, thousand times if need be, but he would not give up the quest.

To Those Who Feel Angry With the Catholic Church

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It’s impossible to find a silver lining in this week’s news that a Pennsylvania grand jury accused over 300 priests of abusing about 1,000 people over the course of 70 years. But for better or worse, I’m an idealist, so I always look for a silver lining. And without discounting the evil that was uncovered this week, here is my “silver lining”: I have spoken with many friends and read posts by many bloggers and social media influencers, all of whom are Catholic and are condemning this behavior (and its coverup) in the harshest language – while standing by the true Church created by Christ. To paraphrase Catholic Answers chaplain Fr. Hugh Barbour, our sadness and anger are, in fact, a sign of our love for Jesus and the Church.

If, however, you are feeling your faith in the Church shaken by this news, you are not alone. And there is hope that your faith can be restored. That’s because our faith is in the Church, in what God created and what God sustains – and not in the broken human beings who manage it here on earth.

“For every predator who has used the Church for sinful purposes,” writes author Tom Hoopes, “there are thousands of spiritual healers who Christ uses to reach us through the Church to forgive us, restore us and refresh us.” For every one of the 300 Pennsylvania priests accused of abuse, there are thousands and thousands of people like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Pope John Paul II, St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Teresa Benedicta, St. Joseph, our own Blessed Mother … and countless others, living and dead, whom God has spoken through to guide His church.

For every person who has been hurt by a priest, there are millions who have been changed by one. For every person who has felt let down by a Church official, there are millions who have received Christ’s body and blood from one. For every person who has been made to feel that there is no place for them in the Church, there are millions who have found their home there.

The walls of that home are not perfect. There are cracks in the panelling and there are holes in the roof. But inside is the heart of Jesus, and no matter what happens, we will always find Him there.

 

In 2005, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later to become Pope Benedict XVI) shared this prayer:

Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures. Have mercy on your Church; within her too, Adam continues to fall. When we fall, we drag you down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of your Church, you will remain prostrate and overpowered. But you will rise again. You stood up, you arose and you can also raise us up. Save and sanctify your Church. Save and sanctify us all.

Marian Consecration: Not a One-Stop Shop

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You consecrate yourself to Mary, and then you’re done, right? You can coast through life and then be welcomed with open arms to those pearly white gates.

Not exactly. And that’s not what I expected when I consecrated myself to Mary earlier this year. But I think I did expect my journey to be a little easier, my faith to be a little stronger, without any real effort. That’s definitely not the case. And in addition to formally reconsecrating myself annually, I am re-committing to renewing my consecration every morning.

In the heat of the moment, on fire with love for God and excitement about what consecration means, it’s easy to think it will be … well … easy. I was going to pray the Rosary or the Little Office every day. The brown scapular was going to be a daily reminder of my commitment.

But all too often, I prioritize other activities over prayer. The brown scapular has become a habit rather than a reminder. And I can feel my commitment waning.

So, what do I do?

Reprioritize Prayer.

I recently moved from my own apartment into an apartment I share with a friend. While I am excited to have a friend in the bedroom next door (not to mention all the money I’m saving by sharing the rent), my social anxiety flared up in a big way when I moved. My family and my boyfriend were there for me, but you know what would have been even better? If I’d prayed more, too. If my parents and Zach were supportive beyond expectations, imagine how much more supportive Jesus would have been if I’d leaned on Him for strength.

Every relationship goes two ways. Do I receive gifts from God without asking for them? Absolutely, every day. But how can I expect Him to give me the strength I need if I don’t talk to Him? How can I expect Mary to fulfill her consecration promises if I don’t fulfill mine?

The truth is, I can’t. And so, as I live daily with the struggles that come from having social anxiety – and also from just being human – I must pray daily – all day – to manage them.

“The Passion of the Christ” and Samwise Gamgee

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I was 14 when “The Passion of the Christ” came out, so while I couldn’t have seen it in theaters without my parents, I was probably old enough to watch it. Certainly, it seems strange that as a Catholic who enjoys watching movies, it took me this long to watch it. But I’ve always been afraid; the press around the movie’s release was so focused on how graphically violent it was.

But Christ’s Passion was, indeed, violent, and I think that finally watching the movie gave me a fuller appreciation of what – and more importantly why – He did.

(Disclaimer here: I am no theologian. Not even close. These are, like the contents of every blog post, my own thoughts, and in this case they are not supported by research, so I may be completely off, and if so, please comment below and let me know.)

I’ve always wondered, “I get that Jesus died for our sins, but why did He have to do that? Why couldn’t God have just been like, ‘You know what? Your sins are forgiven. The end.'” And I plan on reading more about this to learn what popes and saints have said, but while I was watching the movie, actually watching the reenactment of the crucifixion, it occurred to me that the intensity of being prosecuted, tortured and killed in so violent a way really makes a statement. It’s one thing to be told, “God loves you.” It’s another thing to realize, “Jesus loves me so much that he left paradise to come to a difficult and painful life on Earth and then was tortured and nailed to a cross so that I can join Him in that paradise.”

In Gethsemane at the beginning of the movie, Satan tells Jesus, “Do you really believe that one man can bear the full burden of sin?” The wording of that phrase – “the full burden of sin” – struck me as a storyteller before it struck me as a Catholic. Christ took on such a physically and emotionally painful experience in order to shift the burden of sin from His children’s shoulders to His own. That is an amazing story – and what’s more, it’s true.

We know that Jesus told stories throughout His life as a way to teach, so why wouldn’t He use His death to tell us the greatest story ever – the story of His love for us?

Which brings me to another story: the story of Simon, the man who helped Jesus carry the cross. As a writer, book lover and Catholic, I am a huge fan of “The Lord of the Rings” – the books and the movie. As an overly sentimental teenager, my favorite part of the movies was the scene where Sam says, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” (OK, who am I kidding? As a sentimental adult, that’s still my favorite part.) While watching the scene where Simon helps Jesus carry the cross, I immediately texted my boyfriend to tell him about the parallel I saw between Jesus’ struggle to Mount Calvary and Frodo’s climb to Mount Doom.

And the more I thought about it, the more I thought Jesus was, even more than Simon, kind of like Sam. Jesus doesn’t literally carry our burdens for us. He doesn’t come back to Earth to help us manage our careers, hold our hands through illness, or take the weight of anxiety or depression off our shoulders. He doesn’t carry that for us. But He does carry us. And that’s pretty exciting.

“A Shelter in Which Other Souls May Unfold”

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“The woman’s soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold.” – St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

In February, my friend Bernadette and I started a Catholic young women’s book club. Actually, I have my boyfriend to thank for it, because he gave me “The Other Side of Beauty” (Leah Darrow, published last year by Thomas Nelson) for Christmas. I loved the book and thought it would be a great book to discuss with a small group of young women. So Bernadette and I got a group together, and we’ve been meeting roughly weekly to discuss a chapter at a time.

We’re wrapping up the book this week, and we’ve all agreed that the group has been so good that we’re going to keep it going with other Catholic books. Bernadette had the idea to invite some girls that she knew who were new to the Raleigh area, and I am so glad that she did, because it’s been great to know that they are making some girlfriends in their new town.

Have you ever been part of a group that just meshes? We clicked almost immediately. We laugh, and we talk, and we pray together, and it’s beautiful. One of the girls had a birthday a few weeks ago, and we had dinner with her. We have a group message on Facebook that’s become more than just logistics for our meetings. We are genuinely interested in each other’s lives and supportive of each other’s journeys as Christians.

Growing up, I attended CCD every year until I was confirmed. But I never got to know the other kids in my class. I avoided retreats like the plague, and I never joined the youth group. I was just too afraid to talk to anyone. So now, being a part of a community (the broader Raleigh Catholic young adult community and this small, close-knit book club) that has a shared faith, that talks about that faith on a regular basis, and that is supportive and generous and also a lot of fun … This is a huge deal.

So here’s a shout out to all my Catholic sisters, sharing Christ’s love with each other and living out your calling as a daughter of God. Thank you.

Why Do You Seek the Living Among the Dead?

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In Chapter 24 of the Gospel of Luke, Mary Magdalene, Joanna (the wife of Herod’s steward), and Mary (the mother of James) visit Jesus’ tomb and find his body missing. Imagine their state of mind: They were heartbroken, having seen their God, whom they loved, crucified. Then, they went to visit his body, and they find it gone.

Fortunately, of course, God sends two of His angels to explain, and they ask the women, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?”

It’s an important question that I believe we can all benefit from considering. We often look among the “dead” to find what only the living – Christ – can give us. Whether it’s good things that we rely on too much – a job, even friends and family – or things that are more obviously dangerous – substance abuse, porn, violence – when we look to anything that isn’t God for the fulfillment that only God can give, we’re seeking the living among the dead.

Sometimes, we, like the women at the tomb, need a reminder: “Remember what he said to you.” And when we do remember, as they did, we can “announce all these things,” to share the hope and the love that we can all find in God. To some, our story will “seem like nonsense.” But others will see the truth, and they, like Peter, will be “amazed at what had happened.”

World Down Syndrome Day 2018

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In 2012, the United Nations declared March 21 to be World Down Syndrome Day, “to help raise awareness of what Down syndrome is, what it means to have Down syndrome, and how people with Down syndrome play a vital role in our lives and communities.”

It’s ironic, because the UN is also a fan of abortion, which kills an alarming number of people with Down syndrome.

Down syndrome is the most common human chromosomal disorder. It occurs when a baby has a partial or complete third copy of the 21st chromosome (hence, 3/21 as the date for World Down Syndrome Day). Down syndrome causes mild to profound (usually mild to moderate) intellectual disability and can also cause heart defects, visual or hearing impairment, and other symptoms. The life expectancy of people with Down syndrome has gone from 25 to 60 just since 1983.

60, that is, if they make it to birth. While medical advances have done great things in treating the medical complications that can come with Down syndrome, they have also led to increased prenatal testing. I say “unfortunately” not because I believe prenatal testing is necessarily a bad thing. When it doesn’t put the baby at risk, and the parents use the results to educate and prepare themselves, it’s great.

But when it’s used to screen out children with disabilities from entering the world, it’s a horror on par with eugenics or genocide. That sounds extreme, but with reports last year that has just about “eradicated” Down syndrome due to abortion, I really don’t think it is.

I hate that word, “eradicated.” We eradicated polio. We eradicate bug infestations. We don’t eradicate people. Or we shouldn’t, anyway.

Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

There are many people we can consider the “least” of us – not the least important or the least valuable, but the least powerful. The most vulnerable. It includes the poor, the hungry, the outcast, the sick, the suffering – and it includes the unborn baby with Down syndrome whose parents are so afraid of the diagnosis that they’re considering abortion.

I am not minimizing the difficulties of raising a child with special needs. I coach baseball with the Miracle League, where I work with children with a variety of disabilities, from Down syndrome to autism and cerebral palsy to other developmental disabilities. I see how difficult it can be.

But I also see how the children I coach are children like any other – unique, learning (at whatever speed), sometimes happy and sometimes not so much, and…

Oh, yeah. Human. Children of God. And therefore possessing a valuable life that should never, ever be destroyed.

(Don’t believe me? Check out this video from #WouldntChangeAThing: https://youtu.be/Biex1XR_mpo.)

The Brown Scapular: A Carmelite Tradition

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When I consecrated myself to Mary earlier this year, I received a brown scapular that had been blessed by a priest. I’d seen scapulars before and heard of the brown one in particular but didn’t really know what it meant to wear one until my consecration. Now, I wear it every day.

(And on a side note: Women’s clothes are not made for people who wear scapulars. Every day, I’m finding tops or dresses I can’t wear anymore because the cut makes the scapular look like bra straps, which isn’t exactly the modest look I want to have. Any fashion designers out there want to start a line just for women who wear scapulars?)

Anyway.

What Is the Brown Scapular?

The brown scapular is a devotion worn under clothing as a way of telling Mary, “I am yours.” According to the Sisters of Carmel, it was given to Carmelite St. Simon Stock by Our Lady of Mount Carmel in 1251 in Aylesford, England. She told him, “This shall be a privilege for you and all Carmelites, that anyone dying in this habit shall not suffer eternal fire,” and the Church has since declared that lay Catholics can also wear the scapular.

The blessings given to people wearing the scapular have three conditions, because the scapular isn’t some magical talisman but a sign of real devotion: first, that they always wear it; second, that they are chaste (according to the Church’s definition of chastity based on whether they are single or married); and third, that they recite the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary everyday, observe the fasts of the Church and abstain from meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays, or (with the permission of a priest) say five decades of the rosary each day or substitute another good work.

Who Is Our Lady of Mount Carmel?

Our Lady of Mount Carmel is one of Mary’s many titles. Mount Carmel is a mountain range in Israel where Elijah, according to the Catholic News Agency, “successfully challenged the priests of Baal and won the people to the true God.” The Carmelite Order, which has always had a special devotion to Mary, was founded there in the 1200s.

Wearing the scapular is making a promise to Our Lady of Mount Carmel to imitate her humility, chastity, and devotion to Jesus.

What Is the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary?

The Little Office consists of morning and evening prayers made up of psalms, hymns, and scripture and other readings. I use the Laudate app to say it every day. It helps to guide my prayer, particularly my devotion to Mary, and to understand her role in the Church and in our salvation. Also, especially since I gave up Facebook scrolling for Lent, it’s a much better way to spend the first and last moments of my day than using social media.

Do you wear the brown scapular? How has it helped shape your relationship with God?