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Why Some Catholics Think J.R.R. Tolkien Could Be a Saint by Daniel Côté Davis

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Why Some Catholics Think J.R.R. Tolkien Could Be a Saint

J R. R. Tolkien’s enduring influence is hard to miss. The upcoming multimillion dollar Amazon Rings of Power series is set to rival the cinematic success of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster trilogy, and Tolkien’s works, The Lord of Rings and The Hobbit are some of the bestselling books of all time. What is too often missed, however, is the subtle spiritual foundation of Tolkien’s vision, which draws from the wealth and depth of his life of faith. 

Tolkien was a fervent Roman Catholic. He was not just an intellectual believer, but a truly pious man who experienced a Eucharistic vision when at St. Gregory’s Church in Oxford. He also maintained a great Marian piety throughout his lifetime. Indeed, he said that his entire vision of beauty was grounded in the simplicity and magnificence of the Mother of God. 

The State of Tolkien’s Cause

With this in mind, you may not be shocked to hear that there are some who hope and pray that Tolkien someday be declared a Catholic Saint. The likelihood that Tolkien may someday have a cause for canonisation has growing for a decade now, as international interest mounts to call for the Professor to be recognised for his personal holiness by being raised to the altars in the Catholic Church. Canonisation is the long term goal of an international group who would like to see the Professor’s life subjected to the scrutiny of Rome, to decide if the content of it is filled with the sufficient heroic virtue, necessary to pass him through the trifold stages of “servant of God,” “venerable,” “blessed,” and finally it is hoped “Saint Tolkien.” The purpose of this process and accompanying honorifics is to identify people of reputed sanctity and investigate whether they are to be made worthy of public veneration. Following a successful Canonisation, universities and schools as well as religious congregations can be formed, to live out the spirit or ‘charism’ of the holy person to which they are named after, whilst the laity can invoke the intercession of the saint to help them in their own spiritual journeys. In Tolkien’s case, there is potential for a regalvanisation of traditional Western values rooted in Christianity. These undergirded Tolkien’s own religious thought, fictitious writings, and spiritual life. This faith and its expressions are a treasure-hoard that has yet to be fully mined, something the Cause for the Canonisation of J. R. R. Tolkien seeks to explore and address directly. 

While Tolkien’s personal piety was well-attested by those who knew him, most people who now call for his canonisation never met him in person, but have instead been inspired by his writings. His major fictitious works are imbued with his deep faith. This faith was also lived out, being filled with the presence of God and serving as a beacon of Christ’s love to the world. 

At this point, support for the opening of a cause for canonization is centred around a Facebook group on the topic, which has more than 1.6 thousand members. The group is moderated by Fr. Daniele Pietro Ercoli, an Italian Salesian priest In 2015, Fr. Daniele contacted Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham (The diocese within which Tolkien died, within which canonically the Cause would generally start) about the possibility of opening a cause for Tolkien. After much prayer and reflection, Fr. Ercoli shared the archbishop’s response with the Facebook group.

While he did not, at that time, call for a cause to be opened, the archbishop was encouraging in his letter. He advised Fr. Daniele to both inform people about Tolkien’s faith and distribute a prayer for private and personal use asking God to allow Tolkien to be declared a Saint.

The letter has been well received by Catholics who have been spiritually nourished by Tolkien’s works. Many initiatives to begin laying the spiritual foundations for a formal process of postulation—the process by which a Cause begins—have flowed from the archbishop’s balanced and prudent response. In response to the first directive of the Archbishop, Tolkien’s faith can be best understood through his correspondence and private writings, which are now publicly available. These writings reveal a man whose entire mind, soul, and will were transformed by divine grace. This grace brought forth the desire in him, as he puts it, “to follow the light [of Christ] unflinchingly.” 

The Faith of a Philologist

But how did Tolkien’s life show forth this dedication to Christ? Why do a group of Catholics believe this man, who spent his life as a professor of philology and the writer of fantastical stories, to be worthy of sainthood? To begin, let us look at the nature of Tolkien’s life work, both as a philologist and as a fantasy writer. 

Philology is the study of language, but it is much more than that. The preservation of culture and the transmission of civilisation passes primarily through language, whether in the form of prayers, songs, speeches, or books. ‘Culture,’ let us remember, has its etymological roots not just in agricultural terms, but also in words associated with the religious cult. Tolkien, arguably the most gifted philologist of his generation, practised his craft with attention to the spiritual nuances of language. This impacted his storytelling, too, with Middle Earth serving as a canvas for the whole of life to be portrayed, showing spiritual realities through fantastical imaginings. Indeed, Tolkien himself reveals that his Magnum Opus was at root a spiritual project:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision…the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism.

This spiritual dimension is hardly surprising given the author’s background. His mother entered into the Catholic Church when Tolkien was eight years old, and, though she died four years later, she passed on a vibrant faith to the young boy. Since their father had passed away a few years before, Tolkien and his brother could easily have ended up in an orphanage, but a Catholic Oratorian priest and great friend to the family, Fr. Francis Morgan, took care of both the boys. From his Oratorian formation, Tolkien learned the joy of the faith and, trusting in the Church, came to hold steadfastly to perennial Christian orthodoxy for his entire life. Tolkien describes his fidelity to the Magisterium and the teaching of Catholicism with the following penetrating insight: 

I myself am convinced by the Petrine claims [i.e. of the papacy], nor looking around the world does there seem much doubt which (if Christianity is true) is the True Church, the temple of the Spirit dying but living, corrupt but holy, self-reforming and re-arising… But for me that Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head on earth has as chief claim that it is the one that has (and still does) ever defended the Blessed Sacrament, and given it most honour, and put (as Christ plainly intended) in the prime place… “Feed my sheep” was His last charge to St. Peter; and since His words are always first to be understood literally, I suppose them to refer primarily to the Bread of Life. It was against this that the W. European revolt (or Reformation) was really launched—‘the blasphemous fable of the Mass’—and faith/works a mere red herring.

A Marian and Sacramental Faith

Clearly, Tolkien was an orthodox believer who attempted to think through the implications of his religion, but his faith went deeper than that. In line with this papal fidelity, Tolkien cultivated a profound veneration of the Mother of God. Like all love, this devotion to Christ through Mary flowed out from Tolkien’s prayers out into every aspect of his life, including his writings. He cited her as the defining influence on his understanding and vision of Beauty. This is something which should not be overlooked, especially in a post-Christian secular world which is at simultaneously yearning for and haunted by vestigial Christianity. Tolkien’s works do not just appeal to Christian readers, but instead work to, as C.S. Lewis said of George MacDonald, “baptise the imagination.” Rediscovering the Beautiful, through Tolkien, has the potential to reconnect a fading civilisation to its foundations in the transcendent experience of beauty—both of God and of His acts in the world. The Catholic Church holds that one of God’s greatest creations is, of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Tolkien describes his Marian vision as follows:

I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.

Throughout his life, Tolkien fostered an increasing devotion to the transubstantiated Host, the Blessed Sacrament, which within Catholicism is understood to be the Body, Blood Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Tolkien suggested that Adoration of the Host and frequent communion, that is the consumption of the Holy Host at Mass, was of vital significance to the fostering of an authentic spiritual life. In a letter, Tolkien counselled his son to hold to the Eucharist through all life’s trials. As he put it,

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death.

The first two-thirds of this quotation are clearly beautiful, showing how Tolkien understood the great nobility of God’s love, but it is with the last word that the author moves into one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian life. He continues,

By the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste—or foretaste—of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.

He goes on to explain how devotion to the Eucharist is the greatest way to feed one’s faith through the many trials of this fallen world, saying that “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion,” and explaining that we are in continuous need for the support the Blessed Sacrament provides. He goes on,

Though always itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.

Tolkien encouraged his son to cultivate a Eucharistic piety that was not contingent on anything but Jesus Christ himself. Though it is perhaps easy to imagine that the aesthetically-attuned and anti-technology Tolkien would fall into worrying more about appearances than realities, he was in fact extremely aware of the need for Christians to except the gifts of the world as God gives them to us and to avoid all spiritual pride, a sin that is deadly to faith, hope, and love. Concretely, he recommends the following: 

Make your Communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children—from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn—open-necked and dirty youths… often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to Communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the Feeding of the Five Thousand—after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.

Tolkien even seems to have had a mystical experience whilst in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. While praying, he believed himself to have received a direct spiritual vision of his Guardian Angel, the vision expressing his yearning for Heaven and the depth of his perception of workings of Grace.

Tolkien’s discussion of the Sacraments was not limited to the Eucharist, and Catholics can also find spiritual fruit in praying on his comments on Christian marriage. The comments are particularly poignant in the context of his love of Edith his wife. This love, along with that for Christ, animated his daily life. His love for he was so deep that the story that he felt was the very centre of his legendarium is based on their love story. Though not as widely-known as The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, the tale of Beren and Luthien, told both in chapter 19 of The Silmarillion and in the recently-published Beren and Luthien. The tale mythopoetically expresses a love stronger than death, and Tolkien’s children decided to adorn their parents’ shared grave with the names Beren and Luthien. Whilst maintaining this reverential romanticism, Tolkien did not, however, shirk from teaching the reality of the necessity to found love on the will, and within a lifelong purgative struggle for virtue:

However, the essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called ‘self-realization’ (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification. For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify & direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him—as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state, as it provides easements. No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial.

The man who wrote these words wished to be a husband who loved his wife as Christ loves the Church, as St. Paul advises. His love for his wife can serve as an inspiration for married men. He even composed a beautiful wedding poem for Edith. It is a wonderful summation of the depth of his spousal tenderness, and reflects the purity of his heart.

Evangelisation and Fairy Stories

Thus far I have primarily discussed Tolkien’s explicitly religious writings, but his best-known works are, of course, the mythical tales of Middle Earth. While it would take a book to unpack the religious import of these writings, it is worth at least taking a moment to understand how Tolkien understood the purpose of myths and ‘fairy stories.’ All of Tolkien’s fantasy expresses Tolkien’s desire to make men aware of their fallen nature and their need for the God who is Love. He wished for the world to be evangelised, and his works were always rooted in the Mysteries of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his work “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien expresses the seminal connection between fairy stories and the Gospel narrative as follows:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending; or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

While his purpose here is an explanation of all fairy stories, in this passage Tolkien gives a helpful key to interpreting his own art. He is deeply concerned that his stories be imbued with the resonance of mystery of the joy of the Gospel, even though their setting is in an entirely imagined fantasy world. Tolkien saw that the miracle of the Christian Faith, Resurrection of Christ, is a light that illumines the whole of his own artistic work, his “sub-creation,” a word to describe the process of creating a world that is invented but contains an inner logic and semblance to our world. As the father of modern fantasy, Tolkien’s work has been highly influential, but his conception of the artistic act as sub-creation has also born immense fruit over the last century. 

Tolkien went so far as to say that he ‘discovered’ Middle Earth. The term Tolkien used for his created world is, of course ‘Middle Earth,’ but many do not realise that he did not invent this name. The Old English ‘middengeard’ is a standard term for the world. Crucially, Tolkien takes inspiration from the Old English Gospels, in which Jesus himself teaches his disciples (literally “learning knights”) that “ge synd middengeardes leoht,” which directly translates as “you are the light of Middle Earth.” In this way Tolkien embraced a sacramental vision in which the holiness of the Holy Spirit or the Secret Fire, as he puts it, could be seen to illuminate his heroes in their quests and journeys against the forces of Hell. 

Tolkien’s thought on mythology, fairy stories, and the Gospel are also expressed in poem he composed entitled “Mythopoeia” (myth-making). The ideas of this poem helped bring forth the conversion of C. S. Lewis, who had previously struggled with the idea that myths could contain truth. We cannot overlook the fact that it was Tolkien’s thought, prayer, and witness which elucidated his friend’s mind, heart, and soul. Lewis has brought thousands of people to Christianity, and Tolkien, in part, helped bring his friend to faith. The poem is extended and deserving of close attention, but allow me to point to one selection in which Tolkien speaks of his love for the traditional Christian imagination:

In Paradise perchance the eye may stray

from gazing upon everlasting Day

to see the day-illumined, and renew

from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.

Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see

that all is as it is, and yet may free:

Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,

garden not gardener, children not their toys.

Evil it will not see, for evil lies

not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,

not in the source but in the tuneless voice.

In Paradise they look no more awry;

and though they make anew, they make no lie.

Be sure they still will make, not been dead,

and poets shall have flames upon their head,

and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:

there each shall choose for ever from the All.

Prayers for canonisation

It is clear from his own words that the animating principles of Tolkien’s life and virtue were rooted in his love of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary within a fervently lived Catholic faith. While we do not know if it is God’s will for Tolkien to be declared a saint, we can certainly gain spiritual nourishment from his life and works and pray that a cause for his canonisation be opened. An informal organisation, The Cause for the Canonisation of Tolkien, has thus worked to proliferate the message of Tolkien’s piety through organising Conferences, the first of which was the “More Than Memory Spiritual Conference” at St. Margaret’s College, University of Oxford in 2019, which was a symposium focusing on the spiritual legacy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s life and writings. Flowing from the success of this event, a further symposium is being arranged at Tolkien’s own college, Exeter, but this has been postponed due to COVID-19. This symposium will focus specifically on Tolkien’s Canonisation Cause, and it has been given permission to use the chapel at the college for a Latin Mass, which was Tolkien’s liturgical preference. 

Four Masses have been offered around the world praying for the Canonisation of Tolkien. The first was on Tolkien’s anniversary, the 2nd of September 2017, at his parish, the Oxford Oratory St. Aloysius, and his granddaughter was in attendance. The provost of the Oratory, Fr. Daniel Seward, offered the Mass. Following this Mass in England, a second Mass was offered in New York in 2017, a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit in sung Latin, that was attended by many young people; also praying for Tolkien’s Cause. Two further Masses were offered in 2020 in Mexico and in Canada. These Masses are landmarks for building the spiritual foundations of Tolkien’s Cause and demonstrate that there is widespread international devotion to Tolkien and the sanctity of his life and vision.

Another significant moment for Tolkien’s Cause was the writing of a Tolkien Marian Consecration by Pierre Ingram, this spiritual work enables a person to make a Marian Consecration through Tolkien’s vision of Middle Earth. During the Tolkien Marian Consecration 2020, an official image for Tolkien’s Cause was created by UK artist Matt Livermore. The image depicts Tolkien kneeling before Our Lady who is handing him The Silmarillion, Tolkien has the Secret Fire above his head, and in the background there are hobbit holes. One of the most vocal advocates of Tolkien’s spiritual richness, the writer and lecturer Joseph Pearce, was happy to come on board with the Canonisation movement, so too the Bishop Barron of Los Angeles, who accepted to receive the official image that was created for Tolkien’s Cause along with a copy for his secretary. Bishop Barron refers to Tolkien as a “Master Evangelist.” 

Another example of Tolkien’s influence in contemporary Catholic spirituality is Silverion Camps, which was founded in 2019. It is a Catholic Medieval Fantasy Camp that evangelises young people aged 8-16 through an immersion in a world inspired by Tolkien’s vision. This method is used to evangelise young people through catechesis and the Sacraments, but all within a fantasy narrative where the children fight with swords and bows and arrows against the armies of Hell! This camp has permission to use the 10 Tyburn Monasteries, and while it has thus far only been held in New Zealand, there are also hopes to hold it in Australia, England, France, Italy, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Ireland and Scotland. The evangelisation of children through Tolkien’s vision is seen by the Cause of the Canonisation of Tolkien as a wise move with regards to promoting his cult. 

Finally, the following prayer has been produced by the Cause and is available in nine languages, it expressed clearly the Causes purpose and can be prayed as a private devotion, readers are encouraged warmly to do so, in the hope that the Cause will one day be officially opened. As Fr Daniele Pietro Ercoli explains, since there is no official canonical instituted Cause yet with the Archdiocese of the Birmingham, the first step is the spreading of his fame of sanctity; then, an association should be founded for longevity under the Bishop’s guidance and via a postulator, so for this we must pray:

O Blessed Trinity, we thank You for having graced the Church with John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and for allowing the poetry of Your Creation, the mystery of the Passion of Your Son and the symphony of the Holy Spirit to shine through him and his sub-creative imagination. Trusting fully in Your infinite mercy and in the maternal intercession of Mary, he has given us a living image of Jesus the Wisdom of God Incarnate, and he has shown us that holiness is the necessary measure of ordinary Christian life and is the way of achieving eternal communion with You in the Daily Eucharist. Grant us, by his intercession, and according to Your will, the graces we implore…, hoping that he will soon be numbered among Your saints. Amen.

Daniel Côté Davis is a teacher, poet and artist. He produced the film Tolkien About Faith, The Call of Beauty (2019) to advocate for Tolkien’s Cause. He is the founder of Silverion Camps LTD a Catholic Medieval fantasy camp for 8-16 year olds. 

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