It’s late October, 2020. A nail biter of an election looms. We’ve been boxed out of the public sector for months, unable to go to many of our favorite places because of COVID restrictions. Many of our rights have been taken away for months on end. Our churches are closed or tightly restricted. People who formerly got along are fighting. There is violence all over the country. There’s an ideological war going on constantly. The days are getting darker.
This week, one of our best friends is in the hospital, with cancer, and his body is shutting down. He’s actually, with his wife, the legal guardian of our children in our will should we both die – a relic from when we had only one child and lived in the same state that we have yet to rectify. He’s far away, lost in a stupor of pain, unable to text or speak on the phone. Turning over in bed is painful for him. We can hold onto him only through our prayers, in our shared connection with Christ, and through his wife my dear friend Sarah.
Four years ago at this time we were facing another contentious election. Another best friend – the godfather of our children – was in the hospital, with a cancer diagnosis that left little hope of his survival. The last time he “liked” an instagram photo of mine was on Halloween. He died on Thanksgiving Day 2016. It feels eerily, horribly familiar. While Chris’s cancer isn’t the same as Ray’s, and we expect and hope for healing and a long life so Chris can father his children, some days are very dark indeed.
I know you all feel it right now, even if no one you love is dying. It’s a dark time indeed. Personally, I don’t think any big problems will be solved with this election. I hope some of them will, but I’m afraid of what the alternate reality holds. I’ve never lived through such a scary or helpless-feeling period of time. I know it’s the same for everyone else.
This time last year I found out about this podcast – Amon Sul – from a fellow Tolkien nerd. He said, “it’s Orthodox priests talking about Tolkien” and I had never heard a lovelier sentence come out of anyone’s mouth. While it isn’t strictly Orthodox priests (Father Andrew has guests from the Orthodox church, academia, and even the military on the show), it’s seriously some of the most beautiful theological, symbological, and literary talk available in the world. Every episode is like: ‘’Ah! the green smell! It is better than much sleep.”
In one of the most recent episodes, Dr. Lisa Coutras does a deep dive into the story of Turin Turambar, which, if you have read the Silmarillion, you know is a very dark story. It is a story Dr. Coutras says she finds beautiful, which is odd, but the reason is so moving. She loves the story because it’s a profound example of what she loves – and what I love – about Tolkien, and that is his sense of hope in the face of great darkness and impossible odds.
In fact, after hearing that episode I started thinking about how on Henry’s and my first date, (Thai food in Glen Ellyn followed by a flute recital at Wheaton), I quoted to him a line I had read that day from the Silmarillion whilst eating lunch in my car on my break at the “I Sold it On eBay” store. And he cried.
I don’t remember the story, and I can’t find it now, but I remember this line, “beyond all hope.” It’s so piercing you want to read it again and again. It’s the reason I read LOTR every year. Hope is the virtue uniting every one of Tolkien’s stories. Real hope. Hope in deepest darkness. Hope in the face of certain torture and death. Hope written by a man who lost his whole generation in the trenches of WWI; who was spared (I think, so he could help save a people yet unborn [me]) because he got sick and couldn’t fight. Mighty and mysterious is the hand that preserved JRR Tolkien and formed him into such a sword. Did he know he was a man like the heroes of his stories? Hope, that sees somehow beyond all hope. That somehow, we will come out into the light of day.
Hope is elemental. There’s nothing similar to, but more pure than hope. You can’t reason your way to hope, nor prove to someone why you should hope. Sometimes you must choose to hope, as Aragorn does repeatedly in the face of impossible odds. Sometimes, hope is bestowed for a moment, as when Sam sees a star in the middle of Mordor and remembers that there is something beyond him and untouched by his troubles, and he is at peace.
Henry cried on our first date because he was a mere 2 years into his long battle with chronic fatigue syndrome and had already given up on getting answers. The quote reminded him that he could hope, and that hope was not wrong. I think sometimes we need permission to hope for the good things we want for the world and for our lives – health, wholeness, freedom from pain, children, friends, marriage, peace. Henry has not yet been healed of his illness (although he got a red-headed wife as a result of that date). He’s finally getting treatment that’s starting to help, but even if he wasn’t, hope never dies. In fact, that’s what sets us apart from the “heathen kings.” We hope.
We hope for healing of many things in this world: cancer, stupid elections, broken relationships. And we hope for the day when the battle will be over, when all wrongs will be righted, all pain made meaningful, every tear wiped away. We hope in the face of darkness, beyond all hope.