Last week, I spent two days giving talks at beautiful St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, to seminarians engaged in a monthly spiritual formation program.
When the director contacted me some months ago and asked me to come, I went through any number of topics I thought might be of interest — St. Thomas Aquinas’s spiritual theology, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the life of virtue — and then I added, “I could also talk about Tolkien.” “TOLKIEN!” He said with eager certainty.
I was a little surprised, but not entirely. I had been recommended to Fr. Vito by Dr. Anthony Lilles, Dean of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, and founder of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation , who likewise lit up when I said I could offer modules on Tolkien’s works for their pre-seminary program. And an official at a Great Hearts School in Phoenix similarly jumped when I included Tolkien among Plato, American documents, and other possible topics.
Why such a strong response from these educational leaders? I think it is a testament to the contemporary neglect, undermining, and corruption of the imagination. They must realize that the philosophy and theology which forms the crown of the Catholic intellectual tradition (or Western intellectual tradition for charter schools) is fleshless without a well-formed sacramental imagination. Thomistic accounts of prudence, perseverance, truthfulness, fidelity cannot convey the wisdom they contain without powerful examples of those virtues embodied in characters like, Gandalf, Aragorn, and Faramir, Frodo and Sam. Nor can priests effectively teach their congregations if they are not readily able to exemplify the doctrine they would pass on.
Tolkien’s characters can speak in a particular way to future priests, providing inspiring instances of male leadership in a world that shrinks from the very idea. Careful readings and re-readings of Lord of the Rings chapters like “The Shadow of the Past”, “The Window on the West”, and “The Passing of the Grey Company” faithfully show strong, committed leaders, under great duress, become the heroes their people need.