09 July 2012

'A Perfect House'—Elves, Monasticism, & Leisure

In this post I mentioned John Senior’s comparison of his first experience in the refectory of Fontgombault abbey to Odysseus’s words about the banquet in Book IX of The Odyssey

When Odysseus begins the recitation of his wanderings, addressing the lords and ladies at the palace of Alcinous in Phaecia, he says (in E.V. Rieu’s Penguin edition): 
'I myself feel that there is nothing more delightful than when the festive mood reigns in a whole people’s hearts and the banqueters listen to a minstrel from their seats in the hall, while the tables before them are laden with bread and meat, and a steward carries round the wine he has drawn from the bowl and fills their cups. This, to my way of thinking, is something very like perfection.' 
Such a banquet in the Odyssey is in the secular order the pale reflection of an evening meal in the religious order here, which is not something like, but the life of perfection itself. [1] 

Well, I was recently reminded afresh of monastic-Homeric connections when reading James Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge. Taylor quotes from a fascinating essay by John Henry Newman, ‘The Mission of St Benedict’, of which I shall give slightly more than he does: 

And therefore have I called the monastic state the most poetical of religious disciplines. It was a return to that primitive age of the world, of which poets have so often sung, the simple life of Arcadia or the reign of Saturn, when fraud and violence were unknown. It was a bringing back of those real, not fabulous, scenes of innocence and miracle, when Adam delved, or Abel kept sheep, or Noe planted the vine, and Angels visited them. [2] 

Newman’s examples are, of course, appropriately biblical. But everything he says here tends to remind me of the passage I quoted here from Dame Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon

Exactly similar movements must have been made a million million million times since the world began, yet the thrust of her arm seemed absolutely fresh. Well, it is so in the Iliad. When one reads of a man drawing a bow or raising a shield it is as if the dew of the world’s morning lay undisturbed on what he did. The primal stuff of humanity is very attractive. [3] 

I think this is part of what attracts me about monasticism. It attracts me about Homer, children, trees, beer, and music. It’s the festal, the contemplative, the wonderful, the poetic. 

But to Senior’s analogy in Homer I can add another, fuller one, which will take some time to expound. As I was rereading Tolkien with my students last year, I had a realisation. In The Hobbit, the narrator says of Rivendell—‘His [Elrond’s] house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.’ [4] But when Frodo arrives there in Book 2, Chapter 1 of The Lord of the Rings, the quotation, now attributed to Bilbo as the feigned narrator of The Hobbit, is slightly different: ‘That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, “a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all”. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.’ [5] 

First of all, note that ‘work’, which was included in the original comment, is now missing from the list of activities. I find this significant for Tolkien’s portrayal of Rivendell in LOTR. But this is not the only reference to the kind of activities typically engaged in at Rivendell (I shall add italics for emphasis in the next several quotes). In the very next sentence after the quoted passage, we read, ‘As the evening drew on, Frodo woke up again, and he found that he no longer felt in need of rest or sleep, but had a mind for food and drink, and probably for singing and story-telling afterwards.’ So here, we find a repetition of a few of precisely the same activities as Frodo tries to choose among them. 

But there is more. Shortly after awaking, Frodo is visited by Sam, who expresses an interest in the singing, to which Frodo replies, ‘But you shall be merry tonight, and listen to your heart’s content.’ A little later, Gandalf is pointing out the Hall of Fire with the comment: ‘Here you will hear many songs and tales—if you can keep awake. But except on high days it usually stands empty and quiet, and people come here who wish for peace, and thought. There is always a fire here, all the year round, but there is little other light.’ [6] When Frodo finally discovers Bilbo in the Hall, he asks, ‘What were you doing?’, to which the old hobbit replies, ‘Why, sitting and thinking. I do a lot of that nowadays, and this is the best place to do it in, as a rule.’ [7] A little further on, Bilbo says, ‘And I listen and I think. Time doesn’t seem to pass here: it just is. A remarkable place altogether.’ [8] 

As I reread these passages, it dawned on me that with the exclusion of work from the list, all of the activities associated with Rivendell become ‘leisure’ activities, that is, they are all fundamentally contrasted with work in the sense of ‘hustle and bustle’ but also in the more particular sense of activity directed toward some utilitarian end. [9] Furthermore, while the hobbits seem to be prone to falling asleep, and everyone knows they love their food and drink, the remaining activities are precisely contemplative ones, whether listening to song or story, or thinking. In other words, like philosophy itself according to Josef Pieper, these activities are forms of ‘theorein, or speculari (to observe, behold, contemplate), consisting in a purely receptive gaze on reality...untouched by anything practical’. [10] 

Of course, ‘leisure is the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit’, [11] and there is a feast at Rivendell. But Tolkien concentrates on the qualities and appearance of the persons present rather than the elements, as in Odysseus’s praise of the feast, contenting himself with ‘The feast was merry and the food all that his hunger could desire.’ [12] On the other hand, Tolkien’s description of the music which, in this case, follows the eating, is striking indeed. It is not only an example of what my friend Michael Milburn points out is one of Tolkien’s definitions of Faery—‘Enchantment’ [13]—but also evidence that, in Pieper’s words, ‘music may be nothing but a secret philosophizing of the soul, an Exercitium Metaphysice Occultum.’ [14] Here is Tolkien’s description of this part of the feast: 

Frodo was left to himself for a while, for Sam had fallen asleep....But those near him were silent, intent upon the music of the voices and the instruments, and they gave no heed to anything else. Frodo began to listen. 
At first the beauty of the melodies and of the interwoven words in elven-tongues, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall become like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the enchantment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him. Swiftly he sank under its shining weight into a deep realm of sleep. [15] 

This experience of falling asleep in a dark hall lit only by flames, while beautiful voices sing beautiful melodies fit to words that one understands little, is familiar to me, and likely to many other Orthodox, from the monastic vigils of the Holy Mountain. [16] The connection becomes clearer when Bilbo points out that the music is a sacred song, a hymn to the ‘archangel’ Elbereth, remarking, ‘They will sing that, and other songs of the Blessed Realm, many times tonight.’ [17] Compare Frodo’s experience with that of Elder Porphyrios at his first vigil on the Holy Mountain: 

One night there was a vigil service at the Kyriakon, the church of the Holy Trinity. This was very shortly after I had arrived, during the first few days. Our skete was celebrating its feast day. My elders left in the early evening for the church and left me in the hermitage to sleep. I was young and they thought I might not be able to stay awake until the morning when the vigil would end. 
After midnight Father Ionnikios came and woke me up. ‘Wake up and get dressed,’ he said, ‘and we’ll go to the church.’ 
I jumped up at once and in three minutes we had arrived at the Holy Trinity church. He ushered me into the church first. It was the first time I had been inside. I was overwhelmed! The church was filled with monks standing upright in an attitude of reverence and attentiveness. The chandeliers shed their light everywhere, lighting up the icons on the walls and on the icon stands. Everything was bright and shining. The little oil lamps were lit, the incense exuded fragrance and the singing resonated devoutly in the otherworldly beauty of the night. I was overcome with awe, but also with fear. I felt that I was no longer on earth, but that I had been transported to heaven. [18] 

Notice that the setting and experience are quite similar, down to the details, and just as Frodo is transported into a realm of ‘visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined’, so the young Elder Porphyrios was ‘transported to heaven’. There is even the concern with sleepiness. Sam is already asleep and Frodo himself falls asleep. Bilbo observes: ‘It is difficult to keep awake here, until you get used to it,...Not that hobbits would ever acquire quite the elvish appetite for music and poetry and tales. They seem to like them as much as food, or more. They will be going on for a long time yet....’ [19] 

Why do the hobbits become so sleepy? Because Rivendell is a monastery, and the elves are monks. The hobbits, like Elder Porphyrios at his first vigil, are fresh from the world. They are not able to enter fully into the contemplative experience of festal celebration. They are still fixated on the lower activities of Rivendell—food and drink and sleep—and are not able to stand through so many hymns. But in Pieper’s words, ‘the heart of leisure consists in “festival”’, and ‘if celebration and festival is the heart of leisure, then leisure would derive its innermost possibility and justification from the very source whence festival and celebration derive theirs. And this is worship.’ [20] The elves, like monks, enter fully into this experience—they can ‘run and not be weary’: 

And so since you will thirst for the words of the poetic canons, of the Psalter and of all the church service books, and since you will desire to read, hear and take them to heart, as soon as the simantron sounds, you will run at once with love and eagerness to hear the first words of the daily cycle of prayer...Our soul is gladdened and our hearing is sweetened as we hear the hymns and something happens within us. [21] 

[1] John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture (Norfolk, VA: IHS, 2008), p. 102. In the original post, I quoted the translation of Robert Fitzgerald.

[2] John Henry Newman, Rise & Progress of Universities and Benedictine Essays, Vol. 3 of The Works of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Birmingham Oratory, Millennium Edition (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 2001), pp. 385; qtd. in James Taylor, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1998), p. 35. 

[3] Dame Rebecca West, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (NY: Viking, 1943), p. 1044. 

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There & Back Again (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 48. 

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), p. 219. While making extensive use of the Lord of the Rings Companion this year, I began to realise acutely that I need a copy of the new edition of LOTR, which has been carefully corrected and emended in many places. 

[6] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 224. 

[7] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 224. 

[8] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 225. 

[9] Eating and drinking of course, can be seen as serving the utilitarian end of nourishing our bodies, but we do not choose to eat primarily for such an end, but more for the enjoyment of it. 

[10] Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, tr. Gerald Malsbary (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s, 1998), p. 77. 

[11] Pieper, Leisure, p. 33. 

[12] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 221. 

[13] In his terrific article, ‘Coleridge’s Definition of Imagination & Tolkien’s Definition(s) of Faery’, Tolkien Studies, Vol. VII, ed. Douglas A. Anderson, Michael D.C. Drout, & Verlyn Flieger (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia U, 2010) pp. 55-66, Michael writes: 

For when Tolkien expresses regret at having used the word ‘Magic’ to define Faery (since it ‘should be reserved for the operations of the Magician’), he offers another words instead: ‘Enchantment’, a term he uses to refer to the ‘elvish craft’ of ‘“Faerian Drama”—those plays which according to abundant records’, i.e. fairy-stories, ‘the elves have often presented to men...’ (On Fairy Stories 63-64). Tolkien explains, ‘Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside...’ (64). This means that if you are present at a Faerian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it’ (63). (pp. 59-60.) 

[14] Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings: Art & Contemplation, tr. Lothar Krauth (SF: Ignatius, 1990), p. 39. 

[15] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 227. 

[16] I have also experienced in a monastic setting—the women’s monastery of the Archangel Michael on the island of Thasos—precisely what Tolkien describes when he writes, ‘[S]uddenly it seemed to Frodo that Arwen turned towards him, and the light of her eyes fell on him from afar and pierced his heart’ (232). 

[17] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 232. 

[18] Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love: The Life & the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, ed. Sisters of the Holy Convent of Chrysopigi (Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2005), p. 11. 

[19] Tolkien, LOTR, p. 231. 

[20] Pieper, Leisure, p. 50. 

[21] Elder Porphyrios, p. 164.


janotec said...

This is lovely, in the best possible meaning. I'm keeping it in my files. You captured the similarity of Tolkien's light (however shattered) and the ecstatic experience of the presence of uncreated light.

Aaron Taylor said...

Thanks, Father. Macrina just said she couldn't decide whether it might be delusional or not! ;-)

The whole issue of Tolkien's light and uncreated light might be a neat idea to be dealt with more fully and explicitly in a future post. Or it might be delusional...