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Thror’s Map

September 18, 2010

I just started reading The Hobbit to my two older girls at bedtime, after prayers. It brings back a lot of memories for me. From my early teen years I have read The Hobbit and The  Lord of the Rings a number of times. While I have more important things to do with my time than sit an read fiction, I am glad for the chance to use the time to share one of my favorite stories with my girls. The map in the picture above is one that was written by one of the main character’s father and grandfather, and is found in the front of the book. I remember the scene at Rivendell, when Elrond is looking over the map and realizes there were “moon letters” on it. These were magical letters that could only be seen and read by moonlight on midsummer night. Lucky for Bilbo and company, they just happened to be at Elrond’s house on the exact right night to read them (very convenient). The words were a riddle of sorts about how to find the secret entrance to the Lonely Mountain, Thorin’s abandoned kingdom, now inhabited by Smaug the Dragon.

In my catechism with my priest Fr Patrick, I have been reading a book by then Bishop (now Metropolitan) Hilarion Alfeyev, called The Mystery Of Faith. We are going over the chapter on the sacraments, the holy mysteries of the Church. I have also been reading the excellent reflection of Fr Stephen Freeman in his blog, Glory To God For All Things, in which his last entry spoke of knowing God is contingent upon a sense of wonder, and not pure rationalism or reasoned deduction. Like the moon letters on Thror’s map, the work of God in our lives and especially in the Holy Mysteries of the Church, are only “visible” in the proper light, so to speak. The conditions are not external, as was the case with the magical letters. The condition is internal. Having said that, a sacrament is, objectively, what it is. Whether or not we believe it or not, a sacrament is the spiritual being acted upon with and through the physical, by the Spirit of God. In this sense there is an externality to the reality of a sacrament.

The internality of it is the disposition of the person. This disposition is one of faith. Something else I have learned about, is something called a mandorla. For those who have never heard of it, it’s a depiction of a spiritual event on an icon. Something that would have only been “seen” with the eyes of faith, or by a very few people God allowed to see it. St Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus is an example of this.

Some may read this, who, like myself, have a background that is unfamiliar with sacraments, let me reiterate what I said above. The Sacraments, or holy mysteries are the spiritual imparted on a person or persons, via the physical. It is also a participation in the heavenly reality. It is a participation with the living Christ, in the Holy Spirit, by means of a physical rite and/or sanctified item (such as oil, water, wine, bread, etc) Some of my Protestant friends may ask the same question I once asked. “Do you really believe that sacraments are real? How does something physical impart something spiritual? That’s just superstition.” It would be if the focus was merely on an object that is believed to have some kind of power of itself, or a ritual that is believed to be a “magic formula”.

I once thought a sacramental understanding was superstition. Then I recalled all the places in the Bible where an object carried a spiritual grace, both positive and negative. The ark of the covenant killed a man who touched it, and also caused injury to the Philstines. Those who received the Eucharist unworthily became sick and even died. St Elisha’s bones brought a man back to life. St Peter’s shadow healed the sick, as well as St Paul’s handkerchief. The Hem of Christ’s garment healed many. The belief in the Orthodox Church is that God’s grace is not simply used once, then gone. Instead it uses something or someone, and abides. This is a mystery. We know that it is, but we don’t know how. It’s working is hidden, which is what the greek word mysterion means. This is the biblical definition of a mystery. We don’t try to qualify it with “rational” explanation, because it is beyond that. It is spiritual. As one priest told me, “It is what it is.” If it were but the foolishness of God, it would be far above the wisdom of man to try and figure out.

As I have said before, all these things are centered around the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. Because He took on flesh, which bears the same elements as all creation, our relation with God and the material is forever altered. His death not only renewed our relationship to God, but also the whole Cosmos (as is sung in the hymns of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross). Because of what He has done, we can relate to Him, in this material world. Material is not devoid of spirit at best, and evil at worst. It is renewed by its Creator, just as we have been.

I don’t pretend to understand this. I am still learning, and have a long way to go. When I am received into the Church, and will finally experience the Holy Mysteries first hand, then I will be able to comprehend with just a little more fullness. And even then, it is like coming to faith in Christ. It is just the first step of a long journey. To be illumined and participate in the Holy Mysteries bears with it the responsibility of obedience. The Orthodox call it synergy. In fact, when Paul speaks of us being “co-laborers with Christ” the greek word is synergia. But just so there is no confusion, it is not a 50/50 deal; half me, half God. It is all God. I simply respond to His working in my by the Holy Spirit. I can do nothing without Him, but He won’t do anything without me (so to speak). Paul speaks of this when he says, “It is not I, but the grace of God works in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the Son of God.”

What a great wonder, that with the eyes of faith I can see, “Oh look! Moon letters.” And then one day, if I heed the words on the map, I will be in the right place to hear the bird crack snail shells, see the sunbeam shine of the keyhole, and be able to unlock the door, finding that hidden entrance to the Lonely Mountain. (You’d have to at least have seen the cartoon movie to get that last part)

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