One of my favorite bits of dialogue in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring presents us with an age-old debate about spiritual disciplines in general, and the Christian season of Lent in particular.
Before embarking on their Journey to Mordor, Elrond—the Lord of Rivendale—shares a final message with the Company that is to join Frodo on his quest.
Frodo himself is bound to complete the journey, while the members of the Company are “free companions” that may “come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows.” Gimli, the renowned Dwarf warrior, gives a response that begins the dialogue in question.
‘Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,’ said Gimli.
‘Maybe,’ said Elrond, ‘but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.’
‘Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,’ said Gimli.
‘Or break it,’ said Elrond.
Gimli argues that a vow made on the front end of a journey may serve as a sustaining force for when difficulty is faced. Elrond counters that, at times, the weight of such a vow might actually break one’s will along the way. Both positions are worthy of considering further, but what light can this conversation shed on the ancient Christian practice of Lent?
The Church Calendar has historically served as a way to center our lives around the life of Christ, and the season of Lent serves (1) as an opportunity to re-live Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness and (2) as a period of preparation for our celebration of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. It has traditionally been celebrated as a season for fasting, the adoption of a new spiritual practice, and giving of time and money to the poor. These practices are not particular to Lent, but are in fact some of the most central practices of the Christian faith, commanded repeatedly throughout the New Testament (see Matthew 6:1-18). In this sense, Lent is a season that simply asks Christians to act as Christians.
So how then should we approach Lent? With Gimli’s determination and rigidity, or with Elrond’s patience and grace?
The Church’s answer to this questions, as is so often the case, is “yes” to both.
Be like Gimli as you fight against sin in your own life and injustice in the world. Use this period of 40 days to re-center your spiritual life. Don’t allow our various cultural calendars dictate your devotion to Christ. Put forth effort to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). On Ash Wednesday, after all, the Church is called to “the observance of a Holy Lent.”
But also remember that we are often more like the first Adam, who failed his temptation in the garden, than we are like the second Adam, who triumphed over temptation in the wilderness.
Be like Elrond as you let your failure during this season serve as another reminder of your need for a savior. Don’t let your adoption of new disciplines “puff up” your ego, but instead recognize them for what they are: gifts from God given to a sinner who does not deserve them.
May this Lenten season be for us one more way “that we may remember that it is only by God’s gracious gift that we are given everlasting life.” (BCP, 265)