This evening after dinner my wife and I were sitting with the children in our chairs in our living room, my wife in her wide, low-backed chair where she likes to sit, under the windows overlooking the garden and facing south and the sun’s warmth from dawn till dusk, holding our toddler daughter in her lap, I in my tall-backed recliner next to her, with my son in my lap, reading Shel Silverstein poems.
The sun was still up so it was a surprise when my wife said:
“It’s already past their bed time.”
“Really? What time is it?”
She looked out the windows, pointing across the street to the church parking lot, which was full of cars. “Must be after seven. There’s Mass and Stations of the Cross.”
While the children were getting ready for bed I gave my son a goal, to keep himself on the task at hand—the impossibly difficult task—of putting on pajamas and brushing teeth. “If you get your pajamas on with time to spare, we can read some of the Fellowship of the Ring.”
We recently bought—my wife and I—a very handsome single-volume edition of the Lord of the Rings. I was surprised to learn recently that it was Tolkien’s vision for the story to publish it as a single story divided internally into six “books”, but that the constraints of the times forced him to release it in thirds.
So my son brought the ponderous tome to my bedroom, and I surprised him by telling him to turn off the light and bring my little booklight—one with a clip to attach it to the book and a little light to turn onto the page. “Get a pillow from your cot and come here.”
I led him to a corner of the room, a little alcove, really: three walls and one way in, enough space between two closets and the wall for us to sit secretly in the dark with our little light shining, and read the following.
“‘What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had the chance!’
‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, becuase he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’
‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’
‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.
‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’
‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least. In any case we did not kill him: he is very old and very wretched. The Wood-elves have him in prison, but they treat him with such kindness as they can find in their wise hearts.’
‘All the same,’ said Frodo, ‘even if Bilbo could not kill Gollum, I wish he had not kept the Ring. I wish he had never found it, and that I had not got it! Why did you let me keep it? Why didn’t you make me throw it away, or, or destroy it?’
‘Let you? Make you?’ said the wizard. ‘Haven’t you been listening to all that I have said?’”
It’s ironic that I read this today, after teasing my friend at lunch—we all knew he was right—about what inferences one can make about the sincerity of a particular politician’s professions of religion, from her explicit public statements and voting record. I was merely being flippant when I said, “You can’t read her heart”—
—to which he responded, “No, I can read her lips!”
But ultimately it is one thing to identify timeserving careerism, another to ring the bell on the end of the day before the eleventh hour has played out, even if we all spend that hour completely alone.
God willing, if we are too careless to seek solitude in the first twenty-three, we will be inspired by a chance encounter to seek it in the last.
Thanks, dear reader, for being the gadfly of my discipline.