By Fr. Stephen Freeman, November 1, 2015
Somewhere in the late 60’s (my teen years), I found myself home recuperating from an appendectomy. In those days they actually recommended a period of convalescence before returning to normal activities (today’s medical advice, written in insurance offices, deems recuperation to be a needless bit of a money-drain). But I suddenly had extra time on my hands with little to do. I searched the bookshelves for something unread, or even worth re-reading. And there sat a small set of 4 books that had been a Christmas present from my aunt (at some previous Christmas). And since they were given to me by an aunt, I had assumed they were more for improvement than pleasure, so I had ignored them. But this was just the sort of convalescence that could make you at least skim such things.
The small set of books turned out to be Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I had never heard of them and neither had anyone I knew (except my aunt). I started with the Hobbit. My convalescence stretched into a full week. I read the whole set without interruption. It was an introduction to something for which I had no words.
In hindsight, I am convinced that making the Hobbit movies has been a terrible mistake. It is almost impossible now to approach some of the greatest literature of the 20th century without expectation or with proper wonder and surprise. The movies have, I think, actually managed to disenchant Middle Earth.
What I had no word for, though, has a word: faerie. Tolkien knew the word and discussed it with great care and understanding. It is a generic term for a certain kind of story. The Hobbit books were Tolkien’s own attempt at writing faerie.
I had a similar experience when, several years later, I stumbled across C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. He was famous for the Screwtape Letters at the time, while his children’s books were not so well known (the movies had not been made). And though very different from Tolkien, they carried the sense of some unspeakable, similar, experience.
The words that eventually came to me were not in the category of faerie. Instead, at about the same time as my reading, I encountered the Kingdom of God. It’s not that I had never heard the phrase (I’m from the South – I had heard readings from the Bible throughout my life), but unlike a mere phrase from the Bible, or a synonym for heaven, I began to hear the Kingdom of God spoken of as a reality. One place I heard the phrase was in Tolstoy’s essays (which I read at this period in my life). But I also began to hear it from some Christians.
If you read through the 13th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, you will see the “parables of the Kingdom.” Jesus tells stories and compares the Kingdom to a mustard seed, to a pearl of great price, to a lost coin, etc. It’s as if Jesus Himself were searching for a word whose meaning could only be suggested by stories. “It is like…”
But a very clear heart connection was made for me at the time. “The Kingdom of God is like Middle Earth”… “the Kingdom of God is like the Land of Narnia.” It began as an intuition but has become a clear conviction. And, strangely, it is not unconnected to my conversion to Orthodox Christianity.
First, there is this: the Kingdom of God is not a reference to “going to heaven.” Christ speaks of it as a present tense reality. He also speaks of it as a present place reality. It is here. But it is also not “here” in the same manner as those things people consider most obvious. Christ has to point to it. The Kingdom of God is revealed.
In Orthodoxy, there is a clear fascination with hiding things and then revealing them. It is a common theme in the liturgies of the Church. In this sense, Orthodoxy is inherently apocalyptic (apocalypsis=to reveal what is hidden). Of course, when the priest closes the doors of the altar and draws the curtain, everyone knows what is going on. But the action is still taken. What is important must be hidden. But what is hidden must also be made known. The curtain is opened, the doors are opened, and what is hidden is revealed. I believe it is a very deep form of liturgical teaching. For what is most important about life and essential for our salvation is, at first, a hidden thing. We must learn to look for it, and we must learn to actually see it when it is revealed. It is a theme that runs through Christ’s parables.
The Kingdom of God is like Middle Earth. It is in a very great and dangerous struggle between a dark lord and the powers of Light. The most common and simple things may very well be the most important. Hobbits are like pleasant human beings who go about their business, never realizing the great and terrible things happening around them – until, one day, you are caught up in the adventure of salvation itself.
The Kingdom of God is like the Land of Narnia. It often appears in the oddest places when you least expect it. But there are doors from here to there, or maybe everywhere is a door if you know how to open it.
In all of this, and in my experience beginning at that young period, I have known that the Kingdom of God should be thought of as a place, a reality, the in-breaking of another world, or the revealing of this world in its true form.
Faerie is an attempt to say this but does it in very imaginative forms. You read such stories and something about them rings true, like something you remember but can’t quite put your finger on. The Kingdom of God is exactly what you’ve been looking for all your life, but might not have had the words to say it or think it.
Have you had a glimpse of beauty that overwhelmed you? Or read a story that made your heart wish it were true? Well, it’s all true…the Kingdom, that is. It’s the faerie tale you were afraid might only be a bedtime story.
~Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/11/01/a-faerie-apocalypse/.