The Christian Heritage Centre


Between Cross and Resurrection

Between Cross and Resurrection: The Harrowing of Hell,
according to J.R.R. Tolkien

Stefan Kaminski
Andúril, The Sword of Aragorn - render by Morvos, published under CC Attribution-NonCommercial licence -

Easter time seems to get me reflecting on Tolkien’s Catholic imagination. I have previously written about how the dynamic of grace was portrayed in the experiences of the hobbit-protagonists of Tolkien’s Middle Earth sagas.

A key facilitator to this dynamic is, of course, the wizard Gandalf and the various ways in which he plays a Christ-like role, or otherwise serves to at least indicate the Divine action in some way. Gandalf offers spiritual and moral guidance to the hobbits and often speaks for, or of, what we might call Divine Providence. In fact, the word that most aptly captures Gandalf’s role is that of prophet. He speaks the truth: about the individual, about the worldly situation and about the cosmic order.

However, if one bears in mind Tolkien’s aversion to obvious analogy – and which is why too many people miss the foundational role of Catholicism in his writings, or try to undermine it – it is also unsurprising to find that one cannot pin-point a completely Christ-like figure either on Gandalf or any other single character in the Middle-Earth saga. Such a refraction of the roles that Christ fulfils into different characters within the saga is a rather more elegant solution, and decidedly more theologically-eloquent, than mere analogy.

Similarly, the events of Holy Saturday, tied up as they are with the nature of Christ’s kingship, find reflection in The Return of the King, the third book of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Paths of the Dead, by Darrell Sweet. This work is copyrighted and owned by Darrell Sweet's estate. It is believed that the use of this image on our website qualifies as fair use under copyright law in the United States of America

Whilst Frodo is approaching Mordor and the final stage of his quest to Mount Doom, Aragorn – the mysterious ranger – is to be found on what is considered by everyone else to be a suicidal mission. He decides to brave the Paths of the Dead, a subterranean mountain path, and home to a lost army of men, now dead, yet trapped by a curse that resulted from their own disobedience long ago. This army, if it can be made to obey, is crucial to countering the extra weight of Mordor’s allies, who are about to throw themselves against the human citadel of Minas Tirith, the seat of the Kingdom of Gondor.

The nub of the question, of course, is that of authority over this terrifying army. No living man could pass through and survive: the dead do not obey the living. Only one exception exists; and this takes us back to the origin of these men’s story. The curse that this army brought upon themselves was a result of their breaking oath to aid the Kingdom of Gondor against the forces of evil. That oath was made to the King of Gondor, and as such, the only person with the authority to command its bond and release from the curse is the self-same King – or, of course, a legitimate descendant who can wield that authority on his behalf.

By this point, Aragorn, is of course known to the avid reader to be the heir to Elendil, the first King of Gondor. And so, the trepidation with which we accompany him along the Paths of the Dead, as the dreadful and invisible army gathers around him, is offset by the hopeful expectation of something dramatic. And we are not disappointed. The dead king cynically strikes out at Aragorn with his sword, only to find it halted in its path by Aragorn’s own blade: something that no mortal would be able to effect, other than one who bears that original authority.

Recognition of the King who stands before them rustles through the horde; their assistance is secured; and when they finally fulfil their oath in the present conflict, they disappear with a whispering sigh of relief, finally free to rest.

It would be hard to find a more dramatic visual aid to explaining Jesus’s harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday, especially for an audience of teenagers or young adults. For those puzzling over the words in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell”, Tolkien provides a vivid point of reference. The imagery poignantly evokes and gives life to St Paul’s reference to Christ as the “Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:9). In turn, the logic of Christ’s command over the dead is helpfully drawn out by Tolkien’s narrative.

Photo: Christ’s Descent into Limbo by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1470.

As with our army, the key to Holy Saturday is in the origins, and can be summed up in the words: paradise lost, paradise regained. Our first parents suffered the loss of Eden, ‘paradise on earth’, through breaking the primal covenant that governed their relationship with the Creator. Having said that, this consequence can be – indeed should be and is – considered in view of the greater blessing that results: namely the promise of a renewed and glorified life at the end of this time. Thus, the Exsultet, the Easter proclamation that is sung before the newly-lit Easter candle at the Vigil, pronounces the words, “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”

The loss of Eden resulted in the entry of death into the world (cf. Romans 5:12), with the ensuing mortality of the human race. Again, whilst we might naturally consider this a curse, in the schema of God’s providence it rather turns into a blessing if we consider that God did not wish for fallen humanity to continue an immortal existence alongside the effects of evil. Thus, the necessary end of our fallen mortal nature with our bodily death results in a state of waiting, a state of the soul’s existence apart from its body.

The greatness of the mystery of God’s love, which we saw executed in the bloodiest manner in yesterday’s Solemnity, is of course that it goes beyond that disobedience and rupture instigated by our progenitors and continued throughout history. It wishes to encompass every person, in harmony with their own volition. However, until the price of that disobedience was paid, those who had already died remained ‘trapped’, awaiting their liberation. Their souls, whilst free of their mortal body, remained – according to justice – outside the presence of God. The dead were bound by the original curse, awaiting the fulfilment of the bond of justice.

Unlike Aragorn’s army, who have to fulfil their original oath and fight, the price of humanity’s ‘oath-breaking’ is paid freely, “not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Thus, Christ’s death effected two things: firstly, a universally- and eternally-valid sacrifice for any and all human sin, including those who had come before him; secondly, his ‘entry’ into the realm of the dead via his mortal body, yet wielding the divine authority of the king to whom those souls were originally bound.

Only the Son of God, He through whom “all things were made… and without [whom] was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3), could enter the realm of the dead and command its bond. Only the rightful King could wield authority over every soul, whether in the province of the dead or the living. Only the Cross of the incarnate God could break the brass gates and shatter the iron bars of hell asunder, as is recounted by two of the men risen from the dead in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus.

No surprise, then, the prophetic words of Hosea, “O Death, I will be thy plague; O Sheol, I will be your destruction”.

Or the words of St John Chrysostom on Easter night: “Hades is angered… because it has been mocked… destroyed… it is now captive.”

Or the ancient hymn for Easter Matins: “Today Hades tearfully sighs: ‘Would that I had not received Him who was born of Mary, for He came to me and destroyed my power.’”

Before his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ grants salvation to souls by the Harrowing of Hell. Fresco, by Fra Angelico, c. 1430s

The harrowing of hell – and what a harrowing! – is unsurprisingly an intrinsic part of the logic of the Easter mystery. Viewed inseparably from the death and resurrection of the Lord, it is witnessed to by the Apostles themselves, and traced from the very earliest Christian traditions.

It is appropriate that Holy Saturday should retain a sense of stillness and quiet preparation in the earthly life of the Church: momentous events are taking place in the spiritual realm, before the glory of the Lord bursts forth from the realms of the dead, with the saving banner of the victorious Lamb leading the mighty hosts of heaven.

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G.M. Hopkin’s “God’s Grandeur”

2nd April 2021

God's Grandeur

By Gerard Manley Hopkins
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

A discussion of G. M. Hopkins's poem "God's Grandeur"

Dr Michael D. Hurley (University of Cambridge, Chairman of the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst), Dr Rebekah Lamb (University of St Andrews, Trustee of the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst), and Dr Jan Graffius (Curator of the Museum, Library, and Archives at Stonyhurst) discuss Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur”.

The podcast offers an accessible overview of Hopkins’s life, the literary and theological richness of his poetry, and some of the ways in which his religious, scientific, and creative imagination was shaped by his experiences at Stonyhurst.

In collaboration with Stonyhurst College and Jesuits in Britain.

About Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins was an English poet and Jesuit priest, one of the most individual of Victorian writers. However, because his style was so radically different from that of his contemporaries, his best poems were not accepted for publication during his lifetime, and his achievement was not fully recognised until after World War I. Hopkins was a former seminarian pupil and teacher of Stonyhurst. His poem ‘God’s Grandeur’ is thought to be inspired by the grandeur of the building and the beauty of his surroundings whilst at Stonyhurst, finding ‘God in all things’.

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Easter Saints: Anselm and the faith that seeks understanding

Friday 1st May 2020

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Easter Saints: Anselm and the faith that seeks understanding

Stefan Kaminski

St Anselm, together with St George, offers a clear model for a pragmatic faith during the difficulties of lockdown.

This last week has seen the feast days of two ‘English’ saints, one perhaps more recognised than the other: St George on the 23rd April, and St Anselm of Canterbury on the 21st April. 

Apart from their faith, what they do have in common is that neither, despite being associated with England, was English! While St George was born in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey), St Anselm hailed from Aosta in northern Italy. 

Both are fitting saints for Eastertide, however. The story of St George requires no retelling, but his emblem – the red cross – is a reference to Christ’s saving death, to which he joined his own martyrdom at the hands of the Emperor Diocletian in the year 303. The dragon he fought is most commonly taken as a symbol of his conquest of the devil, by means of his faith and fortitude.

St Anselm is a somewhat contrasting figure to the Roman soldier, but no less staunch and heroic in a different age and place. Born in 1033 or ’34, he came to England via the Benedictine monastery of Bec, in Normandy. While a monk at Bec he quickly gained a reputation for his great intellect and profound spirituality, thus also further increasing the monastery’s already-established reputation as a centre of learning. 

In 1078 he was elected as Abbot of Bec and it was this that first brought Anselm to England. William the Conqueror had previously granted lands both in Normandy as well as in Canterbury to the Bec monastery; as the Abbot, Anselm was required to visit these lands on certain occasions.

By the time the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury died in 1089, William had been dead two years and had been succeeded by his son, William Rufus. The younger William was a tyrant, who had only just been kept in check by the previous Archbishop of Canterbury. Once his grasping nature took hold, however, injustices flowed. 

A portrait of St Anslem in the Church of St Anslem in Bomarzo, Italy

Among these, he kept deferring his permission for the replacement of the various vacant bishoprics while he seized their revenues year on year, and left dependent communities in near-poverty. It was only when he became violently sick and seemed to be on his deathbed that he returned briefly to his conscience, fearing for his eternal salvation. From this state he not only settled outstanding debts, granted pardons and fed prisoners, but he also nominated the widely-esteemed Anselm as Bishop of Canterbury. 

The reluctant Anselm accepted the position, but used every occasion and means to try to both reconcile the King with Rome and reform the Church in England. (William Rufus’ momentary penitence had quickly disappeared as he regained health.) Anselm’s continual struggle against the king’s injustices, his rampant passions and his manipulation and censoring of the Church eventually forced Anselm to leave the country to seek the Pope’s support. 

St Anselm

At a council with Pope Urban II, at which the situation in England was also discussed, Anselm yet again demonstrated his Christian compassion. The Pope was about to excommunicate William Rufus on the advice of the council, when Anselm threw himself at the Pope’s feet and begged for mercy for his nemesis. The excommunication was delayed. In the end, however, William died suddenly during a hunting accident before Anselm could return to England or reconcile him fully with the Church – something that caused the saint great bitterness.

Anselm’s nobility of soul and character can be understood both by his contemplative detachment from this world and through his motto, ‘Faith seeking understanding’. His greatest pleasure was in contemplating God, and every object served the purpose of raising Anselm’s mind to his Creator. 

His motto, while easily misunderstood, is eloquent in its simplicity: faith, for Anselm, is neither a blind belief nor even primarily an act of the intellect or mind. Faith consists in the action of our will: a movement of love that comes from the heart, and an active desire to do God’s will. Such a faith “seeks understanding”, in that it wants to know God more deeply. In other words, faith is first of all a state of desire or a willing, rather than a state of thought, or of the mind. 

This Easter has perhaps been a particularly challenging and opportune moment for assessing our own faith. In a sense, the best measure of this has been the extent to which we missed the liturgy and the Sacraments, for it is indeed through the Sacraments that the Resurrection of Christ touches us and that the graces are given to transform us into a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). 

Equally, without being able to actually participate in the Church’s liturgies, we have had to rely more so on our own motivation – on our faith – to engage with the Easter mystery.

The lockdown is making life harder for many (if not most), particularly by challenging our internal resources. It is, however, an opportunity to grow in faith. Both St George and St Anselm are strong characters of faith because their lives were built by fixating their hearts on God, and everything else was motivated by that.

This locked-down Eastertide, the one thousand, nine hundred and eighty-seventh Easter in human history, is an opportunity to delve more deeply into our hearts, to discover and nourish a greater capacity for loving the God who gave His life for us.

Prayer of St Anselm

I confess, Lord, with thanksgiving, that you have made me in your image, so that I can remember you, think of you, and love you. 

But that image is so worn and blotted out by faults, and darkened by the smoke of sin, that it cannot do that for which it was made, unless you renew and refashion it. 

Lord, I am not trying to make my way to your height, for my understanding is in no way equal to that, but I do desire to understand a little of your truth which my heart already believes and loves. 

I do not seek to understand so that I can believe, but I believe so that I may understand; and what is more, I believe that unless I do believe, I shall not understand.

Stefan Kaminski is the Director of the Christian Heritage Centre, Stonyhurst.

The death of William Rufus
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Easter notes: How his Catholic faith fired Tolkien’s imagination​

Friday 3rd May 2019

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Easter notes: How his Catholic faith fired Tolkien’s imagination

Stefan Kaminski

Stonyhurst College and its surroundings have a long connection with J.R.R. Tolkien. As a father of four, Tolkien often visited two of his sons at Stonyhurst. Whilst John was based at St Mary’s House as a student for the priesthood during the Second World War, his father spent many an afternoon in the College working on the script of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien would later return to the school in the ‘60s and ‘70s to visit Michael, who taught classics. The Tolkien Trail, with the Stonyhurst estate at its heart, capitalises on this likely source of real-life inspiration for Middle-Earth and directs the mildly-intrepid explorer from the Shireburn Arms, along Shire Lane, past a now disused ferry crossing and on through other evocative locations.

 Whether or not Tolkien had precisely these locations in mind when he penned his saga, the attentive reader cannot fail to see echoes of Middle-Earth in this landscape. From the homely habitations of the Ribble Valley to the brooding presence of Pendle Hill behind thick forest, one can easily find oneself accompanying Bilbo or Frodo along the earlier stages of their journeys in one’s imagination. And with springtime in the air, the unusually marvellous weather is making the Ribble Valley positively sing with the busyness of its fauna and the blossoming of its flora. New life emerges everywhere in its innocence and vibrancy.

The springtime beauty of God’s creation, so eloquently described by Tolkien and so fundamental a theme in the history of Middle-Earth, is of particular poignancy to the Christian at Easter time. The visible signs of life and growth should be a reflection of those occurring in the depths of our souls, after our Lenten preparation. The highlight of the liturgical year – the triumph of life over death and the conquering of sin – constitutes a rallying cry for each individual to new life in Jesus Christ. Easter is the springtime of our souls.

The fact that the Resurrection does indeed involve a personal dimension and not just a cosmic one, is beautifully reflected in Tolkien’s work. Although the LotR saga is undoubtedly attractive for its themes and for the sheer scale of the work, the minds and hearts of readers are drawn into this epic through a very ordinary protagonist with very ordinary worries and struggles. Frodo the hobbit is caught up in matters far greater than himself, yet within the drama of the cosmic struggle is woven his personal contribution with its own strife

J.R.R. Tolkien in WWI uniform

Although Tolkien was clear that The Lord of the Rings was a profoundly religious work, one that built on and explored his Catholic faith, he did not wish for it to be explicitly Christian. The tale is therefore pre-Christian in the sense that it does not directly encapsulate the concept of God’s final revelation and redemption in His Son. Nonetheless, one can find allusions to the Christ throughout the narrative.  One of the clearest such references is the figure of Gandalf the Grey. His duel with the Balrog at the gates of Moria sees him fall “beyond light and knowledge… far under the living earth, where time is not counted.” There, he battles until this fearful enemy is defeated, after which Gandalf returns to the hobbit and co. as a new-and-yet-not-new Gandalf, the White.

Through the figure of Gandalf, we are taught some important lessons about the Paschal mystery. It is Gandalf who is the catalyst for both Bilbo and Frodo setting out on their respective journeys: his is the ‘voice’ that summons them to adventure and to great deeds. For those not familiar with the habits of hobbits, it should be remembered that these are a very homely and comfortable race, that do not like to stray far from their next meal or cup of tea. In this sense, Bilbo and Frodo’s journeys involve a certain detachment and stepping outside of their comfort zones. This is the process by which they are transformed, a hint of the “new creation” which the grace of Christ enables (2 Cor 5:17). “My dear Bilbo!” exclaims Gandalf, “Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were.” This is what the process of purification, including the age-long discipline of fasting, is for: to exorcise our worldly attachments in order to free the soul for a renewed growth.

The scenic River Hodder meanders through the Lancashire countryside near Stonyhurst. This tranquil spot was an inspiration for the leafy lanes of Tolkien’s Shire

Lastly, and perhaps most powerfully of all, the final victory over the power of darkness reveals the operation of a certain Providence in and through the freely willed actions of individuals. It is not a providence that overrides minds and hearts; indeed, despite Frodo’s magnificent efforts, he fails at the very end of his mission insofar as he tries to claim the Ring for himself rather than destroy it. Yet the mission is brought to completion by the continued greed of Gollum, who in a final grasp for the Ring sends both it and himself to their fiery doom. In this way, Tolkien expresses a firm sense of the Divine Omniscience who works in and through each of His beloved creatures, allowing us to respond (or otherwise) to His grace; and regardless, always bringing about a greater good from every situation. So Gandalf tells Bilbo: “Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit?”

Easter is a time not just to celebrate, but to consider our own response to God’s grace. Confidence in His mercy should all the more encourage our own striving for that which might otherwise seem too much of an ‘ask’. And if we are short of a good read, Tolkien provides both inspiration and much to ponder with a solidly Christian flavour.

Stefan Kaminski is the Director of The Christian Heritage Centre