Monday, 1 June 2009

Veni Creator Spiritus and the Eucatastrophe

I love the Feast of Pentecost, one of the dearest of all the Liturgical Year. On 8th March 1939, J.R.R Tolkien gave a lecture at the University of St Andrew's entitled On Fairy Stories, in which he argued that the chief purpose of any myth or fairy story was the sudden turn of events that pierced one with joy, which brought about tears. For this concept, he coined the term ''eucatastrophe'' - which means, roughly, ''good-unravelling'' - understood in the classical sense to refer to the conclusion of a drama. You may be wondering what this has to do with Pentecost, but I'll try to explain.

It is astounding how sometimes we believe that we believe what we do not with our whole hearts believe. There is a great difference between mere assent of the intellect to a revealed Truth, and that Faith which with the intellect makes the Soul soar up to God on high (for something better articulated on that matter, read Pope John Paul II's Encyclical letter Fides et Ratio). For years before I encountered the Old Rite, I thought I believed in the Real Presence, the mercy of God, the forgiveness of sins etc. But shortly after my first Old Rite Mass, I heard the Veni Creator Spiritus for the first time (sung beautifully by a professional choir) and the feeling was indescribable, I felt like my heart could have burst or something. The revealed Truths of faith then pierced through the sinews of my whole being like the stabbing of a white light into a dark and narrow place and I felt as though I were left vulnerable in the very presence of God, struck down by that perilous beauty of timeless Tradition. I was moved profoundly, and my attitude to Liturgy was somewhat changed then. (I am loath to say that I cried, but I did!)

The eucatastrophe perfectly encapsulates this sensation. In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien writes:

''It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be 'primarily' true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the 'turn' in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Because this fairy-story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men - and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.''

The Birth and Resurrection of Our Lord (and of course the descent of the Holy Ghost upon Our Lady and the Apostles) serve as the eucatastrophe (the Great Eucatastrophe) of Salvation History, the history of man's relationship with the Divine Majesty. The peculiar effect caused by the eucatastrophe in us (ie: my reaction to the Veni Creator Spiritus) comes from those depths of the Soul where Joy and Sorrow (another dimension of Catholic devotion is sorrowful contemplation upon Our Lord's Passion) are reconciled and at one; joy becomes qualitatively like sorrow, and sorrow like joy. As Tolkien wrote in The Lord of the Rings, in that beautiful chapter The Field of Cormallen, ''tears are the very wine of blessedness.''

Of course, Tolkien did not see Catholicism as merely a ''fairy-story'' - I expect that approaching our holy religion from this angle was a kind of ''flattery'' on his part; just as Justin Martyr called Catholicism true philosophy centuries earlier. It is certainly interesting to read the line ''art has been verified'' - of course that is what the Liturgy is, the supreme Art form (because it's creator is the Creator), encompassing ceremony, sacred music, mystery, art and of course the greatest mystery of our Faith, the dwelling of God among us, God being truly present, in the Blessed Sacrament. So to those liberals who bring heinous charges against us such as ritualism, aestheticism (beauty for the sake of beauty) I have only one thing to say: it is your loss, not our error. Anything in the Liturgy, even the most trivial-seeming detail, is done for the sake of nothing less than the praise and glory of His name. Which, incidentally, raises the question of the ''need'' for liturgical reform...even for so-called ''pastoral'' reasons...

Dislocated and imperfect though my knowledge of these deep matters is, quia peccator inter peccatores sum, et stultus sum! I have, at least, remained faithful (at least doctrinally, if not always in practice) to the Church. We can only look forward to a time when each individual Catholic's experience of the Liturgy is such that I have had, Deo volente.

Indulge mihi lectores, precor, has balbutiones!

Have a solemn and blessed Octave of Pentecost all readers, with much love and God's blessings from Patricius.


  1. By the grace of God, through Fr. Tim Finigan, I have found a noble effort. I wish you great success, Hobbit!

    Pax et bonum!
    Deo volente

  2. Thank you - a beautiful post. The first Solemn High Mass I ever attended (an LMS annual Mass at Westminster Cathedral about 10 years ago) had precisely the same effect on me. I still remember bursting into tears at the Pax - that solemn, graceful 'dance' where the Peace of Christ flows from the Victim on the altar through the priest and by degrees to all on the sanctuary - and thinking, 'Why did they take this away from us?'

  3. "Have a solemn and blessed Octave of Pentecost all readers, with much love and God's blessings from Patricius"

    Thank you, Patricius. You too!

  4. I am surprised that my SiteMeter hasn't exploded today! Since Fr Finigan's referrence, I have had more visitors to my small blog endeavour today than my average every week!

  5. What a site! I have to love a Catholic/Tolkien blog. I love The Lord of the Rings out of all proportion to reason, having read it numerous times over the last 25 years or so (I lost count after the 35th reading). I have also read and re-read Unfinished Tales, and (less often) The Silmarillion. You shall be my newest Ally for Victory.

    Happy Feast (in advance) of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher!

  6. Thank you for this blog, and for this very perceptive commentary - I too recall the first High Mass I attended, and weeping for joy at coming face to face with such overwhelming beauty and truth...

    Eucatastrophe indeed!