Finding meaning in Middle Earth

Father Kyle Berens, a priest of the Diocese of Salina, presented “Tolkien and the Ultimate Search for Meaning in Life” on Feb. 15 in The Living Learning Center at Topeka’s Washburn University. LEAVEN PHOTO MARC ANDERSON

by Marc and Julie Anderson

TOPEKA — Washburn University student Maddie Gallegos has never read “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings.”

But that all might change, thanks to Father Kyle Berens.

A priest of the Diocese of Salina, Father Berens presented “Tolkien and the Ultimate Search for Meaning in Life” on Feb. 15 in The Living Learning Center at Topeka’s Washburn University. Sponsored by the Catholic Campus Center at Washburn, the talk drew 65, including students, professors and area Catholics. The hour-long presentation was a summary of Father Berens’ 70-page thesis completed prior to his ordination in May 2015.

Father Berens said he sees Tolkien’s literary works as “preaching the Gospel without preaching the Gospel.” He also said he sees literature as one of the tools integral to the new evangelization, a concept of helping those not practicing the faith rediscover “beauty, truth and goodness.”

One of the first principles of understanding Tolkien’s work, Father Berens said, is that of subcreation. As created beings of an uncreated Creator, people desire to do the same thing. They desire to create something.

As human beings, he said, we’re not able to create something out of nothing, but we can take part in subcreation and make something beautiful like a poem, a book or a painting. And when we refashion the reality we see, Father Berens said, we come to a deeper appreciation of it as well as a deeper love of God.

Many people do not realize that Tolkien was Catholic, said Father Berens, and that much of his work centers on Catholic themes and integrates a Catholic sensibility.

For example, said Father Berens, the protagonist of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Frodo Baggins, experiences a major event on a lesser-known feast day known as Our Lady of Ransom.

“It’s just beautiful how he did that,” said Father Berens.

In fact, he continued, “All of the big dates [in “The Lord of Rings”] fall on Marian feast dates.”

Moreover, said Father Berens, the female characters all illustrate a “different aspect of the Blessed Mother” and exemplify “femininity untarnished.”

And, of course, one of the greatest themes of all literature is also the theme of Tolkien’s famous trilogy — the ongoing battle between good and evil.

Just when hope seems lost in the battle against evil, he said, something miraculous happens, pointing us to “the hidden reality of God’s grace” as “God’s providence works even in the darkest times.”

“How is that any different than the Crucifixion?” Father Berens asked the crowd.

When all hope is lost, it’s important to remember that God is always in control, he reminded them.

“God will use anything and everything to enrich his plan of creation,” he said.

Tolkien’s works speak to people everywhere and will continue to influence the world, Father Berens concluded, because they contain eternal truths.

Afterward, participants had the opportunity to offer feedback. For Mike Ramirez, a member of Topeka’s Most Pure Heart of Mary Church, the presentation caused him to reflect upon his job as a computer programmer and how he can apply the principle of subcreation to help others rediscover truth and beauty.

His wife, Anna Ramirez, said the presentation was “a really great outreach” and said she “absolutely loved” Father Berens’ willingness to share his thesis.

For Gallegos, student president of the Catholic Campus Center at Washburn, the presentation sparked her interest in a whole new genre of literature.

“Well, I’ve never read ‘The Hobbit’ or any of Tolkien’s books,” she said. But she might be reading them very soon.

“I enjoyed how Father [Berens] related [Tolkien’s writing] to Christianity. . . . It was relatable, genuine and fun.”

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