Beowulf – “Heroes Under Heaven”

Garrett muses on the Christian elements of ‘Beowulf’ a poem both striking and simple.

“Alone in the history of the “epic,” Beowulf takes place in the “real,” tangible, recognizable world. Not in Heaven, Albion, or Middle Earth. That, in fact, is part of the point of Beowulf. Its author(s) want us to see its setting and characters and situations as real, as actually happening. And yet the magic is there – in Grendel, in Beowulf himself – in the capacity to find a redeeming reply to a superhuman evil, a transcendent answer to the void.” – Stephen R. Donaldsen, Epic Fantasy and the Modern World.

What does a 9th-century English poem have to tell us about the Faith?

A while back I wrote two articles musing on two terms used in fiction – ‘epic’ and ‘fantasy’, and how we may be able to use these concepts to understand and articulate our own spiritual journeys and struggles. In his essay quoted above, Donaldsen also outlines the history and development of the English epic. As all the examples he gives – the anonymously written Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and lastly, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings – are born of the Western Christian tradition, I think it will be fruitful to go through these epics individually and see what lessons we can draw from them.

I do recommend reading my two earlier articles first, but if you’d prefer to go ahead and read this article first, here’s a summary of the two concepts I’m basing this article on: fantasy refers to a form of fiction where the characters inner struggles (anger, desire for power, etc.) are presented as externalised evils to be overcome (e.g. The Dark Lord, The Evil Organization, etc.). By overcoming (or failing to overcome) the external evil, the protagonist is truly attempting to overcome their own failings and weaknesses. Epic writing, on the other hand, is concerned with the big questions of life: What are we put on this world for? How should we live our lives? These two concepts do overlap somewhat and are often tackled together.

So armed with that bit of info, let’s take a look at the first of the epics – The Beowulf.

Summary

Strip the Beowulf poem of its references to other historical events and side details, and it is a refreshingly simple tale of good versus evil, with very clear-cut good guys and bad guys. The plot goes as follows:

A terrible creature named Grendel, a descendant of Cain (yes, that Cain) terrorizes the mead-hall of the King of Denmark. Hearing of this, the warrior Beowulf of Geatland (modern-day Sweden) sets off with his companions in order to save the Danes from this threat. On the night of his arrival, Beowulf boasts that he will not use weapons or armor in his battle with Grendel, trusting in both his strength and in God’s providence to carry him to victory.

That night, Beowulf lies in wait for Grendel when the beast enters the mead-hall. With his superior strength, he overpowers the monster and tears off its arm, leaving Grendel to run away and die. Though he is celebrated as a hero, that very night the mead-hall comes under attack again, and the Danes realize that they have drawn the wrath of a more terrible creature: Grendel’s Mother.

Beowulf again volunteers to slay the creature. This time he must enter the creature’s underwater lair in order to slay it, and when he engages Grendel’s Mother in combat, the magic sword that he brought with him, Hrunting, proves ineffective. When all seems lost, Beowulf spies another magic sword lying in the lair and uses it to slay Grendel’s Mother.

Having saved Denmark from these threats, Beowulf returns home to Geatland, and in time he becomes a great and mighty king in his own right. One day, a dragon awakens and terrorizes his people. Beowulf goes to face the dragon, but all his men save one are too scared to follow him. He slays the dragon, but dies in the process. The narrative thus ends with Beowulf’s funeral and a call for other heroes to rise up and take his place.

Spiritual Awareness

“Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,

Nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him

To hear the din of the loud banquet

Every day in the hall, the harp being struck

And the clear song of a skilled poet

Telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,

How the Almighty had made the earth”

– Beowulf, lines 86-92

While the Beowulf poem tells of wild and fantastical things such as monster-slaying, the story uses actual historical figures and settings as a backdrop for its events. This actually caused a lot of head-scratching among critics, who didn’t know what to make of this pseudo-historical element of the text. Critics would continue to be confused until an Oxford don, one Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, provided a satisfying explanation:

“The monsters had been the foes of the gods, the captains of men, and within Time the monsters would win. […] Now the heroic figures, the men of old, [heroes under heaven], remained and still fought on until defeat. For the monsters do not depart, whether the gods go or come. A Christian was (and is) still like his forefathers a mortal hemmed in a hostile world.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics

Tolkien argued that the inclusion of this fantastic tale in a historical setting made it very clear that there is a supernatural element to real life that is in many ways more important than dead historical kings. The poet who wrote Beowulf was trying to negotiate an understanding between the old pagan ways of thinking and the new Christian Faith they had received. In the old Nordic beliefs, the gods eventually would lose and be slain by their enemies, leading to the end of the world. The poet thus saw a connection between this and the ability of evil in the Christian worldview to triumph at least temporarily – perhaps he called to mind the suffering of Christ on the Cross. This can be seen in the poems description of some of the Danes who relapse into their old pagan practices:

“Oh, cursed is he

Who in time of trouble had to thrust his soul

In the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help;

He has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he

Who after death can approach the Lord

And find friendship in the Father’s embrace.”

– Beowulf

We can see that the poet builds on the old belief of Ragnarok – though defeat might happen now, there is hope of a final victory. This would in turn inform Tolkien’s own rather grim yet hopeful worldview, but we’ll get to that when we cover The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien also noted that in the Beowulf poem, the word that we translate as ‘Lord’, as in referring to God, is more accurately rendered ‘Captain’ or ‘Chieftain’. The author of Beowulf thus paints a picture of spiritual warfare, where men and women must choose to side with their Captain in facing evil as represented by the monsters, whether that evil lurks out in the physical world or in the hearts of men.

Reliance on God’s Grace

“And the Geat placed complete trust

In his strength of limb and the Lord’s favor.

He began to remove his iron breast-mail,

took off the helmet and handed his attendant

The patterned sword, a smith’s masterpiece” – Beowulf

With an awareness of spiritual warfare must also come a trust in God’s grace. Beowulf’s decision to face Grendel bare-handed may come across to some like the boasting of an arrogant braggart, but it also shows his trust that God will help him overcome his trials, and that God’s help is better than any of the formidable weapons and armor he has brought with him. Rather than trust in these arms, Beowulf seems to be obeying the words of Saint Paul:

“That is why you must rely on God’s armour, or you will not be able to put up any resistance when the worst happens, or have enough resources to hold your ground.” – Ephesians 6:13

Beowulf shows that to fight and win in spiritual battles, one must rely on and cooperate with God. He moves with the Holy Spirit, which is, as we shall see when we look at Paradise Lost, an element sorely missing from Milton’s opus and which renders his human characters rather one-dimensional and lacking in agency.

When we move with God, we find ourselves more empowered to deal with life’s struggles. It is not through our own strengths or possessions that we overcome our inner demons, but only by God’s grace do we receive healing.

Conclusion

At the time of this writing, I find myself with a lot of things to ponder and contemplate about. Having made more friends from different walks of life, I find myself a little overwhelmed at just how much moral relativism has seeped into the life of the average person, and how I may be speaking a completely different moral language than another person. And just as Grendel was maddened by the sound of harps, my new friends sometimes shake their heads at my ‘quaint Catholic beliefs’ on matters like chastity and other moral issues.

That is why I feel that the Beowulf story speaks to me. The narrative trusts in God’s greater plan, and moves from that trust to make a call for a life of heroic virtue here on Earth, in order to build God’s kingdom where we are. Whenever I feel lost or confused, I like to think back to this poem, and it’s call for me to be, as Tolkien put it, also a ‘Hero under Heaven’.

Favourite Saint: Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

Greg talks about the life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and how living according to the Gospel need not always be as difficult as we think it is.

Honestly, it seems that a very popular question to ask amongst Catholics was: who’s your favorite saint? For me, I’m always stumped by this question. I don’t think I’ve ever had a FAVORITE saint. But I have had different saints whose lives and view on God have spoken to me throughout the different periods of my life. And to answer this question, I turn to someone whose life has been inspiring me greatly in this current period of my life: Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. (I know he’s not exactly a saint but he’s probably in Heaven and praying for us so it still counts ok!)

 

Blessed Pier was born in Turin into a wealthy family. Though an average student, Frassati was known among his peers for his devotion and piety. He developed a deep spiritual life which he never hesitated to share with his friends. The Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin were the two poles of his world of prayer. Mountain climbing was one of his favorite sports. Outings in the mountains became opportunities for his apostolic work. He never lost the chance to lead his friends to Mass, to the reading of Scripture, and to praying the rosary.

 

He was also dedicated to works of social action, charity, prayer and community. He was involved with Catholic youth and student groups, the Apostleship of Prayer, Catholic Action, and was a third order Dominican. He would often say, “Charity is not enough; we need social reform.” He helped establish a newspaper entitled Momento, whose principles were based on Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical: Rerum Novarum (Of New Things). He was strongly anti-fascist and did little to hide his political views.

 

Frassati donated most or all of his money to people he saw as more “needy” than him, and as a result, he became accustomed to giving his train-fare to the poor and running back home or riding in third class.

 

Frassati died in 1925 of poliomyelitis. His family expected Turin’s elite and political figures and many of his friends to be at his funeral. They were surprised, however, to find the streets of the city were lined with a multitude of mourners who were unknown to his family — the poor and the needy whom he had served so unselfishly. [1]

 

What really gets me was that Blessed Pier life didn’t have extraordinary miracles like some saints. Neither was his life one of a great conversion to God (like St Paul or St Augustine) or even one of a life that was given to God through consecration as a religious. In fact, some might say that his life seems reminiscent of some of our own. Sure, his charity towards those in need and his great devotion to God were traits that (rightly so) inspires me as I read about him. However, what I really got from him was how it reminded me of John 17:14-18, more specifically verses 16 and 18:

 

They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. (John 17:16)

As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. (John 17:18)

 

What a paradox! It’s the common Christian adage of “in this world but not of the world”. How can we be sent to this world and be in it and yet, not be of the world? It’s a question of subtlety. See, for me right now, it’s a question of how can I continue to bring glory to God without denying my secular role? In short, how can I live my life in such a way that in all I do, I echo God even if I do not loudhailer His Name? For me, this question strikes a core in me because at times, it is so difficult to remember God in all that you do, let alone even echo Him.  And yet, Blessed Pier was able to bring God, not just to his friends but also to the people he meets whom he may not know intimately. More importantly, he never stopped being part of the world. He never forgot that his first duty was as a student, studying something that wasn’t grand or world-changing but to be a mining engineer so that he could “serve Christ better among the miners”. I used to be quite skeptical about how I, as a scientist, could bring Christ to others. Easy enough for careers with social interactions at the forefront of their jobs.  However, Blessed Pier showed me that at wherever I am, whatever I am meant to do, God is always there and there will always be opportunities to glorify God and to bring Christ to others.

 

“Do small things with great love”. A common quote of Mother Teresa’s which I think Blessed Pier Giorgio, though living before Mother Teresa, exemplified with his life. His life was a life of doing small things but always with Love Himself at the center of it all. I sometimes wonder if there are fruits of my time here on Earth. At times, God graces me to be able to witness the buds and at times, the fruits. Mostly, it can be hard to see. Likewise, it might have been hard for Blessed Pier to not be able to see the fruits that he has grown for God. And yet, he stuck to it till the end, even tending to the needy while already on his deathbed. The fruits were plenty indeed and the multitude of people that appeared for his funeral was a clear sign of all the people whose lives have been made better through the charity and love of Blessed Pier Giorgio. At the end of the day, the message that I’ve taken away from Pier Giorgio is that I don’t have to be called to be a religious or even an influential person to be able to bring Christ to others and to grow into the saint I was created to be. All I need is to be aware of the opportunities in my own journey where I can continue to radiate out God’s Love to others and to take that bold step to be Christ in my own way to the people around me.

[1] Retrieved and paraphrased from: https://frassatiusa.org/frassati-biography and http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=6994

 

A Letter to Saint Francis of Assisi

Garrett writes a letter to Francis of Assisi, his patron saint.

Dear Francis of Assisi,

Greetings, my patron saint! I believe this letter is long overdue. We’ve already had a long and interesting correspondence across the span of 800 years (and my comparatively shorter 25 years). You’ve definitely had a very strong influence in shaping my faith when I was younger, and your example continues to inspire me in various ways.

I think my first encounter with you was as a teenager reading Carlo Carretto’s fantastic book I, Francis. In this book, Carretto addressed the reader with your voice, giving an introduction to your life and thought. What I really took away from reading that book was your joy and appreciation for God’s other creations. At the time, I was struggling a lot with the question of how to make people see the beauty of the faith when it seemed as if no one was interested or had other things preoccupying their time. Thus, when I read your story, and learned about how you were so willing to be a fool for Christ in order to get people to pay attention and hopefully open their eyes to consider higher things. So when it was time to pick a confirmation name, for me the obvious choice was, of course, Francis.

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修直道路

Greg反思圣若翰洗者呼吁我们“修直道路”之意,从而发现自己有时误将“道路”视为“终点”。

有一个呼声喊说:
“你们要在旷野中预备上主的道路,
在荒原中为我们的天主修平一条大路!”(依40:3)

将临期的福音中,我们常听见圣若翰洗者准备迎接耶稣的使命。这个使命即是依撒意亚先知所预言,且圣若翰洗者所重申的这一点:

“我是在旷野里呼喊者的声音:修直上主的道路罢!”
(若1:23)

将临期提醒我们要在心灵之中为上主修直道路,好为祂的圣诞做准备。教会教导我们,修直道路的方法有好多:阅读圣经,尤其反思将临期的读经;检讨良心,在心中为耶稣腾出空间;深入祈祷,加深与天主的感情,等等。我想,这些都是准备迎来将临期的好方法。对我而言,此文章实属自我告诫:重要的不是道路,而是耶稣。

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Did Curiosity Kill the Catholic?

Greg muses how being curious can enhance and supplement our Faith.

Don’t you love how children always question the things around them?

“Mummy, why is the sky blue?”

“Daddy, why is 1+1 equals to 2?”

“Mummy, where did I come from?”

As we grow up, we learn more and more things. Eventually, we begin to stop questioning every piece of information that comes our way. During one of my random thought moments (I have plenty of those, although a majority of the thoughts probably aren’t the best), I’ve begun to realized how much I’ve stopped allowing myself to be curious. Maybe it’s due to my thoughts being too all over the place to be properly inquisitive. Or maybe it’s because the effort and time needed to begin looking for those answers was way too much (relative to simply accepting said information). Maybe it’s just that I’m not so bothered by it anymore.

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Ministry and Theory of Mind

Garrett talks about the Theory of Mind and how it can help us understand the spiritual journeys of ourselves and others.

One piece of advice I will never forget receiving from my Spiritual Director is this: in ministry, you must learn to speak the language of the heart. This means learning to empathize with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and identifying with their struggles and hopes. Being a more bookish and studious sort of guy, I must admit this changed the way that I approached my ministry. When before I looked to form ideas from high concepts to improve the institution or society as a whole, I started again from the ground up, having casual conversations that eventually led to a deeper sharing of lives, which in turn helped me gain a deeper understanding of the universal struggles of the human condition. I realized how crucial it was to understand the hearts of my fellow members of community, and how easy it was, as a leader, to become out of touch with the average member’s spiritual needs.

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Why do I… believe in God?

Greg weighs in on the difficult existential question, “Why do I believe in God?”

Now, this topic has been discussed, debated, pondered and meditated upon ever since the beginning of humanity – whether you believe we were created in 7 days or evolved slowly over billions of years – an issue which splits even Catholics into 2 camps, not unlike Moses splitting the Red Sea. There are so many answers and ideas about this very topic by everyone scientists to saints, philosophers to priests and anyone who ever had a notion on where they stand on this issue. Ideas from brilliant thinkers such as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawkins, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, St Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine and many more have attempted to justify their answers to this question:

Is there a God?

What I’m trying to do now, in the spirit of this series, is to try to make sense of this through my own experiences, beliefs and teachings that I know of, however hard this task may be. To this debate, I will probably not add anything that is not unknown or that has yet to be said (after all, the question’s been there since like humans appeared). However, what I will add are my own thoughts on this matter and that is that I believe there is a God (otherwise I wouldn’t have become a co-founder to this blog, would I?).

Personally, the main reason I believe in the existence of a God is the fact that not believing in one would be a less rational choice than actually believing in God. Let me explain. As one who is studying within the field of science, a foundational idea within science is cause and effect. A common example of this would be Newton’s Third Law, which is widely known as the law that states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. While Newton generally devised this law to refer to forces, the idea of causality is not restricted to simply the domain of physics. Our body’s own homeostatic responses involve some form of reaction to a fluctuation of our body’s natural and healthy state. A major component of historical research is discovering causes that led to certain events. The door opens when I push/pull it. In short, to all things, there is a cause. Thus, by extension, the creation of the world, the stars, the universe must have a cause.

Even though many might point towards the Big Bang, what caused the Big Bang? Well, I think scientists are still trying to figure this model out but if you have any theories to this, please seek out your nearest physicist for, what I’m pretty sure will be, a very stimulating talk. Aside from that, you get the idea. If you continue this pattern of regression, there must be an initial cause to all things; a cause that cannot be regressed upon, or as St Thomas Aquinas puts it, the Uncaused Cause. This Uncaused Cause (or as Aristotle puts it, the Prime Mover) is what is commonly known as God. Quite appropriate actually considering that the Bible constantly refers God to Yahweh, or “I Am”. For example, “I am who I am” in Exodus 3:14, the one who is unchanged and uncaused; the Alpha and the Omega.

Now, this seems like an awful lot of theorizing based on causality. What if causality’s a sham and Nature is random and disordered. What if it’s all just chaos or some sort that we’re just caught in? Here’s where the concept of beauty is so intertwined with truth: the sheer elegance of the world, in my perspective, just cannot be simply explained away with sheer chance. Maybe there’s a deeper explanation on the idea of chance in scientific enquiry but I cannot fathom how the creation of the universe, life, evolution and development of mankind are all simply caused by a series of very fortunate events happening at just the right time and space. Delving deeper into the mysteries of the world, you learn how interconnected the world is. Molecules and atoms obey a set of laws (be they quantum or classical) that allows for reactions to take places. Nature leverages on these physical phenomena to optimize cellular activities via enzymes and various pathways. This, in turn, allows living things to function, adapt and thrive in their environment. In nature, you can find tons of cycles, both on the microscopic and macroscopic scales, allowing resources and materials to always be recycled and used in an efficient manner (That is, before we messed things up slightly). That aside, there are just so many intricate details that are beyond human understanding in each of these concepts and yet, they all just work. They click. And that, brothers and sisters, is something that cannot simply be pure chance. That, is part of an intelligent design; one created by God.

Now, at the end of the day, I could give you all my thoughts on this topic. However, going back to truth and beauty, we must remember the last of the three transcendentals: goodness. A brother of mine once shared that faith is like a litmus test. Until you actually dip the litmus paper into the solution, you will never know the acidity/basicity of said solution. Likewise, unless we have experienced the goodness of God, how can we believe in our faith with all our hearts, mind and body? Just like how I have run synthetic reactions in order to believe that my synthetic mechanism yields good results, I too must experience God’s goodness before I am able to fully commit to Him. That is the crux. If someone is unwilling or unable to do so, then no matter what arguments I may have for them, it will never really turn into a belief. Until and unless somebody is able to see God’s goodness in Nature (and anything else really!), science remains simply a pursuit of knowledge instead of a gateway into understanding and delving into the mysteries of God’s Creations.

“I want to know God’s thoughts – the rest are mere details.” – Albert Einstein

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