by Alex Miller
There is a moment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when Frodo Baggins calls the innkeeper of The Prancing Pony, Barliman Butterbur, stupid. Butterbur forgot to deliver a crucial message at a crucial moment, costing the party much time and danger, and the hobbit is venting his frustration. Gandalf responds in his charming, snappy way, “You don’t know much…if you think old Barliman is stupid…He is wise enough on his own ground. He thinks less than he talks, and slower; yet he can see through a brick wall in time…”
Frodo has only recently met Butterbur, but Gandalf knows him, and chides Frodo for failing to recognize his merits. The lesson is that absentmindedness does not necessarily indicate stupidity. In fact, there is a deep intelligence, a “wisdom on its own ground” operating below Butterbur’s frazzled surface.
What kind of intelligence is this? Is it one we should desire? As Christians, what should be our “wisdom on its own ground,” the hallmark quality of our mental lives? It is a question worth asking during a season that tends to crowd out our quiet moments.
I have been teaching English at a Christian high school for eight years, and a recent epiphany of mine is that the best sort of intelligence might be Butterbur’s, or rather, be an aspect of Butterbur’s. The quality for which Gandalf praised his friend wasn’t mental orderliness or raw talent, but a sharpness born from contemplation. “Seeing through a brick wall in time” is not a matter of having super-powers, of knowing every detail about the wall, of having read a lot about walls, or even of always remembering where the wall is. It is a matter of having spent a very long time staring at the wall, a matter of contemplation.
You see, barring the use of explosives, one does not ever literally look through a wall. But if a person listens, stares, contemplates, that person will begin to perceive the little scratches of a cat’s paw on the other side, the clatter of an aluminum lid, the scent of lavender, and the subsonic hum of an idling car. If she spends enough time near it, her inner senses will slowly activate, those small details coalesce, and one day, all of a sudden, the picture will materialize of an alley on the other side, complete with its galvanized steel garbage cans, its resident feral cat, and its small passage where every morning, a commuter drops his daughter off at a day school with lavender in the window boxes. It did not take brilliance in the traditional sense to recognize all of this. It took time, a slow, methodical investment of attention that suddenly paid the dividends of truth.
I had a dear friend long ago, in another part of the country, who was engaged to a good man. But engagements feel long, and passions tend to run high, especially when two people are making plans together. One day she confided in me that they had made a very passionate mistake, and taken physical liberties with one another. From one point of view, that mistake might not have seemed so bad: after all, they were already committed each other’s futures in very tangible ways, and what they did had been done in love. Given that context, it shocked me how violently that mistake shook their relationship. She confided these things to me in sobs: she did not feel satisfied by her choice. On the contrary, she felt she had betrayed herself, her fiancé, and God all in a single stroke.
This feeling did not arise from some arbitrary place in her upbringing; it arose from the deep wellsprings of conviction in her, the places that believed the truth, that sexuality is sacred and that promises matter. Of course her fiancé was equally responsible, and felt exactly the same way. Their relationship did recover and eventually it blossomed, but the rough, blighted places remained, and the new growth took time: it would have grown stronger easier, and yielded more fruit, if its wilder branches had been properly pruned. One cannot possibly blame my friend for her mistake, but had she and her fiancé been more contemplative and less walled into the compulsions of the moment, they would have realized that the apparent restrictions of chastity are actually, in the long run, the only real form of sexual freedom: the freedom to give themselves wholeheartedly to one another, and to trust in their own ability not to rush or violate a sacred thing. Real passion, as we all suspect somewhere deep down, comes not from infatuation but from trust.
This is only one example of how the skill of contemplation can help us see beyond our walls in time, and get a glimpse of God’s truth. Not all of our decisions are moral ones: some are matters of taste, of cultivating a love for what is best, or simply of making the most profitable, practical decisions. But as the French author Simone Weil has written, there is no aspect of our inner lives, no matter the griefs or problems that face us, that contemplation does not touch with clarifying light.