By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published May 22, 2008
In five hours we will be boarding a jet to London. I have never been overseas before, and frankly, I am terrified.
We are on our way to a J. R. R. Tolkien art exhibit, where my husband’s work will be shown, along with that of other artists. To set the mood, we are perched on the couch, watching “The Lord of the Rings,” where the depiction of the shire especially rings a chord in my heart.
When I was a child, my family moved every few years, so the notion of a small community, where everyone knows everyone else, is extremely attractive.
Still, at some point Tolkien’s hobbits have to leave the cozy world of the shire. And for one named Sam, there comes a moment in the cornfields when he realizes that if he takes another step, he will be farther from home than he has ever been in his life.
At this point in the movie, big tears blur my vision. I too will be leaving hearth and home to journey farther afield than I ever have before.
Like hobbits, my husband, Jef, and I are very fond of our home. A fine evening for us consists of a meal served on the back deck, where we have a good view of the squirrel highways in the towering trees.
Leaving this simple, joyful existence is not easy. What dark dragons might lie in wait for us? What temptations might ensnare us?
With these unanswerable questions pounding my heart, I climb into the taxi with Jef, and we head to the Atlanta airport. The next morning, we are in London, which is a huge buzz of human beings, all seemingly wearing dark clothing and stern expressions. And as we rush along the busy streets, homesickness engulfs me.
I miss our trees! I miss our porch! I long for the familiar perfume of wisteria and tulips, not the acrid scent of after-shave and perfume.
The next day, we take a train to Moreton-in-Marsh, where the art exhibit will be held. My homesickness diminishes when I spy the cobblestone streets, tea shops and the pub where Tolkien himself lifted a pint now and again.
We spend the next few days in the tiny village, meeting people who have come to the exhibit from all over the world. We are different faiths, nationalities and professions. We are various shapes and sizes.
But we all yearn for the simple life of the shire.
The placid town at first seems shire-like, but that notion is soon dispelled. On our first night, a rowdy crowd gathers in the courtyard beneath our room, drinking and shouting until the police come and haul them away.
Sunday we rise early and discover that the world outside is blanketed in snow. Very carefully, we make our way to Mass.
There is no Catholic church in this town, but when I booked the journey, I discovered via e-mail that Father Brennan drives over from a nearby town to celebrate Mass in one of the Protestant churches.
Now I listen with joy as Father speaks the familiar words of the Mass in the bare-bones church, while the sun glints off the cross on the altar. The Gospel reading is about the time when the Risen Christ walked along the road with his friends, who failed to recognize him at first.
As they walked, he explained the Scriptures to them, and then, over supper, as Christ broke the bread, they suddenly realized who he was. Later one friend commented, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us?”
The sermon is about the sorrows we encounter on the road of life. Father mentions losing loved ones, citing the deaths of his mother and sister as most painful for him. Still, he assures us there is another reality called heaven, a wondrous realm that underpins this broken world.
Walking back to the inn, I think about the hobbits that had to venture beyond the green innocent hills to encounter dragons and demons. They could not remain in the joyful shire forever.
At some point in every person’s life, the journey must be taken, the one that requires leaving behind the familiarity and comfort of home.
Where do we find the shire today? It is certainly not in London. Nor is it in this sleepy village because even here, amidst the placid pastures dotted with fuzzy sheep, people still encounter disappointment and death.
It is not in our little home in Decatur, where we safely returned to find the dogwoods blooming and a robin singing reveille each morning. In truth, although our home is filled with happy memories, we also have had illness and suffering here.
Still, I believe the shire does exist, but not in this world. The shire is a glimpse of heaven, where there is no room for sadness, no dark towers, no clatter of cars and no roar of villains.
The shire is the place where every tear will be wiped away. It is a place where we will realize that, despite our differences in size, shape and color, we are all related.
In that place, we will all be hobbits, lifting a pint and singing a song in the pub. There will be a moment, I trust, when we will recognize each other in the breaking of the bread. And our hearts will burn within us because of our great joy!
Lorraine Murray’s new book is “Confessions of an Ex-Feminist” (Ignatius Press). Artwork featured in the print edition for this column is by Jef Murray, who illustrated “Divining Divinity,” a new book by Joseph Pearce. Readers may write the Murrays by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.