The Gandalf Option
Listen to “The Gandalf Option” by Fred Smith
In 2017 Rod Dreher published “The Benedict Option” to define the new relationship between the world and the Church allowing the Church to survive an encroaching period of darkness and the loss of a dominant position. “We should stop trying to meet the world on its own terms and focus on building up fidelity in distinct community. Instead of being seeker-friendly, we should be finder friendly, offering those who come to us a new and different way of life. It must be a way of life shaped by the biblical story and practices that keep us firmly rooted on the truths of that story in a world that wants to obscure them and make us forget.” It argued for a Church that would be smaller but more vibrant and able to survive in communities just as Benedictines did so long ago.
More recently, Alan Jacobs proposed a new choice: The Gandalf Option. It is not a book yet but I hope it will be as he develops the theme further.
“I’m just inventing it right now. I hadn’t thought to call it this before, but it’s something I think about a lot. There is a point late in the Lord of the Rings where Gandalf is confronting Denethor, the steward of Gondor. And Denethor thinks that Gandalf wants to be the one to rule Gondor. Gandalf tries very hard to be patient with Denethor, and he says, “Denethor, my lord steward, you need to understand something. The rule of no realm is mine, neither Gondor nor anywhere else. It’s not what I do. I’m not here to rule. I am here to try to nourish and to care for all the good things that I find in this world.” He says, “When I come across something that is alive and is capable of bearing beauty, then I want to nurture that, and that is my call.” And if through this whole mess and misery that they were going through at the time, he says, “If anything survives that can flower and bear fruit in the days after, then my work will not have been in vain.” And then he says to Denethor, “For I also am a steward.” I love that line. Honestly, if I were going to define my calling in just a few sentences, it would be those sentences. And I think that’s what we should be doing. We get so caught up in fighting against all the things that we believe to be wicked and destructive that we fail to nourish and care for and strengthen, to feed and water the gardens that we hope will produce fruit for our children and our grandchildren. I think that is the great failing of the church in the West—that we go out charging into battle, but we forget to care for our own gardens. So that’s my option. My option is the Gandalf Option. I’ve never said those words exactly that way, but I probably will use them from now on.”
Alan has struck a chord with me and many, many others. Yes, we know there is a growing darkness and antipathy in the world toward the Christian message but along with the necessity for smaller and more intense communities there is also the calling of nurturing life where found. It is not the work of mass scaling or creating movements but the daily discipline of finding and encouraging light and hope where we encounter it. I am reminded of the allegorical tale of Elizeard Bouffier, a shepherd in the desolate and deserted foothills of Provence in the first half of the 20th Century. His work over the course of decades was simply to cultivate a forest, tree by tree, by planting carefully selected acorns. Over four decades, Bouffier continues to plant individual trees, and in time the valley is transformed by the forest. By the end of the story it is vibrant with life and is peacefully settled once again.
“Creation seemed to come about in a sort of chain reaction. He did not worry about it; he was determinedly pursuing his task in all its simplicity; but as we went back towards the village I saw water flowing in brooks that had been dry since the memory of man. This was the most impressive result of chain reaction that I had seen. These dry streams had once, long ago, run with water.”
I believe that is what Mary Oliver said so well in her poem, “Sometimes”:
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
It is Christmas tomorrow. Let’s choose both options by pursuing our task in all its simplicity. We can gather in the hope of His coming, be astonished by the beauty in the world, and then tell about it.
Merry Christmas, friends.
Art by Matt Stewart