I recently saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of a trilogy of movies based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s marvelous prelude to his Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I found myself deeply moved and inspired by the movie, especially the character of Bilbo Baggins and his reluctant struggle to accept an invitation to step out of his comfort zone and make an “unexpected journey”. While not an immoral hobbit, Bilbo was living a very comfortable, “I’m ok, you’re ok, leave me alone” lifestyle. He was minding his own business, eating (several meals a day), sleeping, smoking his pipe, reading his books and maps, and seems perfectly content to live for the next meal, nap or smoke. However, the good wizard Gandalf showed up at his front door and disrupted all of that, inviting Bilbo on a journey of epic proportions, and not taking “no” for an answer! Before they set out, Bilbo asked if Gandalf could guarantee his safe return. Gandalf said that he could not, but then assured Bilbo that if he did return, he would not be the same person that he was when he started. It was as if to say, if he made this journey, Bilbo would become the person he was created to be. What Bilbo gradually began to realize was that before he chose the journey, the journey had already chosen him—he was made to do this.
Brothers, I find Bilbo’s struggle to accept Gandalf’s invitation so moving because it speaks to both the struggle of vocational discernment and the on-going struggle of discipleship. Vocational discernment can indeed be a journey, sometimes a reluctant and grueling one, as we seek to distinguish between the voice of God, our own voice, and the voice of the enemy (the world, the flesh, and the devil). That’s why we feel a sense of victory and peace when we are able to surrender and say “yes” to what God is asking of us. However, the journey is not over at that point! Really, it is just beginning. Vocation discernment is about saying “yes” to the journey of discipleship, but the living out of our vocations is about actually making that journey. And we quickly realize, as Bilbo and his companions did, that it is an “unexpected journey”, and that the fulfillment of our “yes” is full of peaks and valleys, joys and sorrows, darkness and light, defeat and victory. And through it all the Lord is molding us into our true selves.
We witness a similar dynamic in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At first, the visit of the Angel Gabriel deeply troubled her. She didn’t fully understand his greeting (what did it mean that she was “full of grace”?) or the invitation being extended to her: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” But the angel Gabriel assured her that “nothing will be impossible for God” and that she was not to rely upon her own power, but that of the Holy Spirit. He helped her to realize that she was being asked to say “yes” to a journey that had already said “yes” to her. It wasn’t a journey she fully grasped; she accepted it amidst the darkness of faith not completely knowing what would be demanded of her. While she experienced truly unfathomable joy as a result of her “yes”, she also experienced untold sorrow as well. And yet, ultimately, her “yes” changed history, bringing salvation to those of us who accept it.
Blessed John Paul II proclaimed that “Mary teaches Christians to live their faith as a demanding and engaging journey, which, in every age and situation in life, requires courage and constant perseverance.” And so, we look to her this Advent and Christmas not only for the grace to say “yes” to the journey of discipleship, but for the courage and perseverance to live that “yes” through every “unexpected” twist and turn. If we do so, our unexpected journey will lead us to unexpected joy!
Merry Christmas to you all!
Fr. Isaac Mary Spinharney, CFR
St. Joseph Friary