Kenosis of the Secret Fire: An Adventure through Middle Earth into the Divine Imagination

“No time for it,” said the wizard. “But—,” said Bilbo again. “No time for that either! Off you go!” To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking-stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out; leaving his second breakfast half-finished and quite unwashed-up, pushing his keys into Gandalf’s hands, and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more” – The Hobbit, Chapter 2

Gandalf closes his eyes as he hears Frodo’s statement. The members of the council slowly turn towards Frodo, astonished. Frodo: “I will take the Ring to Mordor. Though — I do not know the way.” – The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson

The urgency of vocation and the call of beauty to personal kenosis

vocation (n.)

early 15c., “spiritual calling,” from Old French vocacion “call, consecration; calling, profession” (13c.) or directly from Latin vocationem (nominative vocatio), literally “a calling, a being called” from vocatus “called,” past participle of vocare “to call” (from PIE root *wekw- “to speak”). Sense of “one’s occupation or profession” is first attested 1550s.

adventure (v.)

c. 1300, aventuren, “to risk the loss of,” from Old French aventurer (12c.) “wander, travel; seek adventure; happen by chance,” from aventure (n.); see adventure (n.). Meaning “take a chance” is early 14c. Related: Adventured; adventuring.

The link between good and beautiful stirs fruitful reflection. In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty. This was well understood by the Greeks who, by fusing the two concepts, coined a term which embraces both: kalokagathía, or beauty-goodness. On this point Plato writes: “The power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the Beautiful”.- Letter to Artists, John Paul II

The word kalon is the name of naming: it names that which, in speech, calls. When applied reflexively and responsorially to its own origin, which here is the origin of all proper denomination, it designates its power. Beautiful, kalon, is what comes from a call, kalein, which continues to call through it and in it. Kalein possesses in Greek the same double meaning that “to call” has in French, at once to call out, hail, summon, and to bestow a name, to name. – The Call and the Response, Jean-Louis Chrétien

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

 – As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Gerard Manly Hopkins SJ

Kenosis is Christian life. It means to become outpouring. It means to become total gift and radical gift. To achieve kenosis a Christian must be brought to a position of total surrender and total obedience to the Divine Will, seeking nothing but to give all that they are to the work that God has entrusted them to do. Kenosis is the deepest theological drama and truth of the human heart, which transcends the creation of the world and is prior to it but incarnate in the crucified heart of Jesus, which was enfleshed by Mary’s total self-surrender of her body until death. Now on earth there exists a new Tabernacle in time which is the heart of the human person where the Secret Fire dwells. The Secret Fire is that love which exists as outpouring in God who is communion. God is total risk and total abandonment in his eternal being. In God we have the openness of all love, which embraces the polarities of agony and ecstasy that historically manifest themselves in the narrative of divine solidarity, crucifixion and resurrection in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In Letter to the Philippians we read:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing[1]
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled[2]himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

This is the theodramatic structure that Von Balthasar senses and intuits and is the basis of all Christian vocation.[3] To be a Christian is to willingly surrender to the obedience of humiliation, which brings our very flesh into true correspondence with reality as God comes to dwell in each human soul as the Trinity of Secret Fire – that which kindles eternal life in each person through the deepest purgation. To allow the possibility of such a transformation only one thing is necessary: that before God a Christian surrenders all that they are and all that they hope to be. This is the structure of death as divine paradox that J. R. R. Tolkien intuited when he notes on the Blessed Sacrament that it gives life and eternal endurance to all human loves, as its ontological status is total oblation of self and total outpouring.[4]

For von-Balthasar the Trinitarian outpouring as kenosis, is found in the Logos that proceeds from the Father and Holy Spirit and is the source of the inner radiance and light of all of the created world.[5] The Logos is the basis of meaning, as the whole created order is orientated to the return to Father, through the Logos or Son. As Von Balthasar writes, even though the creation and its creatures run from the Father, they run away into the Son and this is the drama of human history, which is the outplaying of a dramatic history of freedom; to love or not love, to be or not to be.

As William Shakespeare has noted “to be or not to be, that is the question.”[6] Shall we love or shall we not love? – the whole salvation of the flesh and the spirit is hinged on this radical choice that is grounded historically in the freedom of every human life and the struggle of its soul. Love is the greatest adventure, it is the great exodus outside of the self as Pope Francis has noted in two important statements:

To offer one’s life in mission is possible only if we are able to leave ourselves behind. On this 52nd World Day of Prayer for Vocations, I would like reflect on that particular “exodus” which is the heart of vocation, or better yet, of our response to the vocation God gives us. When we hear the word “exodus”, we immediately think of the origins of the amazing love story between God and his people, a history which passes through the dramatic period of slavery in Egypt, the calling of Moses, the experience of liberation and the journey toward the Promised Land.[7]

In the context of contemporary literature, Tolkien’s characters Bilbo and Frodo recover the image of a man (human) who is called to walk. The author’s heroes know and operate, in walking, the dramatic struggle between good and evil. The “man on the way” (or The Man as wayfarer”) implies a dimension of hope – crossing the threshold of hope. Every story and human mythology underscores that man is not a static or halted being but rather “on the way”, called, “vocated” (hence the word vocation). When man does not enter this dynamic he is nullified or decays as a person.[8]

In each human soul there is a wealth and richness of life, a landscape no smaller in nobility and possibility than all the realms and opportunities of Middle-Earth. Responding to God’s unique adventure of vocation to each person, is the greatest quest of every human soul – and demands the risk of their whole life and being:

The decision to go away from Christ was definitively influenced only by external riches, what the young man possessed (“possessions”). Not by what he was! What he was, as precisely a young man-the interior treasure hidden in youth-had led him to Jesus. And it had also impelled him to ask those questions which in the clearest way concern the plan for the whole of life. What must I do? “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”. What must I do so that my life may have full value and full meaning? The youth of each one of you, dear friends, is a treasure that is manifested precisely in these questions. Man asks himself these questions throughout his life. But in the time of youth they are particularly urgent, indeed insistent. And it is good that this is so. – John Paul II, Letter to Young People, (1985).

In Frodo’s submission or fiat to take the ring to Mordor, which parallels his uncle Bilbo’s ecstatic venture out of Hobbiton to defeat a dragon and regain a long forgotten treasure hoard, at the peril of losing his whole life, we see the type of all Christian vocation and narrative. When Frodo says “I will take the ring to Mordor – though I do not know the way,” we see a hobbit animated by a Secret Fire, by a secret intuition about the structure of reality and the need for total surrender to fulfil the deepest desires of the heart. Both Frodo and Bilbo have been called to death and in moments of profound drama, they have sensed with urgency that the surrender of all their hopes, dreams and desires for a normal life uninterrupted by episodes of peril, chaos, violence, despair, agony and ectstacy, will be shattered if they answer with the obedience necessary to continue along pathways that have been opened to them by “luck”; that Providential undertone which colours the structural reality of the stories of Middle Earth. Joining Frodo and Bilbo are many other characters who are to be tested in the Secret Fire. This is the mystery of the Divine folly of love that calls all to enter into the paradox of power latent to kenosis; that to gain all one must give all:

O LORD, thou hast seduced me, and I was seduced; thou wert stronger than I and hast overcome me; I am in derision daily; every one mocks me. For since I spoke out, I raised my voice crying, Violence and destruction; because the word of the LORD has been a reproach unto me and a derision, daily. And I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But he was in my heart as a burning fire and within my bones; I tried to forbear, and I could not.[9]


Gold is tested by fire, and human character is tested in the furnace of humiliation. Trust the Lord, and he will help you. Walk straight in his ways, and put your hope in him. All you that fear the Lord, wait for him to show you his mercy. Do not turn away from him, or you will fall.[10]

Aragorn too senses a deep call that has marked his whole life and to which he has been estranged, roaming wildly in woods and wandering along hidden pathways, but he too must tread the paths of the dead to return as King and Master of himself and thus of the whole Kingdom that has been entrusted to his care. Woven more deeply into the fibres of Middle Earth as a narratival reality, we also find Luthien who pours out her immortal life for love of Beren:

Here we meet, among other things, the first policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak – owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama.” [11]

In the location of Frodo’s spiritual agony, in which he is pierced by the evil of Middle Earth on Wearthertop (see fig 1.)  we have a juxtaposition in Strider (Aragorn’s) preceding tale of total gift and outpouring in the love of Luthien. This will be mirrored in the Love of Arwen for Aragorn, who also makes the gift of her immortal life for love of him:

A gift I will give you. For I am the daughter of Elrond. I shall not go with him now when he departs to the Havens; for mine is the choice of Lúthien, and as she so have I chosen, both the sweet and the bitter. But in my stead you shall go, Ring-bearer, when the time comes, and if you then desire it. If your hurts grieve you still and the memory of your burden is heavy, then you may pass into the West, until all your wounds and weariness are healed.

– Return of the King chapter, Many Partings

Continually we find that the theodrama of Middle earth, is the theodrama of kenosis and this is what elevates Tolkien’s tale into the Divine Imagination of the Secret Fire. This Secret Fire was longed for my Melkor but he refused the ontological structure of gift and became a discordant rebel. The dissonance of Melkor is what has plagues Middle-Earth’s history with evil and the absence of radiance or correspondence to the structure of reality. According to Tolkien’s mythological creation story of Middle Earth Ainulindalë:

To Melkor among the Ainur had been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, and he had a share in all the gifts of his brethren; and he had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame. For desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar. But being alone he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren. Some of these thoughts he now wove into his music, and straightway discord arose about him, and many that sang nigh him grew despondent, and their thought was disturbed and their music faltered; but some began to attune their music to his rather than to the thought which they had at first. Then the discord of Melkor spread ever wider, and the melodies which had been heard at first foundered in a sea of turbulent sound. But Ilúvatar sat and hearkened until it seemed that about his throne there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war one upon the other in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged. Then Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that he smiled; and he lifted up his left hand, and a new theme began amid the storm, like and yet unlike to the former theme, and it gathered power and had new beauty. But the discord of Melkor rose in uproar and contended with it, and there was again a war of sound more violent than before, until many of the Ainur were dismayed and played no longer, and Melkor had the mastery. Then again Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand; and behold, a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies, but it could not be quenched, and it grew, and it took to itself power and profundity. And it seemed at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. One was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.[12]

Von Balthasar’s mystic intuition informed by the visions of Adrian Von Speyr and his love of classical music conform beautifully with Tolkien’s numinous sense that there is a song deeper than all sorrow that can weave discord into concord, this is the song of kenosis or of Secret Fire (The Flame Imperishable), which purifies and removes all evil through the response of a God who has “smiled” upon the world, who is Divine love. However as I will argue, Tolkien sensed this theodramtic music must be incarnated historically in the life and salvation of every human being, as a sacramental reality:

The “final word” on Beren and Lúthien is both harrowing and wonderful. It is the stuff, as Tolkien said, of “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (Tree and Leaf 69). [13]

fig 3. Tolkien’s shared grave with his wife has upon the inscription of the lover’s names Beren and Luthien, who chose death to find life.

In this PHD, I want to detail how the structure and dynamism of kenosis underpins the whole narratival theodrama of Middle Earth and the heroism of their characters is found in the gift they make of themselves for the sake of a higher purpose to defend all that is good, beautiful and true. Kenosis is the most profound human desire and longing, and in Christian vocation can be fulfilled through responding to the vocation to oblation, of self-sacrifice, on the altar of one’s own life. In marriage couples pledge their very flesh to each other in the ecstasy of a life-long communion that brings new life to the world, in the priesthood a man will die upon the altar each day to subordinate his earthly loves to the Divine love or Secret Fire that will purify the world of all evil, in religious life a Christian gives all that they are to become totally united and conformed to Christ in every moment through total praise. All Christian life is thus ultimately an entering into the kenosis of Christ – a humiliation and purgation that makes a human truly human and thus capable of the divine. For the love of Christ has brought an inner structure of radiance and Grace to the whole created order, such that all creation can now be orientated to its true purpose. The humble can be ennobled as the Secret Fire operates to renew and sanctify all that has been made, to return to the goal of communion with God the Father; in this blazing spirit of renewal. This Secret Fire is true and final authority against all the forces of discordance and evil.

Fig 4. Gandalf faces the demonic Balrog in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings (2001) with the words: “You cannot pass!…I am the servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor…The dark fire will not avail you! Flame of Udûn! Go back to the Shadow! You — shall not — pass!”

Humiliation is the necessary prelude to glorification and the structure of this kenosis is found in the hobbits’ quest to fight for the good, and is rightly celebrated in King Aragorn’s final words to the hobbits, “you bow to no-one” (Jackson, Return of the King, 2003), as the renewed Kingdom will bow to the lowly and those who have allowed themselves to be purified by God. To be a Christian is to enter into the theo-drama of reality, by willingly submitting to the purification of obedience to the Divine Will, which is love. Tolkien’s narrative is one in which this structure of reality has been refined and enshrined through a fecund imagination that delights in the detail of beauty through narrative grounded in philological delight:

“The Light of Valinor (derived from light before any fall) is the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or sub-creatively) and ‘says that they are good’ – as beautiful.” – Tolkien, Letter 148

The spiritual wealth of Tolkien’s vision is ultimately Christocentric and grounded in a sacramental vision that is at once Eucharistic and Mariological. In the Blessed Sacrament, Tolkien sensed the radical self-gift of God to man, which gives life to all and meaning to all human love, as it is rightly-orientated to its true purpose and has undergone the purification of death:

fig 6. Tolkien is considered a saint by many contemporary Catholics, a saint is somebody who shares the “joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” (Lumen Gentium) of their generation and brings the presence of Christ to all as the Second Vatican Council document states.

 In Mary, Tolkien sensed that all beauty dwelt in simplicity and magnificence because she of all creatures was totally conformed to the Divine purpose:

Bringing into the light this inner structure of radiance and ecstasy, which I argue is the life-force of the narrative of Middle Earth is the purpose of my writing. I hope that in doing so a deeper knowledge of the importance of the total gift of the self will be renewed in Christian life such that each individual can bring the light of their own personal vocation into being. Jordan Peterson has recently argued that Western Civilisation, grounded in the Logos, was what prevented tyranny:

“Peterson says that there is nothing better you can do than to transform into logos aka shine a light on the whole world.”[14]

“within each of us is the potential to commit acts of great evil or be complicit in them, and that innocence is not the same as goodness, and we cannot know we are good until we do the right thing when the evil choice is easier.”[15]

“Religious narratives tend to highlight this transformational process, through which we better ourselves and repair our societies, and which provide us with ideal-archetypes we can emulate in our own journeys. Peterson believes we all must undertake this journey to have complete and fulfilled lives.”[16]

The importance of the Logos was also noted in EWTN’s “Discovering Tolkien” (2018) when Dr David Howlett who met personally met Tolkien argues “he was a colossal productive scholar,”  a philologist where “Logos in Greek is a complicated word”; indeed at the beginning of John’s Gospel there is word and the word is Divine, and this was Tolkien’s love:

fig 8. Screenshot of EWTN: Discovering Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings Fr. Nathan Cromly leads a group of Catholic pilgrims to New Zealand sites where “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was filmed, delving into the work’s unique Catholic themes with Joseph Pearce and other literary historians.

The response of kenosis to the Divinely inspired vocation of each individual, is that they bring a light that must not be hidden “under a bushel” (Matthew 5:15), that must blaze as Jesus himself said in the Saxon Gospels “ge synd middengeardes leoht” – “you are the light of middle earth.”[17] Failing to enter into the structure of reality where the secret fire dwells in the gift of self, the world is left impoverished of you, of your personal light.

Agreeing with Peterson, I will argue that the light of the individual and the theodrama of their own salvation, occurs precisely as they struggle to become capable of a love that is enshrined by Tolkien in the story of hobbits, little individuals caught up in tumultuous realties of a scope and scale that makes their own failures, escapades, trials and victories seem totally peripheral and insignificant. I will argue the opposite, that the individual is totally important, that the person on pilgrimage to conform their life to the radiance God’s love, is the struggle that is at the core of all reality in the freedom of the will. A hobbit like Frodo, Sam or Bilbo in this way, is a human individual or a self-aware Christian in search of and responding personally to their vocation to love. The magnitude of individual quest shows the dignity of this call to kenosis for the sake of saving the whole world, in the mastery of one’s own personal quest – which no other has been called to but an individual personally.

Western civilisation has long been fighting the long defeat – against the tyranny of Melchor that does not want things to be and they should be, for individuals to be as they should, as Eru had intended them:

“He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted . . . and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”- Lady Galadriel to Frodo, J.R.R. Tolkien’s LOTR

Expanded upon outside of the LOTR:

“I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic,” he writes in one of his letters, “so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’—though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

The nuptial faithfulness by analogy of human communion that prevents the falling into tyranny is described beautifully in Tolkien’s vision of marital love:

“The romantic chivalric tradition takes, or at any rate has in the past taken, the young man’s eye off women as they are, as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

So too in Aragorn’s rally against the fall of civilisation in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Return of the King (2003):

Sons of Gondor! Of Rohan! My brothers. I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.

A day may come when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the Age of Men comes crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!

Daniel Côté Davis – PHD Proposal, April 2018 (sketches with Julia Kamo, 2014-2015)

I don’t know you

But I want you

All the more for that

Words fall through me

And always fool me

And I can’t react

And games that never amount

To more than they’re meant

Will play themselves out

Take this sinking boat and point it home

We’ve still got time

Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice

You’ll make it now

Falling slowly, eyes that know me

And I can’t go back

Moods that take me and erase me

And I’m painted black

You have suffered enough

And warred with yourself

It’s time that you won

Take this sinking boat and point it home

We’ve still got time

Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice

You’ll make it now

Falling slowly sing your melody

I’ll sing along

  • Falling Slowly – Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (From the film, Once, 2016)

[1] In Christian theology, kenosis (Greek: κένωσις, kénōsis, lit. [the act of emptying]) is the ‘self-emptying’ of Jesus’ own will and becoming entirely receptive to God’s divine will. The word ἐκένωσεν (ekénōsen) is used in Philippians 2:7, “[Jesus] made himself nothing …”

[2] Humiliate can be be traced back to the Latin humus, meaning “earth, ground.” From humus came the Latin adjective humilis, meaning “low, humble,” which later gave rise to the verb humiliare, meaning “to make low or humble.” The English humiliate derives from Latin humiliare.

[3] See for example: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Kenosis: The Pathway to Human Agency Timothy J. Yoder, Kenosis at the Foot of the Cross: Phil. 2:5FF. As the Hermeneutic Key to Hans Urs von Balthasar ‘ s Mariology Anne M. Carpenter.


“Balthasar and The Contemplation of Truth” in ed. Lambert Zuidervaart, Truth Matters. Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2013.

“The Irreducible Particularity of Christ in the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar” in International Theological Symposium on The Eucharist as Communion. Maynooth: National University of Ireland, 2012.

[4] Can be found in The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings, p. 219.

[5] See Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Trilogy (16 vols.) by Balthasar, Crossroad (1984-2009) and especially Theo-Drama, vol. 3: Theological Dramatic Theory : The Dramatis Personae : Persons in Christ Hardcover (1993)

[6] “To be, or not to be” is the opening phrase of a soliloquy spoken by Prince Hamlet in the so-called “nunnery scene” of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Act III, Scene I.

[7] – Pope Francis, Message of Pope Francis for the 52ns World Day of Prayer for Vocations (2015). Theme: Exodus, a fundamental experience of vocation.

[8] – Message of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Archbushop of Buenos Aires to the education community (2008) Spanish: Tolkien, en la literatura contemporánea, retoma en Bilbo y en Frodo la imagen del hombre que es llamado a caminar y sus héroes conocen y actúan, caminando, el drama que se libra entre el bien y el mal. El “hombre en camino” conlleva una dimensión de esperanza; “entrar” en esperanza.  En toda historia y mitología humana se subraya el hecho de que el hombre no es un ser quieto, estancado, sino “en camino”, llamado, “vocado” -de aquí el término vocación- y cuando no entra en esta dinámica entonces se anula como persona o se corrompe.

[9] Jeremiah 20:7-9 

[10] Sirach 2:5-7 

[11] Tolkien, Letter to Milton

[12] J.R.R. Tolkien, Ainulindalë




[16] Ibid.


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