You Can’t Not See It: Of Helm’s Deep, Emmaus, and the Rosary

How often do you think about your own death?

(photo: Register Files)

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said,
“if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Flannery O’Connor

During this extraordinary period of stay-at-home orders and shelter-in-place, we’re all leaning heavily on screens. In our case, since we don’t have Netflix or watch TV, that means digging up old DVDs (and even VHS tapes) that haven’t been viewed in a long time — just variety’s sake, if nothing else.

Recently we dusted off the Cy Endfield’s 1964 stunner, Zulu, starring a very young Michael Caine. It’s a movie that couldn’t be made today — unthinkable, really, because it’s so unwoke and politically incorrect. Nonetheless, it’s a wartime epic based on factual events that’s well worth seeing.

Caine plays a commanding officer of a small garrison at Rorke’s Drift in South Africa in the late 19th century, when Britain (and others, including the Dutch Boers) were establishing a colonial presence. There’s growing tension between the Europeans and the indigenous Zulu nation, which erupts into attacks on British forces throughout the country. When a massive Zulu force descends on the tiny Rorke’s Drift contingent — outmanning them 4,000 to 150 — it seems like all is lost for Her Majesty’s troops.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that things don’t turn out as you’d expect.

In any case, after watching it again with my teens, I did a little hunting around on the internet for more background on the actual 1879 Rorke’s Drift battle and how well Zulu depicted it. That’s when I stumbled across a connection between that film and director Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers (2002). “Zulu was always in the back of my mind,” he has said, “when I was thinking about Helm’s Deep.”

It was an epiphany — of course! In both cases, Rorke’s Drift and Helm’s Deep, an enormous phalanx of fearless warriors is poised to utterly decimate a tiny, stubborn resistance — a resistance that still manages to glom onto shreds of hope thanks to stalwart leadership. Once suggested, the parallels were plain, and I knew I’d never again be able to watch that Helm’s Deep scene (or read it in Tolkien’s text) without calling to mind Michael Caine and Zulu. The cinematic connections were too obvious to be denied, and it would be nigh impossible to ever unsee them.

That’s the way it was for me when I first encountered a Catholic interpretation of the Emmaus Road incident — the one we’ve heard about a couple of times since Easter, including Wednesday in the Octave. As a young Protestant, I bought wholesale a superficial reading of this post-Resurrection event as a simple historical narrative. It bolstered my Evangelical convictions regarding the real, bodily Resurrection of the Savior, and that was good enough for me. Case closed.

In my mid-20s, when I started flirting with Catholicism, I was shocked — shocked! — to come across commentary that seemed to see in Luke’s retelling of that event a not-so-subtle dramatization of the liturgy in action. There’s Jesus meeting up with Cleopas and his pal, which leads to a liturgy of the Word, complete with pulpit-pounding homiletics. Then, a transition from pulpit to table, with unmistakable sacramental action and a Eucharistic encounter with Christ — just the things that happen sequentially every Sunday at Mass. “Of course,” I remember telling myself. “How could anyone not see that?”

As with Helm’s Deep links to Rorke’s Drift, I knew I’d never again be able to not see the Eucharistic allusions in the Emmaus Road narrative.

Now we’re all in lockdown, and we can’t even get to Mass — or have that sacramental Emmaus Road encounter that we’ve grown accustomed to, so long depended on, and (perhaps?) taken for granted. Yes, we’re attending Mass via livestream on our computers and gadgets, and that certainly takes the edge off, but we’re hungering for the real thing — the proximity of being in church while the priest proclaims the Word, says Mass, and confects the Eucharist — to be present for the distribution of the Eucharist, like Cleopas, so that we can physically commune with Christ again.

Perhaps a renewed appreciation for our ordinarily ready access to the Mass and the sacraments will be one positive thing that will come as a result of the overwhelmingly negative coronavirus crisis. Here’s another. “The virus will kill only a small minority of the world,” as C. Kavin Rowe observes in the WSJ. “Yet its prevalence has reminded people everywhere that if Covid-19 doesn’t kill them, something else will.”

Sound obvious? Sure, but how often do you think about your own death? These days, especially if you’re in a vulnerable population, you might think about it a lot — daily, constantly. But before our world was rocked by the pandemic? So much of our day-to-day seemed tailored to guard against such gloomy reflections. Why be morbid? Post a selfie! Get a latte! #YOLO!

This is not, as Rowe points out, the traditional disposition for followers of Jesus. Instead, our forebears actually cultivated an awareness of their own deaths — even called it an art, the “art of dying” (ars moriendi), which one perfects throughout a lifetime. “Time and habit provide the chance to live fully and — even at the last hour — become a mature human being,” writes Rowe, “one who tells the truth.” When practiced consciously and regularly, it’s an art that leads to much more kindness, sacrifice, and love; much less bickering, grasping, and hate. And it’s certainly better to have a full life to work out the kinks, to get better at it. No one can count on a Groundhog Day eternity to become a saint, and it’s best to take advantage of the time we have — which really amounts to just today, just the moment at hand.

But, really, once things get back to relative normal, all those mortality shields will pop up again in our daily lives. Even if things never get back to “normal” — even if we end up wearing masks and standing 6 feet apart indefinitely — it’s human nature to get used to things, and thoughts of our future deaths will fade.

In other words, it’s not the same as Helm’s Deep and Rorke’s Drift. It’s not the same as the Eucharistic overtones on Emmaus Road. We’ll need routine reminders — memento mori, as the monks used to say. For me, I go in for the splashy and obnoxious — cheap, foam Halloween skulls on my desk and dashboard, and (soon) my own wooden casket in the living room (or the garage, more likely, to preserve the domestic peace).

Those kinds of theatrics aren’t for everybody, but I’ve got another, more subtle idea for you: The Hail Mary — particularly the last clause, “…now and at the hour of our death.” It’s an ideal, concise summary of the ars moriendi, for it fixes our attention on the only things that matter with regards to our life in Christ: the present moment — the now — “because we can be sure of nothing except the present moment,” writes St. Louis de Montfort; then, the moment of our passing from this life to the next, what St. Louis deems “the turning point when the die will be cast once and for all.” What else matters? Those last words of the Ave put everything in perspective, if we would only slow down and pray them with sober intentionality.

And that’s the beauty of saying a whole bunch of Hail Marys as a part of a Rosary. Just like the advantage of a lifetime preparing for death rather than rushing the process at the bitter end, the Rosary gives us lots of chances to get it right — 53, to be precise. It’s not that Mary doesn’t already intercede for us — as if she’s waiting on our thoughtful recitations to give in. Rather, it’s that prayer is mainly about changing us, and the ars moriendi clause of the Hail Mary is a golden opportunity to frame our days that we shouldn’t neglect.

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

Don’t Wait to Cram for Your ‘Final Exam’

“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)