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The Deletion of Faith

I was very pleased today to see the Google doodle commemorating the life and achievements of Elena Cornaro Piscopia, who lived from 1646 to 1684, and who in 1678 was the first woman in the world to receive a PhD from any university.

Google doodle of Elena Cornaro Piscopia
Google doodle of Elena Cornaro Piscopia

I was less pleased to see no reference in the doodle to Elena’s faith as a Catholic Christian, which was her guide and her motivation throughout her studies and her life. So deep was her faith and commitment that at age eleven she took a vow of chastity, and in 1665 at age nineteen became a Benedictine Oblate.

She was guided and encouraged through her academic career by priests who were both friends and tutors.

This is part of her Wikipedia entry:
“As a young girl, Lady Elena was seen as a prodigy. By the advice from Giovanni Fabris, a priest who was a friend of the family, she began a classical education. She studied Latin and Greek under distinguished instructors, and became proficient in these languages, as well as French and Spanish, by the age of seven. She also mastered Hebrew and Arabic, earning the title of “Oraculum Septilingue”. Her later studies included mathematics, philosophy and theology.

Elena came to be an expert musician. She mastered the harpsichord, the clavichord, the harp and the violin. Her skills were shown by the music that she composed in her lifetime. In her late teens and early twenties she became interested in physics, astronomy and linguistics.

In 1669, she translated the Colloquy of Christ by Carthusian monk Giovanni Lanspergio from Spanish into Italian. The translation was dedicated to her close friend and confessor, Fr. Gianpaolo Oliva. The volume was issued in five editions in the Republic from 1669 to 1672. She was invited to be a part of many scholarly societies when her fame spread and in 1670 she became president of the Venetian society Accademia dei Pacifici (The Academy of the Peaceful).

Her PhD was conferred on 25 June 1678, in Padua Cathedral in the presence of the University authorities, the professors of all the faculties, the students, and most of the Venetian Senators, together with many invited guests from the Universities of Bologna, Perugia, Rome, and Naples.

The Lady Elena spoke for an hour in classical Latin, explaining difficult passages selected at random from the works of Aristotle. She was listened to with great attention and when she had finished, she received plaudits as Professor Rinaldini proceeded to award her the insignia of the laurea, the book of philosophy, placing the wreath of laurel on her head, the ring on her finger, and over her shoulders the ermine mozetta.”

Elena is not alone in having her firmly and repeatedly expressed views of what guided her work and gave it value, deleted without mention from secular re-tellings of her story.

The latest example is the film biography of JRR Tolkien, which somehow manages to get through two hours of story-telling without even a passing reference to the fact that Tolkien was a Catholic Christian, who was vocal throughout his life about the fact that his faith was his light, his guide and his motivation.

If you leave out the central motivation and guiding principle in someone’s life, you are not leaving something out, you are simply not telling the story.

This deletion of any references to faith in the lives of Christian artists and scholars extends into their work. Peter Jackson’s shallow but commercially successful parody of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a perfect example.

Tolkien described The Lord of the Rings as a work of Catholic theology, and it is. But any references to faith, to providence, the nature of sacrifice, service and leadership, the structure and meaning of the universe, to sacraments; for example the baptismal saving of the company from the servants of death through the wild waters of the Bruinen, the Lembas or waybread given to sustain the hobbits on their journey, and the absolution of Boromir, are carefully skirted around or left unmentioned.

I won’t even start on Disney’s appalling mockery of the Narnia stories. If you take out the heart of a story, there is no story left, only cheap thrills and silliness.

Perhaps the most egregious omission from Peter Jackson’s movies was the huge gap in the story where Tom Bombadil should be. A casual watcher of the movies, someone unfamiliar with the books, would probably not notice the absence. But Tom Bombadil and Goldberry tell us half of the purpose of the quest.

Defeating evil is not just about destroying evil in the form of Sauron (sauros, Greek, means lizard or dragon) and the ring. It is about restoring the good.

In Bombadil and Goldberry, in their laughter and song and dancing, in their imperviousness to evil, and in Bombadil’s naming of animals, Tolkien paints a picture of Adam and Eve before the fall, and therefore of God’s original plan for humanity – a life of joy, of laughter and dancing and song, of bliss in the little things, without fear or sickness or knowledge of death, or the possibility of using others or being used by them.

The quest is not simply the destruction of an evil object, but the restoration of hope, of love and truth and joy and peace. Bombadil and Goldberry show us what that can mean; the end point and purpose. The Lord of the Rings is not the story Tolkien told without them.

Faith is essential to Narnia, to the Lord of the Rings, and to making sense of the lives of Tolkien and of Elena Cornaro Piscopia. Our understanding of them, of their work, and of the meaning and purpose of our own lives, are very much poorer without it.