The Purpose of Art & My Struggle to Write: A Reflexion on J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’

Last Sunday I was getting ready to head home from Mass, which takes a little under an hour, and was wondering whether I might listen to an audiobook or pray a Rosary on the way home when a wonderful and providential thought came into my head. I had just finished J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and my audiobook (Tales from the Perilous Realm) included also Leaf by Niggle, which takes less than an hour to listen to. So I started it, shifted into drive, and started my way home on a path of wonder and self-discovery. 

Here I shall not so much review or critique the story, Leaf by Niggle, as much as relate what I gained of it in mind and heart. So if you have read it, you may appreciate my thoughts. If you have not, I have tried to reiterate the story enough so that you could still appreciate what I’ve written, and find good reason to read it yourself without it being summarised here for you. 

Time-Management, Selfishness, and the Wrong Priorities

In the past few months, I’ve been struggling with time-management, trying to make time to read and write since I took off time from school to do just that. I do not divert my energy to a great number of places, but a great number of things seem to ‘interrupt’ what I am trying to go about doing. By the time the daily necessities of prayer, work, and exercise are finished, there seems to be only time for friendship and good conversation, or else reading and writing. I cannot forgo friendship altogether, and finding the right balance has been difficult. Then, when I think I have found the right balance, all sorts of little things keep ‘interrupting’: laundry, grocery runs, a friend in need, an inconvenient birthday, and so on. That people had not considered I might only want to see them when I feel so inclined, and that I might want to talk for only a duration of time which I decide, seems inexplicably to have escaped them. I really have been astounded by how oblivious selfishness makes people. I have often brought it up to God, but you know how He takes up your time with all that prayer, so one can hardly expect Him to understand my difficulty. 

The Spirit of God has lately been teaching me of my attachment to ‘my’ time (i.e. to my life), and of my forgetfulness of Heaven and the present moment in my frantic obsession over the future and in my care over some self-image that I’ve conjured up as my goal in life. This self-knowledge prepared me for the experience of reading Leaf by Niggle. Therein Tolkien relates an artist’s desire to create a beautiful work, a work not done for monetary gain but for the sake of beauty and skill in work and achievement. While Niggle is here in this world, before his appointed ‘journey’, he concerns himself with the achievement of this work; but he struggles as interruptions appear without relent: this chore and that one, various people stopping in for tea, and people asking favours—which he can never seem to say, ‘No’, to—especially his neighbour, who is in constant need of some favour by Niggle without much consideration for Niggle himself. This I related to one of my greatest struggles: How do I decline a task which I can do immediately for another, for the sake of my work which, though perhaps important, is not now and therefore as yet has served no one? A further problem I’ve had is that, while Niggle mostly neglects preparation for his ‘journey’, and in the end gets very near to finishing his painting but not quite, I’ve been impressed by Saints John Paul II and Mother Teresa, who always prioritised prayer and only by the power of prayer did they accomplish so much. Yet I’ve wondered: Do I spend too much time in prayer, preparing for this Journey? It is true that one can spend too much time doing any one particular thing, even prayer—though that is a rare and nearly all of us have the opposite problem: As Peter Kreeft wrote, no one has come to the end of his life on earth and thought: I wish I’d spent less time in prayer. And so, though my struggles were a bit different from Niggle’s, the root disordered priorities were similar; and I journeyed in my imagination alongside him as he struggled and journeyed on to the next life, and I learned from his failures and victories. 

We Are Judged on Our Love

As Niggle overhears the conversation between the two Voices, both his disordered priorities in this life and his true achievements come to light. He thought that his primary purpose on earth was his work, his painting, and that all those other things—his conversations with friends, the favours he did them (usually unrewarded), his unnecessarily getting sick in doing such a favour, and preparing for the journey (which he did little of, hence he needed so much time on his journey before getting to the Mountains)—that all these were interruptions to his work, which really had to get done before he went on his journey, or it never would be otherwise! But the contrary was true. That of greatest value, the thing accredited to him in the Next Place, was his generosity toward others—especially when it went without thanks or reward, when it really didn’t need to be done anyway and the other person was merely fretting, and when it cost him that which was so precious to him: his time, his work, his painting. For as St. John of the Cross wrote: At the evening of life, we are judged on our love. 

The Eternal Weight of Art and Love

Moreover, it was not that Niggle’s work was unimportant! In fact, it turned out to have inestimable value—but less in this life, and more in the next. For many great feats and human achievements shall be forgotten, and all shall fade with the world when it ends; but little things done in great love, these have eternal value. Little acts of great charity and mercy toward others, especially toward those who are ungrateful, show the value of the other person simply because they exist. Such deeds show gratefulness to God for His love of us when we were (and often still are) ungrateful,1 and they reflect His love for that person through us. Art also contains eternal value, not in the physical thing itself (the Mona Lisa will not last forever), but in the love for the beauty and skillfulness of the Creator, and in skillful homage to this beauty through the work. All done united to Christ in the Spirit of Truth bears eternal significance in the beauty of Heaven. Truly there are no great deeds done by men, but only small deeds done in great love, and so of eternal value to Jesus and cherished by the Father. As Kierkegaard wrote, our relationship with God is like when a parent helps a child write a letter which the child then gives to the parent for a birthday. This does not mean that some art is not more beautiful than others, for if God has given you a desire to do some work (and it need not be art, but any good work), then learn to do it, and do it well so as to honour God in the effort you put into loving Him. But we need not grow discouraged if our work does not seem to flourish. God values the love with which we undertake all He calls us to, and rewards us not for good results, but for the effort, patience, and hardship undergone for His sake.2 And if we persevere in love to the end and meet Him after we finish our journey, a journey not to an ending but to the Beginning of beginnings, then we will indeed see and become part of the beauty we longed for and merely glimpsed in this life. For the glory of God is infinite beauty, which cannot be added to or taken away from Him. The saints are His icons and instruments, and our reward is to share in the beauty of transforming union with God in everlasting love. 

Love, love, and once again, love

So I learned a wonderful lesson (probably a few lessons, as I continue to ruminate on this story), illustrated by Tolkien’s delightful and skillful tale: that God gives great value to the smallest of deeds, yet desires still great things from us! And that which makes this seeming paradox harmonious is the bond of perfection, love. For the smallest of inconveniences or trials, the words or deeds of least account, the tedious and monotonous drudgery of every day, all find infinite and everlasting value in love. And love is no small thing. It is strong as death, hard as the grave, a great fire unquenchable by floods or torrents of rain; and love demands one thing only: reciprocity.3 So the witness of the unfathomable love of the Cross and the beauty of creation rightly inspires little souls to desire greatness, a greatness in union with this love and power and beauty, and to undergo great difficulties and undertake great exploits to honour this Love and to love this Love! By this they will reflect this love and magnify its beauty in all they do, now and forever. 

‘And God has given me to understand that there is but one thing that is of infinite value in His eyes, and that is love of God; love, love and once again, love; and nothing can compare with a single act of pure love of God. Oh, with what inconceivable favors God gifts a soul that loves Him sincerely! Oh, how happy is the soul who already here on earth enjoys His special favors! And of such are the little and humble souls.’

St. Faustina (Diary, 778)
  1. Luke 6:35. 
  2. St. Faustina’s Diary, paragraphs 86 and 1654. 
  3. Diary, 1770. 

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