Sunday, December 2, 2007

Finding Meaning Niggling in Obscurity

Frederick Sweatman, Sidney Herrtage, Herbert Ruthven, Alfred Erlebach, Charles Balk, Wilfred Lewis, Hereward Thimley Price, Lawrenceson Fitroy Powell, Father Henry Rope, J. R. R. Tolkien. Except perhaps for the last name in this list, I doubt even the best Champion on TV's "Jeopardy" would recognize these as assistant editors for the Oxford English Dictionary (often referred to as the "OED"). Even James Murray, Editor-in-Chief for a half a century while the First Edition of the Dictionary was being completed, is not a "household name." Simon Winchester gives us some insight into what it took to produce the massive OED in The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. (Winchester is also the author of The New York Times Bestseller The Professor and the Madman, which is about Dr. William Chester Minor, the insane surgeon who contributed myriads of example sentences for the Dictionary.)

In 1919, when Tolkien got on board to help complete the OED, he was assigned words beginning in "W" including Warm, Wasp, Water and Winter. Tolkien had recently been released from the hospital after fighting "trench fever" contracted during World War 1 in France. Tolkien certainly did not become famous for his work on the OED. However, Winchester comments that Tolkien said later in life that he "learned more [while working on the OED] ... than in any equal period of my life." (p. 208)

While the Oxford English Dictionary gives us "the meaning of everything," we struggle with more basic issues. Even beyond "What is the meaning of life?" (which the Dictionary only answers academically), we struggle with "What is the meaning of MY life?" The vast majority of us live on in obscurity, wondering if our lives make a difference at all. What contribution are we making in this world?

Tolkien's short story "Leaf by Niggle" (usually found with the essay "On Fairy Stories" in anthologies, such as The Tolkien Reader) talks about an artist who seems to be niggling his life away. ("Niggle" means to be occupied with trivial things.) He is trying to complete his one great painting, but is constantly interrupted by his neighbor's problems and other trivial matters. He eventually takes a trip (an obvious reference to death) and find himself in a hospital (apparently the first stage of Purgatory*). Eventually he is released and discovers that the artwork that he had been working on was actually a glimpse of spiritual reality.

Tolkien's story seems a bit obscure, but it seems to me he is trying to make at least two points. First of all, the things we view as niggling are often actually the more important things in life. Helping others, while it may seem to be an annoyance that keeps us away from doing what seem to be "the important things," is actually part of helping others to glimpse spiritual truth. "Ministers of the Gospel," whether clergy or lay people, often forget that. Secondly, the art we create (whether a painting or a story) can give people a glimpse of spiritual reality. If the artist is vitally connected with spiritual truth, both his life and his work should provide glimpses of that truth to those who interact with the artist and/or his art.

What is the meaning of MY life? What impact am I having on this world? We may never have a "household name" or even be part of something as big as the Oxford English Dictionary. But if we will keep doing what we know is right, God will give us opportunities to make a difference in people's lives. We can provide glimpses of spiritual truth to our world.

*Note: As a Roman Catholic, Purgatory was part of Tolkien's belief system. I personally do not believe in Purgatory after death. God purges us in this life.

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